By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Basketball Editor
OUTLOOK : Only three teams finished with overall records of .500 or above last season in the America East Conference, a trend that could continue this season. Stony Brook (22-10), Vermont (24-12) and Albany (19-15) all look to have enough talent to return to that position, while Boston University (16-16) should also figure into the mix at the top.
For the third time in the last two seasons Stony Brook won the regular season title with a record of 14-2 against conference opponents. However the Seawolves were unable to gain an NCAA berth as they failed to beat Vermont once in the regular season and in the conference tournament title game. If Stony Brook hopes to take the next step in Steve Pikiell's seventh season, it will need to figure out a way to turn its regular season triumphs into postseason success.
It won't just be Vermont and Stony Brook battling it out this season. The Terriers are ineligible for the America East Tournament due to a move to the Patriot League next season but return three starters, including point guard D.J. Irving, from a team that won 12 games in conference play last season. The Great Danes lost some star power with Gerardo Suero (21.5 ppg) who decided to forgo his senior season. Even so, Wil Brown will have his team ready to go if some of the other returning starters can step up.
Maine, Hartford and New Hampshire are hoping that this is the season in which they will make the leap into the upper echelon of the conference. Maine may have the best chance at doing so with the powerful scoring tandem of Justin Edwards and Alasdair Fraser and shot-blocker Mike Allison. New Hampshire lost its leader in guard Alvin Abreu, but Chandler Rhoads looks set to take his place and Hartford, which was just 9-22 overall last season, won four of its last six regular season conference games and upset Boston University in the conference tournament before falling by just four points (77-73) to eventual champion Vermont. The Hawks will want to build on the momentum of that late season run.
The bottom of the conference should look largely the same. UMBC has arguably the best trio of scorers in the conference in Chase Plummer, Ryan Cook and Brian Neller but if the Retrievers can't improve on their conference worst scoring defense that won't matter. Binghamton meanwhile, had just two total wins last season and even with former Rider head coach Tommy Dempsey taking the reins this season, the Bearcats are still a few years away from really contending.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Vermont
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH : 1. Vermont, 2. Boston University, 3. Stony Brook, 4. Maine, 5. Albany, 6. New Hampshire, 7. Hartford, 8. UMBC, 9. Binghamton
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS :
VERMONT : The Catamounts are coming off of not only an NCAA Tournament berth but their second win in the tournament in school history. Thanks to the expanded 68-team format Vermont took on fellow No. 16 seed Lamar in the first round and moved on with a 71-59 win before being taken out by No. 1 seed North CArolina. Vermont's run in the postseason was powered by the play for America East Rookie of the Year Four McGlynn, who had 18 points against Lamar. The Catamounts will have to find a new scoring source with McGlynn transferred to Towson. Luke Apfeld (9.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg) returns as the team's best scoring option while Marist-transfer Candon Rusin, who averaged 8.6 points per game in two seasons with the Red Foxes, will add scoring depth. The offense should also be able to run smoothly with the return of leading passer Brian Voelkel (5.1 apg), who helped the Catamounts rank second in the conference in assists per game (13.2 pg). Under head coach John Becker the Catamounts have been a team that has excelled in rebounding as well, an area also led by the 6-6 Voelkel (8.6 rpg). As a team the Catamounts brought down 35.5 boards per game last season, second in the conference. Sandra Carissimo (7.1 ppg) also returns as a starter and as the team's top returning three-point threat, he should see his scoring numbers rise.
BOSTON UNIVERSITY: It's unfortunate that the Terriers won't be able to compete for the America East Conference title this season as they may be one of the best teams in the conference. Last season's America East assists leader D.J. Irving (11.4 ppg, 5.4 apg) is the focal point of the squad and will be even more heavily relied on with the departure of guard Darryl Partin, who scored at an impressive 19.6 points per game clip. Irving is the only player who has shown the ability to match that type of production with six games of 17 points or more last season. The loss of Partin will open more scoring opportunities for the rest of the team, including Dom Morris (6.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Travis Robinson (5.3 ppg). The Terriers' offensive effort should also get a boost from freshman guard Maurice Watson, who scored 2,356 points in his career at Boys' Latin in Philadelphia. Watson will not be able to do much to improve Joe Jones' squad at its weakest point which is the frontcourt. The Terriers' were just fifth in the conference in rebounding (34.6 pg) last season and rely on a rather undersized lineup that is heavy in guard play. Morris is the only certainty, but young players like sophomore Malik Thomas (4.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg) and freshman Nathan Dieudonne could help immediately.
