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America East preseason power rankings: Vermont is still on top, but Hartford can break through

The Catamounts are no lock to get to the dance.

NCAA Basketball: America East Final-Vermont vs UMBC Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

In the alternate universe where Jairus Lyles missed his game-winner over Vermont, the Catamounts are the two-time defending America East champions and are 37-1 against the league in that span. In that universe, the Catamounts may have even won a game in the 2018 NCAA Tournament a 12 or 13 seed.

Alas, except for a small pocket of folks in Burlington, the America East will take its actual reality just fine, thank you much. UMBC’s thrashing of Virginia (you want to watch the highlights again, you say?) in March will live as long as there is college basketball played in this land, and perhaps a little longer.

But where do we go from there? Despite UMBC’s run, Vermont still finished last season nearly 100 spots higher in KenPom that any other team in America East, and, even with some massive losses to graduation, will remain the favorite for another campaign.

1. Vermont Catamounts (27-8, 15-1 America East, lost to Middle Tennessee in first round of NIT)

One of the big “what ifs” Catamount fans have about the America East title game is not Lyles’ winning shot, but Anthony Lamb’s health. He played, but was limited to 23 minutes as he was recovering from a broken foot and was far from the dominant force he was before the injury. In the long run, however, did the injury prevent him from being a prime candidate to transfer up to a bigger school? Lamb returns for his junior season fully healthy and the Catamounts will need him to return to his dominant form.

The rest of the Vermont roster contains not one, but three Duncan brothers, as freshman Robin Duncan joins Ernie (senior) and Everett (junior). Like Lamb, the Duncans will face more pressure with the graduation of five of the eight players who appeared in that infamous (for Vermont) UMBC game in March: Payton Henson, Trae Bell-Haynes, Drew Urquhart, Cam Ward, and Nate Rohrer. Bell-Haynes, last year’s senior point guard, may be the toughest to replace (likely by sophomore Stef Smith, a fellow Canadian). But John Becker brought in a heralded recruiting class that will be tested against the likes of Kansas and Louisville in November.

2. Hartford Hawks (19-14, 11-5 America East, lost to San Diego in first round of CIT)

With a new contract in his pocket, John Gallagher is pushing most of his chips into the center of the table this season. Center Hassan Attia graduated, but four starters return and all are seniors, led by John Carroll, J.R. Lynch, and Jason Dunne. Lynch and Dunne have a lot in common with a certain K.J. Maura and Jairus Lyles, so Hartford will most certainly win an NCAA Tournament game, right?

The Hawks are not without questions. Attia played a big part in their defensive resurgence and replacing him will be difficult. Hartford also had a mediocre first two months of last season. But perhaps the biggest sign of the Hawks’ aspirations comes from their non-conference schedule, which has hovered into the 320s in strength the last few seasons, but this year includes a trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium as well as Mississippi State.

3. UMBC Retrievers (25-11, 12-4 America East, beat 1 seed Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by 20 points)

The Twitter account remains, but Jairus Lynch and K.J. Maura do not at UMBC. Add the strange target appearing on the Retrievers’ back, and an encore may be a difficult proposition this season. But some names that didn’t get headlines should be able to step into the void and fill some of it. Look for junior Arkel Lamar to have a breakout season, as his combination of shooting the three (41.0%) and being sixth in America East in defensive rebounding should make him a force in the league.

Joe Sherburne and Max Curran also saw major minutes in the big games and should be ready to move into larger roles. Daniel Akin also returns, as the Retrievers should be able to continue a defensive renaissance that saw them come from one of the worst teams in the nation to second in America East last season in defensive efficiency. Scoring consistently may be tougher. Long-term, however? In addition to becoming the most unlikeliest Cinderella ever, they opened a new arena last season and somehow convinced coach Ryan Odom to stay put. So things are good.

4. Stony Brook Seawolves (13-19, 7-9 America East)

It’s been a bit of a rocky learning curve for now-third-year head coach Jeff Boals. Last year’s squad was abysmal offensively, finishing 301st nationally in eFG% (47.9%) and 306th in three-point shooting (30.2%). They did play better at the end of the season, when they won at UMBC and beat Albany in the America East Tournament.

