By Kevin Sweeney
Let’s rock and roll.
It’s October, which means it’s officially time for conference previews. Over the next 32 days, I’ll be bringing you what I believe to be as comprehensive a look at the entirety of the college basketball world as there is. I’ll preview every conference, poring over team rosters, KenPom pages, and film of incoming recruits to provide the most accurate previews of every conference in the land, and I’ll do it to the same depth and with the same critical eye to the MEAC as I do to the ACC.
That said, let’s get rolling with the America East. As has been the case for several years, the 2018-19 iteration of the A-East was top-heavy. Perennial power Vermont came in at 76th in KenPom, 90 spots ahead of the next-best team. Meanwhile, three of nine teams were 332nd or worse in KenPom last season, a common issue for the league if you’ve been following since the last realignment.
#1. Vermont– The Catamounts are about as easy a choice here as possible, bringing back over 75% of their minutes from last season’s group that won 27 games, plowed through the conference tournament by an average margin of 22 points, and pushed Florida State to the brink in the NCAA Tournament. What’s more, John Becker added some significant reinforcements in the form of immediately eligible transfers Daniel Giddens (Alabama) and Duncan DeMuth (Oklahoma State), who’ll pair with superstar combo forward Anthony Lamb to form one of the best mid-major frontcourts in the country. Giddens in particular was an enormous add for the Catamounts– despite his struggles throughout his college career, he provides high-major size and athleticism up front that will be necessary for Vermont in “up” games, of which they’ll play plenty as part of a loaded non-conference schedule. The big loss is Ernie Duncan, who did a fair amount of shot creating next to shifty combo guard Stef Smith in the backcourt. Freshman point guard Aaron Deloney is wired to score and put up big numbers on the EYBL circuit, and his readiness to contribute in the backcourt could be the difference between Vermont being a dangerous 13 seed and being an at-large contender.
#2. Albany– It was a rare down year in 2018-19 for a Will Brown-coached Albany team, though growing pains were to be expected for a team that had five freshmen in the playing rotation. By the end of the year, the Great Danes looked much more dangerous, winning 7 of their final 12 games after a 5-15 start. The backcourt combo of Ahmad Clark and Cam Healy is a dangerous one, and rising sophomores Adam Lulka, Antonio Rizzuto, and Malachi De Sousa all showed major flashes in their freshmen campaigns. There are significant issues at play that need to be repaired for the Danes to reach their potential– namely taking care of the basketball and being more efficient on the offensive end– but the amount of talent on this roster is intriguing.
#3. UMBC– Save for a witty tweet here and there from the always-hilarious UMBC Athletics Twitter account, we can begin to move on from the legend of the infamous upset to appreciating the quality program Ryan Odom has built in Retriever country. Inheriting a program that had lost 20 games or more in seven consecutive seasons and had won 20 or more games in a season just twice, Odom has opened his D1 head coaching career with three consecutive 20+ win campaigns. The strength of this group will be in the defense– Odom is an excellent game-planner on that end, and the Retrievers have multiple playmakers on that end of the floor. Improvements on the interior are also on the way with the return of Daniel Akin, who was on his way to a breakout 2018-19 before reinjuring his knee and being forced to take a redshirt season. I have my reservations about the offense, especially if the inefficient KJ Jackson sees an even greater load with Joe Sherburne graduating. Still, I think there’s probably enough there to stay in the top half of the conference and in contention to get back to the Big Dance.
#4. Stony Brook– One of the least surprising coaching moves on the spring was seeing Jeff Boals depart Long Island for Athens, OH– a return to his alma mater and to a job he never shied away from targeting. Boals did a nice job keeping the program on track after Steve Pikiell, but now it’s up to Geno Ford to keep things rolling. Ford was deserving of another shot as a head coach– while his tenure at Bradley was a disaster, he won 24 or more games twice at Kent State and was also successful at the non-D1 level. However, He’ll have make do without Akwasi Yeboah, the multi-talented combo forward who’ll head to Rutgers and play for Pikiell, the coach who recruited him to Stony Brook in the first place. That said, the Seawolves do have plenty of talent back, including two-way wing Elijah Olaniyi and dynamic scoring guard Miles Latimer. They also have one of the nation’s best rim protectors in Jeffrey Otchere. Point guard is the biggest question mark on the roster– perhaps Chattanooga transfer Makale Foreman takes the reigns, though he played more off the ball at UTC.
