The story behind college basketball's unlikely Aussie stronghold

Albany, New York; a small, riverside city located 220 kilometres north of New York City with a population of roughly 100,000 people. Not too much goes on here but since 2010, the university's men's basketball program has been quietly building something special; one of the biggest and most successful Australian pipelines in all of college basketball. And despite their remote location and freezing winters, they're showing no signs of slowing down.

The Great Danes were first introduced to Australian basketball, at least in the men's program, through former AIS coach Marty Clarke. Clarke had a relationship with one of Albany's assistant coaches at the time, Jeremy Friel, and suggested a 17-year-old big man from Sydney called Luke Devlin might be a good fit with his program. The Great Danes bought Devlin over for an unofficial visit, and liked what they saw. When Devlin returned to Australia, he got a call from the coaching staff offering him a scholarship.

"Interestingly enough, I was looking at another school in California that I was hoping to go to with my mate from Australia," Devlin tells ESPN. "But they hadn't confirmed to me whether there was going to be a scholarship opportunity or not, so I was really holding out for that.

"When they offered me the scholarship, I said I needed more time. That kind of put an interesting start to the relationship.

"So I get off the phone call, go back to sleep and then about an hour later, I get woken up by my dad (who) passed me the phone from a guy called Phil Collins, who was an assistant coach on the women's team at Albany at the time. He gave me a call after finding out what I had just done and basically talked some sense into me. I quickly realised that I needed to give them a call back and say that I really did want the scholarship, so I did and had a conversation with coach Brown and was ultimately able to accept the scholarship - but it took me a while to actually get to that point."

When asked why the hesitation to commit to Albany right away, Devlin was quick to respond.

"There was a bit of fear I guess with that first step because going over to the US not knowing anybody, I really wanted to go to school with one of my close mates, but I sort of needed to see reality," he said. "I think it was my conversation with Phil Collins who allowed me to get clarity and make the right decision."

In Devlin's first season at Albany, he was one of their best players. He started 31 of 32 games and posted a stat line of 7.4 PPG and 6.9 RPG (the best on the team). It was clear, even after one season, that the Australian well was one that coach Brown was willing to dip into once again, and for the 2011-12 season, with the help of Devlin and Phil Collins, he recruited two more Aussies: Sam Rowley and Peter Hooley.

"I knew Luke pretty well from growing up and playing basketball together," Rowley tells ESPN. "So he put me on the radar of the coaches."

Once Rowley had signed on, Albany seemed like too perfect of a fit to pass up for Hooley.

"I knew Luke Devlin was there already and Sam Rowley had signed who I just played against at the Nationals, so I had a little chat to Luke and it kind of seemed like a good opportunity," Hooley tells ESPN.

"I always planned to go Division 2 and just experience college but I thought 'let's just see how this works out for me'. I spoke to coach Brown who was pretty excited to get me over there and then I couldn't really go on a visit so I told dad, 'lets kind of just go for this'. It was kind of a blind pick but once I got over there, it really turned into a family atmosphere for me, which I was pretty grateful for."

Unfortunately for Hooley however, four games into the 2011-12 season, he suffered a stress fracture on his right foot and missed the remainder of his freshman season. Thankfully, because the injury occurred so early on in the season, he was able to redshirt and not lose a year of eligibility. Rowley, on the other hand, played in 25 games and performed admirably.

The next season, both players began to flash the potential that would inevitably make them one of the most beloved Great Danes of recent history, with the pair earning regular starts and making their mark on the stat sheet.

"When Pete and Sam took on a much more prominent role in the team, that allowed us to garner the attention of Australian basketball a bit more and gave the coaches that confidence that they could recruit consistently and that it wasn't a one-time thing," Devlin tells ESPN.

The next player to reap the rewards of the trio's success was Sam's younger brother Mike, who signed on with the program in 2013. Whatever family atmosphere the program harboured before this was only exacerbated with Mike's arrival.

