Philadelphia, PA – Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: Even though the America East is one of the smaller conferences in the nation, it wasn't immune to the immense upheaval affecting the college basketball landscape, as Boston University, a member since 1996, made the jump to the Patriot League.
The Terriers tied for second in the league standings last season but there were many teams that showed a ton of improvement as the conference had four other teams above .500 overall at season's end. The five total teams with such marks were the most in the AEC since 2002.
As much as things are changing, there are still some things that will stay the same. Vermont, winner of five conference titles in the last 11 years, once again looks poised to represent the league in the 68-team tournament field come March. Brian Voelkel leads an experienced group for the Catamounts, who have won at least 20 games in five straight seasons and will more than likely make it six straight this year. That is especially true if Voelkel performs to the Player of the Year level he is capable of.
Even though all signs point to another Vermont title, there are a trio of teams that will certainly have something to say about that. Missing out on the NCAA Tournament has become a tired tradition for Stony Brook, but not due to a lack of regular-season success. The Seawolves have earned the AEC regular season championship in three of the last four seasons, including a 25-8 overall campaign a year ago. Conference Player of the Year Tommy Brenton is gone, but Steve Pikiell will still have this team in the mix.
The Seawolves can't just set their sights on Vermont though. Last year's surprise conference champ Albany is still waiting in the wings as is Hartford, a darkhorse candidate for the league crown. Albany did suffer the loss of its top two scorers from last season (Mike Black and Jacob Iati) so to really contend some newcomers will need to step up quickly for head coach Will Brown. Meanwhile, the Hawks are looking to build on a historic season. Hartford may not have broken any program records in terms of wins, but at 17-14 overall the Hawks got an invite to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, their first ever postseason invitation.
The bottom half of the league doesn't have nearly as much promise, at least on paper. New Hampshire has three returning starters but from a 9-20 squad. Maine fared slightly better than UNH last season (11-19, 6-10 AEC) but only Xavier Pollard returns. UMBC could surprise some people, as it did in the conference tournament last season, but Chase Plummer will need to be a POY candidate for that to happen. Then there is Binghamton and UMass Lowell. Binghamton has been a dismal basketball program in recent years and UMass Lowell is making the transition to Division I and is not eligible for postseason play for four years. Therefore the Bearcats have the edge to stay out of last place by default.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Vermont
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Vermont 2. Stony Brook 3. Albany 4. Hartford 5. UMBC 6. New Hampshire 7. Maine 8. Binghamton 9. UMass Lowell
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
VERMONT: All indications are that Voelkel is set to erupt this season. The multi-faceted frontcourt performer averaged only six points per game last season but he led the team in rebounds (8.6 pg) and assists (4.9 pg). His versatility is a rare talent but he will be asked to be more of a scorer this season or at least he'll need to be for Vermont to dominate in the conference. Voelkel will have plenty of help. Vermont is the only team in the league to have all five starters back. That includes leading scorer Clancy Rugg (11.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg). who was one of seven players on the roster to score at least six points per game. There in lies the challenge facing every team that battles the Catamounts. Vermont's balance was so strong last season and bringing back most of that squad will likely mean a carry over. Other top performers returning include Luke Apfeld (10.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Sandro Carissimo (10.0 ppg, 36.6 percent 3PFG), who are the best threats from long distance. Apfeld may see more expanded minutes this season after serving as a reserve a year ago. Ethan O'Day (6.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg) was also a starter last season and his efforts on the boards were invaluable.
STONY BROOK: Filling the hole left by your best player is never easy. It becomes an even more difficult task when that player won the conference Player of the Year award. That is the situation the Seawolves find themselves in with Brenton gone. However it is not as if the cupboard is completely bare for the team that led the AEC in scoring (68 ppg) and rebounding (37.6 pg) last season. In fact other than Brenton, all the starters will be back on the floor. The best among them is Jameel Warney. The sophomore forward stands at 6-foot-8 and was a force on the interior last season, leading the team in scoring (12.4 ppg), while shooting an impressive 61.8 percent from the floor. Warney can also clean the boards (7.2 rpg) and protect the rim (1.5 bpg) with the best of them. Warney's presence alone makes the Seawolves contenders, but Anthony Jackson (11.3 ppg) and Dave Coley (11.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg) are also back. Both shot better than 36 percent from beyond the arc and have plenty of starting experience. Eric McAlister (4.4 ppg) is the other returning starter, while Carson Purifoy (5.3 ppg) will provide punch off the bench once again.
ALBANY: It has been a bit of roller coaster in the Capital Region under Brown. The Great Danes reached a peak last season and are hoping the ride keeps lifting. If Brown hopes to push his team to a second straight NCAA Tournament bid he will need to mold one of the less experienced squads in the conference. He lost Black and Iati, who combined to score 29 points per game a year ago. The two players who are most likely to step in and take over that production are Sam Rowley (9.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Peter Hooley (8.0 ppg 3.1 apg). Other than the obvious explanation (the pair are the top two returning scorers for the Great Danes) there is the fact that Rowley is a senior, who shot better than 50 percent from the floor last season and Hooley should see improvements with increased court time. Hooley played in 22 games as a reserve last year. The Great Danes will need to find offense in other spots as well after ranking fourth in the league in points per game (64.3) last season. John Puk (5.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg) is a big body that plays well up front and shot better than 50 percent from the floor. Luke Devlin (3.4 ppg) is another player to watch as he played just 11.3 minutes per game last season.
