A-East upstart Albany benefits from near upset

Albany benefits from near upset
America East
They strode into Philadelphia's Wachovia Center wearing T-shirts boldly asking, "Why not us?"

Why not? Let us count the ways.

7. That's how many years the University at Albany had been in the Division I ranks.
4. That's how many future NBA first-round draft picks were suiting up for top-seeded Connecticut.
88. That's how many times a No. 16 team has played a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
0. That's how many 16-seeds have won a first-round game.

But for 30 minutes of hoops in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, the Great Danes had people asking, why not them? As UConn coach Jim Calhoun gestured, screamed, cajoled and pleaded with his players, Albany went on a 13-0 tear to take a 50-38 lead with 11:34 to play.

The fact that the fairy tale didn't come to the happily-ever-after ending -- UConn woke up just in time for a 72-59 victory -- has done little to hurt the Great Danes' image as giant killers.

"Our guys have been treated like rock stars in our area," head coach Will Brown said. "The community has just really opened up to us, which is great, but I need these guys to come back down."

With eight returnees -- three of whom are starters, including conference Player of the Year Jamar Wilson -- that challenge will be a tough one for Brown. His Cinderella team of last year now will be favored to win the America East, its second ticket to the Big Dance all but punched by fans and prognosticators alike.

Flattered by the attention and expectation, Brown, frankly, is nothing less than terrified by it, as well.

"This team has not won a game together yet," he said. "Getting there the second time, I think, might be more difficult than the first. Now you're in that fishbowl where everyone just assumes you can go right back, and it's not that easy. I like our chances, but if we don't bring that same lunch-pail mentality, we're going to struggle."

That Brown even is talking about a second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament this quickly is surreal. Eleven years ago, Albany was a Division III school -- a good one, but still a Division III. After a brief stint in Division II, the school made the jump to Division I in 1999, waffling as an independent for two years before joining the America East in 2001.

But Albany had something to draw on. As a Division III team, the Great Danes were tutored under Richard "Doc" Sauers, a coach who retired with 702 victories and 11 NCAA Tournament appearances on his résumé. With Brown -- who, at the age of 34, ranks as one of the youngest Division I coaches in the country -- on the sidelines, and with POY Wilson on the hardwood, the jump hasn't been nearly so terrifying.

"I'm dumb enough to say, 'Yes, I'm not surprised at our success' to you,"' Brown said. "If we were playing the Dallas Mavericks tomorrow, I'd plan accordingly. When you go from [Division] III to [Division] II to [Division] I and do it quickly, and then you're an independent with coaching turnover, the realistic answer is, 'no, it's not supposed to happen this quickly.' But we were fortunate to have something to build on."

That wasn't the case for Binghamton. As coach Al Walker explained, "We were a bad Division III team and we were a mediocre Division II team."

Yet the Bearcats, who joined the conference with Albany, rolled to a 12-4 mark in the league last season, good for second place behind the Great Danes in the regular-season standings. Binghamton appears poised to keep pushing ahead in 2006.

Walker has used a different route to success, unabashedly loading his team with junior college talent. Last year's roster listed five juco players, and this year Walker added two more to the list.

"Our junior college players have been among our best players, and in six years not one of them has failed to get their degree," Walker said. "To me, there's no reason not to [look to jucos for] young men with great character and great talent."

Certainly no one in Binghamton will disagree with Walker. The city, starved for a team to call its own, has fallen in love with the Bearcats, coming out in droves to watch games since the school joined the America East. This past season was the third consecutive that Binghamton led the league in attendance.

That the Bearcats regularly play schools whose names resonate with townspeople doesn't hurt. In 2001, Albany, Binghamton and Stony Brook all joined the league together, introducing legitimate instead of contrived rivalries.

"The natural rivalries are such great ones," Walker said. "Most of our students have made applications to Stony Brook and Albany, as well. This is a small-sized city with a quiet winter, so as soon as we went Division I we were getting 2,200 and then 3,000 people at the games."

