New year, same America East. It’s UMBC and Vermont at the top of the league once again, with each finishing the regular season at 10-4. The Dawgs get the advantage due to a tiebreaker with Albany, but do not count out the cardiac Cats.
Ryan Odom has his most complete team since 2018, with multiple stars. Everyone knows 5’2 Darnell Rogers, but the Retrievers have two players who are all-league candidates. Vermont lost Anthony Lamb, but John Becker has the Catamounts back in first place. Big man Ryan Davis is one of a couple of serious candidates for Player of the Year, picking up right where Lamb left off.
These two split the season series, but the long layoff and double-bye system is always wacky. You never know who will pop up and make a run.
Note: The first round and quarterfinals will take place in pods (seeds 3, 6, 7 at UNH, 4, 5, 8, & 9 at Hartford), semifinals and finals will take place at higher seed. All game times are Eastern.
First Round (Sat., Feb. 27), ESPN+/ESPN3
Game 1: No. 7 Stony Brook vs. No. 6 UMass Lowell (at UNH), 1 p.m.
Game 2: No. 9 Binghamton at No. 4 Hartford, 2 p.m.
Game 3: No. 8 NJIT vs. No. 5 Albany (at Hartford), 5 p.m.
Quarterfinals (Sun., Feb. 28), ESPN+/ESPN3
Game 4: Game 1 winner vs. No. 3 New Hampshire, 1 p.m.
Game 5: Game 2 winner vs. Game 3 winner (at Hartford), 3 p.m.
Semifinals (Sat., March 6), ESPN+/ESPN3
Game 6: Lowest-Remaining Seed at No. 1 UMBC, 2 p.m.
Game 7: Highest-Remaining Seed at No. 2 Vermont, 4 p.m.
Finals (Sat., March 13), ESPN2
Game 8: Game 6 winner vs. Game 7 winner (at highest remaining seed), 11 a.m.
UMBC (14-5, 10-4): For the first time in 13 years, the Retrievers are the America East regular-season champions. That is something that has plagued Ryan Odom in his short time in Catonsville, but the Retrievers have everything set up to host their first conference championship in his tenure.
From early in the season, you could tell that this team was different. Brandon Horvath started it with consecutive double-doubles and is now an all-league candidate. RJ Eytle-Rock is playing basketball that reminds one of Jairus Lyles, scoring double-digits in 11 straight games. Rogers is an international sensation because of his (lack of) size, but his speed is unmatched. Along with that, when given space from deep, he is an absolute bucket.
Their defense is their calling card though, as they hold opponents to under 46% shooting. Dimitrije Spasojevic is a brick wall down low, and Daniel Akin has always been one of the better defenders in the country. They hold their opponents to 44.1% from inside the arc, good for 15th in the country.
Odom runs eight deep, and each is a unique weapon. UMBC’s depth is almost unmatched in mid-major basketball.
Vermont (10-4, 10-4): Vermont isn’t quite as deep as UMBC, making the Retrievers slight favorites. The Catamounts run through the potential player of the year Davis and guard Stef Smith. They shoot 61.5% of the teams’ shots as Davis ranks top 100 nationally in both offensive rating and two-point percentage. The 6’8 junior is a master at finding size mismatches down low, averaging 18.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Smith is averaging nearly 14 points per game. His fellow senior, Ben Shungu, is the only other Catamount averaging double-digit points at 10.6 per game. Before their season-ending loss to UMBC, the Catamounts had won eight straight. They also played no non-conference games, so who knows how much that actually affected their early season struggles. One thing is for certain: John Becker is one of the best mid-major coaches in the country. He will look to take Vermont to its 10th postseason in his 10 years in Burlington.
The Long Shots
New Hampshire (10-8, 9-6): One of the long-time members of the Never Made the Tournament Club is young and has some weapons. Nick Guadarrama is the undisputed leader, averaging 13.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, but Jayden Martinez is not too far behind with 13.6 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. The Wildcats have yet to play Vermont, but if they win their quarterfinal, they’ll have their chance in the semifinals. UNH also battled UMBC in the second game of their series.
Hartford (11-8, 8-6): Another member of the NMTC, Hartford has loads of weapons and is looking for revenge after the conference title game was canceled last season. Austin Williams and Traci Carter are both capable of going off, averaging double digits. They have two international big men in Miroslav Stafl and Hunter Marks, who have size that is hard to beat. Hartford was not able to get its revenge on Vermont in the regular season, so the Hawks are playing to do that in March. They were also one of three teams to beat UMBC on the Retrievers’ home court.
UMass Lowell (8-11, 7-8): The River Hawks have one of the three Player of the Year candidates in the conference with Obadiah Noel. Noel averages 19.8 points per game and is a foul-drawing machine. They were able to knock off Vermont to begin the season but did not play UMBC.
NJIT (7-11, 6-10): The new kids on the block made their presence known this season. The Highlanders were able to beat both UMBC and Vermont, and have an all-league player in Zach Cooks. The only problem is that last-place Binghamton swept them.
Players to Watch:
Brandon Horvath, UMBC (13.3 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 48.4% FG%)
RJ Eytle-Rock, UMBC (14.1 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 47.3% FG%)
Darnell Rogers, UMBC (9.6 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 37.1% FG%)
Ryan Davis, Vermont (18.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 57.8% FG%)
Stef Smith, Vermont (13.8 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 41.8% FG%)
Nick Guadarrama, New Hampshire (13.9 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 44.3% FG%)
Jaylen Martinez, New Hampshire (13.6 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 48.4% FG%)
Austin Williams, Hartford (12.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 48.4% FG%)
Miroslav Stafl, Hartford (10.4 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 54.5% FG%)
Anthony Rizzuto, Albany (13.7 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 43.6% FG%)
Obadiah Noel, UMass Lowell (19.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 48.4% FG%)
Mouhamadou Gueye, Stony Brook (9.8 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 43.4% FG%)
Zach Cooks, NJIT (15.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 39.1% FG%)
I really cannot see anybody other than UMBC and Vermont making the title game. I think it’ll be an epic battle just like the two games this past week, and the 2018 title game. UMBC wins a close one and scares someone in the big dance.