Tuesday, December 27, 2011

32 Conferences In 2 Weeks - America East

We'll be going by conference RPI.  For why regular RPI is generally terrible but will unfortunately be cited often starting now-ish, read this...but conference RPI is still a valuable metric in terms of how good each conference is and thus we will use it to preview and predict conference season for each of the 32 leagues (sorry Cal State Bakersfield, Seattle, Longwood and Nebraska-Omaha.  One of you scored 58 in a half earlier this month, one of you is coached by Cameron Dollar and is somehow even fasterone of you is coached by Rod Barnes and 14th in the nation in 3 point percentage and the other of you is in its first ever Division 1 season but THAT'S ALL YOU GET.) 


Conference RPI (As Of Time Of Writing)
.4281 (31st of 32)

Non-Conference W-L
29-69 (29.59%, 29th of 32)

Highest Rated RPI Team
Maine (148th of 345)

The Skinny:
Welcome to what might be the most competitive league in the country.  It's been six years since T.J. Sorrentine made baskets from the land of parked cars.  Don't you feel old now?  But seriously, that was the last time an America East team won an NCAA tournament game.  Admittedly, the Jamar Wilson-led Albany teams that followed Sorrentine, Taylor Coppenrath and legendary coach Tom Brennan's Vermont held their own in the NCAAs; 2006's 16 seed put a real scare in to UConn and then 2007's team got the same respectable 13 seed that the 05 Catamounts got before getting blown away by the Fighting Sean Singletaries.  But since then, UMBC and Binghamton got back-to-back 15 seeds in 08 and 09 respectively before Vermont and defending champ Boston University regressed to the dreaded 16 the past two Marches with neither being competitive in their first round blowout losses (well, at least BU hung around for a while...but the Catamounts got an ice-cold dish of revenge.)
College sports will never matter in New York and New England like they do in other areas of the country, so it comes as no surprise that a league comprised of the SUNYs, representatives from each of the New England states save for Rhode Island and the outlier that is Maryland-Baltimore County is traditionally at the bottom of the D-1 barrel and this year is no different.  No team is in the top 150 of KenPom and only the Black Bears (barely) crack the top 150 of RPI.  Going back to the lede, the good news is that this should make for an incredibly competitive conference season - at least in the two clear divisions that have formed inside of it.  Maine, Vermont, Albany, Stony Brook and Boston University are the Haves and each has a real shot at the conference title.  The other four have a combined 5 wins and 4 of those are from New Hampshire.  The bottom 3 are a combined 1-33.  That's not a misprint.

