What Do You Need to Be Watching for This Year?
Tip-off for the upcoming college basketball season is fast approaching. As a country, the most consequential storyline will be how the season takes shape – whether that’s good or bad. With schedules still being hammered out, programs must prepare for almost any stipulation or they could be left scrambling. Hopefully the NCAA committee, Jon Rothstein or whoever else might be calling the shots, has a plan in place to ensure not just the return of college basketball, but the safety of all the student athlete’s involved.
In the America East there will be plenty of storylines to keep a close eye on as the season unfolds. Every team will have their own individual narratives to examine, such as the departure of Anthony Lamb, Stony Brook’s mass exodus or even how NJIT transitions to the America East. While no one has done so just yet, it will be curious to keep tabs on which players opt for a redshirt year. With so much uncertainty looming, there could be a record number of redshirt players across the conference for the year.
What should you be watching for in particular out of the America East this year? Here’s a quick peak at each team’s most influential storyline for the upcoming season.
New Hampshire Wildcats
Will roster continuity be enough to overtake Vermont?
Since joining the America East all the way back in 1980, the Wildcats of New Hampshire have never managed to capture a single conference title. New Hampshire has been on a bit of a roller coaster these past few years, as they followed their first ever back-to-back 20 win seasons (2015-17) with a 15-45 record over the next two years (2017-19) only to bounce back to 15-15 just a season ago (2019-20). So who are the Wildcats? A top three team? Middle of the pack? Bottom of the barrel?
On paper New Hampshire actually boasts one of the better rosters in all of the America East. Despite the 15-15 record from a season ago, the Wildcats look ready to make that next jump and get back to being a 20+ win team for the first time since 2016-17. Why the sudden buzz over an inherently mediocre program? Roster continuity.
The Wildcats are returning their top six leading scorers from last year, along with their leader in every top statistical category – points (Guadarrama), rebounds (Sutherlin), assists (Maultsby), steals (Sutherlin), and blocks (Martinez). No other team in the America East can claim such a feat, but now the pressure is on for the Wildcats to finally reach the pinnacle of America East success.
The roster continuity is a major facet of New Hampshire’s rise to contender status. However, another factor working in the Wildcats favor is the departing talent of last year’s big three. Finishing second only to Vermont just a season ago, Stony Brook was ready to claim that top spot this year, only to see a mass exodus of players transfer out including argubly their three best players in Elijah Olaniyi, Makale Foreman and Andrew Garcia. Likewise, after their run to the conference finals, Hartford is set to lose their two transfer stars in Malik Ellison and Traci Carter. The machine that is Vermont might still widely be considered head of the class yet again, but they’ll be losing 2x America East Player of Year, Anthony Lamb.
Leapfrogging the likes of Hartford and Stony Brook appear entirely possible. UMBC will also be challenging for that top spot, but the white whale that is Vermont still looms large. New Hampshire runs a very well-balanced attack, as three players averaged double digit scoring a season ago (Guadarrama, Sutherlin and Martinez) and the top scorer (12.9) was only 4.3 points ahead of their fifth leading scorer (8.6). If these players continue to grow and develop, it could spell trouble for the Catamounts.
The roster continuity and balanced approach certainly help create palpable buzz around a program that has never won a conference title in their entire history. As the season unfolds it will be interesting to watch if New Hampshire is capable of playing up to this new standard. As strange as it sounds, Vermont vs. New Hampshire is going to be must-watch TV.
Stony Brook Seawolves
How do they respond after losing so many players?
Man, oh man. Has anyone had a worse offseason than Stony Brook? The Seawolves finished the 2019-20 campaign second only to Vermont with a 20-16 record and look poised to finally take back the America East crown for the upcoming year. Tragedy would strike in Long Island however, as the presumed America East favorites saw a mass roster exodus which included their top four leading scorers. How will the Seawolves respond?
Here’s a look at a few of the key names who flew the coup:
- Elijah Olaniyi – 18 ppg. 6.5 rpg. 1.2 apg. 1.6 spg.
- Andrew Garcia – 13.4 ppg. 6.7 rpg. 1.9 apg. 1.6 spg.
- Makale Foreman – 15.6 ppg. 2.8 rpg. 2 apg. 0.7 spg.
That’s a significant amount of proven production that all of sudden Stony Brook won’t be able to rely on. Miles Latimer also announced his exit from the team after averaging 7 points a contest last year. Olaniyi in particular is a tough loss, as he was projected by many to be in heavy contention for America East Player of the Year before his departure. Stony Brook’s former big three plus Latimer accounted for 54 of the team’s 69.2 points per game average. That’s 78% of your points in four central players who have now withdrawn from the program.
