Top America East storylines to watch:
1. Can Vermont continue their total dominance over the league? They didn’t lose a single conference game last year, and return nearly every major piece.
2. While UVM looks to dominate the league again, Will Brown’s Albany squad is dangerous, and they’re hungry after leading UVM in last year’s title game most of the way.
3. UMBC completed one of the biggest single season turnarounds in all of D1 in Ryan Odom’s first year. With Jairus Lyles and KJ Maura returning, the Retrievers should once again have the league’s most explosive offense.
4. The league is deep this year. UVM is of course UVM, and Albany is right behind them, but even the cellar dwellers from last year should be much improved, most notably Hartford and Binghamton.
5. UMass Lowell is finally postseason eligible after their four-year probationary period expired after last season. Despite nine postseason eligible teams, the league tournament will stick with an eight-team field.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
1. Vermont– The Catamounts return arguably the two best players in the league in senior point guard Trae Bell-Haynes and sophomore standout power forward Anthony Lamb (who I’m more than a little shocked didn’t "transfer up" after a stellar freshman year). While the rest of the league has generally improved from last year, another undefeated AmEast season isn’t totally out of the question for UVM. John Becker (who was heavily courted by Duquesne in the offseason) did lose some key veteran pieces in Kurt Steidl, Sixth Man of the Year Darren Payen, and the league’s best perimeter defender Dre Wills, but the Catamounts still return four starters and add a few key pieces in Becker’s freshmen class with 6-foot-6 sharpshooter Skyler Nash and Ra Kpedi (Becker continues to mine the state of Indiana for talent), who adds immediate bulk to the frontcourt. After battling back injuries for two years, junior Ernie Duncan started to look like his old self, especially off the dribble. He and his brother Everett are both poised to make big leaps for Becker’s backcourt this year, with senior Cam Ward bringing a veteran presence off the ball as well. Returning to the frontcourt at the 5 will be senior Payton Henson, giving Becker the league’s best 4/5 combo with Lamb. Both players have reportedly been working on their perimeter game in the offseason, which could prove to be a major headache for opposing AmEast defenses, especially given that UVM was already the league’s most efficient offense last season. Quinnipiac transfer Samuel Dingba should see immediate minutes in the frontcourt, particularly for his defense and rebounding ability. Veterans Drew Urquhart and Nate Rohrer round out the frontcourt rotation for Becker. Given Becker’s outstanding defensive schemes and the continuing development of both Lamb and Bell-Haynes’ offensive games, seeing the Catamounts playing past the first round in March is entirely within the realm of possibility. This team is one of the country’s best mid-major squads in 2017-18, and they’ll be battled tested after a nonconference slate that has them opening at Kentucky and playing in the Bahamas.
2. Albany– The Danes are clearly UVM’s biggest threat in the AmEast, and a Will Brown team is always potent, but of course more so when he returns his top five leading scorers from a team that nearly upset the undefeated Catamounts in the AmEast Tournament final. The Danes return arguably the league’s best backcourt with the combination of David Nichols and Joe Cremo. Nichols is a pure scorer on the ball, and delivered one of the more memorable, and heartbreaking, moments of last season when he dropped 40 on Hartford to open the AmEast tourney just a few days after the tragic loss of his sister. Cremo can play on or off the ball as well, and at 6-foot-4 is virtually unstoppable when he wants to get into the paint against a smaller guard. JUCO transfer Ahmad Clark gives Brown a true ballhandler that can free up Nichols when they’re on the floor together. As usual, Brown has a slew of Aussies coming in this year, and Cam Healy is the most likely to see minutes at point guard. Brown’s frontcourt is high on quantity, if just a touch lacking in quality, but as long you rebound and clog up the lane defensively (Brown’s defensive scheme always relies heavily on "conceding" the perimeter shot and crashing the glass relentlessly on both ends), you’re going to see minutes. Travis Charles is an improving back to the basket option, while Greig Stire is a veteran that knows Brown’s tendency to switch zones better than anyone. Those two are the mainstays of a frontcourt that should see a lot of early rotation experiments, while Devonte Campbell returns at the three as well. Campbell draws a ton of contact and rebounds his position extremely well, but could use an improved jump shot this year. The Albany/UVM battles are going to be appointment streaming, and I would be fairly shocked if we don’t see them square off three times.
