As we march towards November 8 and the official start of the 2013-14 basketball season, Mid-Major Madness will be bringing you conference previews on a regular basis to get you ready for tip-off. We'll also be highlighting these conferences and speaking with experts and coaches on our weekly podcast.
Last season there was a clear divide in the top and bottom halves of the America East. Stony Brook, Vermont, Boston U, Hartford and Albany all finished with winning conference records while Maine, New Hampshire, UMBC and Binghamton found themselves racking up numbers in the L column. But the loss of BU, one of the best offenses in the America East last year, will allow for the league to be more competitive throughout. The addition of UMass-Lowell from DII Northeast-10 Conference will also spice things up this season.
In March, Albany unexpectedly snuck out of the conference tourney with a trophy and a date with an ACC powerhouse in the NCAA Tournament. The crown came after Mike Black’s last-second game-winner knocked out Stony Brook in the semifinals, again proving that anyone can win on any given night in mid-major basketball. Who has what it takes to swipe the title this season?
Last Year: 25-8 (14-2), 1st America East, NIT 2nd Round
When a team is both tops in a conference in both scoring offense and scoring defense for a season, a 14-2 league record makes sense. Last season was one of efficient dominance for Stony Brook, where head coach Steve Pikiell, the coach of the year, led the Seawolves to their third America East crown in the past four years. Unfortunately for Seawolves fans, Stony Brook came up short in the conference tournament and failed to reach the NCAA Tournament, after getting shocked by Albany in the conference semifinals, but they did earn the league’s first men’s NIT win in over 20 years. Losing the conference Player and Defensive Player of the Year in Tommy Brenton will hurt. But with Pikiell returning his top three scorers from last season, along with rising sophomore Carson Puriefoy, look for the America East crown to be back in Long Island come March. A little vengeance can often go a long way.
Departures: John Peterson (4.5 ppg)
Fortunately for Hawks fans, Hartford returns all five of their top scorers from last season, featuring none other than Mark Nwakamma. Coming off of his stellar sophomore campaign, Nwakamma will once again be looked upon to lead the Hawks’ efforts on both ends of the court. An agile big, Nwakamma runs the floor well, rolls hard to the basket off of screens and can penetrate and gets physical in the paint. With the big man in the middle, head coach John Gallagher is able to implement a pretty sound offense that uses a lot of motion that can open up shots from deep and around the tin. A probable improvement from the Hawks’ three-point shooters, Moore, Sikma, Cooper and Wes Cole, is what could push this team to the next level. Picking Hartford to take the league would certainly be the sexy pick, and it’s not unrealistic to slot them there. We just have to give respect to the defending champs.
Last Year: 21-12 (11-5), 2nd America East
Departures: Trey Blue (8.6 ppg)
John Becker’s squad has been very competitive in his first two seasons as head coach of the Catamounts and 2013-2014 should be no different. Vermont is returning six of their top-seven scorers from last season, only losing Blue to graduation, and now find themselves as one of, if not the, most experienced teams in the conference. Vermont has been a top competitor in this conference for years and they’ll be in the fight for the crown til the end.
4. Albany Great Danes
Last Year: 24-11 (9-7), 5th American East, NCAA Second Round
Departures: Mike Black (14.8 ppg, 1st Team All-Conference), Jacob Iati (12.2 ppg)
Most people know Albany as that team with funky uniforms who gave Duke a run for their money in the NCAA Tournament last March. They’re still that feisty unit. Coach Will Brown signed a contract extension through 2017-2018 during the offseason. Last year, Brown went with a 10-man rotation for the majority of the season in 2012-2013 and is returning six of those 10 guys, handing the keys over to sophomore Peter Hooley after losing senior guards Mike Black and Jacob Iati. Hooley excelled coming off the bench last season and will have the help of a returning starting frontcourt in John Puk and Sam Rowley. If Hooley is able to shoulder the scoring load and set the tone on offense, Albany could compete. But it’s still likely they’ll be one of the lesser top teams in the league.
Last Year: 8-23 (5-11), 8th America East
Departures: Ryan Cook (15.4 ppg, 2nd Team All-Conference), Brian Neller (10.2 ppg)
In 2012-2013, the Retrievers finished top-five in the conference in scoring, however UMBC’s defense, which yielded 71.5 points per game, held them back from truly competing. Now the Dawgs must also replace two of their top-three scorers from a year ago who graduated. Can junior guard Joey Getz and sophomore Aaron Morgan shoulder some of the scoring load? And can the team dig in defensively? Those two answers will be crucial for the success of coach Aki Thomas in his second season at the helm of the program. But, those tasks will likely be too large to accomplish to let this team really compete this season.
Last Year: 11-19 (6-10), 6th American East
Key Returners: Xavier Pollard (9.7 ppg), Zarko Valjarevic (8.4 ppg)
Longtime head coach Ted Woodward is fortunate to return four of his top five scorers from a year ago but he did drop a starter in Mike Allison to graduation and lost Justin Edwards, a Player of the Year candidate, to Kansas State. Even further, Alsadir Fraser signed overseas. Maine will need to quickly fill the hole that Allison leaves in the paint on defense and replace Edwards' scoring punch when they compete against the upper echelon of the league, but this squad should be able to at compete on any given night.
Last Year: 9-20 (5-11), 7th America East
Following a bumpy season, the Wildcats have lost three of their top-five scorers from last season’s 7th ranked offense in the conference due to graduation. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see if head coach Bill Herrion’s three returning starters, Konan, Pelcher and Jordan Bronner, will be able to pick up the scoring slack. But in order to compete in this top-heavy conference, UNH will have to have a receive a complete offensive effort from the entire team.
Last Year: 3-27 (1-15), 9th American East
One of the bottom two teams in the conference for three-straight years now, Binghamton looks poised to make a slight jump this season. But with Jimmy Gray graduating this team will go as sophmore Jordan Reed goes—athletic jumper who can score, can get to the rim and finish. Reed isn’t really a shooter, but those who have seen him play know he simply gets buckets. Reed needs to improve on his efficiency (39% FG) from last year and convert more from the line (66.5%) if he really wants to spearhead an affective offensive attack. The Bearcats were the worst offensive team in the conference last season, only managing to drop 55.9 points a night.
9. Massachusetts Lowell River Hawks
Last Year: 15-13 (10-12), 8th Northeast-10
Departures: Matt Welch (13.0 ppg), Romeo Diaz (5.5 ppg)
Key Returners: Akeem Williams (19.9 ppg, NE-10 1st Team All-Conference), Antonio Bivens (15.5 ppg, NE-10 3rd Team All-Conference), Chad Holley (11.2 ppg)
The first year as a Division I program isn’t usually a smooth transition. UMass Lowell also has a first-year head coach in Pat Duquette, a disciple of Bill Coen at Northeastern. And, while the Hawks very productive offense returns all three of their double-digit scorers from last season, this is a squad that surrendered 75.6 points to Division II opponents in all last year. That isn’t a good sign for their jump to the big leagues.