Transfers and roster turnover happen every year. Some schools are better at keeping their players committed for all four years, but no program is immune to watching anyone of their given players walk out the door. Unfortunately the Seawolves really got the short end of the stick on this one. How do you even begin to replace that type of production?
Mo Gueye and Tyler Stephenson-Moore will have to try to fill the holes left behind. While Gueye and TSM are fine players in their own right, they aren’t nearly on the level of Olaniyi, Garcia and Foreman. Gueye and TSM combined accounted for 11.3 points a game a season ago. Their roles will be much increased this year, but Stony Brook is going to need the duo of Gueye and TSM to vastly excel in their development if they’re to have any shot in the America East race this year.
In only his second year at the helm, Geno Ford has quite the uphill battle in front of him. In what was arguably their best chance to capture their first America East conference title since 2015-16, Stony Brook will now be fighting just to finish over .500 on the year. Expectations were sky high, but the fall from grace could be a blessing in disguise. With the bar now dropping significantly, Stony Brook can play pressure free. Conference title hopes may be nothing more than a pipe dream, but Geno Ford and the Cinderella Seawolves will at least look to make it interesting.
How will they transition to the America East?
Out of all the years to mix up the conference alignment, 2020 seemed like it would be pretty far down the list. Nonetheless here we are, as New Jersey Institute of Technology has made the leap from the Atlantic Sun to the America East, becoming the tenth conference team and first to join since UMass-Lowell back in 2013. Not only is the move to the America East the Highlanders biggest storyline this year, but also one that the rest of the conference as a whole will be monitoring very attentively.
The Highlander’s are led by senior star guard Zach Cooks, who averaged 19.7 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists a game just a season ago. If Cooks can parlay those numbers from the Atlantic Sun to the America East, he’ll be the shortlist for an All-Conference selection team and possibly much more. The America East currently has some spectacular guards, though Cooks will no doubt be aiming to assert and establish himself as the true alpha of the bunch.
How does NJIT compare to some of the other teams in the America East? The 2019-20 season wasn’t a particularly memorable one for the Highlanders. After only mustering a 9-21 record on the year, NJIT fell to Liberty in the first round of the conference playoffs. However, they did manage a 22-13 finish back in 2018-19, so it’s likely they’ll land somewhere in between those two corresponding records.
KenPom had NJIT listed with a 296 ranking a season ago. To put that in perspective, New Hampshire finished with a 248, Binghamton 333, Hartford 243, while Vermont paced the America East with a 76. There are plenty of other factors to take into consideration besides KenPom rankings, though they do provide a solid indicator of where NJIT might initially be slotted in as they try to break through the America East.
A likely starting point could be anywhere between the 5th – 8th spots. Even coming off the heels of a 9-21 season, the Highlanders represent the biggest wildcard in the America East this year. When UMass-Lowell was making the transition to the America East, they were also jumping from division two to division one. Despite competing against a higher level of competition for the first time in program history, the River Hawks would finish with an 8-8 conference record, good enough for fifth in the America East. Will NJIT be able to find a similar type of success?
In a year where a full college basketball season is far from a given, conference games become incredibly more crucial. The America East conference slate will now feature 18 games instead of 16. Having never made the NCAA Tournament before, NJIT will once again be dubbed a long-shot, but in what’s already been such a strange year, anything seems possible at this point. Pretty soon we’ll find out which record is a better indicator of NJIT’s level – are they a 9-21 team or 22-13?
How will they look with the departure of Anthony Lamb?
There’s a number of storylines Catamount fans will be watching carefully as the season unfolds. Can they win their fifth straight America East conference title? Can they become the first school to win America East Player of the Year for a fifth straight year? Is this John Becker’s last season at the helm? The list goes on.
While those storylines will no doubt be intriguing and curious to watch as the season ticks on, there’s one major narrative that has to be addressed – how will Vermont look without Anthony Lamb?
After four incredible years in the green and gold, Lamb is moving on. Vermont’s star forward has led the Catamounts in scoring three of the past four years (sidelined during the 2017-18 campaign) and finished fifth all-time on the programs scoring leaderboard. The two-time America East Player of the Year was downright unstoppable for Vermont, helping to guide them to a 109-27 record during his four-year tenure. Vermont had already been established as a solid mid-major program, but the addition of Lamb elevated the Catamounts to a whole new level.
Vermont is going to look different this year without Lamb in the line-up. While many media pundits will quickly write off the Cat’s due to the absence of Lamb, don’t be so sure of that just yet. Yes, Lamb was an incredible player, but Vermont still returns the likes of Stef Smith, Ben Shungu, Ryan Davis and of course the 5x America East Coach of the Year, John Becker.
