If you looked at how the America East standings have been the past few years, then looked at the final standings this time around, there was a familiar look. Consistency can be a good thing in many contexts, but as it applies to America East, it is not in one respect: right now, the conference appears to be stuck in neutral from a competitive standpoint.
Over the past six seasons, the conference has been dominated by Stony Brook, Albany and Vermont. Boston University was annually a contender, too, before departing for the Patriot League, but the overall pattern doesn’t change. In particular, the past two seasons have seen the same four teams finish in the top four, and then a big drop-off as four games separated fourth from fifth place each season. The bottom of the conference is having a tough time moving up, with most of the programs in some form of transition.
And frankly, there isn’t much reason to expect a great deal of change as far as the standings go in the immediate future.
A look at the top starts it off. Stony Brook will lose two of their all-time greats, and the head coach who built them up from their modest beginnings is gone, but everything is in place for the Seawolves to remain a powerhouse. Albany will probably reload once again with Will Brown still running the program. Vermont is a well-oiled machine with a solid leader in John Becker; the names and faces may change, but the results are still the same. New Hampshire returns every significant contributor from a team that just made its second straight postseason appearance and is led by one of the all-time great coaches in the conference’s history.
Now, towards the bottom: UMBC will have a new head coach. Hartford had its big chance a couple of seasons ago with a team full of seniors and is trying to rebuild with a young nucleus. Maine is heading into their third season under Bob Walsh and their leading scorer from this past season transferred. Binghamton looked to be progressing under Tommy Dempsey, but they appear to have plateaued a bit, though they were also young in 2015-16.
The one immediate hope to make a dent in the top four appears to be UMass-Lowell, a program that continues to show promise as they pass the halfway point of their transition into Division I. Thus far, they have finished no worse than 6-10 in conference play and either fifth or sixth in the standings. Pat Duquette is building a program that will have some potential, evidenced not only by what they have done early in their transition, but how they swept Vermont this season.
So when you look at the standings before the conference tournament next season, don’t be surprised if there is a familiar look to them. The pattern appears ready to continue for the time being.
The top four teams in the conference all saw postseason play. Stony Brook bowed out to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament, while Albany and Vermont competed in the College Basketball Invitational and New Hampshire made its second straight appearance in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. Albany lost at Ohio 94-90 in overtime in the first round of the CBI, while Vermont reached the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Nevada. New Hampshire beat Fairfield in the first round of the CIT before losing at Coastal Carolina in the second round.
After the season ended, two coaching changes came about. UMBC fired Aki Thomas, replacing him with Ryan Odom. Before Odom was hired, Steve Pikiell left Stony Brook to take the head coaching job at Rutgers. After hiring a search firm, the school hired former Ohio State assistant coach Jeff Boals to take over.
The conference had its second consecutive year of having the tournament exclusively at campus sites, with re-seeding after each round. The quarterfinals went about as expected, save for one game. Top seed Stony Brook took care of UMBC 86-76, while No. 3 Vermont beat No. 6 Maine 99-82 and No. 4 New Hampshire edged Binghamton 56-51. The surprise came as No. 7 Hartford ousted three-time defending champion Albany 68-59.
The home squads won the semifinals, with Stony Brook handling Hartford 80-64 and Vermont edging New Hampshire 63-56. That set the stage for another chance for Stony Brook, this time back on their home floor.
The Seawolves started well, getting the ball to Jameel Warney early and often, but before the half was done, Vermont had grabbed all the momentum and a 36-27 halftime lead that they would grow to 15 points in the second half. Then Stony Brook was the comeback team, roaring back behind Carson Puriefoy (17 of his 23 points in the second half) to eventually take a 62-61 lead. Vermont came right back and went up by four before the last media timeout, at which point the dynamic duo of Warney and Puriefoy took over and led the Seawolves to an 80-74 victory and their first NCAA Tournament bid, led by Warney’s 43 points tied a championship game record and came on 18-22 shooting, and he added ten rebounds and four blocks.
Player of the Year: Jameel Warney, Stony Brook
Rookie of the Year: Joe Cremo, Albany
Coach of the Year: Steve Pikiell, Stony Brook
Defensive Player of the Year: Jameel Warney, Stony Brook
All-America East Team
Tanner Leissner, So. F, New Hampshire
Carson Puriefoy, Sr. G, Stony Brook
Ray Sanders, Sr. G, Albany
Evan Singletary, Sr. G, Albany
Jameel Warney, Sr. C, Stony Brook
- Stony Brook big man Jameel Warney joined elite company: third player in conference history to win Player of the Year three times, the third to reach 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds, and the 12th to earn All-America East honors all four seasons, making the first team three times.
- Albany guard Joe Cremo is the first player in conference history to win Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year in the same season.
- In non-conference play, America East teams won the most games since the 2012-13 season.
- Four teams reached postseason play for the second straight season.
What we expected, and it happened: Stony Brook, Albany and Vermont led the way. See above.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Not much, really. See above.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: UMass-Lowell, still a young team in its third Division I season, finished fifth and swept Vermont. The potential this program has as the young core grows is immense, and there’s now every indication that they will contend at least as soon as they are eligible for the conference tournament.
Team(s) on the rise: New Hampshire. At long last, the Wildcats have tasted postseason play two years in a row, and much of the team returns next season. There is finally some momentum in the program, and a lot of things line up for next season to be even better.
Team(s) on the decline: Stony Brook. This isn’t so bad, but it’s inevitable because they’ve been so good and now lose so much just from the departures of Warney and Puriefoy as well as the coach. It shouldn’t be a precipitous decline or a long one, because there’s a lot in their favor and Jeff Boals is a solid hire, but there’s almost nowhere to go but down in the short term from a place so high.
2016-17 America East Outlook
As noted earlier, at first glance there is no reason to expect the standings to look very different at the end of next year. Stony Brook loses two of the best players in the conference, but so does Albany, and the Seawolves will also have an almost entirely new coaching staff. Vermont is Vermont, and the Catamounts will return most of their team this time around. What will be interesting to watch is if New Hampshire, who will return the most talent and experience in the conference, will crack the top three.
There’s no question the Wildcats can do it. Stony Brook and Albany will be vulnerable from a personnel standpoint, while the Wildcats have an experienced, winning core. Only Vermont can possibly match them on paper at first glance. The Wildcats have made two straight postseason appearances and may be ready to take the next step as contenders.
With UMass-Lowell giving every reason to believe they will remain competitive as their transition continues, the bottom of the conference is where the questions come in. Can Binghamton regain some semblance of progress, or have they already peaked under Tommy Dempsey? Can Maine improve defensively as a first step to trying to reach the first division in Bob Walsh’s third year at the helm? Does Hartford have another act under John Gallagher? Will UMBC show some potential to move up in Ryan Odom’s first year?
All of the bottom teams were much younger this year, but youth didn’t stop Vermont and New Hampshire from contending. Questions are also likely in terms of coaching futures at all except UMBC, who just made a coaching change. In the cases of Dempsey and Gallagher, they may move toward a hot seat, while Maine’s progress, or lack thereof, next season will say something about the direction Walsh has them going. All are solid basketball people and also very likable, but results and trends matter and at this point, none appearing to be trending strongly in the right direction.