Itâ€™s Win or Go Home Time
The America East conference playoffs tip-off Saturday afternoon with a ticket to the NCAA Tournament up for grabs. The playoff format is a little (a lot) different than what weâ€™ve grown accustomed to in years past. UMBC (1) and Vermont (2) earn not one, but two byes, as they wonâ€™t play until the semi-finals. UNH (3) also receives a bye from Saturdayâ€™s slate of games, but will take to the court on Sunday against the winner of the Stony Brook and UMass-Lowell contest for the chance to battle it out with UMBC in the semis.
As a reminder, Maine elected to withdraw and end their season early, though every other team in the America East will be competing for the right to go dancing. Due to covid restrictions the playoff format was shifted this year, but with the double-bye Vermont has now reached the America East semifinals 12 years in a row. Weâ€™ll circle back to the Catamounts later on but for now letâ€™s take a dive into the first slate of games and make some predictions.
Stony Brook Seawolves (7) vs UMass-Lowell River Hawks (6)
The biggest question mark in this game is the health of UML star Obadiah Noel. The senior guard has missed the last five games due to injury and head coach Pat Duquette has been mum on Noelâ€™s availability for Saturdayâ€™s contest. The River Hawks managed to go 2-3 in Noelâ€™s absence so even without their floor general at the helm theyâ€™ve still found a way to remain somewhat relevant.
However, thereâ€™s no denying that UML is a much better team when Noel is in the line-up versus when heâ€™s out. This will likely be Noelâ€™s last shot at an America East title and even if heâ€™s not 100% by Saturday it should come as no surprise to see number 11 back on the hardwood.
Regardless of whether Noel suits up or not, the River Hawks are still going to need big time performances from their supporting cast. Connor Withers and Allin Blunt will have to be instrumental for UML to knock off Stony Brook. Nonetheless, the Seawolves could pose quite the problem.
Stony Brookâ€™s Mo Gueye has been an absolute force in the paint all season, as the big man led the America East with an average of 3 blocks a game. The lengthy big man should have his fingerprints all over this game, as his long frame gives him a distinct advantage over UMLâ€™s undersized cast of bigs. Frankie Policelli and Juan Felix Rodriguez will also be key players to watch, as their outside shooting could be the difference maker if UML has to double or even triple team Gueye in the post.
Sounds clichÃ©, but whichever team can shoot better will walk away with a win. While UML does attack the basket, most of their offense is dictated through jump shots so Gueyeâ€™s presence down low might be avoidable. On the flip side of that coin, SBU could counter with a zone, forcing UML inside. If Noel doesnâ€™t play or is merely just used as a decoy, Iâ€™m leaning Stony Brook, but if Noel can provide at least some resemblance of the player he is at 100% then the River Hawks should be able to eke out a win.
Final Predictions – Stony Brook 59 â€“ UMass-Lowell 63
*UMass-Lowell advances to play New Hampshire
Binghamton Bearcats (9) vs Hartford Hawks (4)
This one should be a little more cut and dry. Hartford was a little inconsistent at times throughout the year, but still managed to secure a 4 seed. They closed out the year with series splits against NJIT, UML and UMBC, but did manage to sweep Binghamton when these two conference foes met back in early January.
Binghamtonâ€™s offensive focal points have come from Brenton Mills and Tyler Bertram, who are both excellent shooters from beyond the arc. In their last series, Binghamton did complete the two-game sweep over NJIT so Bearcat fans will hope that the momentum can carry over to the playoffs.
However, Binghamton does not match up well against Hartford. Coach Gallahger and the Hawks are tight as nails at defending the three-point line and should be able to keep the likes of Mills and Bertram held in check. Their only liability comes from their lack of efficiency on the other end of the floor. Even with their subpar shooting, the Hawks should be able to do just enough to take care of business against Binghamton.