Binghamton, though, might just be in for a run for its money in the attendance war in 2006-07. Albany is now officially on the map, for certain at a local level and even a touch nationally. While Brown once called recruits and had to explain where Albany was, now kids in the Midwest and West Coast tell him they saw the game against Connecticut.

People already are scouring for tickets to the Danes' game at Storrs, Conn., and the team will take the court with a lot more fanfare this year than ever before.

"I never realized," Brown said with a laugh, "how much a loss could help you."

Good sign: In a sport that loves to recycle old coaches (Bobby Cremins anyone?), America East schools are giving young assistants a chance. Dan Leibovitz, who was hired in April, becomes the fourth rookie coach in the league in the past five years.

Last season, Stony Brook's Steve Pikiell, Vermont's Mike Lonergan and Maine's Ted Woodward all made their debut, with former UConn captain Pikiell and Lonergan plucked from top major programs (George Washington and Maryland, respectively) and Woodward promoted from the assistant's chair behind John Giannini. Bringing the energy required to survive at the low- to mid-major level, the newbies are injecting new life into America East programs. Not coincidentally, all four teams are expected to be considerably better this year.

Red flag: The old adage that defense wins championships might be true, but there's a general assumption in that adage that the offense at least has a pulse. Not in the America East, where Albany's 68.6 points per game led the league but ranked 167th in the nation. As a league, the America East averaged a dismal 63.4 points per game, ahead of only the Ivy League and the MEAC. In conference games, that may not be a big deal, but if teams in this league want to become legitimate mid-major threats -- which requires they actually beat, not just play close with, some of the big boys -- they'll need to work on their offensive production. Against bigger, stronger and more talented teams, good defense can stem the tide only for so long.

Worth watching: Nov. 26, Albany at Connecticut. The Great Danes gave the Huskies, a team of future NBA contributors, fits -- and gave coach Jim Calhoun heartburn in a game that had everyone outside the Constitution State rooting for the underdog. Now for the rematch in Storrs. "People here are looking forward to that game, already asking for tickets," Brown said. "And that scares me a little bit. I'm sure they want to beat the daylights out of us."

Safe bet: Though Albany certainly is in the driver's seat, this league isn't likely to be a walkover for anyone. The bottom tier, especially Stony Brook, should be better, and middle-of-the-pack teams like Maine and New Hampshire have enough talent to challenge for a regular season crown.

Things to watch
AlbanyAlbany: Four years ago, Will Brown convinced a kid from the Bronx to leave the hoops epicenter of the world and head upstate, luring him with the chance to make history in his college career. Jamar Wilson took the bait and fulfilled the dream. The America East Player of the Year returns for his senior season at the University at Albany having already put the Great Danes on the map and himself in the record book. The first player to score more than 1,500 points and dish out more than 300 assists in school history, Wilson carried Albany to its first conference tournament title, scoring 29 in the championship game against Vermont and then helped the Great Danes nearly pull off the first 16-seed upset in NCAA history, scoring 19 in the thrilling loss to Connecticut. "When you play a high-level team like UConn, you need to have somebody who can take over a game, who can make something out of nothing and that's Jamar," Brown said.

BinghamtonBinghamton: : Albany turned the corner last year, getting over the hump as a team on the rise to a team that's arrived. The school down the road a spell might be next.
Buoyed by a strong 12-4 record in the conference, Binghamton finished a more than respectable 16-13. Though they've lost Andre Heard and Sebastian Hermenier, the team's top scorers, to graduation, the Bearcats return one of the best point guards in the league in Mike Gordon. As a sophomore, he was second in the league in assists (4.5) steals (1.66) and third in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.05.
"With him we really have a chance because he lifts up everybody's game," said coach Al Walker. "Every coach at our level would say that the point is very important and we have a very good one."

BUBoston University: After enduring a turbulent season marred by suspensions, Dennis Wolff's job doesn't appear to be getting any easier. Tony Gaffney and Brendan Sullivan, both suspended during the season, as well as Bryan Geffen all were released from their scholarships in March; leading scorer Kevin Gardner graduated and just last month, Wolff's best returnee, Corey Hassan, decided to transfer. The lone bit of bright news is that Wolff is getting Corey Lowe, a skilled Massachusetts prep point guard who was originally targeted for Providence but ended up in Boston after the promised scholarship to Providence never materialized.

