By Kevin Sweeney
We. Are. Back.
Conference preview season is upon us! Over the next 32 days, I will preview every single D1 team, providing you with everything you need to know heading into the 2018-19 season. Previews will consist of a “state of the league” intro, standings projection with a writeup on each team (highlighting my champion and dark horse picks), as well as an all-conference first team, player of the year, and newcomer of the year prediction.
We get things going with the America East, the league that provided us with the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history just a few short months ago. In case you forgot:
Before that, the Retrievers needed some magic just to reach the Big Dance, knocking off the heavily-favored Vermont Catamounts on this Jairus Lyles buzzer-beater:
In short, it was a March to remember for the Retrievers. However, the league as a whole has sustained heavy losses by way of graduation and transfers this offseason, leaving the conference much more wide-open than it has been in the past. Vermont graduates 2-time A-East Player of the Year Trae Bell-Haynes, while several other teams lose program-changing players:
Prognosticating the A-East this year will be a challenge. My best crack at it:
3 double-figure scorers graduate from the 2-time defending regular season champs in the aforementioned Bell-Haynes and a pair of key frontcourt cogs in Payton Henson & Drew Urquhart. But the Catamounts still have the A-East’s best player in Anthony Lamb and the league’s best coach in John Becker, which should be enough to claim a 3rd straight crown.
John Gallagher entered the 2017-18 season firmly on the hot seat, but led his team to the most wins in their D1 history and earned himself a new contract in the process. With a trio of all-conference-caliber seniors returning, the Hawks are a trendy pick to win the A-East. Big defensive improvements helped turn things around, but with the graduation of Hassan Attia, Gallagher no longer has a true rim protector to anchor that side of the ball. Still, the Hawks have the talent and experience to knock off the perennial powers in this league and claim their first-ever conference title.
If one were to group the preaseason standings into tiers, Vermont and Hartford would be clearly tier 1, then the group of Albany, UMBC, and Stony Brook would create tier 2. To me, UMBC feels like the best of the rest. It’s certainly a new-look Retriever club with the graduations of Jairus Lyles and KJ Maura, but Arkel Lamar and Joe Sherburne should step into bigger roles to help offset those losses. Add in high-scoring JUCO transfer Kaelin Jackson and Providence transfer Ricky Council to the backcourt, and the Retrievers should be competitive once again under Ryan Odom.
The stunning grad transfers of David Nichols and Joe Cremo were massive blows, but Will Brown picked up the pieces and brought in a strong cast of newcomers (1 grad transfer, 3 JUCO transfers, 1 D1 transfer, 3 freshmen, and 3 redshirt freshmen). More questions than answers are present about what the Danes’ rotation will look like, but I like the incoming talent and expect Albany to surprise.
#5. Stony Brook– DARK HORSE
Year 3 under Jeff Boals feels like a big one, as the Seawolves look to rebound from a down 2017-18 campaign. At the top of the list of priorities is improving an anemic offense– SBU shot an ugly 42% from the field and 33% from downtown last season. Junior Akwasi Yeboah is a proven scorer who scores it at all 3 levels, but help around him is necessary. Perhaps a big jump is in store for sophomore wing Elijah Olaniyi, a tenacious defender who showed flashes on offense last season. Meanwhile, freshman Miles Latimer has gotten high marks from multiple talent evaluators, and he comes from a pair of excellent programs in Paul VI and Team Takeover. Where there shouldn’t be any question is the defense, as an already-stout unit adds gigantic JUCO big Jeffery Otchere, an elite rim protector who should anchor the post.
Yet another tier begins with the Bearcats, and the drop-off between the top 5 and the rest of the league feels significant. Last season began with optimism, as Tommy Dempsey’s club started 8-4 before finishing the season just 11-20. 70 was the magic number– when the Bearcats scored 70 points, they were 9-4 (just 2-16 when under 70). JC Show & Thomas Bruce provide a nice 1-2 punch, but the Bearcats will need to find a 3rd scorer to help carry the load. Otherwise, Dempsey may be out of a job come April.
Jahad Thomas made UMass-Lowell look respectable during their transition to D1, and his graduation leaves a cavernous hole for Pat Duquette to try and fill. A 7-man freshman class headlined by local product Alex Rivera should help, and seniors Ryan Jones and Josh Gantz can be counted on to be key contributors. I just don’t see enough all-around talent to have much optimism about the RiverHawks.
Former Maine women’s basketball head coach Richard Barron takes over on the men’s side for Bob Walsh. Unlike previous years, this roster hasn’t been entirely gutted by transfers, though the Black Bears did lose star point guard Aaron Calixte to Oklahoma. Andrew Fleming and and Isaiah White are nice pieces, but I’m not sold on Barron being the guy to take the reigns and don’t think Maine has enough talent to move up much in the standings.
#9. New Hampshire
The end of the Tanner Leissner era came unceremoniously, as the Wildcats simply didn’t have enough competent guards to follow up the 3 consecutive 19+ win seasons Leissner helped lead. Now, without Leissner or frontcourt mate Iba Camara, Bill Herrion’s club looks to be in deep trouble. Sophomore Josh Hopkins could be a breakout star, but it’s going to take a ton to avoid a 20-loss season.
First Team All-Conference:
- G: JR Lynch– Hartford (13.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.8 apg, .468/.362/.830)
- G: Arkel Lamar– UMBC (10.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.1 apg, .397/.426/.544)
- G: Akwasi Yeboah– Stony Brook (15.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.4 apg, .452/.355/.803)
- F: John Carroll– Hartford (15.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.4 apg, .469/.303/.715)
- F: Anthony Lamb– Vermont (14.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 0.9 apg, .468/.318/.829)
Player of the Year: Anthony Lamb (Vermont)
A foot injury derailed much of his 2017-18 season, but Lamb remains the league’s most talented player. Lamb’s combination of speed and power allows him to score effectively either facing up or backing down his man. Throughout his first 2 seasons, John Becker has limited Lamb’s minutes, allowing him to be highly impactful when on the floor. Now a veteran and a leader on this team, Lamb will likely be asked to up his minutes into the high 20’s or low 30’s, a role I believe he should have no issue handling. I expect a huge year from Lamb.
Breakout Player: Stef Smith (Vermont)
Perhaps no player has more pressure on his shoulders than Smith, the speedy sophomore who will get the nod as Bell-Haynes’ replacement at point guard. Smith certainly showed flashes as a freshman, including a 20 point, 3 assist performance against Marquette. However, he’ll need to be much more consistent and take care of the ball if Vermont is going to claim another A-East title.
Newcomer of the Year: Kaelin Jackson (UMBC)
It’s always hard to project newcomers at the mid-major level, as information is often spotty. That said, I’ll roll with Jackson, who averaged 25.8 points per game at Temple College and posted 9 30+ point games. Jackson seems likely to start at point guard, providing incredible scoring punch and quickness to help the Retrievers offset the losses of Lyles and Maura. And while he led all D1 JUCO in total points scored, he also led the nation in turnovers. He’ll have to reigned in a bit by Ryan Odom, but the talent is certainly there.