Things should start with junior Akwasi Yeboah, whose escape from a prolonged shooting slump helped fuel Stony Brook’s late-season run. The rest is not as clear. Can a player like sophomore Elijah Olaniyi (last season’s America East Rookie of the Year) or senior Jaron Cornish break out with some improvement in his shooting? It would help the Seawolves’ cause immensely.

5. Albany Great Danes (22-10, 10-6 America East)

Albany was the anti-Hartford last season, starting 10-1 and beating the likes of Yale and Iona (and nearly Memphis) before struggling in conference play despite having a veteran team. The fallout was four transfers, the two most significant going the graduate route to high majors: Joe Cremo to Villanova and David Nichols to Florida State (the other two were little-used Matt Conway and Xavier Cochran). With Travis Charles and Greig Stire graduating, it’s a rare rebuilding job for Will Brown in his 17th season at Albany.

The Great Danes will have to lean on their lone returning starter, Devonte Campbell, and hope the freshman class, UMass graduate transfer Rayshawn Miller, and Seton Hall transfer Philip Flory can get up to speed quickly. Long-time America East observers will be shocked (well, not that shocked) to find out that Brown and his staff are looking to Australia to fill its roster. It’s worked before, and although it might take a while to sort it out, it could work again.

6. Binghamton Bearcats (11-20, 2-14 America East)

Tommy Dempsey is 47-136 in six seasons with Binghamton and will return for a seventh campaign, which may tell you something about what the program looked like before his arrival. Dempsey and the Bearcats have been snakebitten by injuries in the past, but last year didn’t have many. They still managed to go 3-16 after an 8-4 start to the season.

Much of Binghamton’s success this season will rest on seniors J.C. Show and Thomas Bruce. Show averaged 14.6 points per game last season, but thanks to injury, has never shown the potential he had when he transferred from Bucknell. Bruce has not been a huge scorer, but has been a big force in the paint and on the glass on the defensive end. The Bearcats feature three Stewarts, but only two are related, brothers Caleb (senior) and Carter (freshman).

7. UMass-Lowell River Hawks (12-18, 6-10 America East)

I regret to inform you that Jahad Thomas, perhaps the most prolific 6-foot-4 power forward in the nation the last few years, has graduated. The America East and UMass Lowell will go on, but won’t be the same. Last season — the River Hawks’ first of NCAA Tournament eligibility — was a bit disappointing, but they did have the claim to fame of leading UMBC by double digits in the first half of the America East quarterfinals. As you’ve probably figured out, it didn’t hold.

Quite simply, the River Hawks have not been able to defend the paint, and last year’s stats (329th nationally in defensive efficiency, 314th in defensive rebounding) bear that out. Radford transfer Christian Lutete is a guard, but he (along with point guard Ryan Jones) may be the first line of defense in that quest. Pat Duquette knows he’ll need to find some other answers as well.

8. New Hampshire Wildcats (10-21, 6-10 America East)

After an exceptional 2016-17, last season was supposed to be the one where New Hampshire contended for an America East title. The Wildcats never came close, as Tanner Leissner and Iba Camara did not get as much help as they needed. Now, New Hampshire has the difficult task of trying to improve without them.

Bill Herrion has said his team will run this season (the Wildcats were 313th in adjusted tempo in 2017-18) and it will be interesting to see how that develops. It may benefit sophomore point guard Elijah Jordan, whose minutes diminished as last season progressed. There will probably be days where New Hampshire will look really bad (especially against the likes of UConn and Seton Hall), but it will up to fans to trust the process in transition.

9. Maine Black Bears (6-26, 3-13 America East)

New coach Richard Barron is not actually new. In fact, he’s won regular season America East titles and Coach of the Year awards in Orono. With the women’s team. It’s a bold experiment for Maine, which also hired Edniesha Curry as the only full-time female assistant in Division I. But the Bearcats don’t have a whole lot to lose after going 30-124 in the past five seasons.

Barron will also be without last season’s most productive player as Aaron Calixte went to Oklahoma as a graduate transfer. Isaiah White had an excellent second half of the season and will team with Andrew Fleming and Ilija Stojiljkovic to bring some experience to the squad. Nowhere to go but up.