HartfordHartford: If anyone can walk into the bizarre setting that was Hartford basketball without blinking, it is new coach Dan Leibovitz. Leibovitz's first head coaching experience came only after Temple coach John Chaney suspended himself during the 2004-2005 season following "Goon-gate", as Chaney's decision to send in a 'goon' in Temple's game against Saint Joseph's came to be known in Philly. Leibovitz, Chaney's top assistant, won three of six games. So walking onto the Hartford campus after coach Larry Harrison was forced to resign before the dust even settled on his America East Coach of the Year trophy should be a walk in the park. Not that Leibovitz doesn't have a tough task. Kenny Adeleke, the league's leading scorer and rebounder, has graduated, as has Aaron Cook, another solid scorer.

MaineMaine: Ted Woodward has to say goodbye to Ernest Turner, the team's leading scorer for the past two seasons who graduated, but he gets to say welcome back to Kevin Reed. The senior guard, already a 1,000-point scorer, missed all of last season with a stress fracture in his left foot, a loss that devastated the Black Bears en route to their 12-16 finish. But with Reed in the fold, alongside Philippe Tchekane Bofia, an all-rookie selection from Cameroon who averaged 9.4 points and 5.5 rebounds last year, things are looking decidedly up.

UMBCUMBC:Randy Monroe may have a hard time not staring at his bench longingly this year where three transfers will sit in street clothes. Darryl Proctor, the 2004-2005 MEAC Rookie of the Year at Coppin State, Ray Barbosa and Cavell Johnson, a pair of standouts at James Madison, will all be eligible for the 2007-2008 season. In the here and now, the Retrievers will rely on Jay Greene, who made noise as a rookie. Inserted into the starting lineup midway through the season, he averaged 8.1 points and dished out 96 assists for 10-19 UMBC. Monroe's biggest task this year will be teaching the Retrievers how to win out of Baltimore County. They were 1-13 on the road, the lone victory at Navy … of nearby Anne Arundel County.

UNHNew Hampshire: Bill Herrion squeezed everything he could out of a young Wildcats squad, leading them to wins in 10 of their last 16 games after a horrible 2-11 start. This year he may not have to push and prod so hard. He has all five of his starters back, led by Blagoj Janev. The 6-8 forward from Australia by way of Macedonia, averaged 14.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game and like many European players, he can step out to drain a three, knocking down 50.

Stony BrookStony Brook: Sometimes stats don’t lie. Like, for example, when a team finishes dead last in scoring and next to last in scoring defense that usually means that isn’t a very good team and the Seawolves weren’t, struggling to a 4-24 record. With no place to go but up, coach Steve Pikiell is making sure the turnaround happens quickly. The former assistant at George Washington has brought in a recruiting class that many are lauding as the best in the conference and some recruiting services even rank among the top 30 in the nation. Stony Brook must think Pikiell is doing something right. After just one season, the school gave him an extension through the 2010-11 season.

VermontVermont: Josh Duell and Ryan Schneider, key guys off the bench for the Catamounts last year, have elected to transfer. Duell is going to Siena to be closer to home and Schneider, unhappy about losing his starting spot, is off to Marist. Still Vermont welcomes back all five starters, including conference rookie of the year Mike Trimboli. A point guard extraordinaire, who dished out 166 assists last year, second in school history, while leading the team in scoring at 14.0 a clip. Add Martin Klimes, who improved dramatically in the post last year, and Vermont could be back in the conference elite this year.

The America East conference's representative in the 2007 NCAA Tournament might have to fight for the chance to pull off an upset. Our very own bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, has the Great Danes as the America East's automatic bid winner. Lunardi, however, has slated Albany for the Tournament's "Opening Round Game" where they'll have to fight for the chance to join the field of 64.
Early 2006 Bracketology


* -- NCAA Tournament
# -- NIT participant

Dana O'Neil is a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. She can be reached at dgoneil@msn.com.