Albany Great Danes (23-10, 15-3 in America East, 2nd place 2007. NCAA birth)
Projected Starting Lineup:
G - Josh Martin: 6'2" 200 Frosh.
G - Brian Lillis: 6'5" 225 Senior, 6.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg (2007 Defensive Player of the Year)
F - Jerel Hastings: 6'5" 215, Junior transfer.
F - Brent Wilson: 6'8" 240 Senior, 11ppg, 6rpg.
C - Jimmy Covington: 6'6" 253 Junior 1.9 ppg, 1.9 rpg.
Coach Will Brown has once again put together a tough non-conference schedule which should test the Danes early, but could also help tremendously in preparing his young team for the conference schedule. Albany begins their season with two road games against Central Connecticut State and Bucknell, whom are both coming off of 22-win seasons. Albany's schedule also features the school's first ever match-up against perennial power Duke. Another first for the Danes is their Dec. 30 game at Iowa State, as the return home for seniors Brian Lillis and Brent Wilson marks the first time Albany will have ever played a team from the Big 12 conference. Albany has also been chosen to participate in ESPN's BracketBusters event for a second straight season. Albany opens at home against Columbia Nov. 17, and also host Lehigh (Nov. 20), Sacred Heart (Nov. 25) and St. Francis, N.Y. (Dec. 15), as well as last years BracketBusters opponent Boise State.
The job that Coach Will Brown has done at the University of Albany is one of the greatest coaching accomplishments in recent college basketball history: Brown inherited a team still not ready for Division I basketball, and during his first few seasons, Albany struggled to suit up eight players for games and hovered right around the basement of the conference. Brown could have looked for a quick fix: he could have filled his roster with JuCo's, and players of questionable character that no other school would take, however, Brown chose to go another route and build a program for the long haul, which meant building from the ground up.
The culmination of Brown's efforts came in his fifth season, when Albany paced the conference from start to finish, culminating in the school's first ever NCAA tournament birth. The Great Danes lived up to their name when they were minutes away from becoming the first No. 16 seed to ever upset a No. 1 seed in their first round match-up with UConn. Albany returned to the dance last season, and was rewarded with a No. 14 seed, and while they didn't pull off the upset that many analysts had predicted, they once again proved that they belong on the same court as anyone else in the country.
The off-season was not without its drama for the Great Danes, as serious rumors began to swirl that Brown was going to leave the university for a lucrative contract to take the head coaching position at St. Bonaventure's, which would have been devastating to Albany. In the end, however, Albany signed Brown to a long-term contract extension, and his plans for the near future revolve entirely around continuing to ensure that Albany's spot at the top of the conference remains the norm and not a two-year aberration. Brown's plan is to build a basketball program as a community, and team-building trips like Albany's tour of Barbados should become the norm. Brown wants a team that gels together on and off of the court, and is a staple of the Albany University community, saying "To keep this thing going, were going to do it the right way. We're going to bring in quality kids who are good players. We're not going to sacrifice our integrity for a couple of wins."
Albany graduated seniors Jamar Wilson and Jason Siggers, while junior Carl Ross' scholarship was not renewed, and Mike Yocum and Michael Knight transferred out of the program. What Wilson, a fifth-year senior, meant to the program can never be overstated: Wilson was a two-time conference Player of the Year, the kind of guard that opponents need to design their entire defensive schemes around, and by his senior year he was the kind of player that could come in to anyone's court in the country and dominate. But beyond his mere on court abilities, Wilson was a staple not only in the locker room, but in the entire University of Albany community. Wilson came into the program as a freshman when they were struggling simply to find enough bodies to suit up, and when NCAA tournament appearances seemed like pipe dreams. Wilson played a bigger role than anyone other than Coach Brown in transforming Albany into the program that it is today.
Siggers formed an impressive one-two punch with Wilson, as they combined for almost 33 points a game, and were the Great Danes' two leaders in the locker room. With his explosive leaping ability, quick release, and long range, Siggers did a terrific job of opening up and breaking down opposing defenses, while providing stifling defense of his own. Ross was an explosive junior college transfer who provided a spark off the bench, but never seemed to fully fit into the system. Yocum and McKnight played sparingly off of the bench.
While losing Ross, Yocum, and McKnight made the Danes better by freeing up scholarships, the loss of Siggers and Wilson (both on the court and off) can not be over emphasized. With that being said, this Albany team has the talent to be good. Scary good. Brown feels that it is the most talented team that he has ever coached, adding, "You can never say that you are going to be a better team when you lose guys like Jamar and Jason, but this is the deepest and most talented team that I have ever coached. We have guys on this team that can do things that I've never seen before." This would seem like an incredibly bold statement for Brown to make, as Albany is coming off the best two seasons in school history, is fielding a predominantly untested team, and graduated the greatest player to ever suit up for the Danes.