3. UMBC– Ryan Odom led the Retrievers to one of the biggest single season win total turnarounds in all of D1 in his first season at the helm, and with the league’s best pure scorer in Jairus Lyles returning alongside lightning quick point guard KJ Maura, UMBC should continue their upward program trajectory. With that combo in the backcourt (in addition to senior Jourdan Grant), Odom should once again rely on an up-tempo, four out offense that fires the three at will. (UMBC played at the fastest pace in the AmEast while hitting 40 percent of their 3s in league play). However, with their inability to defend on the wings and against downhill rim attackers and no clear replacement for floor stretcher Will Darley, the ceiling is definitely visible for the Retrievers, especially with UVM and Albany above them. The frontcourt will be anchored by big Nolan Gerrity, a solid rim protector and efficient post presence, but the 3 and 4 are big question marks for this team outside of Joe Sherburne’s ability to hit the triple. UMBC will once again bring the league’s most exciting offense to the table, but another CIT invite (where the Retrievers won three games last year) is probably the best to be expected.
4. New Hampshire– Bill Herrion has led UNH to unprecedented program success the last three seasons, and the Wildcats return the league’s deepest frontcourt, led by potential AmEast POY Tanner Leissner and one of the country’s best rebounders in Iba Camara. Herrion will also have Jacoby Armstrong back, who was a burgeoning offensive talent on the block until he missed last year due to suspension. The glaring issue for UNH this year lies with the backcourt. Herrion has to find a way to replace Jaleen Smith and Daniel Dion, and it’s likely he won’t have a set rotation with his guards until AmEast play begins. Jordan Reed is the heir apparent at the point, but Darryl Stewart (who failed to qualify in time last year as JUCO transfer) and freshman Elijah Jordan figure to be immediate factors as well. While the backcourt is in total flux, the frontcourt should carry the Wildcats to another top half league finish.
5. Stony Brook– It took some time to sort out, but Jeff Boals delivered in his first season at SBU, leading the Seawolves to a surprise second place finish in their first post Pikiell/Warney season. Boals built that surprise finish largely around a defense that turned the league over at the highest rate while stifling offenses around the rim (which makes sense given that Boals is a Thad Matta disciple, who regularly had his Ohio State’s teams playing among the best packed in defense in the country), and the play of point guard Lucas Woodhouse. Woodhouse has graduated, and Roland Nyama left early, so Boals has a new set of challenges in his second year at the helm. This year’s team will rely heavily on senior post Tyrell Sturdivant and sophomore wing Akwasi Yeboah, at least while Boals figures out the backcourt. Yeboah particularly should give SBU fans hope, as he finished the year on a scoring tear and is a nightly double double threat in addition to being the team’s best all around defender, capable of guarding 2-4. If there’s a player who could singlehandedly change his team’s fortunes with his offseason development, it’s Yeboah. The backcourt, however, is a mess in the wake of Woodhouse’s departure. Mike Almonacy will have first crack at point guard duties, and Boals will be relying heavily on Andrew Garcia to be fully recovered from a pair of knee surgeries that has delayed his SBU debut.
6. Binghamton– Probably a make or break year for Tommy Dempsey in Vestal, as he finally has a veteran laden squad, assuming the Bearcats can avoid the injury bug that has routinely bitten them during his tenure. Dempsey’s teams at Rider (where he was before Binghamton) were known for their up-tempo play and various zone presses. Due to off-court issues and injuries, Dempsey simply hasn’t had the personnel to fully implement his system. That should change this year, assuming JC Show is 100 percent recovered from a season-ending injury last year. The combo of Show and Willie Rodriguez at the 2 and 3, respectively, is as solid of a duo as there is in the league, but Dempsey still has some major question marks at the point and in the frontcourt. It’s hard to push the pace without a talented point guard, and while Timmy Rose and Yosef Yacob are plus shooters, I’m not sure they’re the points Dempsey has in mind. That said, there aren’t exactly a whole lot of options besides Rose to run the show. Everson Davis had a chance to really shine with Show’s injury last year but seemingly regressed. I’m not sure what to realistically expect from the junior off guard this year. The frontcourt has its fair share of issues as well. Thomas Bruce is an enforcer defensively, but limited on the other end. Dusan Perovic (another frequent injury victim) and Caleb Stewart (brother of former Monmouth shooter Collin) can stretch the floor from their positions, but offer little defensively. All in all, the Bearcats are an interesting sleeper candidate if they remain healthy, but I’ve said that the last three years running in my AmEast previews, and they’ve yet to even produce a top half league finish in that span.
