Albany nearly pulled off one of the biggest shockers in NCAA Tournament history last season when it came close to knocking off a No. 1 seed. That near-upset hasn’t been forgotten by Virginia this year.
The fourth-seeded Cavaliers will try to advance past the first round for the first time in 12 years when they meet No. 13 seed Albany on Friday in Columbus, Ohio in the South Regional.
Last season, Albany made its NCAA Tournament debut as a No. 16 seed and led Connecticut by 12 points with 11 minutes to play before falling 72-59.
Virginia coach Dave Leitao said he expects a now-experienced Albany team to be a tough opponent.
“I’m sure they are looking at us as a team they know they can beat,” Leitao said. “Obviously they gave Connecticut a very tough game last year and almost won. We are going to have to make sure in gathering up the information that we need to, that we are prepared for what we will see on the floor and as much as anything, we have to be prepared psychologically to know we are in for a heck of a fight.”
In just his second year, Leitao has guided the Cavaliers to their first tournament appearance since 2001, when they lost 86-85 to Gonzaga in the first round.
“It is a great tribute to our players and the season they’ve had. But at the same time we have to realize that there are a lot of really difficult challenges ahead,” Leitao said.
One of those challenges is winning a first-round game - something the Cavaliers (20-10) haven’t done since reaching the 1995 regional finals.
Virginia, which earned a share of the ACC regular-season title for the first time since that same 1994-95 season, relies on the high-scoring backcourt tandem of senior J.R. Reynolds and junior Sean Singletary. The co-captains have combined for an average of 36.7 points this season.
Singletary averages a team-leading 18.9 per game, while Reynolds chips in 17.8. Behind the tandem, Virginia increased its scoring average from 67.9 last season to 76.8 in 2006-07 - the biggest increase among tournament teams.
However, the Cavaliers’ bid for their first outright conference title since 1980-81 ended Saturday with a 79-71 loss to upstart North Carolina State.
“The conference is pretty tough,” said Singletary, who had 23 points but only seven in the second half. “On any given night, any team can win. If you don’t bring your game, you’ll probably be in trouble.”
Albany (23-9) enters this tournament having won five in row, including a 60-59 victory Saturday over Vermont for its second straight America East title. Senior guard Jamar Wilson, the two-time conference player of the year, finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
“It’s the best feeling I’ve had,” said Wilson, who leads Albany with 18.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. “You never want to be a one-hit wonder. You want a chance to do it again, and we did.”
Senior swingman Jason Siggers also could pose problems for Virginia. He’s averaging 13.9 points this season, up from his 5.0 mark in 2005-06.
If the Great Danes are to pull off the upset this year, though, their defense will need to continue its recent strong play. In five games since Feb. 22, Albany has given up an average of 52.8 points to tie Creighton for second-fewest in that span. Wisconsin, the second seed out of the Midwest region, is the only team to allow fewer at 52.6.
This is the first meeting between Albany and Virginia. The winner advances to the second round to face either fifth-seeded Tennessee or No. 12 seed Long Beach State.