By Kevin Sweeney
So, today begins our journey through the college basketball realm, previewing and making predictions on every conference. We kick things off today with the America East, a league that features a few very intriguing mid-major clubs. Last year’s champions, the Vermont Catamounts, gave Purdue a run for its money in the NCAA Tournament. So, let’s dive right into it:
- Vermont– The Catamounts ran the table in conference play a season ago, and bring back a lot of production including defending A-East POY Trae Bell-Haynes and super sophomore Anthony Lamb.
- Albany– Under Will Brown, Albany has blossomed into a consistently strong mid-major program. With a loaded backcourt featuring stars David Nichols and Joe Cremo, the Danes will be dangerous.
- UMBC- Ryan Odom engineered one of the biggest turnarounds in all of college basketball (14 win increase) for the Retrievers’ first 20-win season since 2007-08. Can he continue the momentum with a new arena on the way?
- New Hampshire- The frontcourt duo of Tanner Leissner and Iba Camara is outstanding. If they can get good guard play, they could make some noise.
- Stony Brook- Jeff Boals did an excellent job in his first year replacing Steve Pikiell at Stony Brook. Watch out for rising sophomore Akwasi Yeboah, who averaged 9.5 ppg and 5.1 rpg in just over 20 mpg last year.
- Binghamton- In the 12 games JC Show played in last season, the Bearcats were 7-5. Without him, they went 5-15. With a lot of production returning along with Show, this might be the year Tommy Dempsey gets this team over the hump.
- UMass-Lowell- Finally eligible for the postseason after completing the transition to Division 1, the Riverhawks will finally get the chance to compete in the A-East Tournament this year.
- Hartford- There isn’t much reason for optimism for the Hawks this season, but they do feature one of the conference’s better guards in Jason Dunne.
- Maine- The Black Bears, who remarkably haven’t won a conference tournament game in 13 years, face an uphill battle to compete this season.
While I don’t expect them to go undefeated again, this Vermont team will be outstanding once again. Efficient offense and great defense is an awesome recipe for success, and that’s exactly what John Becker’s team brought to the table last season, shooting 49% as a team from the field and giving up the 11th-fewest points per game in the country. Anthony Lamb is a superstar in the making, and veterans Trae Bell-Haynes and Payton Henson are also potential all-league players. The Catamounts will be a team no one will want to see in March.
Dark Horse: New Hampshire
Few mid-majors can boast a frontcourt like UNH’s. The duo of A-East POY candidate Tanner Leissner and double-double machine Iba Camara is flat-out special. The big concern for me is guard play, as Jaleen Smith and Daniel Dion graduate from the Wildcat backcourt. If some complimentary players from a season ago can make the next step, don’t sleep on New Hampshire.
All-Conference First Team:
- G: David Nichols (Albany)
- G: Trae Bell-Haynes (Vermont)
- G: Jairus Lyles (UMBC)
- F: Tanner Leissner (New Hampshire)
- F: Anthony Lamb (Vermont)
Player of the Year: Anthony Lamb- Lamb, who came in at #10 in my preseason ranking of the top power forwards in mid-major basketball, is special. He’s efficient, versatile, and draws the full attention of defenses whenever he’s in the game. Per 40 minutes last season, he averaged about 23 points and 10 rebounds per game, simply outstanding numbers for a freshman. Look for Lamb to be a household name in college basketball by the time this season comes to a close.
Breakout Player: Akwasi Yeboah (Stony Brook)- After a strong freshman campaign, the sturdy guard could be on his way to an even bigger sophomore season for the Seawolves. He needs to be more efficient and get to the foul line more, but Yeboah is a guy who I believe could blossom into a star before his time at Stony Brook concludes.
Newcomer of the Year: Cam Healy (Albany)- The Danes add to their embarrassment of riches in the backcourt with Healy, an Australian-born combo guard who played at Montverde Academy (produced Ben Simmons and D’Angelo Russell). He’s an elite shooter who will give Will Brown some serious firepower off the bench, and has excellent size for this level. I truly believe the Danes got a steal with this one.