STONY BROOK: All the pieces have been there but the Seawolves just haven't been able to get it done when it matters in the past few seasons. Several of Steve Pikiell's most important players from last season's squad will not be back to help take care of the unfinished business the Seawolves have with top scorer Bryan Dougher (13.2 ppg), Dallis Joyner (9.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and Al Rapier (7.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg) all gone. That leaves the team in the capable hands of senior guard Tommy Brenton and junior guard Dave Coley. Brenton (7.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg) will need to improve on his scoring numbers this season, but his continued play on the boards should be just as effective. Brenton had a team-high in rebounds last season for a Seawolves team that led the conference in rebounding (37.6 pg). Brenton was also able to get his teammates involved effectively last season with a team-high 3.4 assists per game. Coley meanwhile, is the only player left on the roster to have averaged double digits points (10.0 pg) and the only player other than Brenton to average more than 5.5. With that being said, key reserves like Austin Jackson (5.5 ppg), Marcus Rose (4.5 ppg) and Eric McAlister (1.7 ppg) will all need to make leaps in production for Stony Brook to finally get over the hump.
MAINE: Things have certainly been trending up for the Black Bears in the last three seasons with the squad having double-digit win totals in all three years after failing to do so in the two previous. However, Maine has still yet to really make noise in the America East with a third place finish in the 2010 and 2011, With the roster the Black Bears have returning this season that could change. Junior power forward Alasdair Fraser is a double-double threat every time he steps on the floor. He was a standout for the Great Britain Olympic squad in London which could improve on his already strong production of last season (12.9 pp, 7.8 rpg). Fraser is not alone in having excelled last season, with Justin Edwards also returning. The sophomore guard is the squad's top returning scorer (13.9 ppg), while also contributing solidly on the boards (5.6 pg) and in assists (3.3 pg). Mike Allison, a 6-9 forward, gives Maine a dominating presence up front, as he averaged 7.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and an America East-leading 2.2 blocks per game last season. Kilian Cato (4.1 ppg), who made 10 starts last season, is the most likely candidate for a breakout year.
ALBANY: Wil Brown is coming off his best season with the Great Danes since he led the squad to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances from 2005-2007. At 19-15, Albany had a record above .500 for the first time since those NCAA Tournament teams and looked far removed from the 7-25 squad of 2010. It remains to be seen if Brown can get the same type of improvement this season with the Great Danes taking arguably the most devastating loss in the conference in losing Gerardo Suero. The seventh leading scorer in the nation (21.5 ppg), Suero decided to forgo his senior season in pursuit of a professional career. The hits didn't stop there with Logan Aronhalt (13.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg) also gone. Brown still has a talented leader he can turn to in guard Mike Black. The 6-0 guard is a strong shooter and although he was third on the team in scoring last season (13.4 ppg), he has instantly become the team's best offensive option. When Black struggles he also does a good job getting his teammates open looks after leading the team in assists (4.3 apg). After Black, the Great Danes will turn to the frontcourt in hopes of replacing the lost production. That means forwards Luke Devlin (5.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and Blake Metcalf (4.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg) will each need to be more physical in the post and finish more effectively around the rim.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: It has been a long time since New Hampshire last finished with a winning record. It was all the way back in 1995 when the Wildcats accomplished the feat with a 19-9 record as a member of the now defunct North Atlantic Conference. Since then the Wildcats have had only nine seasons with 10 or more wins, but the good news for Bill Herrion's squad is that New Hampshire has been able to accomplish that feat in the last four straight seasons. Integral to that success was Alvin Abreu, who played his final season last year. The 6-2 guard will be sorely missed by the Wildcats but Herrion has to be pleased that the transition won't be too tough with Chandler Rhoads taking over. Rhoads was second on the team in scoring last season (11.2 ppg) and was actually a better distributor, averaging a team-high 2.7 assists per contest. Patrick Konan (9.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg) was the second best rebounder on the team last season and the third best scorer and provides an ability to spread the floor from the frontcourt. Ferg Myrick (8.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg) was used primarily off the bench last year but will get a chance to make an even bigger impact this season.
