Who Could Challenge Vermont for the America East Crown?

Is a Sixth Straight League Title Inevitable for the Cats?

The Catamounts will once again be the America East betting favorites, as they look to capture their fifth straight regular season title for the 2020-21 season. Until recently, Stony Brook was widely considered the biggest threat to dethrone Vermont and looked poised to win their first league title since 2016. Unfortunately for the Seawolves, it’s been a disastrous and forgettable offseason in Long Island. First, Andrew Garica would announce his decision to transfer, which in turn caused a snowball effect across the roster as sharpshooter Makale Foreman and potential America East Player of the Year Elijah Olanyini would both follow suit, leaving the Seawolves scrambling for help.

Stony Brook has been highly competitive these past few years and even managed to stun Vermont at Patrick Gym last year. While these transfers are devastating for a program that was oh-so-close to finally getting over the hump, Geno Ford will have his hands full as he prepares his roster to make a run once conference play tips off. Once considered Vermont’s biggest threat, the Seawolves will now be fighting tooth and nail just to finish in the upper-half of the conference standings. There’s always a chance SBU could play lights out and shock the world, but until that starts happening the Seawolves shouldn’t be considered a legit contender for the America East crown.

As for Vermont, the words of the Nature Boy still ring true, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man!”. Despite losing veteran presences Daniel Giddens, Everett Duncan and two-time America East Player of the Year, Anthony Lamb, the Catamounts roster is still as deep and dangerous as ever. Led by potential America East Player of the Year Stef Smith, the Cats should be able to continue their dominance over the rest of the conference, where they’ve managed to produce a 59-5 regular season conference record over the past four years.

On paper Vermont appears destined to once again control the America East, but conference titles aren’t won on paper – nor are they won in June. Winning the America East is just one of many goals the Catamounts will have set out for them. Despite being dubbed the favorites, the Cats cannot become complacent. They’ll need to stay hungry and focused on the task at hand before they can start thinking big picture. Stony Brook might not be nipping on their tails, but there will still be other challengers. Is there anyone out there who might be able to take down Goliath?

UMBC Retrievers

Without a doubt UMBC has been the biggest thorn in Vermont’s side these past few years. Credit Ryan Odom for always having his players ready and fired up whenever these two squads face off, as Coach Odom and the Retrievers have been the closest thing to kryptonite to Vermont’s superman-esque conference record. The Retrievers wound up splitting the regular season series 1-1 with Vermont last year and if not for Everett Duncan’s heroics, might have very well pulled off another upset in Patrick Gym during last year’s America East semifinals match-up.

Despite the success they’ve had against Vermont, (along with some NCAA Tournament win that no one will ever remember) the Retrievers haven’t been able to take that next step into becoming consistent America East title contenders. Now granted Ryan Odom has turned around a team that for years lived in the America East basement and molded them into a well respected program. In the four years before Odom arrived, UMBC would finish with a 15-49 conference record. Since then? 40-24. It’s been quite the turnaround in Baltimore, but UMBC is still searching for their first regular season America East crown since 2008.

How’s the Roster Look?

Much like Vermont, UMBC is set to lose a key piece of their roster next year in guard K.J. Jackson. Though Jackson isn’t even close to the type of player Lamb is, he did lead the Retrievers in scoring last year (13.8) and will definitely be missed. Luckily for UMBC, coach Odom and his staff do a fantastic job at developing their young guards. L.J. Owens, R.J. Eytle-Rock and a healthy Darnell Rogers will be in contention for the top backcourt in America East next year.

Eytle-Rock in particular looks more than ready to carry the torch, especially after dropping 31 points on the Catamounts in their semi-final match up last year. If that performance was a sign of things to come, UMBC will undoubtedly be in contention for the America East title and Eytle-Rock could very well likely become the first Retriever to ever win the America East Player of the Year award.

To go along with their stellar backcourt, Brandon Horvath and Dimitri Spasojevic should provide solid assistance up front. Listed at 6’10, Horvath gives UMBC legit length at the F/C spot, where he averaged 11 points a game just a season ago. However, beside those two, UMBC is a bit thin on reliable big men. Incoming transfers Rico Quinton and Szymon Wojcik should help with depth, but it remains to be seen if either is the solution to the Retrievers frontcourt woes.

The most interesting addition to UMBC has to be Italian guard Matteo Picarelli. The 6’2 pizza loving guard was a star at the 2020 Next Gen Cup in Italy, as he averaged 18.7 points and 4 assists per game. Likewise, Picarelli was a member on the U18 and U16 Italian national teams while growing up. With international players there’s always a shroud of mystery attached, as it’s almost impossible to compare the style of play and competition to that of its United States counterpart. With an already strong and established backcourt in place, we might not get the opportunity to see much of Picarelli this year, but keep an eye out for the Italian Stallion in the coming years.

