America East 2015-16 Summer Preview

18 Jul

Five America East story lines to follow…

1) Can Albany win their historic fourth straight AmEast title? They return their entire backcourt, but may need some help around the rim.

2) Can Stony Brook finally get over the Albany hump and win a title after years of heartbreak in the AmEast tourney? They have the best player in the conference and possibly best midmajor big in the country in Jameel Warney, in addition to returning virtually everyone else.

3) Despite a litany of injuries (some heartbreaking) and some unexpected defections, Vermont should once again be at the top of the AmEast standings and poised for a return to the NCAA Tournament.

4) New Hampshire returns virtually everyone to a team that was within a rimmed out buzzer beater of knocking off Albany in the AmEast semifinals, and that was without Tanner Leissner, who returns fully healthy.

5) Is this the year Tommy Dempsey turns Binghamton around? Last year was supposed to be a pivotal year in the rebuild, but major injuries and derision (and eventual departure) with star player Jordan Reed sort of derailed the plan a bit.

Predicted Order of Finish

1) Albany– To be honest, I should just put Stony Brook and Vermont on this line too, but I’ll stick with the team that has won three straight AmEast tourneys and lost one conference game last year. Will Brown returns his exceptional backcourt of heart and soul Peter Hooley, Evan Singletary, and Ray Sanders (who has slid nicely into the Gary Johnson role), but I think the loss of undersized post Sam Rowley will prove to be significant. Can his brother Michael take over inside? Brown added 6’10 Kyle McKinley for some much needed height to the Greig Stive, Richard Peters, Rowley rotation, but this team is built around Brown’s grind it out, draw contact style on offense, and I think you’re likely to seem him go small much of the time with Dallas Ennema at the 4 in the role of “stretch shooter”. The problem is that the other contenders have a lot of height to throw at the Great Danes.

2) Stony Brook– Team heartbreak. My preview for the AmEast last year centered around Stony Brook getting over the hump and finally getting into the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately for Steve Pikiell, it’s the exact same situation. They’ve had three losses in the AmEast title game (two at home), and none more heartbreaking than last year’s Hooley buzzer beater. The good news is that virtually everyone returns (including the previously mentioned monster Warney inside), and they add Longwood passer extraordinaire Lucas Woodhouse to the backcourt. The addition of Woodhouse, who was an assist machine at Longwood, is going to allow Carson Puriefoy to move more off the ball and into a scoring volume type player, like Tristan Carey at Longwood. Woodhouse is also going to speed up the development of 6’6 wing Roland Nyama and Deshaun Thrower. Nyama was unstoppable in February last year, going 17-33 from three in that month, but he ran out of gas in his freshman year come March. Add in the return of relentless rim attack Ahmad Walker after a year at community college, and the Seawolves’ backcourt is suddenly loaded, and that was an area of concern in terms of shooting and halfcourt execution last year. After all that, we still haven’t touched on the strength of this team, which is Warney in the frontcourt. Simply put, Warney dominates on both ends of the court in this league, and he has Rayshaun McGrew returning on the opposite block. The Seawolves were already dealt a setback with shooter Kam Mitchell breaking his hand and being unavailable for their upcoming European trip, and Warney is already reportedly dealing with some nagging injuries, but anything short of a return to the AmEast title game would be a total failure, and even not winning it again would be devastating considering Warney and Puriefoy are seniors.

3) Vermont– John Becker has proven in his three years at UVM after taking over when Mike Lonergan left that he is something of a defensive mastermind. Vermont was exceptional in AmEast play defensively, both in taking away the three point line and two point percentage defense, and the Catamounts put up those numbers with the sixteenth youngest roster in the country. With Dre Wills guarding the ball and Ethan O’Day protecting the rim, the Catamounts are outstanding man to man from rim to perimeter, and Becker has shown a willingness to mix in some trapping zones as well. Returning to join vocal team leader Wills in the backcourt is point guard Trae Bell-Haynes. Not only are Wills and Haynes solid defensively, but they attack the rim with ease out Becker’s heavy screen motion offense, combining to shoot nearly 300 free throws last year, with Bell-Haynes leading the way with the sixth highest free throw rate in the country. Additionally in the backcourt, Ernie Duncan is hopefully recovered from his back injury, but I’m afraid of this being a career nagging injury that will prevent him from playing the full load of minutes he wants. Certainly at the very least, he’s going to be under a minutes restriction early in the season. When healthy, Duncan is capable of being the best pure scorer in the conference. Joining Duncan from Evansville Harrison this year is his 6’6 brother Everett, who could provide an immediate impact with his length and versatility on the wing. Rebounding is the biggest issue facing this team though, and they sort of wore down towards the end of the year, and there are some significant losses on the frontline entering this year. Hector Harold and Ryan Pierson graduated, but the big surprise was Zach McRoberts quitting the team and heading back to Indiana. Hofstra transfer Darren Payen and Drew Urguhart are expected to pick up the slack on the glass to help O’Day. Payen has a massive wingspan and Urguhart played for the Canada U19 team this summer. Additionally, 6’6 Kurt Steidel provides a huge advantage at the 3 with his versatility and length. Josh Speidel, another big time recruit Becker plucked from Indiana, was tragically in a vicious car accident that has left him almost certainly unable to play this year, but hopefully he’ll eventually see the court as a Catamount. Overall, this a Vermont team that was extremely young last year, and still played some of the best basketball in the AmEast. I certainly consider them a co-contender with Albany and Stony Brook.

