By Max Blumenfrucht | October 27, 2021
Dwayne Killings has a message for you and his players – dream big.
The newly installed head coach of the University at Albany men’s basketball team is ready to unleash greatness and Killings has rebranded the program to revolve around a single word: mentality.
With two weeks to the season opener on Nov. 9 at home vs. Towson, Killings sat down with the Albany Student Press to talk about this upcoming season and his vision for the program.
Q: What went behind you choosing “Mentality” to be the team mantra?
A: We’re trying to shift the mentality of how people feel about our program, but also, we’re trying to shift the mentality of 15 guys to make it one mindset. You look at all the guys and they come from great basketball backgrounds, great environments, but how are you going to shift their mindset to be collective to each other? We have a bunch of fifth-year seniors. This is their last year and they're probably worried about their individual success. Well, can we shift their mentality to be about one purpose? And that’s for our team and our program – something I thought about a long time ago.
I think it’s also a way to center ourselves. When we got here, we branded the program that way, we gave out t-shirts and all that, and people really liked it because it’s different. But I think it’s also something subconsciously that you say more than you realize. So, if we make an awareness of the mentality that we’re trying to create -- can that give us a mental and physical edge? You know…when we’re talking about being collected as a team with one mindset.
Q: What are your goals for this season?
A: One of our goals initially was to connect our program to the community. I think that’s really important. Also, to engage the campus community, students, and all those people. I think we’ve done a really good job by that…we’re proud of the work that we’ve done, and I think that it’s growing an awareness for our program, not only what we’re doing but who we are. Making sure the presence of the basketball team was worthy of what we do, you know, in terms of the hard work that we put into it. I think the kids deserve a great awareness and appreciation for who they are. You know, on the court we talk about it all the time, we’re trying to play to win an America East Championship – that’s why we’re here, that’s what we’re doing. I think on a smaller level, we’re trying to grow our program day by day.
You know, today we had what we call a mentality meeting, where it’s a culture meeting. What do we have to do to be a winner? A lot of guys in this program have never won, you know, at the high school level, at the college level, so we’re teaching them what’s necessary. It’s a huge investment to be a winner and to be a winner every day. You’ve got to get extra shots up, you’ve got to lift more, you’ve got to train harder, you’ve got to think bigger, you’ve got to pour yourself into winning, and I think that’s new for a lot of our guys.
I think a lot of our guys, you know, they’ve worked hard, they’ve tried to do the right things, but I don’t know if they dreamed big enough. We spent some time talking about what do you want? What are you dreaming of for yourself? What are you dreaming of for this program? and now we have to hold them accountable to those things because as a staff we’re lucky. We’ve all won our own way at different spots that we’ve been, so we’re trying to teach them what’s required to be able to win.
Q: What are you most excited about with this group of guys?
A: Watching them play. I think they’ve all gotten better, you know, and it makes me excited about what we’re doing, it makes me excited about our coaching staff, our purpose, and our approach. If these guys are getting better, it means we’re doing something right. I’m excited to watch these guys get out here and what I’m hoping is on Nov. 9th that when they walk outside that locker room at about 6:50 p.m., this place is packed, because they deserve that, they’ve worked for that, I think they’ve earned that. I’m excited to see their reaction and then I’m excited to watch them go play.
You know, we’ve coached them hard but when it’s game day I want them to just go out there and play free and be confident. We may have to change some things and adjust things after the game, that’s kind of how this business works, but I’m excited to watch these guys grow, and watch what we become in November, and December, January, February, and then see what we are in March. Hopefully, we have a chance to do something special in those moments.
Q: Your coaching style revolves around trust, authenticity, communication, and elite habits to help your players develop into great leaders who are inspired to chase their dreams, while representing themselves, their families, and their communities. So, how do you feel the team has responded to the system you’ve implemented, and are they buying into the process?
A: They’ve bought in 100 percent and it’s important to me, you know, valuing the responsibility that they have. It’s like, I remind them all the time…and they’re kids, you know, they’re young men, trying to navigate this crazy world, sometimes they lose focus and you’ve got to refocus them. But they have a massive responsibility to represent themselves and this program the right way. And then they have agreed that they’re chasing a championship, so that requires another responsibility and that’s an unwavering mental focus, an unwavering physical focus, and it requires a unique level of investment of time and energy because you’ve got to do more.
There are other teams in this league that are training just like we are, getting shots up just like we are. Are we working harder than them? Are we doing more than most people? Are we doing enough to beat the competition? Are we content with doing what we’re doing? Our guys have big goals and I’ve told them -- well some of them -- that what you’re telling me you want to do is not reflective of what you want to become. One of the things I say all the time is ‘live the words’, you can’t just say the words. On the court, we can talk about anything we want – how we’re going to defend things, offense that we’re going to run – but how we do it is more important than what we’re doing. And that might not be something that’s super popular when you talk to other people and other coaches but that’s what I believe in.
Q: What kind of system are you going to be running? Up-tempo? Half-court?
