Three Thoughts: Albany 62, Hartford 53

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, and Albany just may be the team to beat in America East with or without Peter Hooley.

For the second time in four days, the Great Danes went on the road against a team picked above them in the preseason conference coaches’ poll and systematically took them apart, this time a 62-53 win over Hartford Thursday night at Chase Family Arena, in which the host Hawks (11-8, 4-2) led only once and that was 3-2.

Albany senior Sam Rowley posts up and converts in the first half against Hartford.
Albany senior Sam Rowley posts up and converts in the first half against Hartford.

Albany (11-7, 6-0) is not only unbeaten in America East play, but has won nine of 10, and should get Hooley back at some point this season, although Albany coach Will Brown said after the game it likely won’t be anytime soon.

“After we beat Stony Brook, I had a lot people come up to me and say, ‘That was unbelievable’. But can you play with that energy and enthusiasm again? Was that related to Peter and the situation and the family?,” Brown said. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ A lot of that was adrenaline. A lot of it was we want to play for Peter and his family, but after a major injury or setback, that next game is usually when a team is most dangerous because you just don’t know. I think if we were healthy, we were good enough to be 6-0. This says a lot about the other guys stepping up for us.”

Here are my other thoughts from West Hartford. Albany will play at Vermont in a highly anticipated contest next Wednesday:

1. Albany seems to have figured it out defensively – The Great Danes did not go exclusively zone on Thursday, but held Hartford to 0.90 points per possession and now have the top defensive efficiency in America East in conference play even though they are still just 214th nationally. Some of it may be the old regression to the mean, Hartford (8-30) and Stony Brook (4-22) were a combined 12-52 (23.1%) from three-point range for a defense that was giving up threes at a 41.1% rate prior to that, second worst in all of Division I.

But it’s also doing the little things: forcing the ball into the hands of the person they want, helping and recovering quicker, and making sure teams don’t get easy layups. Mark Nwakamma was a non-factor after being in foul trouble. He picked up two offensive fouls while trying to hand the ball off on dribble screen handoffs, which Hartford coach John Gallagher credited to being smart about running into the contact to draw the attention of the officials. Little things.

“The last nine or 10 games, leading into those games, we’ve just really focused on getting better on the defensive end, and then not settling for jump shots at the other end.” Brown said. “We’re getting better on both sides of the ball.”

2. Hartford has never quite figured it out this season  – The Hawks were picked second in the preseason poll (behind Stony Brook) because they returned just about everyone from a team that finished 10-6 in America East this season, but they are extremely fortunate to be 4-2 in conference play with narrow wins over New Hampshire, UMass Lowell (in overtime), and UMBC, any of which they could have lost (although that road win at New Hampshire looks much better after Vermont lost there Thursday). Even their non-conference slate includes losses to in-state rivals Central Connecticut (currently 2-18) and Sacred Heart. They are 258th in offensive efficiency at the moment and just haven’t gotten consistent play from anyone on that end. Yolonzo Moore led the Hawks Thursday with just 11 points. Looking at the glass half-full, though, like Gallagher always does, the best may be yet to come and they still find themselves in decent shape as the first round of conference play comes to a close. Gallagher singled out Jack Hobbs, who has struggled since being added to the roster last month, but has the potential to be a scorer they need.

“I’m actually really calm right now because I know, forget about Albany, to be the best version of ourselves, I just had a recollection during the game that we are not doing basic fundamental things that our program is known for,” Gallagher said. “We’re not cutting, we’re not filling, we’re not making ourselves hard to guard. So forget about beating Albany, let’s just focus on being the best version of ourselves we can be.”

3. There are more important things than basketball – With seven Aussies combined on the two rosters and ESPN3 broadcasting the game, ESPN2 in Australia (and New Zealand) picked up the game. Of course, Hooley was obviously not there, but Hartford raised money for Hooley’s mom and colon cancer, and Corban Wroe presented his friend Sam Rowley with a check prior to tipoff. Gallagher also recruited Rowley and other players that ended up at Albany, and it was a sign that basketball is extremely secondary compared to other issues in the “real” world.

“I’m fortunate enough to know Coach Gallagher a bit, and also obviously the Australian guys they have,” Rowley – who finished with a career-high 22 points and eight rebounds – said. “It shows a level of maturity I think that we can joke around with those guys before the game, even during the game, you know, Coach Gallagher was joking with me, and then compete all out for 40 minutes, and then after the game it’s ‘Good game. Look forward to seeing you next time. Good luck.’ It just shows the character of those guys.”

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