The America East Tournament begins Wednesday with its quarterfinal round taking place on campus at the higher seeds. That gives the advantage to the top seeds, all four of which have legitimate chances to earn the automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Albany, Vermont, Stony Brook and New Hampshire all finished with double-digit wins in the conference, basically thrashing the rest of the league. No other team finished above .500 in the league, and both UMBC and Maine finished 2-14.
That doesn't mean that the bottom teams can't pull the upsets. Hartford got its dream draw against New Hampshire, a team they beat once, and lost to in overtime. If the Hawks can get all of their scorers clicking at once, something not too easy against that Wildcat defense, they have a shot to move on.
But in reality, this is a fight among the top four for the title.
Favorite: Albany Great Danes (21-8, 15-1)
Albany gets the benefit of home court advantage in the tournament, where the Great Danes went 9-3 this season. They should be considered the favorites to take home the title after going 15-1 in conference. The trick is that it is a deceptive 15-1. The Great Danes sport a decent offense which is a rarity in the America East, and spread the offense around through four primary shooters to generate it. The place where they are vulnerable is on defense, where they are just average at best. They don't have any shot blockers -- the tops for that was Sam Rowley, who had a total of 20 this season -- and they benefited from a conference that likes to give the ball away. If any team gets hot shooting against them, especially from 3-point range, Albany can be beaten, but only Stony Brook was able to put together the combined offensive and defensive performance to do so this season.
Upset Special: Vermont Catamounts (17-12, 12-4)
Admittedly it isn't much of an upset to pick the 2-seed as the upset special, but Vermont does have the best shot at overthrowing Albany even if they couldn't do it during the regular season. The Catamounts have the best defense in the America East, and they actually showed it in their first meeting with the Great Danes. In that game, Vermont held Albany to just 0.78 points per possession, and allowed just four players to score. The Catamounts had eight blocks and eight steals. If that was the only line you had on the game, you would be hard pressed to understand how Vermont didn't win. Except that Vermont shot just 10-for-26 on its 2-point shots, and 4-for-20 from 3-point range. They actually had just 0.73 points per possession, and that is with only 10 turnovers in the game. It was brutal. The second meeting went much better on the scoring front for both teams, and Vermont held a seven-point lead in the second half that was squandered with a nine-point run by Albany over three minutes. This is the defense that can stop Albany though, from its inside presence led by 6-9 Ethan O'Day, to ball-hawking Dre Wills (58 steals). If Vermont finds its shot, it is all over.
Player to Watch: Jameel Warney, Stony Brook
Jameel Warney earned his second straight Player of the Year award Monday, becoming just the sixth player in conference history to win the award twice. The others include guys that became famous for their work in the NCAA Tournament, or their NBA careers, such as Reggie Lewis, Malik Rose and Taylor Coppenrath. But you probably haven't heard of Warney unless you follow the America East because Stony Brook keeps missing its chances to make the NCAA Tournament. In Warney's freshman year, the 14-2 Seawolves lost to Albany in the semifinals of the conference tournament. Last season, with a 13-3 team that managed to avoid top-seeded Vermont in the finals, they again lost to Albany. So while fans of the league know how dominating Warney can be, both offensively and defensively (oh, he also won the Defensive Player of the Year), he is virtually unknown outside of the Northeast. So here is a quick primer on what Warney can do: everything.
You want stats? Here are stats:
16.3 points (.535/.000/.578), 11.4 rebounds, 2.4 blocks (yeah, so about the only thing he doesn't do is shoot 3-pointers). He has an impressive ability for a guy that is 6-8 to hold onto the ball despite getting hammered inside almost five times per game, committing just 52 turnovers all season. That rebounding number? It didn't just come cleaning up the glass on the defensive end. He is ranked 27th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, which translated into raw numbers was 129 offensive rebounds. All that while upping his career scoring numbers to 1,408 points. While his offensive may have been slightly down (yes, down) this season, the added boost he brings on defense makes him a feared opponent both in this tournament, and down the line, possibly in the NCAA Tournament (although it is more likely the CIT, or CBI for the Seawolves).
Mid-Major Madness prediction: Vermont