America East Conference Preview
by Phil Kasiecki
The America East Conference began a new era in the 2001-02 season, as four teams left to join the Colonial Athletic Association, replaced by three schools from the SUNY system: Albany, Stony Brook (relative newcomers to Division I, in just their second season), and Binghamton (a Division I newcomer for 2001-02).
The departed schools took with them a great deal of recent success. In the previous 11 seasons, dating back to the days of the North Atlantic Conference, only once was the conference’s NCAA Tournament representative not one of the four departed teams (in 1997, when Boston University won the conference championship). Delaware and Hofstra became consistent 20-game winners, and Drexel, while not matching the success they had when Malik Rose starred there, still won 18 games in their final season and always had one of the best homecourt advantages in the conference. Towson had only mild success during their limited stay in America East.
No coaching changes took place in the offseason, which is rare this day in age. Several schools have coaches who just began their tenure, which contributes to the lack of a coaching change. Vermont’s Tom Brennan remains the dean of America East coaches as he enters his 17th season as their head coach in 2002-03.
As far as individual talents go, senior leadership does not appear to be the rule this season. Many of the conference’s top individual talents are underclassmen, especially among backcourt stars. The conference is not as guard-oriented among its top talents as in past years, as wing players and combo forwards are also prevalent among the league’s top talents. Three of last season’s First Team All-America East players return this season, which set the tone as each all-conference team had two seniors and three underclassmen last season. With this being the case, the overall talent level appears to be higher this season.
The conference figures to have a good race for the top, although Boston University looks to be a clear favorite with excellent depth and experience. At least one dark horse could surprise, and at the very least a couple of teams in the middle could play spoiler. Several of the top teams from last season return many key players this season, meaning that they should be in the race for the top again this season.
Without anything further, it’s time to take a look at how the conference shapes up as the season approaches.
Billy Collins, Senior, Boston University
Taylor Coppenrath, Sophomore, Vermont
Justin Rowe, Senior, Maine
T.J. Sorrentine, Junior, Vermont
Matt Turner, Senior, Boston University
Chaz Carr, Sophomore, Boston University
E.J. Gallup, Junior, Albany
D.J. Munir, Junior, Stony Brook
Sylbrin Robinson, Junior, Northeastern
Deon Saunders, Junior, Hartford
Clayton Brown, Senior, Maine
Marcus Bullock, Junior, New Hampshire
Pierre Johnson, Senior, Hartford
Jeffrey St. Fort, Senior, Binghamton
Ryan Stys, Junior, Hartford
Player of the Year T.J. Sorrentine, Vermont
Newcomer of the Year Jerrell Parker, Hartford
Best Defensive Player Earv Opong, Albany
Projections (in projected order of finish, with last season’s record)
Boston University (22-10, 13-3)
It should be a good race for the top, but Boston University is the team to beat. Last season’s champions return all five starters and have good depth all around. Leading the way is a solid backcourt consisting of super sophomore Chaz Carr, exciting but oft-injured Matt Turner, and steady veteran Kevin Fitzgerald. Carr led the team in scoring as a freshman last season, while Turner (17.5 ppg in the first 6 games) can be one of the league’s best players. Fitzgerald is a steadying influence, as he doesn’t light up the scoreboard or make highlight film plays but gets the job done. Senior Paul Seymour hasn’t lived up to the promise of his early days, but he is a capable reserve on the perimeter, and freshman Shaun Wynn adds depth.
Up front, first team All-America East forward Billy Collins heads a solid group. Junior Ryan Butt is a capable inside-outside scorer, sophomore Rashad Bell improved nicely over last season and should be a key this season, and it says something that versatile junior Jason Grochowalski is not a starter on this team. The Terriers also have holdover Jacob Kudlacz and two freshmen who each stand 6’8″. The Terriers did it with defense last season as the conference’s top defensive team, and turned the ball over fewer times than any other team in the conference. They also paced the conference by making nearly 36% of their three-pointers.
Vermont (21-8, 13-3)
Tom Brennan is back for another season, and his Vermont team should be in the hunt again this season. It starts with junior guard T.J. Sorrentine, who last season joined Reggie Lewis and Craig Claxton among sophomores who have won conference Player of the Year honors. He led the conference in scoring and was third in assists and steals and fourth in three-point percentage. He is joined on the perimeter by unheralded senior Andre Anderson and sophomores David Hehn and Mike Goia. Hehn might be the best bet to emerge, as he has good size and takes good care of the ball at either guard spot.