7. UMass-Lowell– A hearty welcome to the River Hawks! The excessively long D1 probationary period is finally over for Pat Duquette’s squad, meaning UML is postseason eligible for the first time this season. While it’s unlikely that the River Hawks will be invited to any postseason tournaments, the clear goal for this first year of full D1 status is to qualify for the eight-team AmEast tourney, and I think they should be able to do that. Duquette loves to play fast with a four guard alignment centered around do-everything point-4 Jahad Thomas. Thomas is one of my favorite players not just in the AmEast, but in the entirety of D1 basketball. He’s just 6-foot-2, but bangs with opposing 4s and rebounds like he’s 6-foot-9. In a game against Hartford last year, he pulled down 19 boards while adding 19 points and 10 assists. He’s truly one of the most unique players in the country, and he’s done it all after ACL tears in each knee. Thomas is joined by a pair of plus shooters in Ryan Jones and Matt Harris, and the River Hawks will really be relying on sophomore wing Rinardo Perry to make a big leap – especially defensively – in Duquette’s frenetic zone pressure schemes that are used to make up for his teams’ lack of height. The return of Josh Gantz from injury gives UML’s usually overmatched frontcourt a boost.
8. Hartford– John Gallagher’s Hawks suffered another long year, filled with a multitude of injuries and a porous defense that allowed opponents to score at will. But what really killed the Hawks was the fact that they shot just below 30 percent from 3 in league play. That’s putrid for any team, but it’s a death sentence for an inverted offense like Gallagher’s that relies as heavily on the three ball as any team in the country. In fact, last year was the first season in Gallagher’s tenure at Hartford that the Hawks didn’t finish in the top 10 nationally in 3-point attempt rate. The bad news for the Hawks in their attempt to climb the AmEast standings this year is that Jalen Ross and his 20 points per game graduated. The good news is that basically everyone else is returning. Fiery off guard Jason Dunne should lead the way for the Hawks in scoring, while junior point guard JR Lynch is due for a big step forward with Ross gone. JUCO sharpshooter Travis Weatherington was Gallagher’s biggest offseason addition and should also help offset the loss of Ross in the backcourt. The frontcourt is actually one of the more underrated units in the league, assuming the big Irishman John Carroll is back to full strength after an ACL tear two years ago. Reports from his play with the Irish national team have been extremely encouraging. If Carroll is 100 percent, the combination of he and prolific shot blocker Hassan Attia is more than solid. That’s assuming Attia can stay on the court. The 6-foot-10 Egyptian paired the league’s highest block rate with the league’s highest foul rate. Gallagher also has a pair of stretch fours at his disposal in Jack Hobbs and George Blagojevic, although the latter’s offensive efficiency fell off a cliff in his sophomore season. I’m certain Gallagher is hoping for a rebound year in his junior campaign. Despite the loss of Ross, there’s reason to believe a top half finish is within the realm of possibility for the Hawks this year.
9. Maine– I’ve rarely seen a team decimated by injuries and suspensions like the Maine Black Bears were last season. To top that off, Bob Walsh had to deal with the seemingly ubiquitous "locker room music fight," but this scuffle involved his best player breaking another player’s jaw. Yikes. I’m sure Walsh is happy to turn the page on last season, but this year has already started with a bit more of the same, as Vincent Eze is out for the year after requiring another surgery on his hip. Due to the personnel issues, Walsh had to dramatically slow down his Tim Cluess-inspired up-tempo attack, and it will be interesting to see if he begins to play at a breakneck speed again with Aaron Calixte healthy in the backcourt. With all that went wrong for Walsh last year, I was half shocked that sophomore Andrew Fleming didn’t transfer up after a stellar freshman campaign. The 6-foot-7 local product was an all-around force after getting healthy at the end of the year. With his return and Calixte’s healthy foot, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel in Orono, but Walsh will need 6-foot-6 sharpshooting Turk Ilker Er to make a big leap on the wing (he was one of the many walking wounded last year), and a slew of JUCOs to have immediate impacts if the Black Bears are going to qualify for the AmEast tourney.
Vermont wins their second straight AmEast tournament title, and will once again be a popular upset pick against a 4/5 seed come March. Albany returns to the CIT, with UMBC and UNH potentially in the postseason as well.
FIRST TEAM ALL AMERICA EAST PREDICTIONS:
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Anthony Lamb, Vermont
Anthony Lamb, Vermont
Trae Bell-Haynes, Vermont
Jairus Lyles, UMBC
Tanner Leissner, New Hampshire
Jahad Thomas, UM Lowell
David Nichols, Albany
Joe Cremo, Albany
Akwasi Yeboah, Stony Brook
JC Show, Binghamton
Ernie Duncan, Vermont