HARTFORD: Not often is there this much hope surrounding a Hartford squad. The Hawks have never won a regular season or tournament championship and have never had more than 18 wins in a season. Making it to the postseason, even it was the CIT, has clearly lifted expectations. The bulk of the pressure to make a move to a more meaningful tournament falls on the shoulders of the Mark Nwakamma. The 6-6 junior forward has as good a shot as anyone at taking home All-Conference honors and even a POY trophy. Last year Nwakamma (14.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg) led the Hawks in scoring and rebounding. In fact he was the only player on the roster to score more than 10 points per game. Nwakamma now needs the other three returning starters around him to take the next step. Yolonzo Moore (9.2 ppg, 2.6 apg) was forced to play the point more than he may have liked last season and shot just over 40 percent from the floor. Evan Cooper (7.8 ppg) and Nate Sikma (7.8 ppg) also need to improve their shooting, especially Sikma, who knocked down just 35.9 percent from the floor last year. The Hawks also lack a ton of size with newcomer Yasin Kolo (6-foot-10) the only player above 6-8.
UMBC: It has been a rough few years for UMBC since it made its way into the NCAA Tournament in 2006. Since that year the Retrievers have had double-digit wins just once and five or fewer three times. That doesn't mean there isn't hope this year as Aki Thomas takes off the interim label as head coach. However, it might seem odd to say that about a team coming off an 8-23 year, which also lost its leading scorer (Ryan Cook (15.4 ppg). Well there is still a double-figure scorer on the roster in Chase Plummer (11.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg), who has proven he can be explosive in the past. Plummer put up better than 15 points per game in 2012 but had a down year last season when he shot just 37.3 percent from the floor. If he can get back to his 2012 levels, including on the boards, he could be in line for all-league honors. Plummer is joined by a pair of other players that got plenty of starting experience last season in Brett Roseboro (9.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Quentin Jones (3.2 ppg, 2.7 rpg). Both missed some time, but will be asked to take on expanded roles, especially on offense, this year. Roseboro has the best chance to become a star as he nearly scored in double figures and was also a decent defender around the rim.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: Add New Hampshire to the list of teams in this league hoping to improve despite a loss of more than one of its best scorers. During the offseason the Wildcats had to say goodbye to Ferg Myrick (13.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Chandler Rhoads (10.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg). That is quite the void that needs to be filled on a team that just managed to average over 60 points per game a year ago. Handling the transition will be Patrick Konan. The 6-6 forward played the second-most minutes per game last year, while scoring 11.8 points and bringing in 5.4 rebounds a contest. Where Konan did not excel was in efficiency. He shot just 39.4 percent from the field. Lack of success in shooting was a team-wide problem for the Wildcats, who shot a miserable 38.9 percent from the floor. That was one of the worst marks not only in the AEC but the country as a whole. Chris Pelcher (9.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg) may be able to help in that area, though it is much easier to finish at a higher rate at 6-10 when almost all of your shots come from inside the paint. Jordon Bronner (3.9 ppg) is the only other player on the team returning that started in more than 20 games.
MAINE: If youth is considered a strength than the Black Bears will be doing some heavy lifting this season. There are six freshmen and five sophomores on the roster and not a single senior. On top of that, Xavier Pollard is the only returning starter since Justin Edwards (16.7 ppg), who led the league in scoring, transferred to Kansas State, and Alasdair Fraser (13.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg) is now kicking around in the professional circuit in Europe. Growing pains will be expected for head coach Ted Woodword in is 10th season at the helm at Maine. Pollard (9.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.3 apg) will be leaned on heavily. A team could do much worse as a building block. The 6-3 junior is a decent scorer and strong distributor. A bonus is how well he rebounds despite his height and the fact that he doesn't play around the rim. Zarko Valijarevic (8.4 ppg) isn't very versatile but he can knock it down from the outside. He is considered one of the few elder statesman on the squad. Shaun Lawton (3.3 ppg) played as a reserve in all 25 games in which he made an appearance a year ago. He will be much more active this time around.
BINGHAMTON: Last season, on a Saturday in mid-January, Binghamton earned a 57-56 win over Maine. That may seem like an unimportant game to mention but it isn't. That was the last time the Bearcats came off the floor with a victory and just the fifth time they have done so in the last two seasons. Obviously there is only one way to go for the Bearcats and that is up. Thanks to the entrance of UMass Lowell, the Bearcats have a very good shot at climbing out of the AEC cellar but this year's squad may have been able to do that by itself. Jordan Reed is back. Having a scorer of Reed's caliber is a must for the Bearcats, who netted just 55.9 points per game in 2013. As a freshman, Reed posted team-highs in points (16.6 pg) and rebounds (9.5 pg). Though he did shoot below 40 percent on the campaign the hope is with a year under his belt he can become more consistent. Reed will also get some help by the return of Robert Mansell, who missed last season with a torn ACL. Mansell averaged 14 points per game in the 2011-12 campaign. If he gets back to that form the Bearcats will be set with two productive scorers. That alone could help them compete most nights.
UMASS LOWELL: The word 'first' is going to get thrown around a lot for the River Hawks this season. It is their first at the Division I level. It is also the first year for the team under Pat Duquette, who in turn is in his first year as a head coach anywhere. Duquette is familiar with the landscape as he has been an assistant at Northeastern and Boston College recently. Even though the squad cannot compete in the AEC Tournament or any other postseason tournament for the next four seasons, the program will still try to make a statement. Having back four starters and a host of reserves from last year's squad will certainly bring some continuity and perhaps a few wins along the way. The most important holdover is Akeem Williams (19.9 ppg). The 5-10 senior was an all-conference selection in the Northeast-10 last season when he led the league in scoring and also knocked down 40 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Antonio Bivins (15.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg) has length and can score and grab rebounds. Chad Holley (11.2 pg, 3.2 apg) is a solid shooter and has no issue setting up his teammates.