Final Predictions â€“ Binghamton 58 â€“ Hartford 66
*Hartford advances to the next round
NJIT Highlanders (8) vs Albany Great Danes (5)
Another toss-up. Neither team is particularly good, though they both had some redeeming moments during conference play. Two of NJITâ€™s six wins have come against the top seeds in UMBC and Vermont, while Albany also boasts wins over Vermont and UHN on their resume. When they play well both teams can compete with these top programs, however with a combined record of 12-16 in conference play those games have been few and far between.
Although Albany only finished 6-6 on the year, the fact that they still managed to secure the 5th seed was probably their ceiling. The days of Will Brown and Albany dominating the America East appear to have come to an end, but this team can still pose a threat as a possible dark horse candidate and spoiler. The Great Danes biggest strengths are creating points in transition off turnovers and the perimeter shooting of guards C.J. Kelly and Antonio Rizzuto.
NJIT was a bit of an enigma coming into the season as they made the jump to the America East from the ASUN conference. They upset Vermont early on in conference play and followed that up with another stunning victory over the Retrievers later on. Those wins were huge for the program, but NJIT was never able to build off those wins into any sort of withstanding record. Zach Cooks and Dylan Oâ€™Hearn both looked like all-conference players in some games and complete scrubs in others. Who knows which version weâ€™ll be getting in this one.
Albany swept NJIT in their two-game series earlier this year and while neither of those games were particularly close, itâ€™s still incredibly tough to beat a team three times in a row. Nonetheless, Will Brown has been coaching at Albany longer than some of these kids have even been alive (19 years). He knows what it takes to win in this conference and should be the deciding factor in this one.
Final Predictions: NJIT 62 â€“ Albany 71
*Albany advances to play Hartford
(6) UMass-Lowell River Hawks vs (3) New Hampshire Wildcats
Barring any unforeseen changes (which there is a lot of) this game should take place Sunday afternoon. The back-to-back games arenâ€™t anything new as that was the format all year for conference play, but with the extra intensity of a playoff matchup UML could be feeling some fatigue. UNH had a good, but not great year as they finished 9-6 in conference play and could never really put it all together consistently.
Again, the status of Noel could come down to another game-time decision. If the River Hawks are able to knock off Stony Brook on Saturday, Noel will likely have to factor in on some level. Even if he was 100% UML would still be the underdogs and outmatched by UNH. Pat Duquette will need the perfect game plan for the River Hawks to have a chance against the Wildcats.
UNHâ€™s Nick Guadarrama and Jayden Martinez are phenomenal two-way players who should be able to punish UML at all three levels. With or without Noel in the line-up, UML will have their hands full with these two.
There are two factors working against UNH however. The first being that despite earning the 3 seed, UNH was never really head and shoulders above the teams below them. They lost to Maine early on and also got blown out by 21 points to Binghamton. The other area of concern is that Marque Maultsby and Sean Sutherlin already announced their decisions to transfer at the end of the year. Neither will be playing in this game, but just knowing that players are already halfway out the door is never a good sign before trying to go on a playoff run.
Final Predictions: UMass-Lowell 66 â€“ New Hampshire 73
*New Hampshire advances to play UMBC
Albany Great Danes (5) vs Hartford Hawks (4)
One of the series that never got played during the regular season was between Albany and Hartford so this will be the first time this year that these two conference foes meet. Does either team have a distinct advantage? I donâ€™t think so.
UMBC and Vermont are clearly the top tier of talent in the America East, but seemingly every team 3rd â€“ 6th has shown that they can beat each other on any given night. Talent wise Hartford gets the edge with the likes of Traci Carter and Austin Williams leading the way, but the margin of difference is pretty slim. Again, it will likely be C.J. Kelly and Antonio Rizzuto who handle the lionâ€™s share of touches for the Great Danes, though Jarvis Doles could also find a way to make an impact here.
The key difference maker will likely come down to the guys standing on the sideline. Coach Brown and Coach Gal are both well-respected and have proven they can lead their teams on a run through the America East playoffs. Whoever can scheme up the best game plan should find themselves headed to the semi-finals.
