COLUMBUS, Ohio – Like some others who emerge from the mid-major shadows in March, Peter Hooley went from relatively unknown (outside the America East and Australia, of course) national figure to a household name in the time it takes for a basketball to travel 25 feet with a slight arc.
But, even by the those standards, Hooley is not your ordinary instant college basketball hero. And his story (and the way he has handled himself subsequently) has gone from SportsCenter to national publications to him penning his own story in the New York Post for Thursday editions (which coach Will Brown said Hooley wrote on the plane to Columbus).
Hooley and 14th-seeded Albany will have most of the nation on its side when it tries to take down No. 3 Oklahoma Friday night at Nationwide Arena.
The Sooners (22-10) appreciate Hooley’s story, but the NCAA Tournament is not really the time for sentimentality, especially when the memory of an NCAA upset at the hands of a mid-major (North Dakota St. of the Summit League last season) is extremely fresh in your memory.
They suffered an almost equally excruciating loss in the Big 12 semifinals to Iowa State last week as well, which ended on a missed layup at the buzzer.
“I feel bad for (Hooley),” Big 12 Player of the Year Buddy Hield said. “If I lost my mom, I’d feel bad. He made that shot, it was good for him, but we’ve just got to worry about what we have to handle, and we’ll be praying for him and hopefully he gets through it.”
Despite the 10 losses, Oklahoma is ranked eighth in KenPom, mostly because they played the fourth toughest schedule in the nation. Even against that schedule, the Sooners checked in at fifth nationally in defensive efficiency, allowing just 43.7 eFG% (11th). They are not huge inside with 6’8” junior Ryan Spangler (a Gonzaga transfer) and 6’8” TaShawn Thomas (a graduate transfer from Houston), and if they have a weakness, it’s only the glass (193rd in defensive rebounding rate).
However, they have a trio of guards that can defend as well as anyone in the nation, starting with Hield, who grew up in the Bahamas. At 6’4” and able to shoot from just about anywhere, he will be difficult for the Great Danes to matchup with at either end. Then you have sophomore point guard Jordan Woodard, who loves to slash and get to the free throw line. The fifth starter is Mount Vernon native Isaiah Cousins, who was originally looking at MAAC schools like Iona and Manhattan, but has come into his own this season in Norman, shooting 45.4% from behind the three-point arc in addition to his on-ball defensive exploits.
So, on paper at least, it’s going to be very difficult for Albany to score, especially because the Great Danes (24-8) like to be so patient on offense (322nd in adjusted tempo).
“They also lost in the first round last year,” Albany coach Will Brown said. “So I think they’re going to be ready. Tremendous program. Lon Kruger is one of the best coaches in the country, who has won everywhere he’s been. I’ve heard several people say they might have the best starting five in the country outside of Kentucky. So they’re good, they’re going to be ready to go and we’re looking forward to the tremendous challenge that’s in front of us.”
It’s their third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, but the Great Danes return only four letterwinners from the team that beat Mount St. Mary’s in Dayton last year (Hooley, Sam Rowley, Mike Rowley, Dallas Ennema). However, it is the fifth NCAA Tournament for Will Brown in his 14th season at Albany, and in three of his first four trips, the Great Danes made the nuiscance of themselves they hope to Friday night.
In 2006, 16th-seeded Albany led UConn by double digits in the second half before falling. Seven years later, No. 15 Albany gave Duke all it could handle before beating beaten and last season, even coming out of Dayton, made top-seeded Florida work for everything in a 67-55 loss.
And of course, Albany – after starting 2-6 in the non-conference schedule – rolled through America East the way they really hadn’t in their first four conference title seasons, only a February home loss to Stony Brook preventing an undefeated America East regular season campaign, even though Hooley missed nearly half the games.
Add in the program’s (and coaching staff’s) NCAA experience, and it’s enough to think that Albany may just be able to do what two No. 14 seeds have already done in this tournament, and an upset would be the first America East victory in this round in exactly a decade when Taylor Coppenrath, T.J. Sorrentine and Vermont upset Syracuse.
“Making shots in the tournament I think is the most important thing,” Kruger said. “And being athletic or non-athletic doesn’t always make a big difference there. We’ve got to be sound. We have to use, if there’s an advantage athletically, we have to use that to our advantage and be disciplined with it and do a good job, especially on the defensive end.”
Brown announced Hooley will start, but that’s merely a cosmetic change, he played 35 minutes in the America East final anyway. It is that Stony Brook game that Brown knows his team can’t have a repeat of, except maybe the last couple of minutes and, of course, Hooley’s shot heard round the world, literally (Friday’s game will tip off at approximately 8:30 a.m. Saturday in Australia, at least in the time zone Hooley’s family lives in). A tight performance like that out of the gates may see the Great Danes in a hole they can’t climb out of.
“The one thing I want to make sure our guys do is embrace the opportunity, respect the opportunity,” Brown said. “Because you don’t know if you’re going to have another one. It’s so difficult. The America East is a good league. There’s some really good coaches in this league. But we have to rely on our guys that have been through it before, I think. Those guys have to relax and show our new guys that haven’t been here before how it’s done.”
Tipoff is scheduled for 7:27 p.m. on TruTV, although it could be a tad later because the first session in Columbus does not begin until 2:10 p.m. and they will have to clear the arena after the second game of the first session (Buffalo-West Virginia, Valparaiso-Maryland).
Albany coach Will Brown trying to defend his son at Albany open practice Thursday in Columbus.
A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on