ALBANY — There was a confidence — bullish optimism, really — around the UAlbany men’s basketball program last offseason that it had taken the necessary steps to put together a roster that could position the Great Danes as the top challenger to America East Conference heavyweight Vermont.
The Great Danes had depth, size and skill. After graduations and transfers rocked the program following the 2017-18 season and led to a youth movement for the 2018-19 campaign, the hardest part about head coach Will Brown’s job during the 2019-20 season was supposed to be figuring out how to best use a versatile roster.
Now, what actually happened?
The Great Danes never got that chance, as one injury after another hit the program during a season that started with promise and ended Saturday in the America East quarterfinals with a 76-73 loss to Stony Brook on Long Island, as UAlbany’s season closed in that round of the conference tournament for the third consecutive year. While UAlbany was fighting for second place in the America East into the final week of February, the Great Danes finished at 14-18 overall following a six-game losing streak to end its campaign, as UAlbany produced a second consecutive season below .500 after seven straight seasons above that mark.
In all, only three players — seniors Ahmad Clark and Romani Hansen, and freshman Trey Hutcheson — played in every game for the Great Danes, who had seven of their 13 scholarship players unavailable for at least one game and several of them miss a large chunk of the campaign.
As UAlbany heads into its offseason, getting healthy is critical. Redshirt sophomore star Cameron Healy, Brown said, needs several weeks of “doing nothing” to get back on track from hip/back injury that affected his play for nearly the entire second half of conference play, while rehabilitation efforts for redshirt junior guard Jojo Anderson and junior guard Rian Carter — the latter a walk-on that Brown said several times would have played if he’d been healthy — have months left in them after each had a knee surgery. Brown said that redshirt sophomore Adam Lulka successfully made it through concussion protocol as of Saturday and could have played if UAlbany had made it to the semifinals, but the sprained ankle he suffered in mid-November that lingered throughout the season will likely require some more time to fully fix.
While the extent to which Healy’s injury hindered the guard proved the most troublesome for the Great Danes down the stretch of their season, it’s possible the degree to which Lulka had nearly his entire season derailed was even more problematic. After averaging 8.7 points and 6.4 rebounds in his rookie season, Lulka averaged 4.3 points and 3.6 rebounds per game this season in which he missed 13 games and was limited in many others.
“And he didn’t forget how to play basketball,” Brown said of the forward expected to provide a steady post presence, if healthy.
Heading into its offseason, though, Brown said he knows the Great Danes need an infusion of talent and athleticism, as well as full returns to health for Anderson, Healy and Lulka. Four scholarship players — most notably, Clark and Hansen — are set to graduate and leave the program; one player — freshman Mitch Doherty — left the squad during conference play for personal reasons, and his future status with the program is uncertain; then, there are eight other scholarship players with remaining eligibility.
“Going forward,” Healy said of the potential returning Great Danes, “we all have to get better if we want to win.”
That group is packed with wing players, and Brown said UAlbany’s upcoming recruiting will focus on making sure the Great Danes address areas of need with an eye toward competing for a conference championship next season. The Great Danes “can’t bring in any of what we have already,” in terms of duplicating its returning players’ skill sets with ones of incoming players.
“We need some dudes up front and we need guys that can create off the bounce on the perimeter,” said Brown, whose program’s returning offensive strength is mostly built around catch-and-shoot perimeter players.
UAlbany has one signed player in Will Amica, a talented point guard who helped lead West Genesee High School to a Class AA state championship last year. It’s likely UAlbany will bring in at least one more guard — preferably, two — capable of creating off the dribble, while another priority is finding a player or two able to patrol the paint on defense and attack down low on offense.
“We’ve got to get more athletic up front,” Brown said.