In the words of sophomore point guard Quinn Cook, Duke was “shocked” last season when it became just the sixth second-seeded team in NCAA Tournament history to lose to a No. 15 seed in the first round.
In a press conference Tuesday, head coach Mike Krzyzewski emphasized that the team has put that experience behind them, and this year the Blue Devils will get a shot at redemption in another No. 2 versus No. 15 matchup.
The opponent this year is the Albany Great Danes, who emerged victorious from the America East Conference tournament to earn that league’s automatic berth to the Big Dance. Under the direction of head coach Will Brown since it joined the America East for the 2001-02 season, Albany has reached the NCAA Tournament twice prior to this season.
The Great Danes faced off against No. 1 seed Connecticut in 2006 in their inaugural March Madness opportunity, giving the top-seeded Huskies a run for their money in the first round. A 13-0 run out of halftime put Albany ahead by 12 points midway through the second half, but Connecticut ultimately recovered to uphold the No. 1 seeds’ unbeaten streak.
Brown’s squad then earned a No. 13 seed the following season behind back-to-back America East titles but were blown out by No. 4 Virginia 84-57.
This year’s team opened the season with a win over Duquesne, but then traveled to Columbus to face off against No. 4 Ohio State and was routed 82-60. But the Great Danes turned around two days later, on an even longer road trip, to upset Washington on guard Mike Black’s game-winning layup with 3.7 seconds left.
Black led the team to 14 wins in 17 games from there, including victories in five of the first six conference games, but the Great Danes closed out January by losing three games in a row at home. They won just five of eight games the rest of the way, but proceeded to make a Cinderella run through the America East Tournament, upsetting both No. 1 seed Stony Brook and No. 2 seed Vermont to claim the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth.
The Great Danes are a veteran squad, keyed by the backcourt duo of Jacob Iati—whose father is an assistant coach for the team—and Black, who are both seniors. Black is the centerpiece of the offense, leading the team in scoring with 14.9 points per game and also chipping in 2.5 assists per contest, but Iati plays more minutes and is a more efficient scorer, with a 41-percent stroke from beyond the arc. The Albany backcourt’s weakness lies on the defensive end, where Iati and Black, at 5-foot-10 and 6-foot, respectively, lack the size to defend bigger guards.
Augmenting the workhorse guards is sophomore wing Sam Rowley, whose emergence has been crucial for the Great Danes. At 6-foot-6, he is arguably the team’s best defender, averaging 1.2 steals per game. On the other end, he averages nine points per game on just 6.4 shot attempts, courtesy of a solid 53.4 percent shooting clip. Rowley also leads Albany in rebounding, with 6.3 boards per game.
Rounding out the starting lineup are freshman point guard Peter Hooley, who is the tallest of the guard trio at 6-foot-4 and also the best distributor with three assists per game, and senior center John Puk. Puk, who stands 6-foot-10, gives the Great Danes the interior size to match up with Mason Plumlee, which many small-conference teams lack.
The well-utilized reserve corps brings experience to the locker room, as two seniors and three juniors find their way into the rotation off the bench, including 6-foot-7 Australian Luke Devlin and 6-foot-8 Blake Metcalf, who leads Albany in blocked shots despite playing a second-string role.
The Great Danes lack any standout skills as a team, but also do not suffer from any glaring weaknesses. They shoot a solid 36.4 percent from beyond the arc and take good care of the ball. Their ability to make free throws in the unfamiliar, high-pressure environment of the NCAA Tournament will be crucial for a team that counts on getting to the line and was able to do so frequently against the lesser competition of the America East.
They prevented opponents from doing likewise, averaging 5.6 more trips to the line per game than their opposition while ranking 20th in the nation in fewest free throws shot by opponents.
The Great Danes’ solid but unspectacular defense should be no match for Duke’s high-octane offense, and the Blue Devils will have a significant upper hand in the game if they attack the rim and turn the tables on the free-throw differential that Albany is accustomed to enjoying.
As they always are for a No. 15 seed, the odds are slim for Albany, and without a talent like Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum to lead the way, the Great Danes appear bound to move to 0-3 in NCAA Tournament play when they take on Duke Friday afternoon.