NCAA tournament Preview Between Albany and Mount St. Mary’s

The first game of the NCAA tournament will feature two teams we’ve covered extensively this season here on Big Apple Buckets – Mount St. Mary’s and Albany. Both were seeded fourth in their respective conference tournaments, and yet, here they are as the last members standing for the America East and NEC. So rather than go outside BAB’s blogosphere to initiate a Q&A, I asked our MAAC and America East insider Ryan Restivo to partake in an e-mail discussion to preview these teams. Enjoy!

Ryan Peters: Wow, Ryan, lucky us! We get to enjoy an America East/NEC showdown for the play-in game of the NCAA tournament! How cool is that? According to KenPom, this Albany/Mount St. Mary’s contest is essentially a coin flip – Albany is listed as a 52% favorite, projected to win 73-72.

Since you’ve seen a lot of Albany recently, what have the Great Danes done to go 6-1 in their last seven (besides of course beating up on the horrid bottom half of the AE conference)? They’re obviously defending much better recently; they’ve only given up 0.92 points per possession versus Vermont and Stony Brook, two teams that finished the season with the best offensive efficiency numbers in the America East.

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Will Albany’s Sam Rowley dominate the paint versus Mount St. Mary’s? (Photo credit – Albany Athletics)

Ryan Restivo: What it really comes down to is Albany got healthy at the right time. This team was a walking wounded group throughout the year and, now that they are healthy, head coach Will Brown has cut that rotation down to about seven players.

Sam Rowley and Peter Hooley are probably two of the biggest reasons that the Great Danes are dancing. On Saturday, Stony Brook did not have many answers for the junior Rowley until he fouled out of the game with 7:02 remaining. Brown said, after Rowley fouled out he wanted to make sure Hooley got a touch on every possession and it paid off at the right time. Not only is the red-shirt sophomore a great three-point shooter, he’s an excellent free throw shooter and can drive the ball in the lane.

Albany on defense likes to crowd the lane and create traffic. They did a great job of stuffing the Seawolves by hedging hard on ball screens and forcing them to beat them at a half court game, which proved to be Stony Brook’s downfall. They play a lot of man-to-man as well as mix in plenty of zone looks, one thing they do best is not let opponents get to the free throw line, their 29.2% free throw rate is fifth in the nation.

Peters: You aren’t kidding about Albany crowding the lane; after all, opponents are shooting just 45% inside the arc this season. A couple of things that’s really interesting about this matchup, though, will be the pace and the perimeter battle.

Starting on the perimeter – Mount St. Mary’s LOVES to shoot threes. Head coach Jamion Christian practically gives every capable outside shooter a dark green light, and it shows, with only 18 teams in the country possessing a higher point distribution from three-point field goals. If Julian Norfleet, Rashad Whack, and 6’6″ freshman Will Miller are having one of those nights – the trio combined is making about 37% of their long-range attempts this season – Albany could be in big trouble. Of course, the Mount didn’t rely on the three ball as much as they had in earlier in the season, yet they were still successful in the NEC tournament.

How do you expect Brown to approach this matchup defensively, will he look to play man-to-man most of the time to keep the perimeter shooters honest? Does he have any excellent perimeter defenders that could shadow a guy like Whack if need be?

Restivo: I’m guessing it’s going to be Gary Johnson, who I know Brown tabs as his best defender, who gets the assignment to cover Whack, though Hooley might chase a shooter around too. Give credit to Albany, they are great at game planning and they will likely go with the approach they use against Hartford: try to limit as many open looks from the three-point line as possible.

The concern I’d have if I’m Albany is, from what I understand (which is mostly what you report), the Mount are big on getting it up and down, and that does not play in Albany’s hands. Even Saturday, they wanted to force the game to be played in the half court and did that. The times I’ve seen them this season, they could have trouble with the right amount of pressure and, considering their lack of depth, they don’t want to get into a transition type of game.

Peters: That’s a great point and it segments perfectly into my second biggest key of the game – pace. Even though injuries and defections have limited the Mount’s rotation to just eight scholarship players for most of the season, they still had the 31st fastest tempo in the country at 70.3 possessions per game. Don’t be fooled, though, the Mount likely won’t employ a “Mayhem” style for all 40 minutes. They simply can’t afford foul trouble to the big three of Norfleet, Whack and Sam Prescott; therefore the Mount will pick their spots to press, trap and push the tempo. They prefer the element of surprise when it comes to their half and three-quarters court trapping.

Controlling the pace, and subsequently, turnovers will be the biggest key for Albany, because if Christian’s group can create turnovers and manufacture easy buckets in transition, then I think the Mount will win that kind of game nine times out of ten. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it doesn’t seem like the Great Danes have the athleticism to keep up with Norfleet pushing the ball to open three-point shooters in transition.

If there’s an Achilles heel to this approach, it’s that opponents will have opportunities to score around the rim if they have the ball handlers to break the Mount’s press. Against teams that employ skilled interior players, the Mount has struggled to contain them. Sacred Heart, the last team to beat the Mount this season despite their 5-26 overall record (c’mon you knew I’d bring up that victory!), used uber-athletic freshman De’von Barnett to torch 7’0” center Taylor Danaher and power forward Gregory Graves for 24 points. Two games later in the first round of the NEC tournament, St. Francis Brooklyn was ridiculously effective near the rim, connecting on more than 50% of their two-point attempts before choking away their first playoff win since 2003. It sure seems like we’ll definitely see a steady diet of Sam Rowley, right?

Also, does Albany have the ball handlers in the backcourt to combat the Mount’s pressure?

Restivo: Will Brown has said it already, they want to turn Mount’s pressure into easy offense and they will have every opportunity to break the press with D.J. Evans running the point and they can get out and get quick scores.

Albany will focus on winning this game from the inside out with Sam Rowley and John Puk, expect a steady diet of those two.

Peters: Well, it’ll certainly be a fascinating game to watch on TruTV on Tuesday evening at 6:40 PM. Let’s close it out with some predictions. I’ll start – Given Brown’s excellent track record (at least in the past few seasons) of game planning and making in-game adjustments, some may give Albany the edge in coaching, but make no mistake, Christian can flat out game plan and coach too.

With that, this one will be tight and come down to the final three minutes, but I think the senior leadership of the Mount’s Big 3 propels them to a Thursday showdown with #1 seed Florida. What do you say?

Restivo: Albany has found the right time to get healthy and win the most important games of the season. So I have to go with the America East here and Brown’s Great Danes.

Thanks to Ryan for helping out with this preview! The winner will take on the number one overall seed, Florida, on Thursday afternoon.