The Great Danes Have Arrived
ALBANY, N.Y. – Those long seasons in the early Division I times are now behind the Great Danes.
Albany will be making its first NCAA Tournament appearance after winning the America East Conference championship on Saturday over three-time defending champion, Vermont. That the Catamounts got this far is a story in itself, as new head coach Mike Lonergan did a tremendous job leading a team with the least experience in the country to the brink of another championship. But the Great Danes are the story right now, as they have come a long way.
Albany has suffered through some long seasons since joining Division I in 1999. In 2000-01, their first year in America East, they went 6-22; a year later, they were 8-20; 7-21 and 5-23 seasons followed. The Great Danes made a jump to 13-15 and finished fourth in America East last season with a 9-9 mark, but were promptly eliminated by Binghamton in the conference tournament. Even entering this tournament, Albany had never won an America East Tournament game. So this has been a season that has seemingly broken everything they went through early on.
Head coach Will Brown deserves a lot of credit. He was never the choice of many in Albany to lead the program, but he’s built them into a winner by recruiting good kids and steadily progressing each year. Expectations were high this year, and he knew that would be a real adjustment, much like adjusting to having more personnel last year after playing with a skeleton crew the previous two years. Early on, the Great Danes had their struggles in non-conference play, partly from injuries to players like Brian Lillis and Lucious Jordan. Rumors persisted that Brown might not be back beyond this season with anything short of a title, even though he got a one-year contract extension last August. He shoots from the hip, and that hasn’t always endeared him to some people, but he’s a good man and has worked hard to get his team this far.
Leading the great stories with players is Jordan, a hometown kid who had a tough season but came through when they needed him to in the championship game. He scored 18 points to support star guard and conference Player of the Year Jamar Wilson, whose 29 points led the way. Jon Iati, a 5’9″ junior guard who eats, drinks, sleeps and breathes basketball, went from leading the nation in minutes played as a freshman to seeming like an odd man out late this season, but he came off the bench to give them eight points in 11 minutes on Saturday. Jamar Wilson and Levi Levine came in together when the program struggled, and have seen it through to the end. Wilson has another year to go, as he redshirted two seasons ago with a knee injury, but they’ve been there when the program struggled mightily. Wilson has played out of position at the point, as his scoring ability would be better utilized at shooting guard, but he’s played the position admirably the past two seasons.
Just the opposite of Jordan are Lillis and Brent Wilson, two key sophomores who hail from the Midwest. Lillis has a high basketball I.Q. and is capable of running the team, while Wilson bulked up and has good range on his jumper. They are major reasons why this team won’t fall off the map next year.
One person who has kept on a roll is assistant coach Pat Filien, who joined the staff last June. Filien was an assistant coach at Vermont during their big run, and this makes four straight years in the NCAA Tournament for him.
It’s been quite a journey for the Great Danes to get to their first NCAA Tournament. They have arrived in Division I, and the America East Conference has taken notice.