Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: If the last two seasons have proven anything, it is that there are no sure things in the America East Conference.
Vermont absolutely dominated the league in 2013-14, winning 15 games in 16 tries against league foes during the regular season. The Catamounts appeared poised to roll right through the conference tournament and on to the Big Dance. Unfortunately, Albany had other plans, as the Great Danes upset the Catamounts in the semifinals before topping Stony Brook in the championship game. It was the second straight season that the Great Danes have played the role of spoiler, as they pulled off an almost identical run to the conference crown in 2013, topping regular-season champ Stony Brook in the semifinals before downing regular season runner-up Vermont in the title tilt.
Perhaps this season Albany can make things easier for prognosticators and simply be the premier team in the conference from start to finish. With an inside-outside combination of Peter Hooley and Sam Rowley to rely on, plus a few emerging reserves, the Great Danes definitely have a chance.
However, the favorite this season has to be Stony Brook. Led by defending AEC Player of the Year Jameel Warney, the Seawolves should be a force to be reckoned with yet again. They have won at least 22 games in four of the last five seasons, and won the regular-season title three times in that span. This season they will be out to finish the job and make it into the field of 68.
Hartford was one of four teams in the league to post a record above .500 last season (17-16, 10-6). In fact, the Hawks had a better league ledger than the Great Danes. They bring back four starters, including Mark Nwakamma, who may just give Warney a run for his money as the league's top player.
Vermont will probably wind up in the middle of the pack this season as it adjusts to a significant roster overhaul. Not a single starter returns from last season's squad, but the Catamounts always find a way to remain competitive, with 20-win campaigns in each of the last six seasons.
UMass-Lowell finished with a respectable 8-8 record in league play in its first season in the America East. The River Hawks were ineligible for the conference tournament and still are this season, but they could cause a shift the league's hierarchy, especially if Chad Holley emerges as a star in this, his senior season. Binghamton is another team that appears to be on the rise, with five returning starters, including versatile guard Jordan Reed and Yosef Yacob, each of whom should challenge for all-conference honors. UMBC's Rodney Elliott could join them, assuming he continues to score at an accelerated pace and help the Retrievers improve on their 5-11 finish in conference play last season.
New Hampshire and Maine each lost their top scorer, and that is terrible news considering the two teams combined for only 12 wins last season.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Stony Brook
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Stony Brook. 2. Albany 3. Hartford 4. Vermont 5. Binghamton 6. UMass-Lowell 7. UMBC 8. New Hampshire 9. Maine
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
STONY BROOK: Warney is the focal point of a team seeking its fourth American East regular-season championship. The 6-foot-8 junior is an excellent scorer (14.5 ppg), shooting 61.6 percent from the floor and leading the league in offensive rating (124.8). He was also the best rebounder in the conference last season by volume (273 rebounds), averaging a fraction more than eight boards per game, while swatting 1.2 shots a contest as well. He is under more pressure this season, as the other four starters are gone, including Anthony Jackson (12.5 ppg) and Dave Coley (10.4 ppg). However, that just opens up space for Carson Puriefoy (12.9 ppg, 2.8 apg, 1.5 spg), who led the team in assists and steals (1.5 spg) last season, despite coming off the bench in most games. There are no other players who logged more than 10 minutes per game of floor time back, so depth could be an issue. Even so, with Warney and Puriefoy making plays, expect the Seawolves to once again rank near the top of the conference in terms of offensive production. Last season, they ranked second in scoring (71.4 ppg) and assists (12.8 apg), and third in field goal percentage (.453).