Final Predictions: Albany 62 â€“ Hartford 58
*Albany advances to play Vermont
New Hampshire Wildcats (3) vs UMBC Retrievers (1)
The semifinal matchups will take place the following weekend (March 6th). UMBCâ€™s last game was against Vermont over a week ago and will now have waited two weeks before playing again. Extra rest can sometimes lead to rust, but considering that nearly every team has had to pause play or cancel games this year, that extra time off shouldnâ€™t be an overwhelming factor.
UMBC did manage to get the two-game sweep over UNH earlier when these two teams met. As previously mentioned, beating a team three times in a year is no easy feat. However, considering UMBCâ€™s talent and UNHâ€™s inconsistencies, the Retrievers should be able to take care of UNH here.
Would it come as a shock to see UNH upset UMBC? Yes and no. R.J. Eytle-Rock has been phenomenal as late for the Retrievers and Keondre Kennedy and Dan Akin coming off the bench provide UMBC with a huge depth advantage, but this the playoffs and anything can happen. Expect a close game throughout with plenty of back and forth but ultimately a Retrievers victory.
Final Predictions: New Hampshire 67 â€“ UMBC 71
*UMBC advances to America East finals
Albany Great Danes (5) vs Vermont Catamounts (2)
The notion of rest vs rust was just brought up for UMBC, but much like the Retrievers, this extra time off shouldnâ€™t be a huge factor for the Cats. Technically Vermont did earn a share of the America East regular season title, but this will mark the first time since 2016 that Vermont is not the 1 seed heading into the conference playoffs. Donâ€™t expect that to be a regular occurrence.
Credit to Will Brown and Albany for making it all the way to semi-finals in this somewhat fictional scenario. Even with Will Brown leading the charge expectations were pretty minimal for this Albany team so a trip to the semis would be a nice accomplishment. Sadly for Great Danes fans that little run ends now.
Losing to UMBC in the regular season finale and missing the chance to win the America East outright should fuel plenty of motivation for John Becker and the Catamounts. Not only should that loss serve as motivation, it also helped John Becker and the coaching stay identify their weakness and what they can do to clean those up.
Another factor working against the Great Danes is the revenge game aspect. Albany stunned Vermont early on in the year, which in turn only adds more fuel to Vermontâ€™s fire. Stef Smith, who was largely a non-factor in Vermontâ€™s earlier loss to Albany has returned to an all-conference level of play and will be primed to let it fly in this one.
Final Predictions: Albany 65 â€“ Vermont 81
*Vermont advanced to America East finals
Vermont Catamounts (2) vs UMBC Retrievers (1)
And. Here. We. Go.
Should UMBC and Vermont meet in the America East finals yet again itâ€™ll mark the third time in four years that these two teams have competed for the conference title. The previous two times have been in Burlington, while now UMBC gets a chance to host. Since fans arenâ€™t allowed to attend it shouldnâ€™t be a huge difference maker, but playing on your homecourt is still a great luxury to have with so much hanging in the balance.
In this scenario Vermont will have just stomped Albany in a revenge game, but this isnâ€™t a revenge game â€“ itâ€™s a revenge tour. Both teams are immersed with talent on both ends of the floor and as we saw in the regular season the result could go either way. But this isnâ€™t the regular season. The switch has officially been flipped.
A season ago these two teams met in the semi-finals in what was a high-energy and electric (or lack thereof) game. Everett Duncan had a career game to help send UMBC packing, as the roof of Patrick Gym felt like it was about to fly off. This game could unfold in a similar fashion. Tons of energy and momentum swings on both sides, but with Vermont hitting big shots late to stay one step ahead of UMBC. Whoâ€™s going to hit those big-time shots? How about Burlingtonâ€™s own, â€œBig Gameâ€ Ben Shungu (that moniker will stick I promise). What a story that would be â€“ from walk-on to America East Playoffs MVP. Storybook ending.
Final Predictions: Vermont 77 â€“ UMBC 72
*Vermont advances to the NCAA Tournament where they earn a 14 seed and beat Florida State in another revenge game