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Stony Brook is the team to beat in the America East...for now

The Seawolves will have to beat out Vermont, New Hampshire, Hartford, and UMBC to get back to the NCAA Tournament

NCAA Basketball: Stony Brook at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

America East basketball is back to normal.

The two-game weekend series format, made for the pandemic, has been scrapped, and every program in the league is scheduled for a full conference and non-conference slate. The last year-and-a-half has been rough for every team in Division I, but America East men’s basketball was among the hardest hit — Maine didn’t get to finish its season, and only four of the 10 schools played 20 games.

Starting on Nov. 9, mid-major men’s basketball fans in the northeast finally get to turn the page and get this relatively small but ever-important part of their lives back.

Here are the storylines to watch.

New faces around the league

Three America East teams welcomed new coaches this season. Dwayne Killings took over for Will Brown at Albany, Levell Sanders was elevated from assistant to interim head at Binghamton, and Ryan Odom left UMBC for Utah State, clearing the way for former Penn State interim head coach Jim Ferry.

Along with the new coaches, the America East is flush with talented transfers. Albany forward De’Vondre Perry, a good rebounder and career 33% three-point shooter over four seasons at Temple, should help make the transition into head coaching easier for Killings. Same goes for Sanders at Binghamton with Jacob Falko, a transfer from Gardner-Webb, able to run some point for the Bearcats to start the year.

The most popular addition (re-addition, technically) is Stony Brook wing Elijah Olaniyi, who returns to Long Island after one season at Miami and should promptly go back to being one of the better two-way players in the conference.

“He had all kind of high-major options and this is where he wanted to be, and so that was exciting,” head coach Geno Ford said during America East media day. “He wants to try to win at Stony Brook and hang a banner before his career is up.”

Jahlil Jenkins’ shooting could be a weapon for the Seawolves; the 6-foot guard made 49 three-pointers in 24 games (38 percent 3PT) at Fairleigh Dickinson last year. Jenkins and Juan Felix Rodriguez will make for a fun backcourt.

Matt Faw, NJIT’s 6’9 transfer from Holy Cross, slides in with Souleymane Diakite and Kjell de Graff to give the Highlanders a formidable frontcourt in their first full season in the league. Also, keep an eye on 2020-21 conference All-Rookie team member Mekhi Gray.

A couple more under-the-radar additions for the nerds (like me) out there: La Salle transfer big Jared Kimbrough should help Hartford cover for Miroslav Stafl’s transfer. Maks Klanjšček comes to Maine shooting 38.3% from deep over his last two seasons at Kansas City and Salt Lake Community College, and the 7’1 Chris Efretuei gives the Black Bears size they haven’t had in years — he was an excellent shot-blocker at Louisiana-Monroe. USC Upstate guard transfer Everette Hammond can pressure the rim and handle the rock for UMass-Lowell.

Preseason polls and All-Conference honorees

Stony Brook received five first-place votes to be named the preseason favorites in the America East for the first time since 2015-16, which was also the last time Vermont was not picked first in the preseason. After the Catamounts, New Hampshire, Hartford, and UMBC rounded out the top five.

Vermont is easily the highest America East program in the preseason KenPom rankings, coming in at 105 compared to Stony Brook’s 185th-place ranking. Hartford, last season’s playoff champion, did not receive a first-place vote but returns Moses Flowers from injury, all of its crucial rotation players apart from Stafl, and adds 1,500-point scorer Dejuan Clayton from Coppin State.

The preseason All-Conference team is similar to least year’s postseason teams, with Vermont’s Ryan Davis headlining alongside teammate Ben Shungu. After leading the Hawks to a championship and winning the Playoffs’ Most Outstanding Player, Austin Williams slides in with New Hampshire’s Nick Guadarrama, Stony Brook’s Jayden Martinez, and Olaniyi rounding out the list.

A darkhorse to win defensive player of the year is Stephane Ingo, who ranked fourth in the conference in defensive box plus-minus (+2.3), second in block percentage (10.4) and first in defensive rebounding percentage (25.1) last season, anchoring Maine’s fourth-ranked defense.

“Steph is fantastic,” Maine coach Richard Barron said. “I think when all’s said and done, he’s gonna be a first-team player... he’s great defensively, he can switch out... he’s somebody who can fill up a stat sheet... he’s definitely the centerpiece of our program in every aspect.”

Catching the Catamounts

It’s no secret that Vermont has been the team to beat in the conference for years. Since head coach John Becker took charge in 2011-12, the Catamounts have won the regular season title five times (plus a co-championship with UMBC in 2021-22) and represented the America East in the NCAA Tournament three times, rivaled only by Albany’s three-year run from 2012-13 to 2014-15. The last five players of the year have come from Burlington, and Becker, the five-time coach of the year, has an astonishing .706 win percentage in 310 games.

“It’s nice, I think, to not have the expectations of being picked first, but those are just preseason predictions and they don’t really mean much,” Becker said. “One thing I emphasize here every year is it’s a new year, and no matter who you have coming back and what you might’ve or might not have done the year before, you have to start from the ground floor and build it back up.”

Stony Brook finished 7-9 in-conference last season (9-14 overall), but Olaniyi’s return along with the continued growth of the league’s second-best defense (100.5 ADJDE in 20-21 per BartTorvik) launched them up the preseason rankings. Ford has an opportunity to lead the Seawolves to their second 20-win season in three years at the helm.

Bill Herrion is probably fielding one of the best teams Durham, N.H. has seen in years. Looking to build off of their first top-three finish in the regular season standings since 2016-17, New Hampshire boasts two preseason All-Conference team members and returns 2020-21 Rookie of the Year Nick Johnson. Guadarrama, Martinez, and fifth-year forward Chris Lester join Johnson, transfer Sloan Seymour and Blondeau Tchoukuiegno in what is a deep Wildcats squad.

“We’re gonna be leaning on [Guadarrama and Martinez],” Herrion said. “They’re our leaders and we’re expecting them to take another jump this year.”

As things stand in October, there’s somewhat of a “Tier A” and “Tier B” in the conference. Veteran-laden programs like Hartford, New Hampshire, Stony Brook, UMBC and Vermont will have the upper-hand at first as younger programs attempt to find their footing this winter.

Albany and NJIT each have balanced rosters with caveats; the Great Danes bring back few key rotation pieces and will rely on transfers and underclassmen to get up to speed. The Highlanders lost Zach Cooks, the program’s second-all-time leading scorer (1,788 points) and all-time steals leader (231) to Hofstra, as well as San Antonio Brinson to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, leaving slack for Miles Coleman, Faw, Gray, and Dylan O’Hearn to pick up.

“I think you’ll see a more balanced attack this year,” NJIT coach Brian Kennedy said. “Dylan O’Hearn, Miles Coleman (could) increase their roles from what they had last year.”

None of Binghamton, Maine or UMass-Lowell will rely heavily on experience. Sanders doesn’t return much in his first season as head coach, but Tyler Bertram and Dan Petcash showed promise as shooters last season. Barron, who has deployed one of the nation’s slowest offenses since he became head coach, has a bigger and more athletic roster featuring four-year Black Bear Vilgot Larsson, promising sophomores Adefolalrin Adetogun and LeChaun DuHart, and Hofstra guard transfer Vukasin Masic. The River Hawks lost the program’s second and third all-time leading scorers in Obadiah Noel and Christian Lutete to the professional ranks, but Pat Duquette has been at it for a while now and he’ll find a way to use the shooting of Allin Blunt, Khalil Thomas and Connor Withers.

Stony Brook may have been picked to win the league, but the America East has a chance to be as competitive as ever. Come playoff time, it’s anyone’s game.