HARTFORD: Momentum is always important, but the Hawks' strong finish to last season can only carry them so far, especially with lead scorer Andres Torres (11.2 ppg, 4.2 apg) gone. Losing such an important part of the offense is a troubling proposition for a Hartford team that ranked eighth in the conference in scoring last season (60.0 ppg). Mark Nwakamma (9.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg) will have the first shot at taking over for Torres as the team's go-to scorer. Torres knows a little something about the momentum the squad had at the end of last season as he scored in double figures in seven straight games to end the year. Hartford's other top three returning starters are also sophomores like Nwakamma, giving them a young if not experienced squad. Nate Sikma (8.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg) is the second option on offense and the team's best rebounder. Rebounding was a severe weakness for the Hawks last season with the team ranked last in the America East and 10th worst in the nation with 29.0 rebounds per game. Wes Cole (7.7 ppg) and Yolonzo Moore (6.8 ppg were also solid contributors in terms of scoring in their freshman seasons and should be relied on even more this year. The offense will also get a shot in the arm from three-point marksman John Peterson, who played for four years at Samford. Peterson played in only five games due to injury last season but nailed 40.7 percent of his three-point shots as a junior.
UMBC: Even with a trio of double digit scorers last season, UMBC couldn't find its way out of the America East basement and wound up with a 4-26 overall mark, including a 3-13 record in conference play. Things will be even tougher after head coach Randy Monroe resigned earlier this month. The Retrievers' biggest issue was on defense where they allowed a league-high 77.1 points per game to offset any of their offensive success. Still the return of Chase Plummer (15.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Ryan Cook (12.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Brian Neller (11.4 ppg) certainly gives new head coach Aki Thomas, who takes over after five years as an assistant for Monroe, a core to rely on. As a junior, Plummer is without a doubt the team's most important player and should continue to excel this season after posting five double-doubles last season and 10 games with at least 11 points and nine rebounds. Plummer also scored 20 points or more in nine games. Even with a slew of scorers UMBC was not a particularly strong offensive team, ranking sixth in the America East in scoring (63.2 ppg), while finishing last in field goal percentage (39.1). A lack of production after the trio of Plummer, Neller and Cook contributed to those struggles, with the team having very little depth. Joey Getz (5.0 ppg) is the only player to average more than four points and 17 minutes per game. St. Bonaventure-transfer Brett Roseboro, a 6-10 center, will add some size in the frontcourt.
BINGHAMTON : Last season Binghamton was the last Division I team to earn a victory after snapping a 27-game losing streak in a shocking upset of Vermont. Even with that win the Bearcats finished just 2-29 overall last season. With such poor results head coach Mark Macon was fired and former Rider head coach Tommy Dempsey was brought in to right the ship. After such a dismal season the Bearcats can only really go up in Dempsey's first year at the helm. Dempsey had a record of 119-105 record as head coach at Rider, including a pair of 23-win seasons. The Bearcats will get a boost from the return of Robert Mansell, who was the team's leading scorer (14.0) before missing the last three games with an ACL injury. Gone though is forward Ben Dickinson (13.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg), who was another solid scorer and the team's best rebounder. In his place the Bearcats will need players like Alex Ogundadegbe (2.4 ppg, 2.0 rpg) and Fordham-transfer Brian Freeman to step up. Another transfer from Fordham, Rayner Moquete will also get a chance to contribute. With so much new blood the Bearcats will be hoping to improve on a conference worst 56.8 points per game average, as well as the team's 10-52 record in the last two seasons.