(Author’s note: I would like to take a second to apologize to my readers, as well as the loyal fans of the America East conference, for my prolonged absence. I had several things that I was juggling on my plate that prevented me from writing more during the past few months, however I have still been able to keep my finger on the pulse of the America East conference – by my current count I have still managed to attend far too many America East games thus far. I hope that my readership will return to Hoopville, as I dive back into the action of covering the America East for the stretch run).
There’s no way to sugar coat it: The America East just isn’t good this year. After spending last season ranked in the mid-teens, the America East looks destined to end the season ranked in the mid-twenties. And to be blunt, in the nine years that I have followed the conference, this is the weakest it has ever been.
The silver lining, however, is that the “down year” could produce a tremendous conference tournament. Last season parity reigned supreme in the America East, and while there was no real “power” like Vermont and Boston University during the first part of the decade, Albany of a few years ago, or even UMBC from two years ago, what resulted was the most competitive conference tournament in recent memory, as every single game seemed to go down to the buzzer. With even more parity this season, the 2010 “AE” Tournament could prove to the most hard-fought, dramatic, and compelling in conference history. The common phrase thrown around every season is “on any night, any team can beat any other,” but nowhere has this phrase ever been more true than the upcoming tournament, as on a neutral court in Hartford, literally any of the nine America East squads has a real chance of beating any of the other eight.
For the conference as a whole, there is light at the end of the tunnel, as the league will be better next season (it couldn’t get any worse, right?) The vast majority of the America East’s talent lies within it’s junior (John Holland, Joe Zeglinski, Dane DiLiegro, Greer Wright, Sean McNally, Tyrone Conley, Alvin Abreu, Tim Ambrose), and sophomore (Tommy Brenton, Gerald McLemore, Jake O’Brien, Brian Dougher, Dallis Joyner) classes.
Having seen all nine teams play live at least three times, here are some quick thoughts on the year:
- While parity reigns supreme, the foursome of Stony Brook, Vermont, Boston University, and Maine have separated themselves from the rest of the league (yes, that’s right, Maine!) Amazingly, Binghamton (yes, the same Binghamton that lost its top 3 talents, head coach, Athletic Director and 3 other players, and struggled against division II schools early on) has already knocked off two of the top four teams in the standings, and looks to be straddling the middle ground between the top-four and bottom-four in the league.
- As always, winning on the road is going to play a large roll in determining the final standings, which is why I like Stony Brook as my top-team right now. Granted the Seawolves have had close calls at home against lesser conference foes (six-point wins over New Hampshire and Albany), and have lost to both Binghamton and Maine (perhaps the least “talented” of the top 5 teams in the conference). But Stony Brook has played the toughest conference schedule to start the league slate, playing all of the top teams in the league (Vermont, BU, Maine, Binghamton) on the road. The Seawolves went into Boston and punched BU in the mouth, thoroughly beating the Terriers in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score (84-75), and trekked up to Vermont and out-toughed the Catamounts for a five-point win in a gritty, physical game. The Seawolves have depth (they use a ten-man rotation), play super-physical (toughest team in the league), and crash the boards and defend the heck out of the ball as a team, no matter who is on the floor. They also have the league’s most diverse offense, with Brian Dougher (and to a lesser degree Marcus Rouse) providing big-time shooting from downtown, Muhammad El-Amin, Chris Martin, and Tommy Brenton attacking the basket on drives, and Brenton and Dallis Joyner giving the Seawolves a threat in the low post. With that said, Stony Brook is still very short on experience, and has a tendency to rely on three-point shooting too much while ignoring their low-post scorers, and while I see the Seawolves as the favorites as of now, it is by the slimmest of margins.
- The two surprises of the conference have been Maine and Binghamton, and both deserve a tremendous amount of credit.
