Three Thoughts: Albany 65, Niagara 56

This is a guest post from Norman Rose. You may know him as @ECoastBias on Twitter.

ALBANY (Dec. 23) – Behind a career-high 25 points from local freshman Joe Cremo, the Albany Great Danes went into their Christmas break with a 65-56 win. Now 9-4 on the season, the Great Danes have two more non-conference tune-ups before getting back to the work of defending their America East crown.

Of course, if Niagara could just have deleted the middle of the game—the four-minute first half scoring drought, the eight consecutive scoring possessions by Albany, the three points the Purple Eagles scored in the first eight minutes of the second half—it was a pretty good game for them.

But every minute counts, and Niagara’s ability to play hard—and Albany’s slow start and slow finish—doesn’t change the fact that the game was a bit of a struggle for Chris Casey’s squad.

With high expectations, Albany is a work in progress

Perhaps it was the cold that left his voice raspy and his energy ebbing, but Will Brown was muted in his press conference. He raised concerns about his team’s slow start and inability to put away the Purple Eagles after leading by as many as 18 points.

With a bit over 10 minutes left, Niagara cut into that lead by 10 points, forcing four turnovers and finding a scoring spurt from Emile Blackman and Dominic Robb. Chris Casey’s team would get no closer, but it was a point of concern after the game.

“We’re figuring out who the heck we’re gonna be,” Brown said. “We haven’t had Travis Charles, Ray [Sanders] was a game time decision. I’d like to have a couple of games where we have this entire group together, heading into conference play – healthy, playing together, so we can play the way we want to play. We’re not getting a lot of scoring up front, Travis helps us with that and he hasn’t been available. While we’re trying to do that we are winning games, and that helps.”

“We have not progressed at the rate that I hoped we would. For us to be playing the way we’re playing and be 9-4… We haven’t played good basketball at all.”

The Niagara scoring struggle

For Niagara, the struggle continues to be real. Often frustrated, the Purple Eagles couldn’t find a way to the free throw line despite Cameron Fowler’s attempt to push the pace after Albany makes, despite Emile Blackman’s daredevil drives into the deep woods of the Great Dane defense, despite attempts to get touches to Ali Tew and Marvin Prochet.

Matt Scott was hot early, scoring the first eight points for Niagara, who looked poised to take down Albany for the second year in a row.

But then he was shut down for the rest of the game, scoring two of his three second-half points at the line with 23 seconds left and the game well in hand.

Part of that was Joe Cremo’s defense and Albany paying attention to him, but Niagara coach Chris Casey thought it wasn’t more than just missing shots.

“I don’t know that they geared the defense to stop him in the second half,” Casey said. “I think Matt maybe just missed a couple of shots. I thought he had a couple of plays he normally makes that he didn’t make, but they are very good defensively so it doesn’t surprise me.”

Niagara’s style – driving to the basket off the dribble with few reliable shooters to stretch the floor and keep defenses from packing in the defense – led to challenged layups at the rim and frustration. The team has one of the highest turnover rates in Division I— 22.3% of their possessions—and only shoot 28% outside the arc.

They continue to believe in their style, their effort, and the growth that comes with familiarity over a long season.

“I thought we played extremely hard,” Casey said, “as we always do. We’re in the throes of learning how to play together with a nine new guys, learning how to make less mistakes. We have to get to the point where we make two, three less mistakes and finish two, three more plays on the offensive end, and the single digit losses become wins.”

The Joe Cremo show

Albany has some depth. But they also have an unheralded star.

While Peter Hooley struggled mightily from the field, going 2-10 and showing hesitation on his outside shots, the Great Danes found an inside outside combination from the bench in Richard Peters and Joe Cremo.

Ok, really, This was the Joe Cremo show. Cremo scored a career-high 25 points, looking unstoppable at times – a reverse layup in traffic? Challenged threes? Drawing a foul when he pushed off? Superstar play (and treatment) for the freshman.

“I’m not trying to force anything,” Cremo said about his scoring outburst. “I’ve never been that way. Coach, these guys want me to be aggressive. [But] all my threes came off of passes from my teammates. Give credit where credit is due.”

Cremo, of course, is a gym rat. And his teammates and coach shared stories about his intensity.

“He used to be in the gym three times a day, but it calmed down once the season started,” said guard Evan Singletary.

“[Cremo] has tried to fight everybody on our team in practice,” Albany head coach Will Brown said. “I’ve had one guy in my career as competitive as Joe way back, Levi Levine…. Joe’s cut from the same cloth. When you tell him he’s got to work on this, he will.

“I thought Joe did a good job on Scott, he took that [defensive] challenge head on,” Brown continued. “A guy that puts in as much time as he does into his game as Joe deserves success.”

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