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America East Media Day

November 17, 2003 Columns No Comments

Highlights from America East Media Day

by Phil Kasiecki

America East Media Day was held on Thursday at Boston University, as coaches and players gathered to look ahead to the 2003-04 season. The conference released a few announcements in addition to coaches and players being available to the media.

Commissioner Chris Monasch began with a quip about the conference maneuvering in recent months, saying “We’re going to break tradition, with no member changes” before introducing the addition this season of Maryland-Baltimore County, formerly of the Northeast Conference. He went on to comment about how the conference talks may affect America East down the line.

“It’s part of the terrain in college athletics. In the long term, we feel that the commonality of the member schools leaves America East well-positioned for future success.”

The conference released the results of its preseason coaches’ poll. Defending champion Vermont was picked to win, with Boston University and Northeastern in a tie for second, right behind the Catamounts. Here is the poll (coaches could not rank their own teams):

1. Vermont (4)            74
2. Boston University (2)  72
   Northeastern (4)       72
4. Hartford               50
5. Stony Brook            46
6. Binghamton             45
7. Maine                  40
8. UMBC                   20
9. Albany                 16
10. New Hampshire         15

The conference also released its preseason All-America East team, which also had a tie in the voting and thus had six players. Named to the team were the past two conference Players of the Year, Vermont juniors T. J. Sorrentine and Taylor Coppenrath; Northeastern sophomore guard Jose Juan Barea; Boston University junior forward Rashad Bell; Binghamton junior center Nick Billings; and Hartford senior guard Jerell Parker. Bell and Coppenrath were the only two unanimous selections.

The return of Sorrentine and Coppenrath marks just the second time in NCAA history where former conference Players of the Year will be teammates for a season. The other occurrence was in 1999-2000, when Lafayette had former Patriot League Players of the Year Stefan Ciosici and Brian Ehlers.

Also announced was a record number of television games this season. America East and MBC Teleproductions (Allentown, PA) will produce and distribute no fewer than 24 games this season, while ESPN will once again televise the conference championship game on March 13, 2004 at 11:30 AM.

Anyone’s Conference

While the preseason coaches poll shows a clear top three teams, most feel the conference is an open race.

“There are no off-nights, none where you walk in and say it should be a walk in the park,” said Vermont head coach Tom Brennan, whose team is picked to win the conference.

Maine head coach John Giannini sees the clear top three, then a middle tier that they are certainly part of.

“I think we’re part of the middle tier that’s hoping to make that a top four, and maybe break into that group,” he said.

New Hampshire head coach Phil Rowe echoed the general sentiment.

“Right out of the gate, the top three teams are more experienced and more talented teams coming out,” he said. “I think four through ten are really very similar to each other, trying to find their way.”

“I think it’s going to be extremely competitive,” said Boston University head coach Dennis Wolff, who acknowledged that there are three clear favorites. “I also think there’s three or four other teams that made progress last year to put themselves in the mix as well.”

“I think it’s going to be competitive, top to bottom,” said UMBC head coach Tom Sullivan. “I think you have some teams that have better players than the rest of the league. If, in fact, history holds true, as teams get to know who those better players are, they’re going to have a hard time as they go into some other buildings where people know how to stop those kids.”

“There’s a lot of parity in this league,” said Northeastern head coach Ron Everhart, who also reflected on the conference’s standing relative to others, rising from being considered one of the worst in Division I to being among the better mid-majors. “Vermont went 9-0 and knocked off teams, BU started beating ACC teams, they changed their mind real fast. I think we’re reaping some of the benefits of those victories now.”

But it doesn’t stop with the teams, as the individual talents are present as well.

“There could be 15 guys on the first team in the preseason,” said Vermont junior guard T. J. Sorrentine, the conference Player of the Year two seasons ago.

All in all, the season shapes up to be an excellent one for the America East Conference.

A New Era in Burlington

Basketball didn’t always rule in the northernmost parts of Vermont, but getting to the NCAA Tournament for the first time will change some perceptions. Even with Matt Sheftic, the America East Tournament Most Outstanding Player, out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Catamounts are the favorites to win the conference.

The Catamounts face a tough non-conference schedule, testing the conference contenders early. They open up with Nevada, among the favorites in the WAC, before playing in the Preseason NIT and traveling to UCLA, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

“I really feel that if you think you’re good, then you have to go play people,” head coach Tom Brennan said. “That’s how you really find out if you’re any good or not.

“In a situation like Vermont, you would think that if we were fortunate enough, it would be at a time where we had that great senior class, guys got better incrementally, and they had their day. But that’s not what happened. We have a lot of young players, a lot of good players back, we have a chance to do it again. We knew that the opportunity would be there again, and we want to toughen ourselves as much as we could.”

While the early tests could leave them with a bad record, Brennan is confident with what his team has in addition to the benefits of playing teams in bigger conferences.

“I don’t think it’s going to be pretty,” he said. “We could easily open up at home on December 5 being 0-4, considering the first four games are on the road. But, we’re good. And we take a stud or two with us anywhere we go, and we couldn’t always say that. Any night, (Taylor) Coppenrath and T.J. (Sorrentine) could score a lot of points and beat you. That’s kind of exciting.”