Furthermore, Albany does not have another Jamar Wilson on their roster, not right now at least. They don't have a single player that is going to be able to dominate the conference and carry the team for a season. However, when you actually analyze the overall roster of the 2007-08 version of the Danes, you start to see what Brown is hinting at. The talent that Brown has this year, if it pans out, is unreal, and he has depth at every position, allowing him lineup flexibility that he has never had before, as according to Brown "we're going to go with Brent (Wilson) and Brian (Connelly) in the post without a true center a fair amount this year. We can go four guards, or we can go big with a 6'5", a 6'5", a 6'8", a 6'8", and a 6'11", which in this conference is huge. We're going to go match-up depending on who we play, and were going to switch our lineups up a lot during games as well."
Albany is going to need several players to step up and replace not only the scoring that Wilson and Siggers brought to the court, but also their leadership and locker-room presence, and two players who could fill some of that void are Iowa natives Brian Lillis and Brent Wilson, whom Brown calls his "glue guys." Lillis and Wilson are both senior captains, and both started during Albany's NCAA Tournament games. More importantly, both displayed strong leadership during Albany's trip to Barbados in which they played against the Islands top teams.
Lillis, a physical, lock-down perimeter defender, was named the conference's Defensive Player of the Year last season. During his first three seasons in the program, Lillis has done all of the little things that make the Danes go, so to speak, distributing the ball, pulling down tough rebounds, running the offense, and leading the team in floor burns. In his role as a point-forward, Lillis has done everything to make his teammates better, however he has never been asked to score much, which will change drastically this season.
The Danes will need to make up for the scoring that they lost, and Lillis is one of the players that Brown expects to step up. "Were going to need Brian to be a double-figure scorer, I'm not going to say ten points a game or fifteen, but he's going to need to step up as a scorer, said Brown. "Brian has all the talent, we just need him to be a little more selfish on offense."
Lillis has the tools to become a scorer, as he is a solid shooter and an explosive athlete, and at 6'5" and 230 pounds, he presents a tremendous match-up problem in the America East. Lillis can beat his man off of the dribble and nail the long range jumper or take it to the rack and slam it home, he just needs to look for his shot more. But Lillis has shown flashes when needed, perhaps no where more evident then in Albany's dramatic win in last year's Championship game, when in two crucial moments Lillis provided the Danes offense: the first on a back door cut in traffic when Lillis threw down a two-handed slam in traffic, and the second a 25-footer with less than two minutes to play. Lillis will likely start off the season at the point guard position, but by conference time he will be playing the small forward position.
Scoring shouldn't be a problem for Albany's other senior captain, as Brent Wilson has been able to stroke if from downtown since his freshman year. Last season Wilson nailed an amazing 44 percent of his threes, and at 6'8", 240 pounds he has no problem getting his shot off when defended. Wilson's coach has the utmost confidence in him, saying, "this is going to sound like a crazy statement, but I think that Brent Wilson is as good a shooting big man as there is in college basketball, and he can really fill it up from out there." With the weapons that Albany has had during Wilson's first three seasons, he's been allowed to float around on the perimeter, but this year Wilson will see a lot more time in the post, as according to Brown "he's got a great jump hook with both hands, he can face up in the short post and do damage down there. You'll see him more playing within the ten feet to the block range this year."
Wilson has put on a solid ten pounds since last season, but perhaps his biggest change has been his overall toughness, which was on full display during the America East tournament, when after a freak collision with a teammate's knee, Wilson played the entire semifinal game with one eye swollen nearly shut.
Another player who could provide Albany with some scoring punch is Wilson's backup, forward Brian Connelly, a multi-talented bundle of energy on the court whom would arguably start for any other team in the conference. Connelly's high-energy game is amazing when considering that he has a terrible case of diabetes which he has just now learned to control. According to Brown, "there were practices when we thought he was going to pass out, games last year when he was literally too drained, he just couldn't go. But he's really on top of his diet, he's learned how to better control all of the effects of it."
At 6'8" and 230 pounds Connelly has the ball handling skills of a guard, can shoot from outside, take it too the rack. With his diabetes under control Connelly has also turned into quite the explosive athlete, and Brown plans to do everything he can to get him onto the court, including playing him and Brent Wilson side by side in the post, as well as playing Connelly at small forward. With his size in a conference where most teams run three guards on the court, Connelly will provide an incredible mismatch at the 3.
When Albany does go with a center, they are going to have a problem finding playing time for everyone, but Brown describes it as, "a good problem to have, it's a three-headed monster as I call it," with the "three-heads" being Jimmy Covington, Brent Gifford, and Al Turley. Jimmy Covington is a true "blue-collar guy" as Brown puts it, as his bread and butter is providing physicality in the post, setting screens, and pulling down rebounds. Covington spent the off-season further fine-tuning his physique, as according to Brown he is about 6'6" and now up to 253 pounds, and has cut his body fat down to 4-percent.
Brent Gifford came in to the program as a 6'11" 288 pound freshman, and by the season's opening tip-off he had cut his weight down to 240, which speaks to his work ethic. Under ideal circumstances Gifford would have red-shirted and spent the year putting back on good weight, as he ran into a wall halfway into the season. However, Albany was thin in the post and Gifford was forced to play, and at times was spectacular, as he did a fantastic job against Utah's Luke Neville. Gifford isn't particularly quick or athletic in the post, but his basketball IQ is through the roof and he gets some of the best positioning around. Gifford also has a soft touch around the basket, and should be in much better basketball shape having cut another five-percent off of his body-fat, while putting on almost 10 pounds of muscle this off-season.