4) New Hampshire– Lurking just beneath the power trio of Albany/Stony Brook/Vermont is Bill Herrion’s rapidly improving New Hampshire team. The Wildcats return virtually everyone to a team that was within a rimmed out buzzer beater of knocking off Albany in the AmEast semis, and that was without Freshman of the Year Tanner Leissner, who missed the game with an ankle injury. Leissner is fully healthy and returning to his stretchy 4/5 role, along with the rapidly improving interior play of Jacoby Armstrong and smooth 3 Jaleen Smith who can shoot, pass, and defend 1-3. The backcourt is equally solid with Joe Bramanti back at PG and Daniel Dion off the ball as a sharp shooter. UNH is awaiting news on the eligibility of a sixth year for Matt Miller (cousin of Sean and Archie). Miller is one of the best shooters in the country (went an astounding 40-75 from 3 in AmEast play) and would be a huge boost to the UNH offense. [UPDATE: Extra year not granted :(] Defensively, I think Herrion’s philosophy lends itself to be highly effective given the new 30 second shot clock. Herrion loves to take away the jump shot, and will extend past the three point line routinely, and force teams to beat them by putting the ball on the floor. It leads to a high foul rate, but with five less seconds to work off the dribble, I think UNH will rival Vermont as the best defensive unit in the league.

5) Binghamton– Tommy Dempsey’s squad is probably a year away from really contending for the AmEast title, but they’re going to be a difficult out this year. They were the youngest team in the entire country last year, and then they suffered a plethora of devastating injuries, and then slow fizzling out of star player Jordan Reed’s career at Binghamton. Despite all that, the Bearcats were playing their best basketball at the end of the season, beating Vermont at the end of the regular season and nearly taking out Stony Brook in the AmEast tournament. The young Bearcats are also going to reap the rewards of playing through all the injuries and defections, as they’re experienced and deep now. Dusan Pecovic returns from a season ending injury. He’s a 6’9 stretch shooter and will vastly improve the perimeter shooting of a team that shot 31% in league play last year, good for dead last. Additionally, Pecovic will provide some height at the rim defensively, something that was severely lacking last season. Dempsey was hoping to return Nick Madray from injury as well, but he opted to transfer to Eastern Michigan. Dempsey’s high pressure zone was effective at times (second highest defensive turnover rate in the AmEast), but they could get shredded on the back end by skilled ballhandlers. Dempsey is hoping that the addition of Dematha product Thomas Bruce helps in that regard as well. In the backcourt, the Bearcats are as athletic as any team in the conference, and the trio of Marlon Beck, Willie Rodriguez, Romello Walker, and Justin McFadden probably has the highest ceiling in the conference. Beck will likely improve his turnover rate with the addition of more offensive weapons, Rodriguez is a star in the making as a 6’6 wing who can score inside and off the dribble, Walker is outstanding in transition, and McFadden is a defensive stopper. If everyone stays healthy, this should be the year Dempsey turns this thing around, and if everyone buys in, the Bearcats could be the class of the league as early as next season.

6) UMass-Lowell– Pat Duquette has done a tremendous job in a tough situation as UML continues their D1 transition, but his continued upward swing relies on three things this year: 1) the health of 6’2 cannonball Jahad Thomas 2) who replaces Lance Crawford at PG 3) is there any frontcourt help for what was by far the smallest team in the country last year. First and foremost, the health of Jahad Thomas’ knee is key. This is the second ACL tear Thomas has suffered (fortunately, I guess, in different knees), and he was having a phenomenal freshman year before the injury. Despite being just 6’2, Thomas was 98th nationally in defensive rebounding rate, and shot 52% from 2. Hopefully for the sake of all the River Hawks, Thomas rounds into form by AmEast play. Moving on to the second question, a pair of freshmen, Keith Hayes and Isaac White, are the most likely candidates to replace Crawford at PG, and the return of 6’4 wing Jordan Shea should allow sharp shooter Matt Harris to slide back down to a more natural 2. As for question 3, 6’5 Kerry Weldon did his best at the 5, but the total lack of height forced Duquette to play a hectic, pressing/trapping style that resulted in the 13th highest defensive turnover rate. But as usual, that style can lead to being shredded on the back end without an anchor. Duquette redshirted Dontavious Smith and Josh Gantz, both 6’9, to better prep them, so hopefully they’ll allow Duquette to employ a little more flexibility with his pressure. Overall, if Thomas is healthy, UML should continue to improve in their penultimate transition year.