While Lamb did lead Vermont in scoring every year when he was healthy, he wasn’t dominating the ball on every possession. Lamb was their star and although the Cat’s would often play through him, it was a spread out attack. Smith finished just 2.5 points per game behind Lamb with 14.2. Davis and Everett Duncan each finished averaging over 9 points a contest. Vermont is built to succeed as a team rather than basing their offense on heavy isolation plays.
It still remains to be seen who Vermont will turn to when they absolutely need a bucket. Lamb was their guy in those regards, oftentimes putting the team on his back for stretches and willing them on. Does that now fall on the shoulders of Smith? Davis? Maybe even Shungu?
Regardless, John Becker should once again have his squad ready to compete at the highest level. Vermont is still considered the favorite out of the America East, despite the departure of Lamb. Is this vote of confidence based more on the strength of Vermont’s roster or the lack of competition from the rest of the America East?
How will the young talent develop?
Stony Brook wasn’t the only program to watch a potential America East Player of the Year walk away. Sam Sessoms, the Bearcats star guard, finally decided to fly the coop after finishing at the bottom of the conference standings yet again. Despite another great statistical year which saw Sessoms average 19.4 points, 5 rebounds and 4.8 assists a game, Binghamton would finish dead last in the America East with a 10-19 record. Sessoms has been the key cog for the Bearcats these past few years. Now that title will be passed on, but who is ready to lead this team?
With 10 underclassmen, including eight sophomores, Binghamton is a young team looking to make a name for themselves. There’s no denying that Sessoms was their best player, but he was far from their lone bright spot. Now sophomores, George Tinsley and Brenton Mills each flashed throughout the season, as the duo would land on the America East All-Rookie Conference team. Tinsley would actually lead all freshmen in scoring (11.6) and earn America East Rookie of the Year honors.
Only once in their program history has Binghamton ever won an America East conference title and made the NCAA Tournament. That was back in the 2008-09 campaign, but since then, the Bearcats have consistently been on the worst teams in the conference – including a six year stretch from 2010-16 where they finished with under ten wins every season. The last few years have seen some improvement, but still have been unable to finish higher than seventh in the conference standings.
Winning the America East, let alone returning to the NCAA Tournament would be seemingly inconceivable to put it gently. There will no doubt be plenty of growing pains this year for the young Bearcats, but ideally Binghamton will be able to keep their core together for the following years. Incoming 6’6 freshman guard/wing Kellen Amos should likely feature as another one of their key build blocks moving forward.
No one is anticipating a giant leap forward for the Bearcats, but year-over-year progress is still expected. A bottom three finish seems like the most imminent outcome for the year, yet that doesn’t mean Binghamton should coincide defeat right now. Growing and developing the roster is going to be the preeminent goal, so even though wins might be hard to come by, competing till the final whistle should be their driving force.
Can Ryan Odom return UMBC to a 20+ win team?
Since the arrival of Ryan Odom at UMBC the Retrievers have witnessed a huge resurgence, going 83-54 over the last four years compared to the abysmal 41-172 record from 2007-16. Odom and the Retrievers stumbled a bit last year, finishing fourth in the America East with a 16-17 cap. It marked the first time in Odom’s brief tenure (four years) that he would finish a season with under 20 wins.
Considering Odom’s impressive resume and pedigree, this shouldn’t be more than a slight blimp on his overall track record. Odom and Vermont’s John Becker actually share the record for most wins in their first three seasons with 67. These two have had some incredibly memorable match ups already, yet it’s been Odom who has walked away victorious four out of the last seven contests.
Last year, UMBC came up short against Vermont in the America East conference semi’s, but R.J. Eytle-Rock’s 31 point outburst gave Retriever fans hope for the future. Now entering his junior campaign, Eytle-Rock will be a central point of focus in the Retriever’s offense. UMBC is set to return a strong portion of their roster from last year that includes Eytle-Rock, Brandon Horvath and the return of Darnell Rogers.
With a solid that offseason that saw the majority of the roster hold true, along with adding transfers and freshmen such as Matteo Picarelli, Odom should be able to steer the Retriever’s back to another 20+ win season. UMBC figures to be a top contender for the America East crown, along with the likes of Vermont and New Hampshire.
Growth within the roster should certainly improve UMBC’s chances of returning to true contender status, but the return of Darnell Rogers might be the most under-looked move of the offseason for the Retrievers. Playing in only seven games a season ago before an injury sidelined him for the year, Rogers paced the Retriever’s in scoring with 14 a game. The electrifying 5’2 guard also pulled down 3.4 boards and dished out 4.3 assists a game.
