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America East Notebook

January 30, 2008 Conference Notes No Comments

America East Notebook

by Sam Perkins

With almost half of the conference season in the books, one thing has become evident: the conference is still wide open, and none of the prognosticators (or even the coaches, judging by the preseason coaches poll) seem to have been too accurate. The non-conference season was, for lack of a better word, ugly, as every team in the conference with the exception of UMBC is in the middle of a rebuilding mode (an argument could certainly be made that certain bottom dwellers aren’t rebuilding but rather treading water, but that’s another story).

However, as bad as the non-conference season was, almost every team is better at this point in the season than they were at the beginning, and it has led to some very entertaining and competitive basketball. The end should be one heck of a conference tournament. As the conference is right now, there seem to be three “tiers” of teams: those contending for the league title and NCAA birth, those that are a bit below the contenders, and those in the basement.

However, unlike almost every year in recent memory, the “contenders” group is by far the largest in the conference, as there are five teams that have a legitimate shot to go to the NCAA tournament in UMBC, Binghamton, Vermont, Hartford, and Albany. Binghamton currently stands at the top of the conference at 6-2, with UMBC and Vermont at 5-2, and Hartford and Albany stand at 4-3. The next “tier” at this point contains only one team, New Hampshire, who stands at 3-4, and the bottom tier, those in the basement, is made up of BU and Maine who both stand at 2-5, and Stony Brook whom comes in at 1-6.

One thing is for certain in the conference, however, and that is that any team, no matter what tier they occupy, can beat any other team in the conference on any given day, because no team in the conference is good enough to simply not show up and still win on talent alone. Here’s some thoughts on each team in the conference so far, ranked from whom I feel are the best to the worst.


UMBC: The Retrievers are the most physically talented team in the conference, especially on the offensive end, where all five of their starters have scored twenty or more points in a game at least twice on the season. No other team in the conference has the kind of offensive firepower that the Retrievers have, as they are not only the best outside shooting team in the conference, but also have the best frontcourt. Ray Barbosa and Brian Hodges can fill it up from downtown, and everyone on the team crashes the boards hard. Daryl Proctor is the best rebounder in the conference, and his physicality, combined with Cavell Johnson’s athleticism are tough to match-up with. Matt Spadafora has proven to be tremendously important, as he is the team’s best defender, and has the looks of potentially being a more athletic Brian Lillis down the line as he is quite the shot blocker for a guard. Getting Justin Fry going will also be huge to the Retrievers. Jay Greene is the most unsung and underrated player in the conference, as he is a wizard of a ball handler and distributor.

However, for all of the Retrievers’ talent, perhaps none of the other “contenders” have struggled as much with simply “showing up,” this year, and when UMBC is off, they are very beatable. As much as people pointed to a lack of a bench as an Achilles heel, what is really UMBC’s weakness is defense when they are not scoring. UMBC has the best seven-man rotation in the conference, hands down, and seven is enough to get by as long as they stay healthy, but what can not happen if the Retrievers are to remain serious contenders is to allow poor play on the offensive end to affect them on the defensive. UMBC took a step in the right direction in taking out BU while sputtering on offense, but it was against a punch-less BU without Corey Lowe.

Binghamton: First-year head coach Kevin Broadus has been fantastic in his first year, as the Bearcats have improved more over the course of the season than any other team in the conference, and are the conference’s hottest team in having won nine of their last twelve. Binghamton has the deepest bench in the conference, and Broadus has gotten the team playing the Princeton-style offense, and even more importantly, defense, as of late.

Mike Gordon deserves a good long look when it comes to Player of the Year voting, as he is the heart and soul of the team. He has done a phenomenal job balancing distributing and scoring duties, as well as carrying the team emotionally. Lazar Trifunovic has been crashing the boards and providing a great inside compliment to Gordon, and when Binghamton’s guards are on and Trifunovic is in single coverage, he can be devastating. However, Laz, as he is called, still needs to expand his repertoire to be considered an elite player in the conference, and he isn’t ready to carry the team when Gordon has an off night. Luckily, Binghamton has gotten some great play from senior Richard Forbes, who looks like a completely different player than the one he was last year.