ALBANY: When the Great Danes made their surprising run to the conference championship in 2013 they were a 24-win team. Last season's title wasn't preceded by as much success, as Albany had only 15 wins entering the postseason. Still, the successful streak through the conference tournament, plus a 71-64 victory over Mount Saint Mary's in the opening round of the NCAA Tourney, allowed head coach Will Brown to squeeze out a third straight campaign of at least 19 victories. A fourth is on the way, assuming Hooley and Rowley continue to perform. There is no indication that won't happen. Hooley was the league's leading scorer last season (15.5 ppg), although he relies a bit too much on shots from the outside, which is why he connected on just 39.8 percent of his attempts from the floor. Rowley (11.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg) was the top rebounder for Albany last season and he provides scoring on the interior. Losing forward John Puk, who blocked 44 shots last season, will hurt Albany on defense. The additional departures of DJ Evans (11.8 ppg) and Gary Johnson (11 ppg) leave an opportunity for others to fill in the gaps. Dallas Ennema (3.9 ppg) is the top returning scorer, outside of Hooley and Rowley.
HARTFORD: After four years of misery, Hartford has begun to show signs of promise the last two seasons. The Hawks won seven of their final nine games in 2013-14 to finish with 17 wins for the second straight year. They had managed no more than 11 victories in the previous four. The Hawks also put up quite a fight in the conference tournament, ultimately falling to Stony Brook by a slim 69-64 margin in the semifinals. Now John Gallagher's group needs to advance beyond being competitive and start winning those types of games. Nwakamma (15.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg) is the cornerstone on the roster and one of the top players in the entire league. The 6-foot-6 senior was the only double- digit scorer for the Hawks last season. As a team, Hartford put up only 65.5 ppg, but not due to poor shooting as they ranked second in the conference in field goal percentage (.459). They couldn't really afford to miss many shots, as they sat dead last in rebounds (27.5 rpg). Improved effort on the glass would be a major help this season. Yolonzo Moore (9.8 ppg) and Wes Cole (8.9 ppg) won't be much help in that area, but they are solid scorers, who can shoot from long range, especially Cole, who drilled 42.9 percent of his 3- point shots last season.
VERMONT: The Catamounts can never really be counted out in this league, but for them to remain in contention this season will require a lot of young players to grow up quickly. Ryan Pierson (3.3 ppg) and Hector Harold (5 ppg) are the only seniors on a roster which features seven freshmen. Ethan O'Day may not be a senior, but he is the top returning player to a squad which needs to replace all five starters. O'Day did make 14 starts and played a little more than 20 minutes per game. In that time he averaged 7.4 ppg, while shooting 55.6 percent from the field. His numbers will take a leap as his minutes increase. Harold also should expect a healthy amount of playing time. He appeared in all 33 games a season ago, making one start. He needs to polish his offensive game, however, as he shot below 40 percent from the field. Efficient shooting has been a hallmark during John Becker's three seasons as head coach. The Catamounts led the conference in field goal percentage last season (.469). They were also effective on defense, finishing among the top-20 nationally in scoring defense (60.6 ppg) and opponent field goal percentage (.395).
BINGHAMTON: It may seem odd to describe a team coming off its fourth straight season with less than 10 wins as trending upward, but the Bearcats are doing just that. They went just 7-23 overall last season, but they won four games in league play, and six of their 12 conference losses were by less than 10 points. All five starters from last season are back, including Reed (15.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg), who is one of the most intriguing players in the conference. Not only did he lead the Bearcats in scoring last season, he also led the league in rebounding (8.9 rpg), despite his 6-foot-4 frame. He obviously has a nose for the basketball and if Binghamton takes a huge step forward, he could wrestle the player of the year award away from Stony Brook's Warney. Yacob, a 6-foot sophomore, was productive as a freshman, scoring 11.5 points per game. He needs to show some maturity this season after shooting just 33.6 percent from the field in 2013-14. Marlon Beck (9.2 ppg, 2.9 apg) is another solid guard, who needs to be a more efficient shooter. He connected on just 32.8 percent of his field goal attempts last season. Poor shooting plagued the Bearcats as a team , as they hit just 38 percent from the floor while scoring 61.3 points per outing.