It’s been three years since Odom helped orchestrate UMBC’s improbable upset over Virginia in the NCAA Tournament. While that moment will live sports lure till the end of time, Odom has yet to make another appearance in the big dance. UMBC tends to play up to their competition in those bigger games, which is ideal, but being able to play at that level consistently is the only thing holding them back from taking that next step. How does Odom find a way to bottle that magic?
Was last year’s run just a fluke?
While no one was happy with the decision to cancel the NCAA Tournament this past year, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more distressed than the Hartford Hawks. Transfers Malik Ellison and Traci Carter had powered Hartford to the America East title game, where they were suddenly on the heels of making their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance. But before you could even say Coronavirus, it had all come crashing down.
Ellison and Carter were the main components during the Hawk’s run just a season ago. Ellison in particular was outstanding in his lone year at Hartford, averaging 18.7 points and 9.7 rebounds a game. He’d earn a selection on the America East First-Team All-Conference roster, while finishing second only to Vermont’s Anthony Lamb for America East Player of the Year. Hartford and Vermont were scheduled to square up with a ticket to the Big Dance on the line. No one is certain how that game would’ve transpired, but Ellison and Hartford were ready to leave everything on the court that day.
Sadly for Hartford fans, both Ellison and Carter have since moved on, leaving Hartford in a bit of a pickle. Every America East team’s ultimate goal is to win the conference and while that still holds true for the Hawks, they’ll be extremely motivated to prove that last year’s run was no fluke. Is Hartford capable of a top three finish or will they simply descend back to mediocrity?
Junior forward Hunter Marks will likely be on the receiving end of an extended workload now that Ellison and Carter are gone. He averaged 10.8 points and 6.1 rebounds a game last year, but will be held to a much higher standard as he hopes to fully take over the reigns this year. Likewise, with only one senior on the team (Garrett Kingman), Hartford will be depending on Marks to step up and fill that leadership void left by Ellison and Carter.
The Hawks would finish the year 18-15, good enough for third in the America East behind Vermont and Stony Brook. Along with Vermont, New Hampshire and UMBC round out the likely top contenders. The exodus from Stony Brook has left them scrambling, but the Seawolves could still be dangerous. By no means are back-to-back top three finishes going to be a walk in the park for Hartford.
Nine members of Hartford’s 2020-21 roster are composed of underclassmen, including 5 incoming freshmen. Lack of experience could be a serious challenge for Hartford to overcome this year. Unless these young Hawks can suddenly take flight, it might be a long and rebuilding year in store for Hartford. If they can avoid a match-up against Vermont or New Hampshire come America East conference playoff time then maybe the Hawks might be able to make another run, but even if they manage to catch a break, expect some growing pains out of Hartford this year.
Maine Black Bears
Worst team in college basketball?
No one wants to be labeled as one of the worst programs in division one basketball, but in the case of the Maine Black Bears someone has to fall on that sword. Credit to Maine, they did finish the 2019-20 year 8th in the America East standings one game ahead of last place Binghamton. Unfortunately, Maine still finished with a 9-22 record and hasn’t won at least 10 games in a season dating back to the 2012-13 campaign when an 11-19 record was all they could muster. Not great.
Maine was never considered a powerhouse of the conference since they joined the America East back in the 1996-97 season (then NAC), but they were at least considered a solid threat/contender early on. The Black Bears only have two seasons with at least 20 wins during that span and neither resulted in a conference title. Maine has had the unfortunate pleasure of routinely finding themselves at the bottom of the division one barrell. Sadly for Black Bear fans the upcoming season will likely feature more of the same, as Maine is once again facing an uphill battle to even reach 10 wins on the year.
As if times weren’t tough enough already, Maine is losing their two best players from a season ago in Andrew Fleming and Sergio El-Darwich. The duo landed on the America East Third-Team All-Conference selections after doing everything in their power to keep Maine from that dreaded last place finish. Senior Nedeljko Prijovic will be tasked with picking up the slack, but an inconsistent career thus far leaves more questions than answers.
According to KenPom, Maine consistently ranks right on the cusp of the worst team in division one. Here’s how they’ve fared in the past six years – 320, 338, 332, 337, 336, 345. Expect Maine to slot in somewhere around those numbers once more, as there isn’t much to look forward to in Orono these days.
Recruiting student athletes up to Maine has got to be one of the most challenging jobs in sports. Not since Jeff Cross has anyone out of Maine won America East Player of the Year and it’s not likely anyone on his level will be walking through that door anytime soon. With five walk-ons already on the roster and six incoming freshmen, it’s going to be another year filled with growing pains for the Black Bears.
