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.
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.