"It's almost like your brother's on the team," Devlin says. "Especially the four of us; myself, Pete, Sam and Mike, we'd go down to New York City for Christmas and all that sort of thing. Sam, Pete and I were living with each other for like two years so we became very close. They do become your family away from home."

In the 2014-15 season, the family atmosphere became even tighter, not just because of the on-court success and chemistry between the four Australians, but because of something that was going on off the court. Back in Australia, Peter Hooley's mum had been battling cancer, a fight that she had been struggling with for years. Late one January night in 2015, Hooley received a phone call from his dad telling him to come home; his mum's condition had taken a turn for the worse.

"I called coach Brown at about 1am. He was on his way back from recruiting trip and came straight to my room and helped me get home. You can't ask for more than that from a coaching standpoint," Hooley recalled.

"Coach Brown had already become like a father figure to me in America. He knew about the battle that mum was facing for the four years that I was there before she passed away. He was kind of just on call for me whenever and there'd be times where maybe I was like just too emotional at training or whatever, and he understood the underlying factor even if I didn't speak about it.

"When I went over, he was just telling me, take my time. There's no [need to] rush back [even if I didn't] come back for the rest of the year, but I knew I had to. He just eased me into everything. Whatever I wanted or needed, he was there for me any time any time of the day or night. That, I'll be forever grateful for."

Hooley would stay in Australia for the next few weeks, before coming back and resuming his season. Despite his absence, the team was still playing well and, as a No. 1 seed, were primed for a run in the America East Conference Championship.

After an easy victory against Maine in the quarterfinals, and a narrow two-point win against New Hampshire in the semifinals, the Great Danes faced the No. 2 seed Stony Brook, a team that had handed them their only conference loss of the season a month prior.

With 6.2 seconds left on the clock, the Great Danes were down by two points. Junior Ray Sanders put up an off-balanced mid-range shot. The ball bounced off the window, ricocheted off a pair of outstretched hands and bounced straight to a waiting Hooley. Hooley gathered it and quickly put up the shot; it hits. Albany wins the game and, in doing so, punched their ticket to the Big Dance.

It was a moment seen all around the world; a moment that sent chills down the spine of anyone who was lucky enough to witness it.

"That was an amazing experience," Hooley remembers. "I think I'd been back for about six games before that and I was still trying to find my feet on the team, and I hadn't really played well and that kind of turned into my little miracle that I'll forever remember and it's kind of helped me help other people, which I was grateful for."

"I mean that shot is historic," coach Brown tells ESPN. "Especially in the history of Albany basketball, but the story behind it, it's just something that nobody is going to forget at any stage soon."

Despite losing to Oklahoma in the first round of the tournament later that month, that appearance marked the third straight year the Great Danes went dancing on college basketball's biggest stage, a program record.

By the 2016-17 season, the only Australian that was left on the Albany roster was Mike Rowley. The success that the program had had with the core of Australians was no longer there, but coach Brown's desire to find that success once again certainly was. In 2017, once Rowley had graduated, Brown and current assistant coach Josh Pelletier recruited three more Australians to the program; Cam Healy, Adam Lulka and Brent Hank.

"We hadn't had an Aussie in a while," Pelletier tells ESPN. "We knew we still kind of had a name in Australia. People knew Albany maybe more than they might know some other schools. But we just hadn't had one and it had been really good for us but it just got to the point where someone needed to go over because more and more schools were starting to recruit Australians, and you weren't going to get a good player probably off of film or just word of mouth because so many more people are trying to recruit over there.

"So I went across and the first time that I went was a little bit of an undertaking because, like I said, nobody from our school had ever gone and at a mid major level like this, it's a little bit of a strain on your resources for a trip like that so it's a little bit of pressure to get kids.

"We want to get good players, not just take somebody to take somebody but we ended up getting the three freshmen that we have now that are all starting for us, so it's worked out pretty well."

