Imbalanced America East Makes for Crucial Battles at the Top

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 13th, 2015

Vermont and Stony Brook have finished first and second in the America East for three straight seasons and neither has beaten the other at home (in the regular season) since 2011, so it goes without saying that the Catamounts’ 71-57 victory in Burlington on Saturday was fairly important. For John Becker’s club, it was a key win against this year’s preseason favorite and validation of the program’s resiliency after graduating the bulk of last year’s starting five. For the Seawolves, the loss was a missed opportunity and fifth-straight defeat in Patrick Gymnasium, but the outcome might end up carrying even more importance than it would have in previous years. Not only do the conference’s top four seeds host preliminary games in its postseason tournament for the first time since the mid-1990s, but there are few leagues in the country with a more substantial dropoff in quality between its top and bottom than the America East. With Vermont, Stony Brook and a few others jockeying for position — and the rest of the league offering minimal competition on a nightly basis — regular season battles among its handful of contenders are more important than ever.

Vermont bested Stony Brook on Saturday in a crucial America East tilt. (Photo: BRIAN JENKINS/For the Free Press)

Vermont bested Stony Brook on Saturday in a crucial America East tilt. (Photo: BRIAN JENKINS/For the Free Press)

First, the top. Three America East teams – Stony Brook, Vermont and Albany – currently rank in the KenPom top-200, with the Seawolves standing above the rest at 113th. Boasting the league’s best player in Jameel Warney (16.6 PPG, 12.2 RPG), and wins over Washington, Western Kentucky and Columbia (x2), Steve Pikiell’s crew certainly looks like the class of the conference. Still, Vermont reaffirmed its contender status over the weekend, and Albany – the league’s NCAA Tournament representative in each of the last two seasons – has enough talent and experience to challenge anyone, especially at home. At the bottom, on the other hand, it’s a far different story. UMass-Lowell, Binghamton, UMBC and Maine, the league’s four worst teams, are each currently ranked 290th or below, and although Pat Duquette’s River Hawks have had their moments this season, the latter three squads are especially bad, coming in at 337th, 342nd and 343rd, respectively – ranking among the 15 worst teams in college basketball. To date, they’ve combined for just five total wins on the year, and as a result, the chasm between the top three teams and the bottom four teams is so large that Stony Brook, Vermont and Albany are each favored – in many cases heavily – to win the vast majority of their league contests (outside of each other) for the remainder of the season. And while that does not mean there won’t be the occasional slip-up, the fact that the Seawolves (43%) and Catamounts (38%) each have a very real chance of going undefeated against the bottom four from here on out speaks volumes about the significant imbalance.

The impact of that imbalance? It puts more pressure on the contenders to hold serve against each other. If the road for Vermont is smoothly-paved leading up to its game at Stony Brook on February 7 – let’s say it has two league losses – and the Catamounts steal a road win, they would be in the driver’s seat for the conference tournament’s top-seed even if the Seawolves beat everyone else on their schedule. In turn, under the America East’s new format, Vermont would maintain home court advantage throughout the event. And as the Great Danes have demonstrated in back-to-back seasons – both the 2013 and 2014 pre-championship rounds were held in Albany’s SEFCU Arena – that can be the difference between an NCAA Tournament berth and an early exit.

Until then, the ‘x-factors’ might wind up being the two teams in the middle, Hartford and New Hampshire. To discuss both squads is to discuss a tale of two seasons; the Wildcats have both exceeded expectations and their win total from a year ago, while the Hawks, tabbed second in the preseason, have struggled offensively and underachieved through two months (including a bad home loss to Central Connecticut State). First team all-conference forward Mark Nwakamma (13.5 PPG, 5.7 RPG) has increased his production in recent weeks, however, which could be a good sign for Mark Gallagher’s club. With the fourth-seed and an eventual tournament home game on the line, the degree to which both Hartford and UNH are able compete with and occasionally defeat Stony Brook, Vermont and/or Albany will go a long way in determining the final standings.

For the Catamounts – which rolled through the America East last season but disappointingly lost in the conference tournament – and the Seawolves, which have never reached the Big Dance despite multiple league titles — you can bet those standings mean a whole lot.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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