A: Yeah, we’re going to be running with some freedom. We want to get up and down the court. If we get a defensive rebound, we want to move, we want to transport the basketball, we want to find the best shot we can. If we get a shot early in the clock, we’ll take it. We want to live off what we call ‘paint touches’ where we’ll be able to drive the basketball, attack the paint, spray it out, try to get to the ball to guys that we call play ready not just shot ready – ready to make plays, ready to shoot it, ready to pass it, ready to drive it. And I think if we can move the ball the way we’ve shown in flashes we can be really good.
I think versatility is the other thing we want to take advantage of. We have guys that, you know, Dre Perry’s a fifth year senior from Temple, we can post to him, he can shoot it, he’s athletic, he’s versatile. Will Amica’s got unique level speed, allowing us to get out in the open floor. Jamel Horton is a fearless guy that can get downhill, and we have a bunch of different weapons – we’ve got to utilize them in the right way.
Q: For the students who don’t know the team, haven’t looked at the team – freshmen class, Ny’Mire [Little] looks like another player who you’re clearly going to develop and has a lot of skill. Aaron [Reddish] who just passed by, Tairi [Ketner] and Justin [Neely], so how much of a role will they be playing on the court this year?
A: Yeah, they’re all going to have different roles. They’ve got a chance to impact this roster, they definitely have a chance to impact this program. We’ve got some other guys, so they’ve got to battle and I think they understand the urgency that’s necessary to have success in college basketball. And they’re learning that but they’re talented guys and we’re really excited about those guys. I think for us, you know, we’ve talked about college basketball and trying to get the students to understand that this makes the college experience – being able to come to a basketball game on a Wednesday or Saturday night, cheer and go crazy. It’s an amazing atmosphere for everybody involved and that’s what we’re trying to create.
Q: And the graduate transfers, as well as some of the graduate students you have on the team will probably be playing a bit bigger of a role right?
A: Yeah, we need these guys to be leaders. They all have a different emphasis for our program. We need them, you know, we need these guys to show up and we need them to be veteran guys. We’ve got two guys that we recruited that have been to NCAA tournaments and understand what it takes to win. We’ve got one of the top shooters at the NCAA level [Matt Cerruti], he’ll need to be that in the NCAA Division 1 level, that’s what we’re trying to get out of those guys. But they’ve been great. I think they all had different roles at their colleges and now we’re asking them to stand in front of the group instead of standing behind it, but they’re going to embrace the opportunity.
Q: Several big games away – at Kentucky, at Kansas State, at Boston College. Do you tell your guys anything different before those games and how valuable of an experience is it for them?
A: I mean it’s an invaluable opportunity, you know, the confidence you can get from that experience. You go into Kentucky and their crowd’s going crazy, and you’ve seen it all going to Kentucky. It’s going to be a challenge and I think our guys want challenges. And now you’ve got to be honest with yourself after them. You know, why things may not have gone your way, or you raise your game to the highest level, and you’ve got a chance to do something special, that you don’t get those opportunities in life very often.
You know, I think also for our program and our school, our institution, it’s a pretty cool experience to have your brand on a stage like that. We want to represent ourselves the right way when we’re out there. But it’s cool, I think some donors are coming on the trip, some of our campus leaders are coming on the trip. That’s how you grow your school and think bigger. I want us to all think that way. I can’t tell you how many games we’re going to win or lose this year, but I think this is a place where we should think bigger about men’s basketball, and I think if we support it at a higher level we could do some special things here. This is a special place, and I don’t think people are aware of that. It requires thinking a little bit different, but I think if we can do that, we can do some awesome stuff here.
Q: What do you want the fans to know about this team and the upcoming season?
A: They’re going to play hard for them every night. They’re going to be entertained. I think that we need them. You know, for us to be good we need a level of energy and atmosphere here, and I’ve challenged our campus leadership about that. We do as much as we can to try and get students and people excited about it – we need some help because our kids deserve that. They make immense sacrifices, they work hard, they’re lifting weights, they’re practicing, they’re being challenged every day. They deserve a unique atmosphere.
Q: Anything else you’d like to make our fanbase aware of?
A: I think the one thing that we can’t control is the support that we get inside this building. You know, I’m hoping that it’s not a wait and see thing, that it’s a ‘I came and supported them from day one’ thing. I just think that’s really important. People in this town pride themselves on loving and appreciating basketball and I’m hoping that’s reflected here in the stands. On a community level, we’re trying to get people to care about our program and see the value of it, and not just think about the school on the other side of town, the way I think some people do.
On campus we want this to be a part of the identity of the university. We want people to see the word mentality or see our players' faces in the bookstore or in the union. We want there to be a great awareness for our program and then a high-level support of it. Our job is to make sure we represent the program and the school the right way – that’s in the community, that’s on the court, that’s how we play, it’s everything that we do. If we want to take our school and our community to another level, you know, I think our program would be another part of that. We want that kind of pressure, and we want that kind of opportunity.