Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Nine Teams, Nine Days: Albany

Last year: 15-16 (6-10 America East), lost in America East semifinals to UMBC.

Head coach: Will Brown, 9th season, 106-124 record (62-68 AE).

Departing players: Brian Connelly, Jimmie Covington, Jerel Hastings, Anthony Raffa.

Arriving players: Mike Black, Gavin Glanton, Jake Lindfors, Blake Metcalf, John Puk, Derrek Tartt, Fran Urli, Ralph Watts.

Expected starting lineup (position, name, year, 2008-09 stats):
G Mike Johnson, senior, 3.4 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 2.8 APG
G Tim Ambrose, junior, 14.3 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 2.6 APG
F Will Harris, senior, 12.9 PPG, 6.5 PPG, 1.3 APG
F Fran Urli, junior, 10.2 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 1.3 APG (Panola College)
C Brent Gifford, senior, 2.5 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 0.8 BPG

Player to watch: Tim Ambrose. Ambrose's 14.3 points per game last season were impressive enough, but consider this: Ambrose played less than 25 minutes per game in 2008-09. Among America East players, only Muhammad El-Amin scored more points per 40 minutes. That scoring rate is, of course, supported by an almost impossibly high usage rate -- Ambrose took more than 35 percent of his team's shots while on-court -- but the muscular 6-foot guard was one of the Danes' more efficient players, so in this case increased usage was warranted. The sophomore's frequent trips to the rim also enabled him to grab plenty of rebounds. On his best days, Ambrose ranks among the conference's elite offensive threats; on his worst days, he wastes possessions or, perhaps worse yet, gets in foul trouble and has to sit for long stretches. Ambrose committed almost five fouls per 40 minutes last year, fouling out five times. As one of this conference's most talented players, Albany needs Ambrose to stay on the floor.

Biggest strength: Rebounding. Some teams are excellent at defensive rebounding. Other teams crash the boards on offense. Few teams excel at both. Albany is one of those teams. The Great Danes ranked 20th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage (39.0) and fifth in defensive rebounding percentage (73.7), leading America East in each. None of Albany's 343 Division-I counterparts managed to top the Danes in both categories. Those extra boards extend Great Dane possessions and cut opponent's possessions short, giving Albany some much-needed extra chances in close games. It's tough to imagine the Great Danes showing significant improvement in rebounding categories, if only because it's hard to do much better than last year, but because rebounding is a huge part of this team's identity, Albany cannot afford to be merely an average rebounding team. Expect more of the same in 2009-10.

Biggest weakness: Perimeter shooting. This is pretty straightforward. Albany is a big team, and its starting guards' offensive games revolve around getting to the rim. Is it any surprise the Great Danes' weakness resides outside 20 feet, 9 inches? Ambrose shot 33.8 percent from 3-point range last year, which is neither particularly bad nor particularly good. That's perfectly fine if Ambrose was the Danes' third or fourth best perimeter shooter, and it might even be okay if he was the team's second best shooter -- but Ambrose's 33.8 figure led the team. Albany likes to force the ball inside, and sometimes that strategy works no matter how hard the defense tries to stop it, but better defensive teams can take away the paint and force the Danes to make some longer shots. If Albany doesn't improve significantly from the perimeter, those teams are going to find success.

Guards: For a guard, Tim Ambrose's rebounding abilities are extraordinary. The list of players Ambrose's height who grab more than 17 percent of opponent's missed shots is low. But Ambrose isn't just a scorer or a rebounder, either: his drives create assist opportunities (counteracted somewhat by a high turnover rate), and he averages over one steal per game due to aggressive (sometimes overly aggressive) defense. None of these items can happen with Ambrose sidelined by foul trouble; remedying that issue will immediately place the junior among America East's elite players, if he isn't there already.

Mike Johnson saw his playing time dry up around midseason before emerging as Albany's starting point guard down the stretch, a phenomenon coinciding with Anthony Raffa's injury troubles. While Johnson is serving a two-game suspension for a fireworks-related incident, he should be in the starting lineup as of next week. Johnson is a prototypical lead guard, combining excellent defense with the ability to create opportunities for others. The senior guard isn't much of a scorer -- while he gets to the line with regularity, he doesn't shoot free throws well, and isn't overly efficient either outside or inside the arc -- but his other skills make him a valuable contributor and a worthy starter.

Head coach Will Brown announced freshman Mike Black as the starter for the opener against Syracuse. Black had originally committed to North Florida but was released due to a coaching change and assumed the scholarship made available by Raffa's departure. Black is a good fit to backup Johnson due to their similar games -- both are natural point guards and committed defenders. Black brings some added offensive potential, but because so much of Albany's offense flows from Ambrose, it's doubtful we see it with any regularity while Black is a freshman.

Louis Barraza is Albany's designated 3-point specialist -- he took 27.5 percent of the Danes' shots while on the floor, with nearly 80 percent of those being from long range. There's a problem with that: Barraza shot just 22-of-69 from 3. Quite frankly, that's poor, and Barraza is invisible in all other aspects of the game: he doesn't rebound, he doesn't defend (but he does foul), and he doesn't create opportunities for others. Barraza was bothered by Achilles tendinitis last season and was frequently unable to practice, so improved health may cause his shooting to improve, but anything less than a major improvement in that department shouldn't be enough to warrant major playing time, as none of Barraza's other dimensions are particularly good.