The Teams:
My preseason pick to win this league was Stony Brook, who returned all five starters from a team that came a basket short of the NCAAs last March but the Seawolves have actually been something of a disappointment.  For such an experienced team, it's not just the fact that they're 4-6, it's the amount they're getting blown out that is particularly discouraging.  Three of their six losses are by double digits - one to Indiana on opening night (acceptable) and two to Sacred Heart (far) and Boston College (FAR less acceptable.)  They played Northwestern tooth and nail in Evanston...and then turned around and lost to an awful Eastern Illinois squad so consistency is an issue as well.  To be blunt, this is a really small team that can't shoot.  The heights of the returning starters: 6'2, 6'1, 6'7, 6'5, 6'4 and when only one is hitting 50% of his twos and none are making 36% of their threes then that's a problem far bigger than any of them.  Ironically, they're 48th in the nation in rebounds per game and even better on the offensive glass - probably a product of getting so much practice from being 315th in field goal percentage.  But no matter how much the small lineup - only one contributor off the bench is taller than 6'7 - crashes the boards, it comes back to the fact that Stony Brook can't shoot (311th) or stop (300th) the two point shot.  They better improve quickly, because on Monday they welcome in...
...Vermont in what might be a (very) early crucial game in America East play.  Just ask Creighton how important opening conference season is when you're among hunted like the Seawolves and Catamounts will both be.  Mike Longeran, a former Gary Williams assistant at Maryland, ditched Burlington to come back closer to Maryland and lose a lot in the nation's capital but his old team actually started 4-2 without him including an impressive overtime win at Old Dominion with the two losses coming to the Big East's South Florida and Northeast preseason favorite Long Island by a combined 7 points.  But then they dropped five in a row including home heartbreakers to mid major powers Harvard and Iona with a couple of awful losses at Yale and home to Quinnipiac thrown in.  They've won two in a row against Farleigh Dickinson and winless-for-over-a-year Towson to get to 6-7 and they're the slowest team in one of the slower conferences in the country, which should give them a natural advantage and ensure they're in a lot of close games like they have been so far (8 of 13 decided by single digits and 6 of those were by 5 points or less.)  Of the "haves," no one has a faster adjusted tempo than 234th and John Becker's boys are the slowest at 321st so they should be in a lot of 64-62 or even 54-52 type games against the other contenders that will go a long way to determining this league's champion.  They could open conference season with two of them, as after the trip to Suffolk County comes a visit from...
...Boston University.  In fact, Vermont and Boston U are in many ways the UNC and Duke of the America East.  Going back to 2001-2002, they have combined for 7 regular season America East titles and 6 conference tournament victories (and subsequent NCAA births.)  The Albanys and Stony Brooks have caught up but the Catamounts and Terriers continue to be the two teams you think of when you think of this league. The fact that both have been the powers of the past decade is evidenced in the fact that just like Vermont lost coach Mike Longeran to George Washington in the offseason, the Terriers lost Patrick Chambers to Penn State when Ed DeChellis shockingly left for Navy.  Not shockingly, they've struggled under new head man Joe Jones.  In fact, they've literally lost 4, won 4 (including a convincing second half performance at rival BC) and are currently on a second 4 game losing streak.  So at least they're consistently inconsistent?  To be fair, a 52nd ranked nonconference strength of schedule masks the team's true abilities and there are no shame in 6 of the 8 losses: Texas, Cleveland State (by a point on Rhode Island's floor), Saint Joseph's (by 7 at Hawk Hill), Beantown king Harvard, at Villanova and defending Patriot champion Bucknell.  But they shouldn't expect to win their next 4, as the next 3 are on the road including the aforementioned league opener at Vermont.  The second league road game might not be any easier...
...because it's a trip up to Maine.  But remember, RPI is fatally flawed and Maine only has the top one in the league because it has played the 230th best nonconference schedule and its six wins are over the murderer's row that is Maine Machias (obviously non-D1.  Obviously), Holy Cross, @Rhode Island (by 2 in OT), Utah Valley, Eastern Illinois, @Brown.  They at least pushed Notre Dame hard (which looks better now) but something like a 77-63 loss at an awful, depleted San Diego program seems to indicate that these guys have a relatively low ceiling.  Thought Stony Brook's starting lineup was tiny?  Maine's is even smaller at 6'3, 6'7, 6'3, 6'0 and 5'9 but the difference is that these little guys can score.  Gerald McLemore plays almost 36 minutes a game and scores 20 a night while backcourt mate Justin Edwards averages 31.4 minutes and scores 17.3 a game while pulling down 6 and a half rebounds.  Add in Alasdair Fraser's 13.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and absolutely fantastic name and this might be the deadliest offensive trio in the league.  With all three making 50% of their field goals or better, it also might be the most efficient.  Again though, they've beaten nobody and their best win is a loss to Notre Dame (although Notre Dame knows something about the best win on your resume being a loss.)  Unlike Vermont and Boston U, the Black Bears get a layup of a conference road opener at Binghamton.  But their second league road game isn't as easy...
...because it comes at Albany, a team that is presently recovering from a Ukrainian ambush and has had a nightmare of a time on defense all year; giving up 89 in their opener to a Pittsburgh team that would have trouble getting to that number against high school teams at the moment, letting Maryland explode for 83 last night in a 11 point victory (both season highs for my Terps and the first time we've cracked 80 or won by double figures) and everywhere in between.  But the Great Danes also have the best offense in the America East, barely edging out their counterparts at Maine - and these two teams truly ARE counterparts.  Think McLemore's the league's leading scorer?  Think again, because it's Geraldo Suero, who has not only filled Tim Ambrose's shoes but stuffed them even more than your average Christmas stocking by surpassing Ambrose's 16.8 PPG last season with 21.5 a night so far this season, good for a tie for 5th in the nation with Terrell Stoglin (the sole leader of the aforementioned Terps before Mr. Len showed up last night) and just ahead of the same Nate Wolters I haven't been able to shut up about recently.  Suero is also the team's co-leading rebounder with 5.1 a game and he's second on the team in assists dishing out 2.7 per contest as well as steals with 1.1 a game so as he goes, the team goes but teammates Logan Aronhalt (15.0 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.4 APG) and Mike Black (12.3 PPG, 4.5 APG, 1.3 SPG) complete a triumvirate that at least equals the one up in Orono.
Now we enter the lower class of the league, of which New Hampshire can proudly say they're at the top of simply by way of not being one of the other three members.  For what it's worth, the Wildcats were more competitive at BC than Stony Brook was (but not as competitive as Boston U was!) and actually have one of the nation's best defenses statistically.  34th in the country in 3 point percentage defense (28.7%), 25th at free throw percentage defense (63.4% - yes I know teams do not actually defend free throws), and 17th in offensive rebound percentage defense (25.7%), the problems in the Granite State are entirely offensive.  They're averaging just 60 points a game flat in 8 games against Division 1 competition and are 3-5 in those games, including losses to Loyola (MD), Holy Cross, Fairfield and Providence to go along with BC.  On a more macro scale, the program hasn't won more than 14 games in a season since Bill Clinton was President and it's hard to see this year's outfit breaking the nearing-two-decade trend of consistent losing.  They have the league's leading rebounder in Brian Benson (9.9 RPG) and its sixth leading scorer (Alvin Abreu, 14.1 PPG) but not much else - literally.  Only five teams in the country give a lower percentage of minutes to their bench.
Here we go.  UMBC had a miracle year in 2008 when Jay Greene and company "did the double" (to use a European soccer term) in winning both the America East regular season and tournament crowns...but it was their first tournament appearance in their 22 year Division 1 history and after a respectable 15 win follow-up campaign, they've won exactly 10 games in the past two and a half seasons and counting.  4-26 in 2009-2010, 5-25 last year and 1-11 so far this year, the Retrievers are back to being one of the 10 worst programs in all of Division 1.  Somehow, they're not even the worst Division 1 program in its own county, as the one win was over Towson by 4 and they only get the bronze medal of sucktitude in their own league, which goes to show you how terrible low major basketball can be.  Consider it a successful year if they top last year's win total.  They just gave up 92 and lost by 17 at 5-8 Niagara on Wednesday, which kind of sums things up here.
...Seriously, how is UMBC not the worst team in this league?  How is it not even the second worst?!  That title goes to Hartford, which has a case for being the program with the biggest gap in quality between its women's and men's programs.  The ladies have won at least 18 games in every season since 2003-2004.  The records of the men's team in each season, past to present?  12-17, 8-20, 13-15, 13-18, 18-16, 7-26, 8-22, 11-20 and this year they are winless in 11 tries, the latest of which was a heartbreaking double overtime lost at Marist on the 21st.  At least four of their last five have been decided by single digits and they force a lot of turnovers, particularly steals (76th in nation in steal%.)  That's about all the nice things that can be said.
Not surprisingly, Wikipedia can sum up Binghamton basketball at present far better than I can.  Basically, Kevin Broadus put Nick Nolte in "Blue Chips" to shame and now the entire program is paying for it.  Poor Mark Macon.  He's gone 13-18, 8-23 and now he's winless in 11 to start 2011-2012 in the aftermath of the scandal but unlike John Gallagher's Hawks down in Hartford, the Bearcats haven't even been close.  Between an opening day 4 point loss to Colgate and Wednesday's 9 point loss at Canisius, the middle 9 losses all came by double digits.  They could only get to 43 at St. Peter's and a week later gave up 88 to Missouri.  As noted in the Great West preview, they and Chicago State are the only two teams in the country in the bottom 10 of KenPom's adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings.  They're awful at just about everything except - ironically - free throw shooting.  They shoot 73.5% from the charity stripe, good 50th in the country.  Now they just need to get in to some more close games where it might make a difference.

