(SportsNetwork.com) - The 36th annual America East Conference Tournament is set to anoint a new champion as the quarterfinals begin on Wednesday night all across the league's landscape.
Unlike most conference tournaments, the AEC does more than reward teams for their regular-season performances by aligning them according to seeding, they also recognize those efforts by allowing the higher-seeded programs to continue hosting games until they are knocked out. As a result, all eight teams eligible for this year's event are in action on Wednesday night, with the River Hawks of UMass Lowell sitting this one out.
As the favorite and the top seed in the tournament, the Albany Great Danes (21-8, 15-1) have the pleasure of hosting the eighth-seeded Maine Black Bears (3-26, 2-14) right out of the chute. Albany is the two-time defending tourney champion, taking down Stony Brook in the title game a season ago for the fourth championship in the last decade.
Albany's Will Brown, now in his 14th season with the program, was named the AEC Coach of the Year earlier this week as he guided the Great Danes to their first regular-season title since 2005-06. Defensively, the Great Danes held conference foes to only 56.1 ppg and from a national standpoint, the team ranked 12th in the country in free-throw shooting at 75.6 percent.
Unfortunately for the Black Bears, they had a grand total of just three wins on the entire season, one of those coming against league foe Binghamton (65-46), a team that also struggled from start to finish.
Another program that has strong odds to come out on top in this tournament is second-seeded Vermont (17-12, 12-4), which won the tiebreaker with Stony Brook (21-10, 12-4) for the right to host the seventh-seeded UMBC Retrievers (4-25, 2-14), the latter squad's lone two league wins coming against Maine. The Catamounts are no strangers to success in this event, having brought home the title five times, the last coming in 2012. However, their record overall has them almost breaking even (31-27), so maybe this isn't their year.
Stony Brook might be that team that finally breaks through this season, as it kicks off quarterfinal action against sixth-seeded Binghamton (6-25, 5-11). The Seawolves, who are 11-12 in this event all-time, have taken part in the championship game three of the last four years, but are still waiting for the moment to celebrate. The team raised more than a few eyebrow when it defeated 13th-ranked Washington (62-57) on the road in late December, so making it to the Big Dance would not be a shock anymore.
The Seawolves have Jameel Warney at their disposal, the two-time AEC Player of the Year. The league's leading scorer (16.3 ppg) and the nation's fifth- leading rebounder (11.4 rpg), Warney was also named the AEC Defensive Player of the Year as he cleared 7.3 rpg and paced the league with 2.4 blocked shots per outing.
The final matchup on Wednesday pits the fourth-seeded New Hampshire Wildcats (18-11, 11-5) against the fifth-seeded Hartford Hawks (14-15, 7-9). Neither one of these teams has ever hoisted the trophy in this tournament and there's little reason to think it will happen any time soon, although the Wildcats did finish the season strong with five wins in the last six outings to perhaps give them a bit of a spark moving forward.
Winners of Wednesday night's meetings will be back on action on Sunday in the semifinals, with re-seeding taking place in order to again give full advantage to the teams that earned higher seedings in the tournament to begin with. The title game will take place six days later, and one would have to assume that Albany and Vermont would somehow be involved in that decision.
Sports Network Predicted Champion: Albany