Want to overreact to one conference game over winter break? Boy do I have the column for you.
Coming into the year, the America East was built to be a two horse race. Your clear favorite would be the Catamounts of Vermont, led by sawed-off thunderbolt Trae Bell-Haynes and do-it-all Anthony Lamb. Sure, the Catamounts had pieces to replace from the team that was a trendy pick to beat Caleb Swanigan in last year’s tournament, but John Becker’s bunch were always going to be a good bet.
The leading challenger was farther west in Albany. The Great Danes’ backcourt duo of David Nichols and Joe Cremo could go punch-for-punch with anyone in the conference, scoring explosively from all three levels. Throw in a defensive stopper in Devonte Campbell and a low post scorer in Travis Charles, and you have an awfully complete starting lineup, even if the bench is a little thin.
Precisely one game into the conference season and things are tasting a little weird.
It all starts with Anthony Lamb, who I love, and who is on the shelf indefinitely with a foot fracture. All Lamb had done prior to getting hurt was score nearly 17 points a night (6th in the America East) on a disgustingly efficient 58.3% true shooting percentage while grabbing six boards a game (8th in the America East). It’s a little early to say that Vermont is doomed to fall apart without their star (they did beat an also ailing Harvard team in their first game without Lamb), but it is absolutely fair to have serious concerns about how they can replace that amount of production.
Lamb is in the top 30 players in the nation in usage rate. That’s a lot of shots to redistribute.
Albany, meanwhile, laid a pretty large egg in their first game as America East frontrunners. Just a few weeks removed from taking Louisville down to the wire, the Great Danes coughed up a home game to prospective cellar dweller, Hartford. The final score of that one (72-64) is kinder than it was in reality, as well. Albany’s 20-2 run in the later stages of that game help mask what was a pretty comprehensive Hartford win (even if the Hawks did their hardest to lose).
What we’re left with on January 3rd is an America East conference whose leaders seem a lot more vulnerable than they did even a few weeks ago.
The question now becomes who can step up and pose a legitimate threat to the duopoly on top of the conference.
Stony Brook responded to a huge non-conference win over Rutgers by losing to one of the 20 worst teams in the country (Norfolk State) and only squeaking past another bottom 20 team (Maine) thanks to hitting a 30-foot buzzer beater. That’s not a lot to be confident about.
UMBC, who have the potential to be extremely fun with Jairus Lyles getting buckets night in and night out, will have a chance to assert their bonafides on the road against Vermont on Saturday. Their win over Northern Kentucky at home in December certainly gives them reason to be optimistic.
Shoot, Hartford has three home games in a row after knocking off Albany, and no team in the conference has as impressive a two-game streak as the Hawks do through taking out Rutgers and Albany on the road. They’ll almost assuredly revert to form soon, but hey, it’s awfully fun right now.
If the second-tier of the America East wants to make this thing a race, they’ve finally been given an opening to do it.
Whether or not they have the firepower to make it interesting is the new dominating storyline in the conference.