Sorrentine’s return gives the Catamounts two major stars, which at times can lead to chemistry issues if someone isn’t getting enough touches. Brennan sees this as adding a dimension to the team.

“It’s very interesting because he has the ball all the time, he’s the quarterback,” Brennan said. “We’re going to be a lot different. I think our greatest asset is that we can really pass as a team, and it starts with him, and we have guys that are unselfish.

“We have the right pieces, and we have the right chemistry. We just have to play, and play well.”

For his part, Sorrentine is eager to play and win again.

“(Sitting out last season) was real tough, because I love the game so much,” he said. “To have it taken away from me was probably the toughest thing in my life.

“I think we’re good. I think every day we’re getting better, guys are getting more comfortable, we’re getting more a sense of a team, playing together better. I think that’s all you can ask for at this point in the season, until you throw it up.”

He sees the target on his team’s back as nothing but positive, especially in light of the program not having had this kind of success before.

“I’m a competitor, and I like to get everybody’s best effort,” Sorrentine adds. “I think having that target on your back is just going to get people to play their best against you, and you have to raise your level. I think it’s good for us, a good change for the program and for the team. I think it’s going to help us out.”

Same Players, New Roles at Boston University

One of the main reasons for the success at Boston University last season was the depth the Terriers had. Their reserves frequently outscored opponents’ reserves, as the Terriers got contributions from many players. According to Wolff, that depth will pay off this season, as three players have departed and most of the key players this season figure to be holdovers from that team.

“We have a pretty good core returning,” Wolff said. “A lot of the same faces will be playing for us.”

The Terriers have a challenging non-conference schedule once again this season, and they don’t skimp on the early games. St. Joseph’s comes to town for the home opener with a nationally-ranked team and All-America candidate Jameer Nelson, while going down Commonwealth Ave to play a younger Boston College team and hitting the road to play teams such as Holy Cross, Ohio, and Michigan.

“It’s in my opinion the best way to get a team at this level ready,” Wolff said. “We have five games in the first ten days. With Holy Cross, St. Joe’s and BC, the first three are extremely tough. Then you put in Youngstown State and Ohio, you certainly have a healthy start. I think it will tell us a little bit about where we’re at, and give us a chance to take an honest picture of our team.”

New Member, New Plans

Maryland-Baltimore County is the conference’s lone new member this season, coming from the Northeast Conference. Head coach Tom Sullivan had words of praise for the member schools they join in America East and looks forward to the years ahead.

Sullivan cited defense as the item of most concern as the season approaches.

“The one curiosity I have is how our defense will equate to success in this league,” Sullivan said. “We take a lot of pride in defense, and over the past few years we’ve been successful with it. We take pride in the way we run our halfcourt sets.

“I think what I’m looking at with this league is a league that defends a little better than our last league and has a little more structure on the offensive end.”

The Retrievers stand out geographically, located about a five-hour drive from the closest school in the conference (Binghamton) and the only one which they plan to travel to by bus. Sullivan says that even though they will be flying on most of their trips, the travel budget will not increase by a large amount. More concerning is how his players adjust.

“I’m interested in what kind of wear and tear effect it will have,” he said.

My Compliments to the Players

Recent seasons have not been kind to Northeastern fans. Last season’s 16-15 showing was the first winning season since 1994-95, when the Huskies lost in the North Atlantic Conference championship game. Included have been a few very lean years, which makes the team being projected in a tie for second a real change. Head coach Ron Everhart is quick to look past the coach’s poll projection and give credit to the players.

“The higher expectations, I think, are a nice compliment to our guys as to where we’ve come in two years,” Everhart said. “I think we’ve been chosen there with the idea that Aaron (Davis) is going to play, so I don’t know how realistic that is one way or the other.

“The bottom line is, we’re going to have to step on the court and we’re going to have to play. We’re a team and a program that I don’t think has ever gotten a lot of respect – we certainly haven’t since I’ve been here, from anybody in the league – so we know we have to go out and earn that.”

Who’s The Next Surprise?

Just when it seems like John Giannini’s team has to go into rebuilding mode, invariably a player or two surprises everyone and keeps the Black Bears in contention. With the Black Bears decimated by frontcourt losses from last season’s team, they may appear to be headed for rebuilding at first appearance. But a strong returning perimeter unit and a couple of newcomers mean they can’t be underestimated.

Giannini is clear about the strength and weakness of this team heading into the season.

“We shoot the ball and pass the ball well, we have good team quickness,” Giannini said. “I think those are going to be our strengths, and I think we’re going to be pretty good when it’s all said and done.

“I think our perimeter will match up favorably with anyone in the league. The inside is a question. We have some big bodies there that we hope will carry on our tradition of strong post players.”

The player to watch this year: Jermaine Jackson, whom he describes as an explosive scorer. He also thinks that a healthy Ludmil Hadjisotirov will be a major addition for them, as he was not 100% for most of the time he was eligible last season.


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