Upset Alert?

The Retrievers would finish off America East play with an 8-8 record, but still managed to tie with New Hampshire for fourth place in the conference. As previously mentioned, UMBC fought tooth and nail with Vermont in their semi-final contest, but was unable to string together another Cinderella-esque run. The good news for UMBC is that they know how to beat Vermont. The bad news – outside of their performances against the Catamounts this has been an utterly pedestrian team. 

What category do the Retrievers fall into? Are they a perennial under-dog team that only shows up in big time games? Or, are they talented enough to play at that level of quality, but are just consistently under-performing? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Beating Vermont is only part of the equation – albeit a big part. Sports fans across the country will always remember UMBC as the first ever 16 seed to knock off a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but long-term success should be the goal for every program. That NCAA Tournament win was incredibly memorable, but remember, championship banners fly forever. And right now, Vermont has way more banners.

New Hampshire Wildcats

The surprise dark-horse of the America East. UNH hasn’t managed to find the same level of success against Vermont that UMBC has had, but don’t let that fool you. The Wildcats are returning a ton of talent and looking to prove that their fourth place finish last year was no fluke. UNH has never topped more than 11 conference wins since joining the America East – could that streak be broken this year?

The Wildcats finished last year’s America East conference slate with a surprising 8-8 record. While a .500 record isn’t anything to celebrate (unless you’re Jeff Fisher) it was leaps and bounds better than their previous year (2018-19) record of 3-13. Overall it’s been a mixed bag of results since Bill Herrion took over the program 15 years ago. There’s been plenty of ups and downs, but a 105-135 conference record during that span is a good indicator of where the program has remained. For all the years that UNH basketball has been around, they’ve yet to accomplish much at all. No regular season titles, conference tournament titles or NCAA Tournament appearances. Can UNH build off their 8-8 record and prove themselves as a real America East contender, or will they fold under pressure and revert back to their mediocre ways? 

How’s the Roster Look?

The Wildcats should be feeling pretty optimistic about their chances heading into the 2020-21 season and their roster continuity is a big reason why. As of this moment, UNH is set to return their entire starting line-up, along with the majority of their bench production. The only departing senior is Luke Rosinski, who managed a whopping 1.9 points per game average off the bench last year. This was a young team that far exceeded expectations just a season ago and will once again be looking to break through that glass ceiling.

UNH boasts one of the strongest duos in the conference in Sean Sutherlin and Nick Guadarrama. With another stellar year under their belts, Sutherlin (12.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and Guadarrama (12.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg) could both be the running for America East player of the year. Add in forward Jayden Martinez who averaged 10.5 points and 6.6 rebounds per game and UNH showcases an impressive core who should only get better as the season progresses.

The nucleus is there for UNH, but the Wildcats are still far from perfect. Josh Hopkins and Marque Maultsby are decent guards, but there is a severe lack of depth behind them. Sutherlin is technically classified as a guard, but operates from more of an attacking wing on the offensive side of things. His ball handling and passing are fine, though it’s typically Maultsby who initiates the offense. Incoming transfer Qon Murphy should help provide some stability, but again this is a thin area that opposing teams will look to take advantage of through creative small ball line-ups.

Along with Murphy, UNH is adding another transfer who could help them greatly. Listed at 6’11, 250lbs, Tayler Mattos is a giant of a man who should give UNH a legit center presence in the post. Mattos spent last year at Bowling Green where he averaged 4.9 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. A native of New Hampshire (New London), Mattos elected to return home which is always great to see. UNH has a pair of capable bigs in Guadarrama (6’5) and Martinez (6’7), but both lack that true length needed to control the post. Mattos should be able to step in from day one and help set the tone defensively for the Wildcats. Unfortunately for UNH, Mattos might have to sit out this year due to NCAA transfer rules, but the Wildcats could possibly appeal for a waiver. Regardless, Mattos should fit well in Durham, as the big man looks to finish out his career back in his home state.

Upset Alert?

On paper UNH looks more than capable of matching up with the likes of Vermont. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, luck has not been on their side whenever these two conference foes square off. Vermont has come away victorious 13 straight times, as the last time UNH was able to topple the Catamounts was way back in 2015. Before UNH can even dream of winning the America East league title, they’ll first need to find a way to conquer the Cats.

Somewhere in the depths of Vegas you might be able to find some degenerate bookie willing to give you America East title odds. While Vermont would be listed as the clear-cut favorites, UNH should offer that sneaky pick with an exponential payout. But can UNH actually pull off the upset is a different question. The Wildcats are a good young team that with another year of progress and development should find themselves in the thick of the America East title race. They might not have what it takes to knock off the reigning champs, but this should be the strongest UNH squad they’ve had in quite some time.

