2020-21 32×32: America East Conference Preview

And so it begins! With the NBA season over, college basketball is officially on the clock for a season that won’t be like any in recent memory. From now until the season tips off on November 25, I’ll be bringing you preview content from every conference to give you the most comprehensive look one man can provide on the entirety of the college hoops landscape.

We begin today with the America East, which features a friendly face at the top and a new team in the mix:

  1. Vermont – More than 100 wins and almost 2,000 career points later, the Anthony Lamb era is over in Burlington. And while replacing a player as dynamic as Lamb was would be a challenge for most mid-major programs, you’d be hard-pressed to find smart college hoops mind picking against John Becker’s club in the A-East. No one player can replace Lamb, but versatile grad transfer combo forward Bernie Andre (Northern Arizona) is certainly equipped to fill a similar role, and the developmental redshirt year Isaiah Powell took in 2020 should pay dividends at the 4 as well. The Catamounts still have a shifty ballhandler running the show in Stef Smith, who should be paired in the backcourt with another experienced guard in George Washington transfer Justin Mazzulla. This group may not have a true superstar, but a roster full of proven veterans and a coach in Becker who has yet to win fewer than 20 games in a season since taking the job in 2011 bodes well for UVM to continue their America East dominance.
  2. UMBC – There’s probably a realistic argument for five different clubs for the #2 spot, but my favorite of the bunch is a Retrievers club that was hampered by the injury bug in 2019-20. Three key cogs in Darnell Rogers, Arkel Lamar, and Max Curran all were lost for the year by the end of November, and Rogers (14 ppg, 4 apg) will rejoin a steady group of returners featuring stretch big man Brandon Horvath and scoring guards RJ Eytle-Rock and LJ Owens. The big question is whether Rogers’ strong start before the injury was a mirage, or if the 5-2 (yes, you read that right) diminutive dynamo is capable of being a high-level floor general in the AEC. If he is, the loss of KJ Jackson will be much more easily forgotten. Former highly-touted international recruit Szymon Wojcik increases the overall upside of this group after resurfacing from a year of JUCO. 20 wins seems like an attainable target for the Retrievers if they can stay healthy.
  3. Hartford – John Gallagher taught mid-major coaches a masterclass in the art of the transition year in 2019-20. Faced with replacing his top seven scorers and armed with nearly limitless minutes to offer, Gallagher grabbed a pair of high-major grad transfers in Malik Ellison and Traci Carter to keep the Hawks relevant as he developed his next young nucleus, and it worked to perfection. Ellison was a dominant force as an athletic forward who few could stop going to the rim, and Carter’s steady hand as a pass-first point guard kept the team organized. That duo helped Hartford win the same number of games as last season and reach the America East title game. And while replacing them will be a challenge, Gallagher is FAR better equipped to keep his team in contention than he was entering last offseason. The Hawks have three very talented young players in Hunter Marks, Moses Flowers, and Miroslav Stafl to build around, and that’s a great start. Can a pair of transfers in former Colorado big man Jakub Dombek (waiver-dependent) and Austin Williams (Marist) round out the rotation and give Hartford a fighting shot at the top of the conference?
  4. New Hampshire – Many analysts, including myself, had written the obituary on the Bill Herrion era at UNH after a putrid 5-24 season in 2018-19 that featured the nation’s worst offense. But the Wildcats sprung from the dead last season thanks to strong player development and a big addition in JUCO forward Sean Sutherlin. Sutherlin’s addition was massively impactful – he impacted things on the glass (9.3 rpg, helping UNH go from -3 to +4 in rebounding margin from 2019 to 2020), scoring (12.8 ppg), and even distributing (second on the team in assists). Combine that type of addition with significant development from the likes of Nick Guadarrama, Jayden Martinez, and Marque Maultsby, and all the sudden the Wildcats had a long-term core to build around. I’m still skeptical of whether UNH has enough firepower to seriously contend, but the ability to essentially run it back is not a luxury the rest of the conference has and should be especially beneficial in the COVID era.
  5. Albany – Is Will Brown on the hot seat? It’s hard to believe given he has taken the Danes to five NCAA Tournaments and won more than 300 games in his lengthy career, but two straight sub-.500 seasons and a contract expiring at the end of the season have made some in the industry believe a significant rebound is necessary to earn a new contract. I’m skeptical that Albany could do better than Brown, but that’s for AD Mark Benson to decide, and six straight losses to close the 2018-19 season was not a good way to enter a contract year. For the Danes to bounce back from an underwhelming season despite graduating dynamic PG Ahmad Clark will start in the backcourt: Aussie shooter Cam Healy now needs to prove he can be a legit leading scorer, and promising youngsters Antonio Rizzuto and Trey Hutcheson have breakout potential. Loyola (MD) grad transfer Chuck Champion is an experienced slashing wing who defends and should give UA the option to go smaller with 4 guards, especially if a pair of JUCO wings in Jamel Horton and CJ Kelly provide good minutes. Can 4-guard looks and a frontcourt-by-committee approach get this UA program back on track?
  6. UMass-Lowell – There’s at least an argument to be made that the River Hawks have the conference’s best player in Obadiah Noel, a 6-5 wing capable of scoring at three levels and distributing. And the core around him is actually quite impressive – Connor Withers and Ron Mitchell have the look of potential all-leaguers down the road, and a potential waiver for URI transfer Greg Hammond would also add talent. The problem is the same as it has been for the last five years: defense. Lowell hasn’t finished better than 317th in KenPom adjusted defense since 2015, and there’s little reason to believe things will improve on that end under Duquette. Perhaps Arkansas State grad transfer big man Salif Boudie can solidify the interior after UML were one of the nation’s worst two-point defenses – Boudie never consistently got big minutes at ASU, but advanced metrics like him on both ends of the floor.
  7. NJIT – The Highlanders were always a better fit for the A-East than the Atlantic Sun, and finally was given a spot in the conference this spring. The move should help in recruiting and save money on travel, and the new arena NJIT unveiled a few seasons ago gives the Highlanders perhaps the best facility in the conference. However, the move doesn’t come at an ideal time from a purely basketball perspective as it comes following a season in which the program won its least games since the 1-30 year that began Jim Engles’ tenure in 2009. Can the Highlanders get better on offense? They were a train wreck putting the ball in the basket in 2020, and there isn’t a clear solution on this roster. Three good returners in Zach Cooks, San Antonio Brinson, and Souleymane Diakite will keep things from getting ugly.
  8. Stony Brook – You could argue no team in college basketball was hit harder by the transfer bug this spring and summer than Stony Brook. All five starters departed to destinations across the country, from Miami (Elijah Olaniyi) to Georgia (Andrew Garcia) to Cal (Makale Foreman) and even Bucknell (Miles Latimer) and UTRGV (Jeff Otchere). Essentially, second-year head coach Geno Ford essentially has to start from scratch. The foundation will be built around a trio of former Long Island Lutheran stars in Dayton transfer Frankie Policelli, Manhattan transfer Tykei Greene and sophomore wing Tyler Stephenson-Moore. I’m particularly intrigued by Policelli, a former highly-regarded recruit who can stretch the floor and handle the ball at 6-7. The monster question mark is at point guard: can JUCO product Juan Felix Rodriguez make a big impact after averaging 18 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists at Monroe College? If so, the Seawolves will almost assuredly outplay this ranking.
  9. Binghamton – Things just aren’t going anywhere under Tommy Dempsey at Binghamton, with the departure of superstar PG Sam Sessoms for Penn State the latest setback in program-building. Two legit building blocks still remain in combo forward George Tinsley and scoring guard Brenton Mills, each of whom are coming off impressive freshman campaigns, but there’s not much meat on the bone otherwise. Charlotte transfer Tyler Bertram comes back closer to his hometown of Cooperstown, where he earned the reputation as one of the best shooters in the northeast out of high school. A waiver for him to play immediately would go a long way in buoying this roster out of the cellar.
  10. Maine – Nine wins isn’t usually cause for celebration at most programs, but it’s worth applauding for Maine given the Black Bears hadn’t won that many in a season since 2013. Unfortunately, it’s hard to build off a season like that when you lose your top three scorers and the only three remotely efficient offensive players on your roster. It’s hard to figure out where any offense on this team is coming from, and it seems possible that they’ll become the second A-East team in three years to post the least efficient offense in the country per KenPom.

