It’s déjà vu all over again for Hartford.
Just like last season, the Hawks enter the America East tournament as the No. 3 seed. Their 10-6 conference record mimics their mark from a year ago. And as it did in 2012-13, Hartford goes into the postseason with a winning streak at its back.
But that was then, and this is now.
“Every year is a different year, and every year is a different feel,” head coach John Gallagher said.
The Hawks, who will coast into the tournament with six wins in their last seven games, aren’t dwelling on their season-ending 69-62 loss to UMBC in the AE quarterfinals a year ago. In fact, with sixth-seeded Binghamton playing as well as it has been of late, Gallagher said his team isn’t even feeling any of the pressures associated with being a favorite.
“At least two or three people put on social media that they expect Binghamton to win,” Gallagher said. “As I talked to my team, pressures never came up. The only word that comes up with the guys is just being the most excited group to be there. I can’t tell you how excited we are.”
Hartford finished this season with a 16-15 overall mark, a year after earning 17 total victories to give them a Division I program-record 33 wins in back-to-back years.
“We’re proud of that. But it’s not something where we stop playing and stop competing,” Gallagher said.
When the Hawks and Bearcats square off Saturday night in the quarterfinals, Hartford’s primary concern will be sophomore forward Jordan Reed, whom Gallagher referred to as “the best player in the league.”
“I don’t know if you can fully stop him, you just have to try and make sure he doesn’t go for 30, which the last two opponents haven’t been successful in doing, and we were one of them,” Gallagher said.
Hartford’s answer for Reed is junior forward Mark Nwakamma. The Hawks’ leading scorer with 15.1 points per game, Nwakamma is not only Hartford’s go-to offensive option, but is responsible for creating the floor space that has his team atop the America East in 3-pointers made.
“Just like Jordan Reed, [Nwakamma is] one of the better players in our conference,” Gallagher said. “Anytime you have a player like him, he just makes everybody else calmer.”
Still, the Hawks have proven that they can compete at a high level without Nwakamma, and Gallagher points to their games on Jan. 29 and Feb. 1 against Vermont and Stony Brook, which were seven- and four-point losses, respectively, as evidence.
“I thought that really changed our season,” Gallagher said. “It gave us unbelievable confidence from every player. We’ve won six of seven, but now I think Mark’s playing his best and we’re really just excited about being there.”
In the teams’ last matchup, Hartford overcame Reed’s 33-point outburst with a 89-83 double overtime victory. On Jan. 23, the Hawks also tiptoed past the Bearcats with a two-point, 56-54 win. A gritty, hard-fought game on Saturday night has been foreshadowed, and the Hawks are giving BU the respect their closely-contested matchups have elicited.
“The biggest advantage, and maybe the reason we came out on top, was just a play here and a play there and that can turn at any time,” Gallagher said. “So we understand what we’re going against Saturday night. We just have the utmost respect for Binghamton and their program.”
Junior guard Wes Cole tops the conference this season with 77 3-pointers made to lead a Hartford team that drained 246 baskets from beyond the arc, 45 more than the next closest AE team. Binghamton head coach Tommy Dempsey puts a lot of stock in Hartford’s ability to spread the floor by way of its 3-point ability, and will place a heavy emphasis on guarding the perimeter.
“The one offensive balance they have is they spread you out with a ton of shooters and you can’t bring a lot of help,” Dempsey said. “In both games [against Hartford this season], we were so concerned with Nwakamma and they made 21 threes against us. So we’re going to have to find that balance of doing our best to neutralize Nwakamma without giving as many 3-pointers as we gave up in the first two contests.””
But Gallagher insisted that his squad isn’t a one-trick pony, and even said the 3-ball isn’t necessarily the Hawks’ greatest asset offensively.
“It’s a misconception, very similar to Chip Kelly and the [Philadelphia] Eagles,” Gallagher said. “Everyone thinks they throw the ball every possession. Meanwhile, they had one of the best running games.”
“We have one of the best two-point field goal percentages in the country,” Gallagher added. “We don’t discriminate. We take twos and threes. And offensively, we don’t focus solely on one or the other, we just focus on what the defense gives us.”
Tipoff is set for approximately 8:30 p.m. at SEFCU Arena in Albany.