America East Tournament Preview: Vermont Is a Monster
Including the postseason, Vermont has won 34 of its last 35 America East games. Let’s take a closer look at the bracket to determine if there are any potential landmines. I sure hope not, as this Vermont team has “parking lot” potential.
I will also finish up with ATS predictions for all four quarterfinal games today, two of which I really like. Also, if I see any conference tourney futures pop up before the games tip at 1 p.m. ET, I will update this piece accordingly.
2018 America East Tournament Overview
The top eight seeds of the league qualified for the conference tourney, which meant that Binghamton was the odd man out of the nine team league. Every America East tournament game will be played on the campus site of the higher seed between Mar. 3 and Mar. 10. The bracket will also reseed after the four first round matchups (quarterfinals), which will all be played today.
How Good is Vermont?
The Catamounts are a dominant force that wins with defense and rebounding. And this year, head coach John Becker also has the best offensive team he’s ever had in Burlington (since 2011). Vermont has a huge target on its back as it plays for back-to-back AmEast titles, but this is a battle tested, veteran crew. Plus, UVM is getting healthier. Becker is trying to work the league’s best player in Anthony Lamb back into shape after returning for 11 minutes in the regular season finale. (And No. 8 seed Maine is an excellent candidate for him to ease back into the lineup). Lamb missed most of the season with a broken foot, and Becker had some interesting things to say about his return in the Burlington Free Press:
“I think he’s coming back, and this is early, he’s coming back a better player without playing and a better teammate and (has) a better understanding of what we are doing,” Becker said. “He just looks older, wiser and more mature. I think it’s going to work out.”
With Lamb returning to a crew of senior leader PG Trae Bell-Haynes, the sharp shooting Duncan brothers, and a veteran frontcourt rotation, anything less than a second straight title would be stunning. Let’s take a look a closer look at the top challengers to UVM’s crown.
No. 2 seed UMBC is dangerous because of its ability to spread the floor in transition and put up points in a hurry. Senior Jairus Lyles is playing with a bit of a chip on his shoulder after being snubbed for AmEast Player of the Year (the award went to Bell-Haynes, who benefited from the “playing on the best team” effect). UMBC is fun to watch, as they extend pressure full court and have three point guards on the floor between Lyles, KJ Maura, and Jourdan Grant. Everyone can shoot the three as well. Unfortunately, games tend to slow down in the AmEast playoffs and the Retrievers completely lack a frontcourt. They were also dismantled by Vermont in both meetings, including an 81-53 drubbing at home when UMBC opened its brand new gym. (That was arguably the biggest game in the history of UMBC hoops). Not a good sign for the Retrievers should they escape their half of the bracket.
Speaking of which, UMBC actually has a tough first round test with No. 7 seed UMass Lowell today. This is the first conference tournament game in UML’s D1 history. The River Hawks have arguably the league’s most dynamic player in 6’2 cannonball Jahad Thomas, who rebounds like he’s 6’10 and attacks the rim with relentless fervor. Thomas is UML’s best scorer, rebounder, pass, defender…best everything. He’s coming off a 40 point performance in a road win at New Hampshire. Overall, UML is playing its best basketball of the season. The problem is they play the same frenetic, open court game that UMBC thrives in.
Who Cracked the Code?
No. 3 seed Hartford had a surprisingly great AmEast season, which probably saved head coach John Gallagher’s job. His Hawks were healthy this year and far less reliant on the 3 than in previous seasons. That gave Hartford more consistency and balance with the ability to work the ball through junior forward John Carroll in the paint. Hartford has a steady PG in JR Lynch and a volume scorer in Jason Dunne in the backcourt. And of course, the Hawks are the only team to have defeated Vermont in league play in the past two seasons. Hartford did so on the road in Burlington. However, its celebration on UVM’s home floor didn’t sit well with the Catamounts. I would expect some major revenge should the Hawks navigate their way to the title game.
They’ll first have to get by No. 6 seed New Hampshire, which is a “tall order” in and of itself. UNH severely under-performed this season, but head coach Bill Herrion has the league’s best frontcourt with Tanner Leissner and Iba Camara. The Wildcats run offense through the post at the 10th highest rate in the country, per Synergy. The bad news is that teams have simply zoned UNH out of nearly every game. The Wildcats grade out in just the 8th percentile nationally in zone offense. They shot the three at the league’s worst mark while attempting them at the highest rate. UNH failed to solve Hartford’s matchup zone in either regular season meeting.
Head coach Will Brown and his Albany squad have won the tournament twice as a No. 4 seed, which is where the Great Danes landed this year. Albany is an attack heavy team, featuring the constantly penetrating backcourt of Joe Cremo and David Nichols. It also generates extra possessions by relentlessly attacking the offensive glass. This style has always served Brown well in tournament settings, which is why Albany has captured so many titles despite rarely having the league’s top seed.
Unfortunately, Travis Charles’ status is unknown after spraining his knee late in the season. Charles is Albany’s best frontcourt player and the heart and soul of the team. If he’s out, No. 5 seed Stony Brook will have an excellent chance to advance to the semifinals. Stony Brook has some offensive shortcomings, but the Seawolves are actually playing their best basketball of the season since Jeff Boals went to a smaller lineup. He boldly sent senior center Tyrell Sturdivant to the bench in order to play two point guards with frosh Jordan McKenzie suddenly seeing a lot of run. It seems counterintuitive to go small against rim-attacking Albany, but Sturdivant didn’t provide any rim protection anyway. Interesting first round matchup for the Danes.
Saturday ATS Predictions
UM Lowell +9.5, Over 152 (both top ATS predictions)
Stony Brook +8.5 (top ATS prediction)
America East Final Prediction
Vermont over UMBC
Photo credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports