(SportsNetwork.com) - The 35th annual America East Conference Tournament will get underway on Saturday, March 8, as the eight qualifying teams settle their differences to determine who will earn the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
After sewing up the America East regular-season title with a sparkling 15-1 league ledger, Vermont storms into the tourney as the No. 1 seed. The Catamounts have dominated the AEC for years. They have been the top seed in the tournament five times since 2002, and have won the whole thing a record five times. However, last season, despite entering the postseason with the top seed yet again, the Catamounts were upset in the title game by Albany, 53-49.
Vermont may be the odds-on favorite to win this event, but No. 2 seed Stony Brook will certainly have something to say about that. The Seawolves finished the season just off the pace set by the Catamounts at 13-3 in conference. In fact, Stony Brook handed Vermont its only league loss of the season with a 67-64 home win on Jan. 24.
The rest of the field did not enjoy such prosperous seasons. Hartford and Albany are the third and fourth seeds, respectively, with the Hawks (16-15, 10-6 America East) earning the same seeding as they did a year ago. Meanwhile, the defending champion Great Danes enter the postseason as the No. 4 seed after going 9-7 in league action.
Rounding out the field of eight are UMBC (9-25, 5-11), Binghamton (7-22, 4-12), Maine (6-22, 4-12) and New Hampshire (6-23, 4-12).
Kicking off the Tournament will be a bout between top-seeded Vermont and eighth-seeded New Hampshire.
The Catamounts did not just excel in league play this season, as they finished with a 21-9 overall mark, their sixth straight season of at least 20 wins. However, results against the conference are what matter now. The Catamounts earned two resounding victories over New Hampshire this season, including a 79-44 triumph on the road. Such dominating wins were a common occurrence for the Catamounts, who, led by Clancy Rugg (13.1 ppg) and Sandro Carissimo (12.8 ppg), posted the first one-loss season in America East play since 2007.
New Hampshire did not fare evenly remotely as well as its first-round foe. The Bobcats ended the season on a six-game losing streak, making their quest for a first tournament win since 2010 a long shot. Chris Pelcher (11.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg) leads a trio of double-digit scorers for UNH.
In the next matchup of the opening round, No. 4 seed Albany, which serves as a host for this tournament, will take on fifth-seeded UMBC. If the season series is any indication, this should be the best game of the first round. The squads split a pair of matchups, with the two contests decided by a combined three points.
The Great Danes, who went 9-7 in league play, have the second-most America East Conference crowns behind Vermont, with their championship last year being the third in program history. They are now gunning for No. 4, as they enter the postseason as the fourth seed for the fourth straight season, and the team is led by a four double-digit scorers, with Peter Hooley (14.8 ppg) sitting atop the list.
UMBC, which won the conference tournament in 2008, is one of only two other current members of the America East to have a conference title besides Vermont and Albany. This season they finished with only five wins in 16 tries against the rest of the conference, but they dropped their final four tests of the campaign. Rodney Elliott (14.9 ppg, 3.5 apg) is the player to watch for the Retrievers, a team that put up an average of 65.9 ppg during the regular season.
Stony Brook gets its first chance in the tournament next when the second- seeded Seawolves do battle with seventh-seeded Maine.
This is the fourth time in the last five seasons that Stony Brook has been seeded No. 2 or better. Unfortunately the Seawolves are still in search of their first conference title, as they are just 9-11 in the event all-time, with back-to-back second-place finishes during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Despite those disappointments, Stony Brook has won at least 20 games in three straight seasons, including a 21-9 overall mark this year, helped by a 13-3 league ledger. Jameel Warney (14.7 ppg, 7.9 rpg) is the anchor for the team in the paint, although he receives plenty of support from Anthony Jackson (12.9 ppg) and Carson Puriefoy (12.7 ppg).
The Seawolves swept the season series with the Black Bears, although Maine nearly pulled off an upset in an 83-79 verdict at home on Feb. 23. That setback was one of many for Maine, a team that was just 6-22 overall and 4-12 in AEC play. The Black Bears have never fared well in this event, with a league-worst 17-33 record in the tournament and zero tourney titles. They were pushed out in the first round last season, extending their losing streak in the event to nine games. Although it didn't help them collect many victories, the Black Bears were the top scoring team in the America East (72.8 ppg) this season, but they were also lit up for 83 ppg at the defensive end.
The final first-round pairing has third-seeded Hartford taking on sixth-seeded Binghamton.
Surprisingly, of the two, Binghamton is the team with a conference title to its credit, as the Bearcats won the 2009 tournament. Based on their resume' this season, earning a second will be tough as the Bearcats finished the season at just 7-22 overall and 4-12 in conference. However, they did split their last six games, and hung with both Hartford and Vermont in losses in their last two. The Hawks won the other meeting between them this season as well, although in just a 56-54 final. Binghamton was one of the lowest scoring teams in the America East this season, ranking seventh at 62 ppg, while shooting a miserable 38.3 percent from the field. The offensive struggles came despite the efforts of Jordan Reed (15.7 ppg, 9 rpg), who led the conference in rebounding and ranked second in scoring.
Although Hartford has never won this event, or reached the championship round, it has been to the semifinals in two of the last three years. This time around, they carry a great deal of momentum into the postseason, as they won six of their last seven games to grab the third-seed with a 10-6 record in league play. They don't score much more than Binghamton (65.5 ppg), but they are more efficient from the floor (.459), powered by Mark Nwakamma and his 15.1 ppg.