Forbes’ play is a credit to Broadus, who has done a great job of handling the kind of problems that can pop up on any team. One such example came early in the year, when JuCo transfer Milos Klimovic appeared to be a cancer to the team, sulking on the bench, refusing to high-five teammates, and causing a stir over playing time. Broadus sat Klimovic for almost a month, and as of late Klimovic seems to have embraced his role as a shooter off of the bench. Broadus also benched freshman Devon McBride after an on-court outburst at Vermont. McBride has since left the team, and Binghamton has been playing its best ball of the season. Binghamton does still look susceptible to a dominant post presence, as Warren McLendon went to town against the Bearcats in Hartford’s win over them.

Vermont: The Catamounts are finally getting healthy, which should cause problems for the rest of the league. Marqus Blakely, as of right now, has been the Player of the Year in the conference, and is easily the most important player to the Catamounts. Blakely’s athleticism is unmatched in the conference, and after putting on a solid 15 pounds of muscle over the off-season, he is really doing damage in the post. While Blakely’s highlight-reel dunks have been the biggest crowd pleaser (seven in one game versus Maine!), he has made the biggest impact cleaning the glass and giving Vermont a shot-blocking presence that they have not had since the late Kevin Roberson. Mike Trimboli continues to provide fiery leadership and a big time outside shot, and Nick Vier appears to finally be coming into his own as a shooter (although he has hardly looked like a point guard). The biggest addition for Vermont, however, has been getting Kyle Cieplicki back from injury. Cieplicki, the longest-tenured captain in Vermont history, is a quiet leader who always seems to hit the big shot.

Vermont isn’t without its weaknesses however, as their atrocious foul shooting could really bite them come tournament time. Furthermore, for all his talents, Trimboli has yet to truly prove that he is “the man,” as he still has not been able to score (or at least score without taking a tremendous amount of shots) against teams who put big athletic players on him (see UMBC when he was covered by Spadafora). Furthermore, Blakely is a monster, but after him Vermont has looked very weak in the low post (again, see their game versus UMBC).

Hartford: The Hawks have been a huge question mark this season, at times looking like the team to beat, at other times looking beatable by anyone. One could say they sum up the league in a nutshell.

Hartford has been killed by outside shooting, and when they don’t have the services of Warren McLendon, they get killed in the post. When McLendon is on the floor, however, he changes the dynamic of the game, as he is easily the most skilled big man in the conference. The biggest problem with McLendon is the fact that he seems to be officiated differently than any other player in the conference. It’s unfortunate that he came in with the reputation that he did, and that he is almost too strong for his own good, because referees watch him like no other player. It would be one thing if he was called for a lot of “ticky-tack” fouls but also drew a lot of fouls on opponents, as no one in the conference gets hit the way he does every time down the court. However, what is so frustrating for him and the Hartford coaching staff is how the calls don’t seem to go both ways. On one end of the floor McLendon gets whistled for minor contact, yet on the other end opposing teams are allowed to hit him all game long without fear of being called for it.

One opposing coach who wanted to be quoted anonymously even said when asked about defending McLendon “the word is out, in the league, that you can play Warren in a way that you can’t play anyone else, and that you can get away with a ton of contact on him. Our philosophy is to make sure we hit him at least 3 times every offensive possession they have, and so far it didn’t hurt us when we played him, and the talk around the league is that that’s the way to play him. It’s a good thing, too, because we can basically take the most talented player in the league out of his game, because of the way he is being reffed.”

Albany: The Great Danes have looked great at times, and struggled greatly as well, a lot of it has to do with consistency in the team’s energy and effort every game, the team being everyone except for Brian Lillis. Lillis has done a phenomenal job going from a role player and defensive stopper in the shadow of Jamar Wilson and Jason Siggers to one of the best players in the league and a go-to scorer. No other guard in recent memory has been the kind of shot-blocker that Lillis is, either. Lillis has been able to score, defend, and crash the boards for Albany, and there is no question that he is not only the team’s best scorer, defender, and rebounder, but also the heart of the team.

Unfortunately for the Danes, the supporting cast has struggled greatly. Other than spurts here and there, Brent Wilson has not upped his game to become anything more than a zone-busting shooter from downtown. Tim Ambrose, who has all the talent in the world, has struggled to simply see time on the floor due to his lack of a grasp of the D-I game. Albany also has gotten nothing on the offensive end from any of their three centers, and while Brian Connelly has been solid and gets an A for his hustle, he certainly hasn’t lived up to the pre-season billing.

With that said, Albany has a ton of size, and really crashes the boards. They also got Josh Martin back from injury, which is huge because Lillis can move back off of the ball and become even more of a scorer. Jon Iati deserves special recognition, as he was told last March that his career was over, has not practiced all season, has only seventy-percent feeling in one of his legs, and is still giving everything he has in games, and has hit some huge shots during the year.