All-Conference First Team:

  • Obadiah Noel (UMass-Lowell)
  • Stef Smith (Vermont)
  • Nick Guadarrama (New Hampshire)
  • Cam Healy (Albany)
  • Zach Cooks (NJIT)

Player of the Year: Obadiah Noel – In some ways, the league lacks the star power it has had in recent years, but Noel is poised to put up huge numbers in his senior season for the River Hawks. Without running mate Christian Lutete and his 13 shots per game, Noel will play a massive role in the offense. The question is whether he can take care of the ball better despite adding more offensive responsibilities this season – a sub-1 A/TO is far from ideal for a guy who often serves as a primary ballhandler.

Breakout Player: Antonio Rizzuto – Formerly a highly-regarded recruit for Brown and the Great Danes, Rizzuto settled into a role as a sharpshooter for his first two seasons in Albany. With Ahmad Clark gone and Cam Healy likely stepping into a lead guard role, Rizzuto will need to continue his development in his junior campaign.

Newcomer of the Year: Bernie Andre – Andre chose UVM over 35 other D1 programs, many likely from bigger conferences than the A-East. But as far as Anthony Lamb replacements go, John Becker couldn’t have done much better. An athletic combo forward capable of facing up or playing inside, Andre should be a seamless fit at the 4 and could easily wind up being an all-conference piece for the Catamounts.

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