Maine will ultimately be competing against Binghamton to avoid basement status in the America East. Binghamton lost their star guard in Sam Sessoms, but on paper they’ll appear to at least field a more competent roster than their Maine counterparts. Hopefully Maine can find a way to turn around their program, though for now the Bleak Bears will continue to be bottom-dwellers.
UMass-Lowell River Hawks
Who becomes Obadiah Noel’s new running mate?
The River Hawks are still relatively new to the America East, having only been a part of the conference since 2013. Although they’ve never won a conference title in their brief stint thus far, they haven’t finished at the bottom of the conference either. With a conference record that would make Jeff Fisher blush (39-57), the River Hawks have finished either fifth or sixth every year since joining the America East.
UMass-Lowell is seemingly stuck in mediocrity despite fielding one of the better players within the conference – Obadiah Noel. As a junior a season ago, Noel averaged 18.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.7 steals a game. Those outlandish numbers helped Noel earn America East First Team All-Conference honors for the first time in his career.
Noel had an excellent backcourt running mate with him last season in Christian Lutete who actually topped Noel with 19.3 points and 7 rebounds a game. Nonetheless the duo of Noel and Lutete could only do so much as UMass-Lowell continued their underachieving ways en route to a 13-19 record and once again sixth place finish.
Lutete has since graduated, leaving Noel to handle the overwhelming bulk of touches moving forward. Noel will now be the main focal point for a team looking to show any sort of year-over-year improvement. In order for the River Hawks to finally take that next step forward, they’ll need to do it on a team wide scale.
Noel is only one of four upperclassmen on the roster, so it’s paramount that the younger players are able to handle their assignments. One of those players who is expected to play a major role is sophomore Connor Withers who averaged 9.2 points and 5.9 rebounds a season ago. Continued development from Withers is a start, but it’ll take a lot more in order to capture a top four finish in the conference. The last thing UMass-Lowell fans want to see is Noel’s career go to waste, a la Lutete and Jahad Thomas.
On paper, 2020-21 season projections would list Vermont at the top, followed by UMBC and UNH. Hartford and Stony Brook should round out the top five, with UMass-Lowell sliding into that next tier with Albany and newcomers NJIT. The good news for UMass-Lowell is that Hartford and Stony Brook lost some significant talent this offseason and could possibly be leapfrogged. Again this comes down to the level of play not just from Noel, but his surrounding cast. If the pieces begin to fall, a fourth place finish isn’t out of the question.
Albany Great Danes
Is Will Brown on the hot-seat?
The thought that Will Brown is on the hot-seat is a bit of a stretch, but the recent downfall in the Great Danes play has got to be a serious area of concern for Albany fans. Once a perennial powerhouse in the America East, Albany is the verge of a third-straight losing season – something that hasn’t happened since the 2002-05 seasons!
Make no mistake about it, Will Brown is a good coach. Since taking over the reigns back in 2001, Brown took a program that had just barely made the jump to the division one level (1999) and turned them into legit contenders. His five America East conference titles and five NCAA Tournament appearances top all current coaches in the America East. Excluding these previous two seasons, his last losing record came during the 2009-10 campaign.
Brown has all but cemented himself in Albany lure with 287 career wins in almost two decades at the helm. Even with back-to-back losing records it’s a bit far-fetched to think Albany would ultimately decide to give him the boot. However, the times are changing and if Brown can’t figure out a way to right the ship, his time could be coming to an end sooner than later.
One of Brown’s biggest challenges has been shaping his roster. Lack of continuity has been a huge issue for Albany as of late. The majority of the roster is seemingly filled with JUCO and transfer players every year now, while young and promising recruits are transferring out. While there is always going to be some roster turnover in any given year, Brown has a mess on his hands in trying to find the right players for his system.
The major turning point in drop of play came after the 2017-18 season. Albany had finished with a 22-10 record and was projected to compete with Vermont for the top spot the following year. That of course didn’t quite happen, as Albany’s two best players, Joe Cremo and David Nichols both transferred out and the Great Danes managed only 12 wins for the year. Instead of investing into recruiting and building within, Brown elected for a quick fix through JUCO transfers, but as mentioned, this would also fail.
Trying to fit a square peg into a round hole never works. Albany fans will pray and hope for the best and while there is a chance (albeit slim) that the Great Danes can turn it around, expectations are low for this former America East giant. Brown might not be on the hot-seat just yet, but with a third and possibly fourth straight losing season looming, that seat is going to get toasty mighty quick.