Hartford Hawks

Hartford is another program that’s been able to field some pretty strong and competitive rosters over these past few years, but has yet to get the Vermont monkey off their back. Vermont has dominated the series, going 18-2 over their last 20 meetings. The Hawks last win against Vermont came back in 2018 when they stunned the Catamounts at Patrick Gym 69-68, handing Vermont their only conference loss of the season.

The two conference foes were set to square off in the America East Championship game before the season came to an abrupt halt due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Vermont dominated their first meeting, but needed a Ryan Davis buzzer-beater to help secure a victory down in Connecticut. The Hawks season would end on a sour note after essentially having to concede victory to the Catamounts. Behind star transfers Malik Ellison and Traci Carter, Hartford fans felt robbed, as this past year’s squad was the closest they’ve gotten to making their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance.

As for Ellison and Carter, both exhausted their final year of eligibility and won’t be returning to the Hawks next season. Ellison proved to be a phenomenal pick up Hartford, as he would be selected to the America East All-Conference First Team, while finishing second only to Vermont’s Anthony Lamb in the America East Player of Year race. The question now is how will Hartford respond? Can they prove that their America East Championship appearance was no fluke run, or will they regress down the America East standings after flying too close to the sun?

How’s the Roster Look?

Outside of the aforementioned Ellison and Carter, Hartford isn’t losing too much. Forward Hunter Marks (10.8 ppg) will look to take over as the lead dog and guard Moses Flowers (10.4 ppg) provides stability as the lead guard. Likewise, Miroslav Stafl and D.J. Mitchell should see an increased role with the departures of Ellison and Carter. Listed at 6’10, 235lbs, Stafl gives the Hawks a big inside presence, but Hartford is lacking for depth behind the Czech big man.

Hartford does offer up pretty good depth elsewhere, especially at the guard positions, where they’ll be adding incoming freshmen A.J. Gray and Briggs McClain. It remains to be seen how much either of these two will contribute, but at this point Hartford could use all the extra bodies they can get. The transfer window is still open and the Hawks will no doubt be looking to add another high caliber player into the mix a la Ellison and Carter. 

The biggest addition to the roster so far (no pun intended) is 6’11 forward Jakob Dombek. Another native Czech big man, Dombek arrives to Hartford by way of Colorado and offers the Hawks another lengthy option in the post. Dombek’s game is probably closer to that of Marks than Stafl, as the former Colorado forward only checks in as a lanky 190lbs. Nonetheless, coach John Gallagher has been able to find a great deal of success through the transfer pool and Hawk fans are hoping they’ve found another gem in Dombek. The sky-scraping big man should be eligible for the start of 2020-21 season and provides Hartford with some much needed depth at the F/C spots.

Upset Alert?

With Ellison and Carter at the helm, Hartford showcased one of their best teams as they rode their transfer stars all the way to the America East Championship finals. But, even with the likes of Ellison and Carter the Hawks could only manage a 9-7 conference record and third place finish in the America East regular season standings. Are they a better team now than they were a year ago? Probably not, but after losing star Anthony Lamb, neither is Vermont. There’s been plenty of turnover across the America East and even with the Catamounts heavily favored, there will still be opportunities to contend.

Again, the biggest question mark surrounding this team is how will they respond after coming so close and now losing their two best players. Could we see a Superbowl-esque hangover? Hartford has never made the NCAA Tournament before and this was arguably their best chance to do so. Having that opportunity snatched away from you is absolutely devastating for a program seemingly stuck in mediocrity. There is some good news however. In the past seven years, the losing team from the previous years America East title game has returned to the conference final three times and won it twice. Could Hartford be destined for the same fate?

In all likelihood Hartford is going to have an uphill battle in front of them. They’ve lost some key members and it could take some time to figure out their new identity for the 2020-21 season. They’ll challenge Vermont throughout the season, but don’t expect the Hawks to win their first ever America East regular season crown. Realistically a 10-6 conference record should be enough to secure a spot in the top three and Hartford should be content with that.

Share Your Thoughts…

3 Responses

  1. Horvath from UMBC is the one who scares me. His improvement from sophomore to junior year was remarkable. At 6-10, he added a perimeter game and is now listed on the Retrievers’ roster as a F/G. In the conference semis at Patrick Gym, he was 7 of 8 for 19 points with 8 rebounds. If he has the same kind of development between his junior and senior seasons, he could be a type of player for whom the Catamounts’ have no good matchup unless Lefebvre is ready for significant minutes by the time the conference schedule begins.

  2. From what I have found out about incoming players and from what I feel the existing players are capable of, I believe they will be as good as last year and maybe quite a bit better. ONLY HOPE THE VIRUS IS GONE Wayne

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