#5. UMass-Lowell– Pat Duquette’s group had its best year since moving to D1 in 2018-19 despite graduating superstar Jahad Thomas, an encouraging sign with the amount of production UML bring back. The wing pairing of Obadiah Noel and Christian Lutete is a formidable one, both highly efficient slashers proficient at creating their own shot and getting to the rim. The key on offense will be ball control, as all but one rotation player returning had a negative assist-to-turnover ratio last season. Also important will be improving the defense, something that has consistently been a problem since the transition to D1 (sub-300 in KenPom defense each of the past four years). There’s a big drop-off for me between #4 and #5 in the conference, but I think the River Hawks may be the best of the rest.
#6. Hartford– The Hawks weren’t bad last season, but the final results were a little disappointing when you consider the hype that surrounded them preseason in this conference. With their top seven scorers having graduated, John Gallagher’s group will revert back into rebuild mode. Smartly, Gallagher grabbed a pair of grad transfers to help soften the blow in what will definitely be a transition season. Traci Carter (La Salle via Marquette) and Malik Ellison (Pitt by way of St John’s) both profile as above average starters in the A-East with all-conference upside, as both have shown in the past the ability to be productive at the high-major level. Figuring out how to build around these two guys will be a challenge, but that’s enough of a starting point to not be too down on the Hawks preseason.
#7. Binghamton– Tommy Dempsey remains employed despite losing 20 games or more in seven consecutive seasons since getting the Binghamton job, and an eighth seems likely in 2019-20. Bringing back point guard Sam Sessoms is nice, a stocky guard wired to score who’ll likely be one of the conference’s leaders in scoring. Beyond Sessoms, the cupboard is incredibly bare, with mass attrition as the result of graduations and transfers out of the program. Getting back big man Thomas Bruce, who missed last year due to injury, should help the frontcourt.
#8. Maine– The skilled duo of Sergio El Darwich and Andrew Fleming is a nice place to start for Richard Barron’s group, though early departures by Isaiah White (Portland), Vincent Eze (Fairfield), and Dennis Ashley (St Joe’s) pretty much blow any momentum the program would have had entering 2019-20. 10 wins would be a pretty major accomplishment with this group.
#9. New Hampshire– The worst offense in the country per KenPom last season, UNH averaged under 55 points per game in conference play on a team that looked woefully undermatched against pretty much everyone. Bill Herrion still hasn’t solved the problem of lacking competent guards, and until he does this team will be among the nation’s worst.
First Team All-Conference:
- Ahmad Clark (Albany)
- Cam Healy (Albany)
- Elijah Olaniyi (Stony Brook)
- Christian Lutete (UMass-Lowell)
- Anthony Lamb (Vermont)
Player of the Year: Anthony Lamb– I ranked Lamb as my #1 mid-major power forward in the nation, so it’s no surprise that he comes in topping this list for the A-East. He’s the clear choice, able to score facing up or on the block, with range out to three and increasing mobility that allows him to guard multiple positions at times. He’s the type of player that can dominate a game, and is the centerpiece of a Vermont team that could win an NCAA Tournament game or two this season.
Breakout Player: Malachi De Sousa (Albany)– A well-regarded recruit out of high school who had a host of mid-major offers throughout the northeast, it was surprising to see De Sousa struggle early on in his college career. He failed to score a point in seven of his first nine collegiate games and struggled to consistently crack the rotation until the end of the season. However, a nice close to the season (10.6 ppg in his final five games) built momentum into his sophomore year, and those close to the program have continued to rave about De Sousa’s upside as he heads into year two. De Sousa has the potential to be a high-level slasher and strong defender in the A-East as he continues to develop.
Newcomer of the Year: Daniel Giddens (Vermont)– Other players, namely Traci Carter and Malik Ellison at Hartford, are likely to put up bigger counting stats than Giddens. However, no newcomer profiles to make a larger impact on his team’s ability to win games (especially against high-major competition). It’s incredibly rare for a player with his pedigree to wind up at a school like Vermont, and Giddens should be a high-impact defender and rebounder if nothing else for the Catamounts. If he puts it all together and finally lives up to why he was a fringe top-50 recruit out of high school, watch out!