If last year was any indication, the America East is a competitive conference with a powerhouse that few fans will recognize. Albany, with the heroic effort of senior Peter Hooley, won their third-straight America East tournament in 2015 thanks to a 51-50 thriller that propelled the Great Danes to the NCAA tournament.
Stony Brook, who came up just short last season and has yet to make it to the Big Dance, looks to be a prominent figure this season in the America East with players returning in many positions. The Seawolves are the favorites to make it to the 2016 NCAA Tournament and have the firepower to get there.
It would also be foolish to count out Vermont, who has an extensive history of making the Big Dance. Head coach John Becker has the Catamounts primed to win the league title for the first time since 2012 and has a bevy of returning starters to challenge both Stony Brook and Albany.
With that, let's take a look at the top four contenders in the America East this season.
2015-16 America East Projections:
1. Stony Brook Seawolves (23-12, 12-4 in 2014-15)
- KenPom Preseason Ranking: 88
- Key Returnees: PF Jameel Warney, Senior (16.4 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 2.5 bpg), PG Carson Puriefoy, Senior (14.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.4 apg), Forward Rayshaun McGrew, Senior (8.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 1.1 apg)
- Key Losses: None
The Seawolves are on the cusp of making the NCAA tournament for the first time in the school's history. They have arguably the league's best assortment of talent, but need to win in March. Last year's 51-50 loss in the American East Championship game could fuel head coach Steve Pikiell and his group, who look to be favorites for a breakout campaign in 2015-16 in the conference.
Power Forward Jameel Warney dominated league play last year and was the only player to average a double-double in the conference. He's regarded as the Preseason America East Player of the Year, and it's apparent as to why with his dominant two-way play. The Seawolves are looking for more consistent play from senior point guard Carson Puriefoy, who averaged 14.4 points per game but shot just 38.1 percent from the floor and 30.4 percent from deep.
Stony Brook excels on the boards, which will likely be the team's primary focus this year. Warney paced the team with 11.7 RPG and senior Rayshaun McGrew was another board cleaner hauling in 7.9 per game. Tied for fifth in the nation for rebounds per game, the favorites have a significant advantage over their AE counterparts. Whether that leads to success late in March remains to be seen, but the talent warrants the belief that Stony Brook can go dancing.
2. Vermont Catamounts (20-14, 12-4 in 2014-15)
- KenPom Preseason Ranking: 89
- Key Returnees: Forward Ethan O'Day, Senior (12.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.1 bpg), SG Dre Wills, Junior (9.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.9 spg), PG Trae Bell-Haynes, Sophomore (8.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 3.5 apg)
- Key Losses: Forward Hector Harold (8.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.1 apg)
Vermont isn't flashy, but the team is definitely consistent. Finishing their seventh-straight 20-win season in 2014-15, the Catamounts enter the 2015-16 slate with depth and returning starters needed to challenge for the crown. A breakout candidate to take note of is sophomore point guard Trae Bell-Haynes. Despite struggling with ball handling and having a 3.5:3.1 assist-to-turnover ratio, the 6-2 point guard took the reigns as a freshman and finished third on the team in scoring (8.8 PPG) and field goal percentage (50.3 percent) in 2014-15.
The Catamounts also have a senior leader adept in many facets of the game. Senior forward Ethan O'Day could challenge Warney for American East Player of the Year status at the end of the season due to versatility. O'Day led the team in field goal percentage (57.1 percent) and Vermont led the conference in the respective category at 47.1 percent for the year.
Retuning four of their leading scorers from last season, Vermont is a safe pick to finish at the top of the American East standings by the end of the season. With one of the most talented rosters in years, challenging Stony Brook for the conference title will be an enticing matchup.
3. Albany Great Danes (24-9, 15-1 in 2014-15)
- KenPom Preseason Ranking: 133
- Key Returnees: PG Evan Singletary, Junior (13.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.8 apg), SG Ray Sanders, Senior (9.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.2 apg), SF Mike Rowley, Junior (3.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 0.7 spg), Forward Peter Hooley (13.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.3 apg),
- Key Losses: Forward Sam Rowley (13.9 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.2 spg), North Dakota Transfer Wheeler Baker (5.6 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 0.4 apg)
The reign of the Great Danes could come to a cataclysmic end in 2015-16. With the loss of fixtures Sam Rowley, this season could be a transition year for an Albany team who has won the past three AE titles. The team did get a small boost by having Peter Hooley return for his graduate season. Head coach Will Brown does still have possible all-league point guard Evan Singletary to utilize.
Singletary finished third on the team in scoring and first in assists at only 2.8 per game. Dishing the ball was a struggle last year for Albany, who finished No. 312 in the nation in assists per game. Facilitating the ball for efficient looks is essential to repeat as champions in the America East.
Albany could struggle against length this year and more talented teams in both Stony Brook and Vermont, but have the championship pedigree necessary to hang around the top of the standings throughout the season despite losing Rowley. They won't have much time to prepare for the conference slate, as they face powerhouse Kentucky in their season opener.
4. New Hampshire Wildcats (19-12, 11-5 in 2014-15)
- KenPom Preseason Ranking: 155
- Key Returnees: Forward Tanner Leissner, Sophomore (12.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 1.1 apg), SG Jaleen Smith, Junior (10.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.3 spg), Forward Jacoby Armstrong, Junior (9.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.1 apg)
- Key Losses: SG Matt Miller (9.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.1 apg)
The Wildcats parlayed a breakthrough 2014-15 campaign into a postseason appearance in the CIT, but New Hampshire can take the next step this season. Luckily for head coach Bill Herion, his roster has a prominent mix of upperclassmen and sophomores who can compete in the league. Star forward Tanner Reissner, who won the 2014-15 America East Rookie of Year last season, looks to lead the Wildcats to their first America East title and has help in two juniors.
Shooting guard Jaleen Smith finished second on the team last season in both points per game (10.7) and rebounds per game (5.2) but has to be a more efficient ball handler as he led the team in turnovers. Jacoby Armstrong teams with Leissner in the frontcourt and gives New Hampshire much needed size on the block as a 6-7, 230-pound forward.
New Hampshire might not get the national recognition of an Albany or Vermont, but are a dark horse to end up playing for the America East title with talented forwards and an inclining program.
Ed Note: This was edited after posting since Albany's Peter Hooley is back. We apologize for the mistake.