UMASS-LOWELL: In its first season at the Division I level, the River Hawks looked like they belonged. They didn't turn many heads nationally, finishing at just 10-18 overall, but they won just as many games as they lost in conference (8-8). The postseason is still not a possibility for Pat Duquette's squad, which must wait four years per NCAA rules following the transition from Division II, but another strong showing is well within reach. Holley (10.3 ppg, 3.4 apg) is now the go-to scorer after the departure of Akeem Williams (15.8 ppg, 3.4 apg). Clearly Holley has a tough task ahead of him, especially if he continues to shoot at a 34.4 percent rate. Other scorers will need to step up as well because the River Hawks struggled on offense for long stretches last season. They only scored 61.4 points per game and shot 39.4 percent from the field. DJ Mlachnik (7.8 ppg) and Tyler Livingston (6.9 ppg) each converted fewer than 40 percent of their field goal attempts last season, but they are returning starters. Mark Cornelius (5.2 ppg) may work his way into the starting lineup after serving as a key reserve in all 28 games last season.
UMBC: The Retrievers have won more games than the previous season in back-to- back campaigns. Unfortunately, that has only amounted to 17 combined wins, with the squad coming out victorious nine times last season, following an 8-23 effort in 2012-13. Aki Thomas is now entering his third season as head coach, and he does so with three starters back in the fold. Elliott (15 ppg, 3.6 apg) is the most important piece of the puzzle, as the team's leader in scoring and assists from his spot at the point. No other player started all 30 games for the Retrievers last season, and he was the only one on the team to average more than 30 minutes per game. The loss of bench scorer Chase Plummer (10.5 ppg) leaves an opening for a second offensive option. Malik Garner (6 ppg) started in 19 games last season and shot a respectable 43.4 percent from the field. Devarick Houston (4.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg) was a 26-game starter, but he only converted 34.3 percent of his field goal attempts. They will have even more important roles this season, as will Charles Taylor (5 ppg), another player who shot below the 40 percent mark.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: Bill Herrion has never led the Wildcats to a winning record in nine years at the helm. Things aren't likely to change in his 10th season. New Hampshire endured its worst finish under Herrion in 2013-14, ending up with an overall record of just 6-24. No team in the country scored fewer points per outing than the Wildcats (57.8 ppg), who were also right near the bottom of the nation in assists (9.7 apg) and field goal percentage (.376). Moving on to this season's squad, which features only two returning starters. Jacoby Armstrong (7.7 ppg, 5 rpg) is the top offensive option now that Patrick Konan (11 ppg), Chris Pelcher (10.8 ppg) and Jordon Bronner (10.6 ppg) have moved on. Armstrong is also the only player remaining that averaged more than 3.5 rebounds per game last season. Jaleen Smith (5.3 ppg) and Daniel Dion (8.2 ppg) are both back for another run, and with expanded roles, both Smith and Dion will need to improve their shooting. Dion hit 38.2 percent from the floor last season, while Smith was even worse (.329). Tommy McDonnell (1.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg) may get see more minutes come his way as well.
MAINE: A new era is set to begin for Maine basketball, and it is much-needed following last season's 6-23 debacle, which cost Ted Woodward his job. Bob Walsh has been brought in to lead the rebuild, as he comes over from Division III Rhode Island College where he coached for seven seasons. He inherits a team that led the America East in scoring (72.1 ppg) and assists (14.4 apg), but also gave up 82.9 ppg last season. Maintaining the success on offense will be tough now that Xavier Pollard (14.7 ppg, 3.8 apg) and Dimitry Akanda- Coronel (10.5 ppg) are no longer on the roster. Walsh does have one double- digit scorer to rely on in Zarko Valjarevic (11.3 ppg), as well as a solid passing guard in Shaun Lawton (8 ppg, 4.2 apg, 2 spg). Valjarevic scored in double figures in 12 of the first 15 games last season, but slowed down once conference play began, managing more than 10 points just four more times. Lawton was just a 38.7 percent shooter last season, but he also led the league in steals. Ethan Mackey (5.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg), who will be integral to the team's overall success this season, spearheaded the rebounding effort and shot a team-best 59.1 percent from the floor in 2013-14.