Healy and Lulka had grown up playing basketball against each other for years and considered themselves good friends. As luck would have it, their visits to Albany overlapped with one another, which gave the duo a chance to catch up at the hotel afterwards to discuss their potential future with the program.

"Basically, we were like 'this could be somewhere where we can be the guys here and try to get some championships'," Healy tells ESPN. "We just kind of envisioned ourselves down the road having success here. We talked about it that night at the hotel and we were like 'let's do it!' He committed and then I committed a couple of days later."

Healy's dad Mike, who already had experience in the collegiate system with his son Kai, a four-year player at Santa Clara, loved what he saw during his sons visit to Albany, and knew Albany would be the best place to watch his son flourish.

"All the Australians who have gone there have been really successful," he tells ESPN. "They've all done very well not only from an athletic perspective, but after school, whether that was professional basketball or, in the case of the Rowley boys, they've done very well from a life-after-basketball perspective."

Lulka felt the same.

"I came to Albany with my family and just straight away, the family environment that they showed us really stood out to us," he tells ESPN. "It was nice knowing that this place had dealt with Australians who had come across the world to play for them."

This family environment is something that coach Brown has been very conscious about creating since Luke Devlin stepped foot on campus all those years ago. He knows that if his program is able to make players feel as if they are a part of his family, there will be plenty of benefits for the program down the road, whether that's on-court success in the form of championships, or off-court success in the form of high calibre recruits.

For Brown, he wants the program to be able to sell itself.

"It's all about comfort and fit," he tells ESPN. "They're a long way away from home so we have to reassure them that they're going to be well taken care of. We're going to look after them, were going to be there for them. We have to become their Albany family. Mums and dads need to feel comfortable that their sons are well looked after, taken care of and there are going to be people to take care of them if anything happens."

From hosting Australian players at their houses for Thanksgiving and Christmas, to allowing players the opportunity to switch up their summer school schedule so they can spend more time in Australia during the off-season, both coach Brown and Pelletier have certainly got this Australian thing down pat. It's the same on the Australian side too. The fact the Australian players who have gone through the program have been such high character guys -- good students and players who are very low maintenance and easy to coach -- has given the coaching staff the utmost trust in the Australian system and has allowed them to continue to build the pipeline.

"I think that's a credit to Basketball Australia and how they're developing young players," Brown tells ESPN. "I just think as a country, basketball has really evolved and they've done a great job of developing players in Australia.

"I think we're seeing more and more colleges recruit Australians because the quality of play, kids are ready. They're well coached. They're ready to play when they get to college.

"For us, it's been a success and we don't plan on stopping at any time soon."

Now, at nearly the end of their freshman season, the new Aussie trio have began to make their mark on the program like the countrymen before them, breathing life back into the pipeline that has been so good for the Albany program and Australians alike.

While this season hasn't gone exactly the plan -- the team just finished 6th in the America East Conference, setting up a quarterfinal clash with 3rd seed UMBC -- the fact the program was starting four freshman for the majority of the season, and five of recent weeks, has a lot to do with this. Still, Pelletier remains confident in what their young core, the Aussies in particular, will be able to accomplish over the next three years and change, telling ESPN: "I'd be very surprised if this group doesn't play in at least one NCAA tournament some day, with these three Aussies as the core."

For Lulka, he's keen to continue to help build the pipeline that has made Albany one of the best landing spots for Australian recruits over the past 10 years with both on-court success and off-court recruiting.

"The Australians here have left a legacy in the basketball program and so there is an opportunity for us as Australians to (continue) paving the way for new Australians to come in after us."

And therein lies the strength of this pipeline. With every Australian that becomes a part of the Albany family, they are determined to make the program as strong as it possibly can be. They are determined to grow the Australian legacy at the school where they themselves were able to find success both on the court and off.

It's clear that to these players, as well as the coaching staff, this pipeline is about more than simply success. It's about family. And there's nothing more important in life -- or in basketball -- than that.