While Gifford and Covington are experienced, and should see the bulk of the playing time early on, freshman Al Turley's potential and upside far surpass those of either of his upperclassmen counterparts. At 6'7" and 285 pounds, Turley isn't going to get pushed around by anyone in the league, but it's Turley's athleticism that truly separates him, as according to Brown, "he can be a beast physically and athletically in this league, he can stand in his socks underneath the basket, jump up and do a 180 and slam it with two hands, and can run like a deer."
Turley's main challenge will simply be adjusting to the college game, as Brown said he "has to get acclimated to structure, and learn what this league is all about. But he can do things that the other two guys can't, he can drop step it and just dunk it on two guys. He has a chance to just be a freak, you look at him and go this kid should be playing defensive tackle or offensive line for a D-I football team."
Albany's backcourt is a big question, and with Lillis switching to the wing and with the graduation of last years seniors, the Danes' backcourt is untested and unknown, but it might be the deepest position on the team. While Lillis may see some time at the point position in the early going, if everything goes as planned the Danes will see a new face handling the point guard duties. That new face may be freshman Josh Martin, a highly-touted recruit with good size who, coming out of Simon Gratz in Philadelphia, has played against some of the best high school competition in the country. Martin was heavily recruited by several Atlantic-10 schools and had verbally committed to Toledo in December before backing out to be closer to home and attend Albany. Brown hasn't started a freshman at point guard in five years, but look for that to change this year.
The last freshman who started at the point, Jon Iati, may have been considered for the starting point guard duties, but he's coming off back surgery and will be eased back onto the court. When healthy, no one in the conference has as much range from behind the arc as Iati, who never met a three he didn't like. Iati is a big-time shooter with a confidence in his shot far bigger than his 5'9" frame. Iati's lack of fear has been on display throughout his career, like when he nailed eight threes versus UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, or when he nailed a 26-footer with Albany trailing by 1 and less than a minute left at Utah. While Iati's confidence is through the roof, there's no ego on him, as he transitioned from the conference Rookie of the Year as a freshman, to a supporting player by his junior season without making a peep. When he returns Iati should provide instant offense off of the bench.
Jerel Hastings is a 6'5" junior college transfer whom Brown describes as an even more athletic Brian Lillis. Like Lillis, Hastings crashes the boards from the wing or 2-guard, and like Lillis is a phenomenal perimeter defender who Will Brown thinks could win the defensive player of the year award one year. Hastings is also a tremendous athlete who should bring the crowd to their feet with some of his acrobatics around the rim.
Speaking of dunking, Tim Ambrose is already the most athletic player and best dunker in Albany history, despite having yet to play in a game for the purple and gold. Ambrose is a freakish athlete whom many feel is the most explosive player in the conference. Ambrose possesses a combination of strength and athleticism never seen in the America East before. At 5'11" and 225 pounds, Ambrose can bench press over 300 pounds and has a vertical leap well over 40 inches. Brown sums up Ambrose's abilities best: "He goes arm-pits above he rim and can dunk from anywhere within 10 feet of the basket. He has a knack for finding new ways to dunk on people, he's really at a different level."
Ambrose can do more than dunk however, as he sat out his freshman year as a non-qualifier and spent the time working on his game while getting his academics in order. Ambrose can post up and score because of his strength, and has also developed an outside shot, but he should really blossom attacking the basket. For Ambrose, the talent is all there, but he needs to really integrate himself into the college game, as he could have many "oh no, oh no, oh yes" moments during the season, and it wouldn't be surprising for him to lead the Danes in scoring while coming off of the bench.
Reid Anderson has put on 34 pounds since coming in as a freshman last season, and should see significant time this year after spending most of last season on the bench dealing with the effects of mononucleosis. Anderson forms a trio of 6'5" wings with Hastings and Lillis, and like the other two is a very good athlete. Anderson might be the best shooter out of the group, as he has a smooth stroke from downtown and should see significant time at the off-guard and wing positions. Rob Moores, a sophomore JUCO transfer guard, and Billy Allen, a 6'6" freshman forward, round out Albany's squad.
Albany has as much talent as any team in the league, however it is largely untested. Albany could stumble early and often as many of its players get adjusted to Division I college basketball. However, they should be clicking by conference time and should be in a dogfight for first place. It wouldn't be a surprise or an upset for Albany to make a third straight NCAA appearance, and if they do look for them to achieve another first in winning a first round game in the NCAA's.
Albany will be the most explosive team in the conference, and with Ambrose, Turley, Hastings, Lillis, and Anderson among others, the Danes will be a dunk highlight reel waiting to happen. Much of Albany's success depends upon whether Brian Lillis can step into a scorer's role, and how quickly their newcomers adapt to the college game. It is always hard to predict how talent will pan out and develop, however Albany has the talent to be the best team in the league this year.