- Coming off of a season in which they won eight games, played completely uninspired ball, and “phoned it in” during their play-in game loss in the conference tournament, no one (myself included) expected much out of Maine, a team that seemingly hasn’t found a way to string two wins together since head coach Ted Woodward took over five years ago. The Black Bears shocked Boston College on the road for the America East’s “biggest” non-conference win (the Black Bears should expect that BC head coach Al Skinner will be removing them from his schedule from here on out), and currently sit atop the league standings at 5-1. That includes a home win over Stony Brook and a win on the road at Binghamton. Sophomore Gerald McLemore continues to impress, ranking 7th in the conference in scoring (14.8 ppg), and junior center Sean McNally continues to play the role of school yard bully in the paint (11 ppg, 7.6 rpg). But the difference for the Black Bears has been their play on the defensive end, and the emergence of several very solid role players. Maine has controlled the tempo of the game – playing physical, clogging passing lanes, contesting shots, and generally slowing it down to a snail’s pace – and is holding America East opponents to a league-best 58.5 points per game. For all his scoring, McLemore, who is a prolific three-point shooter who also gets tough buckets on drives to the basket, has made an equally big impact on the defensive end.Newcomers Murphy Burnatowski and Mike Allison, as well as the return of junior Malachi Peay and emergence of Troy Barnies, has given Maine a legitimate cast of complementary players to McNally and McLemore. Burnatowski, a freshman from Canada, is the Black Bears’ best athlete, and while still rough and without a position offensively, the 6’7″, 230-pound (more like 6’5″, 245) has a mean streak and toughness on the court that Maine has been missing for years, and makes things tough on the defensive end. Fellow Canadian Allison has given the Black Bears a nice touch and an offensive boost off of the bench, and at 6’9″ he should only get better when he puts some weight on his skinny frame. Peay returned after missing the first half to concentrate on academics, and is a defensive tornado who seems to always have his hands in the passing lane, and also gives the Black Bears a new dimension on the offensive end as he has a knack for getting to the hoop. Barnies may never develop into the player that Black Bears fans had hoped, but since being moved to the bench halfway through the non-conference season, he seems to finally be understanding that he’s 6’7″ and a decent athlete playing in a conference of 6’5″ post players, and is finally beginning to defend and rebound.
- As surprising as Maine has been, the biggest jaw-dropper of the season has been the play of the Binghamton Bearcats, who witnessed the implosion of last season’s conference championship squad, yet have found a way to not only be competitive, but frankly, be a very solid team. To be fair, the Bearcats do benefit from playing in front of the conference’s largest fan base, and the Events Center in Binghamton is the one true home court advantage in the America East. The Bearcats are also a much more pedestrian team on the road than they are at home. But still, this is a team suiting up seven scholarship players. This is a team which didn’t return one of its top four scorers from last season, and one which has ridden through more controversy and bad press than any team in the history of the America East. What is going on at Binghamton is a credit to the collective hearts of their remaining players. Binghamton has also benefitted greatly from the play of Greer Wright, a JuCo transfer who has played himself onto the 1st team All-Conference. A springly 6’7″, Wright can score from all over and is proving to be a huge match-up problem in the America East. In Binghamton’s home victory over Vermont, Wright outplayed two-time Player of the Year Marcus Blakely, and poured in 30 points on 10-15 shooting. The Bearcats have also benefitted from the play of freshman Dylan Talley, who looks like the conference Rookie of the Year, and is also a tough match-up as a very strong 6’5″ guard. Binghamton doesn’t have enough bullets to win any shoot-outs, but they defend the hell out of the ball, play with tremendous heart for 40 minutes, and at home in front of their vocal fan base are going to be a very tough out for anyone.
- For all the talk of parity, the America East champion is going to be one of three teams: Boston University, Vermont, or Stony Brook. Binghamton just doesn’t have it to win on the road, and as excited as I am to see Maine competing, I still don’t have a ton of faith in Woodward, and they just don’t have the athletes or experience. Vermont is a “one trick pony” with Marqus Blakely carrying their team on both ends, but the America East might just be bad enough for that one trick to win. Boston University has absolutely no depth, but when John Holland, Corey Lowe, and Jake O’Brien are all playing to their potential and they finally have been clicking at the same time as of late – they are going to be very tough to beat. Stony Brook is the most balanced team, as they are tough and athletic, they defend, and have a mean streak.
But what do I know? After all, here’s how I ranked the team in the pre-season:
- Stony Brook
- New Hampshire
And with half of the season in the books, here’s how the league standings look as of now:
- Maine 5-1: (13-6 overall)
- Stony Brook 6-2: (14-7)
- Boston University: 6-2 (11-9)
- Vermont: 5-2 (14-7)
- Binghamton: 3-3 (8-13)
- Hartford: 3-4 (5-15)
- New Hampshire: 2-4 (7-10)
- Albany: 1-6 (6-16)
- UMBC: 0-7 (1-19)
I’ve got two right, that’s gotta’ count for something… right?
Make sure to check back in to Hoopville for upcoming bi-weekly conference notebooks, game stories, and player features, as well as a multi-part trip down memory lane.
It’s good to be back.