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Checking in on the America East: A wild ride so far

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A look at the top players, teams and some thoughts on the two-game weekend format

NCAA Basketball: Vermont at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The America East has been a wild ride so far this season, but has operated a little under the radar. Hartford has played 11 contests, while Maine and Albany have only played five times. Mighty Vermont is sitting at .500 after six conference matchups, thanks in part to a SportsCenter-worthy buzzer-beater from San Antonio Brinson of the freshly-added NJIT Highlanders.

Everything that happens this season can be prefaced with “well, this year is weird because...” but through three weekends of the back-to-back series style of conference play, we can begin to form a general idea of the landscape.

Best projected teams:

UMBC Retrievers

In their season opener, they played Georgetown closely and lost by eight before ripping off seven straight wins. They put up a stinker and dropped a close one to Binghamton on Dec. 28 and barely snuck by Albany twice, but they had by far the best non-conference victories (St. Francis, George Washington, Delaware) and senior Brandon Horvath has been one of the best players in the America East.

Vermont Catamounts

Vermont, lacking a true star player after the departure of Anthony Lamb (and to a lesser extent Everett Duncan), just hasn’t looked like itself yet. The Catamounts have split every series so far, and didn’t play a non-conference schedule due to COVID-19 issues. Surely rust has something to do with their performance, but these are not your father’s Catamounts. Junior Ryan Davis has developed into a floor-spacing big, averaging 22.3 points and 6.2 board per game, but senior point guard Stef Smith needs to shoot better than 36.2 percent for Vermont to maintain its dominance.

Need to see more:

Hartford Hawks

Don’t get me wrong, Hartford has some good pieces and the Hawks have been pretty darn good so far, but their 7-4 record — good for second in the conference — is buoyed by two wins over Fairfield and one over Central Connecticut State, both of whom rank in the bottom-40 teams in the nation. They’ve eked out really close wins against Maine and Binghamton, got swept by New Hampshire in Durham, and lost to UConn before getting shellacked by Villanova during non-conference play. Sophomore guard Moses Flowers has shown impressive flashes, but is not an efficient scorer or playmaker yet and has missed the last two games with an injury, leaving his status uncertain. Hartford is really close, but not quite there (yet).

UMass Lowell River Hawks

Am I the only one who thought the River Hawks were making the tournament when they were tied with Ohio State at halftime in late-November? No? Perfect, glad I wasn’t alone. UMass Lowell was pegged to finish seventh in the preseason poll so it’s not like the Riverhawks have failed to meet expectations, they’ve just let a few winnable games slip away and haven’t been able to capitalize on the play of senior Obadiah Noel, who is averaging 21.2 points a night. Their second-leading scorer is posting a whopping 6.2 points per game.

“They are who we thought they were!!! -Dennis Green” -Me:

Maine Black Bears

Maine graduated Sergio El Darwich and Andrew Fleming, the leaders of last year’s squad that took notable steps forward in their development as a program. The Black Bears have replaced their production by committee — 10 players have a minutes percentage over 25 percent, per BartTorvik, and six of whom were sparingly in the rotation last year. It’s gone fairly well so far as they topped rival New Hampshire at home last weekend, lost to Hartford at the buzzer in their season-opener and played a competitive game at Boston College. Maine has some areas to improve, but it is trending upwards.

New Hampshire Wildcats

In head coach Bill Herrion’s 16th season at the helm, the Wildcats have a good a shot to finish as high or higher in the America East standings than ever before. New Hampshire is off to a .500 start after non-conference losses to Bryant and Quinnipiac, even with junior preseason all-conference player Nick Guadarrama and senior Sean Sutherlin both sidelined. Marque Maultsby — a prime candidate for the “this guy has been in college forever” team — and Jayden Martinez will keep the Wildcats competitive until they’re back at full strength. Fun fact: per BartTorvik, New Hampshire’s 18.9 defensive rebound percentage ranks ninth in the nation. Second-chance points do not exist in Durham.

Way-too-early Player of the Year contenders:

Obadiah Noel, Zach Cooks, Brandon Horvath, Ryan Davis

As mentioned above, it’s too early for this but that is exactly what college basketball blogs specialize in. So, here we are. Noel has been the clear-cut favorite for America East Player of the Year so far; his 21.2 points per game leads the conference and ranks 23rd in the country, and he does it on 58% true shooting. His assist percentage is 28.4, his usage is through the roof and he gets to the free-throw line at an absurd rate. The only argument against him to this point is the moderate lack of success that UMass-Lowell has had, but it’s not his fault.

Zach Cooks has led NJIT to a solid start in its first season in the America East. NJIT has split its series with UMass-Lowell and Vermont and beat Rider in non-conference play with Cooks leading the way in scoring at 16.2 points per game. Last season, he led the A-SUN in scoring, so when his 36.5/38.5 field goal/3-point shooting splits pick up, he should be a threat for the same title in the America East. He’s hit 25 of 28 from the charity stripe to start the year and has taken excellent care of the ball — the shooting slump will end eventually.

As the best player on (currently) the best team in the America East, Horvath will be in the discussion for POY come season’s end. The 6-foot-10 senior stretch-four has made 11 of 25 from deep through eight games on 68% true shooting and his 16.4 points per game puts him at third in the conference. If he ends the year with a field goal percentage of 61.4 on 10.4 shot attempts per game, he’ll have a very strong argument for the league’s best player.

After missing Vermont’s first three games, Davis has posted 22, 27, 21, and 19 points since his return. He’s hit 7 of 14 from 3 to begin the season and is sitting at 69.3% true shooting; his floor-spacing from the five spot gives guards Ben Shungu and Smith more room to get to the rim and generate free throws. Bigs that average 2.3 assists to 1.2 turnovers are nice to have around as well.