Top 3 Games To Watch
1) Vermont @ Albany, February 15.  In truth, this should be one of the leagues with a top 5 games to watch because of all the parity but it's the crappy America East so we'll stick with 3.  But these two look like they could be the two best in the conference and the mid-February matchup of arguably the league's best offense and defense where tempo will be key is the tastiest of the league slate.  These two teams have a combined 3 conference games after this one: both play Binghamton and the Catamounts host UMBC.  Basically, if any one game could determine the conference title, this one has the best shot of doing so.
2) Maine @ Stony Brook, February 26.  What is sure to be an emotional senior night for arguably the greatest class in the history of Stony Brook basketball, starters Brian Dougher and Dallis Joyner as well as key reserve Al Rapier could play their last regular season home games for a conference title if they can win at Vermont exactly two weeks before.  This too features one of the league's best offenses facing one of its top defenses and like already noted features two of the smallest teams in the country (301st at 310th in KenPom's effective height, to be certain) and should play a key role in conference tournament seeding, if absolutely nothing else.
3) Vermont @ Boston University, February 1.  Like I said before, this is the UNC/Duke - or perhaps the analogy is Yankees/Red Sox given the location of the country? - of the America East.  The two games these two play against each other always play a key role in determining how this conference shakes down and this one in particular is a huge one for the Terriers.  It's their home oasis in a crucial 4 game stretch that includes trips to Stony Brook and Albany.  If they don't win this, they may need to get both of those to stay alive in the title race.