7) Hartford– The tenth most experienced team in the country last year obviously will be losing a lot of important players, so this should be something of a rebuild year for John Gallagher. One of the most successful Hawks classes of all time had a disappointing end of their careers, as injuries to star Mark Nwakamma derailed their season, and Hartford lost 9 of their last 12 to end last year. Joining Nwakamma on the departure list is basically the entire backcourt, as Yolonzo Moore, Corban Wroe, and Wes Cole all graduated as well. Gallagher is going to rely on a slew of D1 transfers to help out co-sixth man of the year Justin Graham in the backcourt. John Fay from Fordham is a 6’6 wing, Jalen Ross from Eastern Michigan should handle step in right away and share ball handling duties with Graham, and Cleveland Thomas from New Mexico is a solid scorer with strong rebuilding abilities for his size. The return of Evan Cooper to the backcourt after missing last season due to injury should provide some much needed help in the “actually The frontcourt of Irish John Carroll, Jack Hobbs, and Taylor Dyson has to improve rapidly. Dyson will have to shift primarily to the 3 to take advantage of his scoring ability, and he was overwhelmed at the 4 defensively last year when playing their out of necessity. Carroll has to improve his ability to defend without fouling. Gallagher also added another Aussie in 6’8 George Blagojovic for some frontcourt depth.

8) UMBC– Things are looking slightly/hopefully rapidly up for Aki Thomas in his fourth season at UMBC. The return of Rodney Elliott from a shoulder injury and the subtraction of a few players (suspensions and injuries forced Thomas to use a 7 man rotation last year) means Thomas actually has some depth to work with this year. Elliott had an outstanding FR year prior to the injury last season, and if he’s 100%, he’s solid on and off the ball on offense and an exceptional defender. When healthy, he’s truly one of the top talents in the AmEast. As a luxury of his injury (if you want to call it that), Jourdan Grant gained some valuable experience, but it’s certainly helpful he won’t be the primary ball handler, and in turn that will help reduce the sixth highest turnover rate in the country. Adding to the backcourt is 6’5 wing Malcolm Brent, who shot 40% from three last season, and that number likely improves with a healthy Elliott filtering the offense. Moving on to the frontcourt, the Retrievers actually have some shockingly solid height. Cody Joyce is the lone senior with regular minutes, and he returns at the 5 as the heart and soul of the team. Will Darley showed some improvement at the end of the year as a versatile 3/4, and 6’10 Swede Jakob Stenhede has reportedly added 30+ pounds and could conceivably anchor the middle for 15-20 minutes this year. On top of that, Thomas added even more interior bulk with 6’10 Nolan Gerrity and 6’9 Sam Schwietz (of infamous Prime Prep fame). Schwietz is the most likely immediate contributor of the new additions in the frontcourt. 6’6 wing Joe Sherburne has the potential to make an immediate impact as well, but the biggest coup for Thomas was the addition of VCU transfer (via Robert Morris, which complicated this process) Jairus Lyles. Lyles will be eligible come second semester because of the inanity of the NCAA. Call me crazy, but I see a whole lot of upside in this UMBC team.

9) Maine– Bob Walsh’s team is young and improving, which is about as best as you can expect if you’re a Black Bear fan. But, simply put, the defense was atrocious last season, and the offense wasn’t much better. Only ten teams played worse overall defense per KenPom than the Maine BBs, and much of that ineptitude was on the interior. The good news is that Till Golger returns with another year of experience, but he has to improve rapidly defensively in the middle, as he represents the only real height on the roster. The crux of the team lies with sophomores Kevin Little and Aaron Calixite, who are both capable of handling and shooting the ball, but the issue remains their overall lack of length, and thus their ability to defend with versatility.

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2 Responses to “America East 2015-16 Summer Preview”

  1. Alan Dvorkis July 20, 2015 at 12:20 pm #

    Some amazing coaching jobs last year in this conference. Becker has been special at Vermont, last year working with a slew of freshman and a myriad of injuries still had Vermont playing at a high level. Vermont has always had a special place in my basketball heart, ever since Tom Brennan’s magical final year. Sure the NCAA win over evil Syracuse was pure joy, it could not top what went on in the conference final. Sr night was brutal, The emotion was too much, The final home game for both a very special team and an even more special coach left the team lifeless, Still they came from over 20 down to beat last place Md Balt County, so when fans from all over the state filed into the small gym in beautiful Burlington, the team was able to focus on the task at hand, no longer hammered with the emotion of the finality of it all. They put on a clinic as they destroyed a good Northeastern team Coach Brennan even more animated than usual could not stop hugging his players and eventually he could not stop the tears from flowing. 3000 miles away, as I watched on television, I had no one to hug. However, my tears started before the game started and continued long after the game ended. It was basketball at its purest, in execution, in atmosphere and emotionally, led by the amazing Tom Brennan. Vermont has not matched that year again and perhaps never will, but the hockey school with strong academics has remained a force in basketball, led by terrific coaches. Think Coach Becker with all those experienced sophomores and hopefully a healthy roster, will get Vermont the title and get himself a higher profile job.

    • jorcubsdan July 20, 2015 at 6:57 pm #

      Thanks for reading and commenting Alan!

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