Up front, the Catamounts lose the conference’s top rebounder in first team All-America East selection Trevor Gaines, but should still be in good shape as they have several capable bodies. Taylor Coppenrath heads this group, as he was a consistent presence at both ends last season en route to being named the conference’s Rookie of the Year. The return of one-time starter Matt Sheftic, who sat out last season for personal reasons, helps ease the loss of Gaines, and he figures to be joined by senior Grant Anderson up front. Scotty Jones returns from a redshirt season, and athletic sophomore Germain Njila also returns to bolster the front line and wing. The two newcomers are also frontcourt players, both standing 6’8″. The Catamounts take good care of the ball, as they were the only team in the conference to have more assists than turnovers last season, and could well lead the conference in scoring and rebounding again. To take the next step this season, they will need to improve defensively (5th in scoring, 8th in field goal percentage defense).
Hartford (14-18, 10-6)
After a season with a big improvement, well-balanced Hartford should be a serious contender this season. The Hawks went from 4-24 to 14-18 last season, including a 10-6 record in conference games. They figure to do it again this season with good balance all around, notably in the frontcourt. Junior Deon Saunders, who led the team in scoring, is joined by seniors Pierre Johnson and Junior Amous, who together comprise their top three rebounders and three of their top four scorers. Senior Josh Odugbela and sophomore Louis Bosley (redshirted last season) should also figure prominently in the frontcourt plans. Sophomore Trevor Goode, the team’s tallest player, had his moments in limited minutes last season but has to cut down on fouls to be a factor.
The backcourt suffers the most significant personnel losses, as Mantas Storpirstis departs after setting the school’s all-time record for career three-pointers and Charles Ford left school after a good freshman season. Junior point guard Ryan Stys runs the show capably, joined on the wing by Loyola (Ill.) transfer Jerrell Parker and spot starter Wayne McClinton. Parker should give this team a nice boost and start right away. Shaun Swan and freshman Aaron Cook add depth. The Hawks are a solid defensive team, but must take better care of the ball as they had the worst assist-to-turnover ratio and were near the bottom in turnover margin.
Maine (12-18, 7-9)
Maine figures to be a dark horse in the race for the top this season despite losing one of the league’s top players in Errick Greene. The Black Bears return the conference’s top big man in Justin Rowe, who led the conference in blocks by far but doesn’t dominate games like he should. Fellow senior Clayton Brown will join him in the frontcourt, ready to be an important part of this team’s offense. Three sophomores join them up front, the best of them being homegrown talent Joe Campbell. Campbell started last year and shot the ball very well. Role player Freddy Petkus figures to see some time at small forward as well.
The backcourt is led by seniors Derrick Jackson and Ricky White, both of whom started last season. Neither is a star, but both are capable players in the backcourt. The best of the four guards that Maine welcomes figures to be Boston College transfer Ludmil Hadjisotirov, who becomes eligible in December. The Black Bears were second in field goal percentage and among the conference’s best defensive teams, but they must take better care of the ball as only two teams turned it over more and Greene was the only player with more assists than turnovers last season.
Binghamton (9-19, 6-10)
After a respectable Division I debut, Binghamton has a good nucleus to build on. They return three starters and several reserves who showed that they have potential as starters. Senior forward Jeffrey St. Fort led the team in scoring and rebounding and will be the go-to guy. Sophomore 7-footer Nick Billings, who was second in the conference in blocks, and senior Stanly Ocitti should both move into the starting lineup. Billings figures to be a certainty, and if he gets stronger, he could be an excellent post player down the road. There is not much proven depth here, though there is size as two more players stand at least 6’9″.
The backcourt is in better shape despite the loss of 1,000-point scorer Mike Wright, as returning starters Brett Watson and Anthony Green give the Bearcats a senior backcourt and are joined by another senior in Charles Baker. Junior college transfer Brandon Carter should figure into the mix as well. Defense is the biggest area for improvement, as the Bearcats forced the fewest turnovers in the league by far.
Northeastern (7-21, 5-11)
The rebuilding at Northeastern continues on under second year head coach Ron Everhart. Three starters departed, including former all-conference selections Jean Bain and Ricky Cranford, but All-Rookie selection Aaron Davis is back after leading the team in scoring. He is joined by steady and intelligent senior point man Jamaar Walker and senior swing man Toby Brittain, an athlete who makes plays at both ends of the floor. The recruiting class is guard-heavy, featuring highly-regarded point guard Jose Juan Berea. The frontcourt was a source of major problems last season, from injuries to Sylbrin Robinson and Cornellius Wright to inconsistent play and the lack of a post presence. No Husky placed in the top 20 in America East in rebounding and sophomore forward Lunzaya Nlandu tied for the team lead with 3.4 rebounds per game. Nlandu had his moments, but was not the consistent presence he could be.