Technically speaking, redshirt freshman Logan Aronhalt isn't a new face. He played two minutes last year against Columbia, and the rest of the season was lost due to a foot injury. Some reports indicate that Aronhalt might not yet be up to speed -- he had trouble guarding Ambrose in an intrasquad scrimmage -- but if healthy, Aronhalt fits Albany's preferred mold as an off-guard who isn't afraid to do some work in the paint. Aronhalt, however, arrived in the state capital as a heralded shooter, something the Danes could use some more of. If his shooting fits the bill, Barraza's minutes may be at risk.

There are two other freshman guards who figure to see some time in Albany's deep rotation. Derrek Tartt will push Black, his former high school teammate for minutes as Johnson's backup. Tartt, at 6-foot-3, can also play off-guard or even small forward. He spent a post-graduate year at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire developing a wide skill set, including the ability to create his own shot and good court vision. On a roster with pure point guards and score-first shooting guards, Tartt stands out as a combo guard and stands to find his way on the floor one way or another.

Ralph Watts, the remaining freshman guard, took the direct route to Albany, signing before his senior season. Watts is long and athletic, allowing him to penetrate, where he can get to the rim or stop and pop from short to medium range. Watts doesn't arrive with the shooting credentials of a player like Aronhalt, which may limit his minutes on a roster crowded with dribble-drive players and short on shooters, but he has the offensive talent to be productive at some point.

Forwards: Will Harris didn't dominate the conference after arriving in Albany by way of Virginia, but his 12.9 points per game and excellent defensive rebounding established his presence as one of the best forwards in America East. A large 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, Harris can operate out of the post but has range extending to the 3-point line. Harris doesn't excel from any particular range, but he's solid from a variety of distances and is a decent free throw shooter. The ability to sustain a moderate level of efficiency at a high usage rate (but not as high as Ambrose's) cements Harris' value.

Fran Urli, like newly arrived Hartford wing Milton Burton, is a junior college transfer from Panola College, where he was an effective inside presence. Urli can score from the post as well as face up and shoot, and seven rebounds per game at the junior college level suggests he should be at least adequate as a rebounder.

Scotty McRae appeared in 21 games off the bench for the Danes last year before missing the end of last season on suspension. McRae is an athletic 6-foot-8, and he puts that athleticism to good use off the ball -- he pulls down rebounds on both ends of the floor and blocks his fair share of shots. McRae isn't much of a scorer or passer, but with two starters who are capable of dominating the ball, his swats and boards are a good fit.

Billy Allen played rotation minutes for the Danes last year, but there isn't much positive to say about those minutes. Allen, like Barraza, attempted mostly threes, but he barely managed to make 20 percent of them. While more of a factor on the boards than Barraza, Allen is still a subpar rebounder for a forward. The 6-foot-6 sophomore had a good assist-to-turnover ratio, but that alone isn't enough to warrant playing time. If the freshman wings and forwards play well, Allen may find himself squeezed out.

Jake Lindfors redshirted last year; unlike Aronhalt, he did not appear in any games. Lindfors, at 6-foot-10, has a center's height, but his game includes range extending out to the 3-point line. Big men with legitimate range have been seen in Albany before -- Brent Wilson scored in double figures and shot better than 43 percent from 3 for the 2006-07 championship team -- but in Lindfors' case he needed an extra year to pack on some added muscle. We'll see whether the additional 20 pounds helps him bang with some of America East's bigger post players.

Gavin Glanton, a true freshman, adds another athlete to the purple and gold fold. While McRae's skills are more visible without the ball, Glanton operates well with the ball in his hands, either in the post or in open space. Glanton is reputed to be a good passer for an interior player and has the touch necessary to produce near the basket. While that scoring ability rarely translates to early success for America East forwards, Glanton should still have a short-term role as another high-energy athlete the Danes can rotate in.

Centers: Brett Gifford started in most of Albany's games last year, and he returns for his junior season as a typical solid starting center, albeit with a couple extra inches. Gifford's most notable characteristic isn't the mohawk he's been known to sport. It's his shot-blocking ability. The 6-foot-11 big man played fewer minutes than the typical starter but still logged nearly one block per game, ranking as the Danes' best ball-swatter. Gifford isn't going to score a lot of points and commits too many fouls, but he's efficient when he does shoot, and he's a very good rebounder as well, which helps to negate those negative traits. In sum, while the senior center might not win Albany many games, he's not going to lose them many games either.

With Gifford set to graduate after this season, Blake Metcalf stands as the heir to the center position. Metcalf arrives in Albany after a successful high school career, including being ranked the No. 1 center in the state of Indiana by Indiana Basketball Digest. Like Gifford, Metcalf is a true center who operates with his back to the basket. Some parts of Metcalf's game should be ready to go from the start, such as his rebounding, but it's difficult to expect scoring right away.

John Puk is expected to redshirt this year. Since the Great Danes are at their scholarship limit, Puk is a non-scholarship player for this season. Expect him to resurface next season after Gifford's departure.

Outlook: Every team has its strengths and weaknesses. Few teams, however, have strengths and weakness with magnitudes equal to those of Albany. The Great Danes expect to own the glass night in and night out, and smaller, less aggressive teams will be hard-pressed to prevent Albany from imposing its will. When teams manage to hold their own on the boards, however, Albany's glaring lack of perimeter shooting becomes more obvious. At some point, playing volleyball with the backboard is an unproductive exercise -- the ball needs to go in the net, and sometimes the Danes can't make that happen. Poor shooting causes players to press, leading to bad decisions, leading to roller-coaster games. On nights where the shooters are up to par, Albany is a very dangerous team capable of giving anyone trouble, but those frequent shooting struggles prevent the Danes from climbing any higher than 3rd on this list.

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