The Best of the rest

New Hampshire: Coach Bill Herrion has the best freshman class in the conference, and if he can bring in another one like it, he will have a serious contender on his hands in the future. The Wildcats have dealt with some serious adversity this year, already having a short roster and having to play without Tyrone Conley (mono) and Rony Tchatchoua (academics) for long periods of time. The Wildcats struggled greatly playing so short-handed, but they never, ever, gave up, and their all-out play could cause serious problems in the tournament for opponents, especially because they are now back to full strength.

Alvin Abreu is the Rookie of the Year, hands down, and he has a combination of skills, ability, effort, and mind-set, rarely seen at this level. Abreu, who can light it up from outside, put the ball on the floor, post up, and finish with either hand around the hoop like Jamar Wilson, could be the next to join Wilson, T.J. Sorrentine, and Jose Juan Barea, as an elite guard to come through the America East. Tyrece Gibbs has raised his game to a new level, and has become a big-time shooter, while Mike Christensen has finally realized that he’s 6’8″, and at times has ditched the three-ball and crossover dribble for post-up moves. Dane DiLiegro, who somehow was not recruited by anyone else in the conference, looks to be the real deal in the post, and is not only a terrific rebounder, but one of the most tenacious finishers (via the slam dunk) in the conference.

The Basement

Boston University: Corey Lowe looked like a Player of the Year candidate, and his absence only furthers his case, as without him the Terriers look like, on both offense and defense, five chickens running around with their heads cut off. If Lowe returns to health, the Terriers should make their way out of the basement. Without him, they are flat-out a bad team.

Tyler Morris missed almost half a year due to injury, and he plays as hard as he can, but simply isn’t back to his old self physically. John Holland looks like he could be a special player down the road, as he is not only a top-notch athlete and big-time dunker, but a real shooter who can beat defenders off of the dribble. However, it is asking an awful lot of Holland to expect him, as a true freshman, to carry the team, which is exactly where the Terriers are at right now. Carlos Strong’s game seems to have regressed, and he doesn’t seem to want to beat his man off of the dribble right now.

The Terriers’ true failing is their lack of any kind of low post game. Scott Brittain provided some scoring in the post early on, but he seems to have regressed, and even at his best, Brittain isn’t a physical player in the low post. BU has been lacking that sort of physical play in the post all season, and could really use a Ryan Butt, Jason Grochowalski, Billy Collins, Rashad Bell, or Kevin Gardner, as they get pushed around nightly. They also can be terribly overmatched athletically against conference foes, something hard to fathom considering their high-flying teams from 2002-2004.

Maine: The Black Bears have beaten UMBC on the road and Albany on the road, and looked terrible against everyone else. This displays 2 things: Maine has some talent, and they don’t seem to know how to execute any kind of a game plan. Every once in a great while the Black Bears can win on talent, but most of the time, they are bogged down in the quagmire they call a game plan.

Junior Bernal is a great slasher, but he needs to be moved off the ball. Unfortunately Maine doesn’t have anyone to run the point. Mark Socoby continues to improve and is a deadly shooter when teams play Maine in a zone defense, but he has struggled against physical or athletic defenders when played in man coverage.

The most baffling aspect of Ted Woodward’s offense is the lack of playing time and touches that Brian Andre has been getting since the conference season began. Andre was unstoppable against the likes of Providence and Florida State, and at 6’9″ and 310 pounds with good athleticism, most America East teams can do little to stop him. However, since the conference play began, Woodward has seemed more willing to just let his guards chuck it and keep Andre on the bench. Andre should be getting at least 10-15 (more in the vicinity of 15) shots a game, which would force defenses to focus on him and free up Maine’s shooters.

Stony Brook: Steve Pikiell stated that when he took over the job three seasons ago he had, in essence, a Division III team, and brought in half a team last year and half a team this year. He feels confident that next season they will turn the corner.

However, after watching the improvement of New Hampshire and Hartford, one has to wonder exactly how long it should realistically take to show some improvement. The Seawolves have some talent, especially in the post, but they refuse to give their bigs any touches around the hoop, and instead play as a team full of “chuckers” around the perimeter. Furthermore, Pikiell still hasn’t fully grasped a true rotation, as playing time seems to be, at times, arbitrary. The Seawolves have three point guards who one any given night could play 25 minutes or 2 minutes, and that seems to sum up their team.


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