Junior Jesse Dunn was a pleasant surprise later in the season as he shot nearly 42% on three-pointers, but the former walk-on is not a presence on the boards and his shot selection can be questionable. Robinson and Wright will be counted on for a lot, and both are capable of it. The Huskies also welcome their tallest player in 6’10” freshman Gene Oliynyk, a native of the Ukraine. Senior Quilninious “Q” Randall and sophomore Meshak Burke-Bennett will get some minutes as well. The Huskies have several areas for improvement, as they were at or near the bottom of the conference in scoring and field goal percentage defense and rebounding margin. They were also 1-8 in games decided by 3 points or less, with four of the losses being by just one point.
New Hampshire (11-17, 8-8)
New Hampshire made a nice jump last season to fourth place in the conference, but lost their two best players. The losses of Chris Brown (one of two players in the conference to average a double-double last season) and Austin Ganly are huge, especially with both being forwards. Junior combo guard Marcus Bullock is the top returning player, and he is poised to become one of the conference’s better players. He is joined in the backcourt by a hodgepodge of previously little-used reserves (no other guard averaged 15 or more minutes last season), which means that junior wing Allen Gould may see some time at shooting guard after being a spot starter last season, and freshmen Shejdie Childs and Ioannis Karalis should get chances early as well.
The frontcourt has veteran bodies in junior center Kyle Peterson and senior Jeff Senulis, neither of whom has ever been much of a presence or go-to guy, which could open the door for two junior college transfers. The Wildcats will be hard-pressed to be the third-best scoring team in the conference again, as Brown and Ganly take nearly 29 points per game with them, but they also need to improve defensively and take better care of the ball (only Stony Brook turned it over more last season).
Stony Brook (6-22, 5-11)
Stony Brook has the potential to make a jump in the standings in their second season in the conference with just one letter winner lost from last season. Junior point guard D.J. Munir is one of the conference’s top players, leading the conference in assists and finishing second in scoring. Rejoining him on the perimeter are sophomore Mike Orifini and senior Larry Jennings, the latter of whom played just seven games due to a stress fracture in his foot. Four of the five newcomers are perimeter players, including Fordham transfer Tyrone Stallings. The frontcourt is where the team’s riches are, as at times the Seawolves went with a lineup that had four frontcourt players with junior Mike Konopka facing the basket. Konopka was the team’s top three-point shooter and was second in assists, but must cut down on turnovers if he faces the basket more.
One of last season’s starters figures to be displaced by Fordham transfer Cori Spencer, who adds to a frontcourt that already has some size. Sophomore JonPaul Kobryn and junior J.B. Bennett, the team’s top rebounder last season, combine on the post. Senior Joakim Eriksson is the other returning starter, with junior Jairus McCollum and senior Patrick Spitler seeing time on the wing. Despite the many bodies up front, the Seawolves had the second-worst rebounding margin in the conference, which they must improve upon. They also led the conference in turnovers and only finished in the top half in free throw percentage and steals, as they were fourth in each.
Albany (8-20, 5-11)
In its second season in the conference, Albany hopes to improve on last season’s seventh-place finish. The strength will be on the perimeter, starting with the team’s star in junior wing E.J. Gallup, who returned in August after leaving the team last season and intending to transfer. He led the team in scoring two seasons ago as a freshman and averaged 18.4 points in the team’s first 9 games last season. Joining him on the perimeter is the senior backcourt of point guard Earv Opong and leading scorer Antione Johnson. Neither shoots well, but the speedy Opong takes care of the ball and is a good defender at the point despite being just 5’7″. Senior Rasheed Peterson, the team’s top three-point shooter last season, and senior Sequon Young will see minutes on the perimeter as well.
The frontcourt will be hit hard by the loss of third team All-America East forward Will Brand, who was second on the team in scoring and led in rebounding, and two other key contributors up front. Sophomore Chris Wyatt is the only returning frontcourt player who averaged more than 20 minutes per game last season, and will be counted on to lead the way. Holdovers Rasheed Bonner and Janis Pipikis, along with three freshmen, figure to get plenty of opportunities. A big reason Gallup’s return helps is that the Great Danes were last in the conference in scoring last season, but they were also last in field goal percentage and only Hartford had a worse assist-to-turnover ratio. That took away from being second in the conference in scoring defense.