Top 3 Players To Watch
1) Geraldo Suero, G, Albany.  The 6'4 senior from the Dominican Republic does it all for the Great Danes as noted in their paragraph.  He's one of the best slashers in the country, shooting a very high percentage of his team's shots and is third in the nation in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (8.4.)  Needless to say he will be a difference maker one way or the other in the numerous close games Albany is sure to play competing for the regular season title.
2) Darryl Partin, G, Boston University.  I really did understate his importance to the Terriers in their section.  7th in the nation in both the percentages of possessions he uses and shots he takes, he has to be in any true "Most Valuable Player" in college basketball conversation.  The 6'6 senior from Seattle could be lighting it up in Lorenzo Romar's backcourt with T-Ross, Abdul Gaddy and company but instead is on the opposite coast carrying an America East school.  He's a real gunner though, so when he's off is when his team tends to slump the most.
3) Brian Voelkel, F, Vermont.  Every basketball team needs Brian Voelkels.  All of them.  Not to villify Partin but he's top 7 in the nation in possession usage.  Brian Voelkel's top 7 in possession usage on his own team and yet he leads both it and the conference in both assists with 5.3 a game (.4 more than anyone else in the conference) and is also his team's leader in rebounds with 8 a game, which is also good for third in the league (and first among players on contending teams.)  Anyone who thinks you need to score to be a highly effective basketball player needs to take a closer look at last year's America East Rookie of the Year, who could earn even more plaudits this spring.

Projected All Conference
Geraldo Suero, G, Albany
Darryl Partin, G, Boston University
Gerald McLemore, G, Maine
Brian Voekel, F, Vermont
Brian Benson, F, New Hampshire (honestly, this team really should be a four guard team with either Albany's Logan Aronhalt or Maine's Justin Edwards getting the final nod, but we'll throw a bone to the league's leading rebounder.)

Projected Finishing Order (Bold = Auto Bid, Italics = at large)
1) Vermont (In a league full of parity and certainty, don't you have to go with Old Reliable?  Voelkel and their tempo makes the Catamounts unique.)
2) Stony Brook (the experienced lineup falls just short)
3) Albany (their inability to defend will be their undoing)
4) Boston University (transition year)
5) Maine (poor man's Albany.  Honestly though, your guess for 1-5 may be as good as mine.)
6) New Hampshire
8) Hartford
9) Binghamton

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