Player of the Year: Anthony Lamb, Jr., Vermont
Coach of the Year: John Gallagher, Hartford
Newcomer of the Year: Sam Sessons, Binghamton
Freshman of the Year: Sam Sessons, Binghamton
Key Returners: Anthony Lamb, Ernie Duncan, Everett Duncan
Key Losses: Trae Bell-Haynes, Payton Henson, Drew Urquhart
Key Newcomers: Ryan Davis, Robin Duncan, Isaiah Moll
Outlook: There’s only a handful of “mid-major” programs that find themselves in the same boat as Vermont. Stuck in conference where wins are expected and losses are punished, the Catamounts’ at-large resume is highly leveraged on the first month of the season. Credit to John Becker for stiffening his non-conference schedule last year as Vermont took trips to Kentucky, Bucknell, Marquette, Northeastern and St. Bonaventure.
Despite the fact that 4 of those 5 tilts were decided by one or two possessions (UVM almost shocked Big Blue Nation in Lexington), the Catamounts came up empty handed in those road tests, which meant any slip up in league play would likely end all hopes of an at-large bid. So, when Hartford came into Burlington on February 18th and stunned Vermont – who hadn’t lost at home since 2016 – the America East championship became the only open avenue for the Catamounts to go dancing for a second year in a row.
Everything went to plan in the opening two rounds of the conference tournament, but head coach John Becker and his veteran-laden squad soon became the first victim of ‘Retriever magic’ when Jarius Lyles shoved a knife into the hearts of Vermont fans everywhere:
It’s tough to imagine the Catamounts without their main maestro Trae Bell-Haynes orchestrating the offense. The two time AE Player of the Year departs, along with a pair of twin towers in Drew Urquhart and Payton Henson, leaving Becker with some big shoes to fill in 2019.
It may be unfair to peg Stef Smith as the second coming of Bell-Haynes, but the rising sophomore shares many of the same qualities as his former mentor. No one else on the roster rivals Smith’s burst of quickness off-the-dribble, and he could be a perfect change of pace backcourt counterpart to either Ernie or Robin Duncan. Robin enters the program as the 3rd Duncan to suit up for Vermont, all three of whom may share the floor together for significant stretches this season. Robin is a true pass-first lead guard and is blessed with an enviable frame for the point guard position at 6’5. With older brother Ernie’s ability to run the point or slide off-the-ball, I’d wager Becker platoons Robin Duncan and Stef Smith, while sliding Ernie back and forth between the 1 and the 2 – with his little brother Robin, Ernie will focus on shot-seeking; with Smith, Ernie will focus on running the offense and spacing the floor to create room for Smith to penetrate.
To replace the forward stalwarts of Urquhart and Henson, UVM will have to trade size for athleticism with Ra Kpedi due for a major bump in minutes up front. However, 6’8 freshman Ryan Smith could be a close replica of Henson with his ability to step away and stretch the floor offensively. With Henson extending his shooting range beyond the 3-point line last year, Becker was able to get away with playing an overwhelmingly 3-big lineup - at least, for America East standards - with 6’6 Everett Duncan on the wing (the oldest of the Duncan bros) alongside some combination of Urquhart, Henson and Anthony Lamb at the 4 and 5.
When Lamb broke his foot just after the New Year, Becker leaned heavily on the Urquhart / Henson duo inside. As the chart below confirms, the Catamounts suffocated opposing offenses with these two trees anchoring the defense (refer to the 0.93 points per possession allowed with both on the floor):
After missing a large portion of the 2019 season, Lamb is back and fully healed, ready to unleash hell on smaller and weaker America East forwards in the middle. He’s simply impossible to move off the block and if he continues to sharpen his outside jumper, Lamb could be in for a special junior season. As aforementioned, Becker must optimize Lamb by pairing him with the best fit up front. Kpedi – a former 3-star recruit – has the edge over the freshman Davis both in talent and experience, but Kpedi’s offensive game is still catching up to his defense. Davis – a hyper-skilled burly 6’8 forward who can venture out to the perimeter – could be a reliable interchangeable alternative to Kpedi up-front next to Lamb.
Bottom Line: ‘Operation Revenge’ is now in effect as Vermont sets out to restore the balance of power in the America East. Becker now gets to tap into that wealth of talent which, for the most part, sat idle last year while a distinguished core of upperclassmen hogged most of the minutes. Along with Kpedia, Samuel Dingba, Ben Shungu and Skyler Nash give Becker an athletic pool of assets to work in and out of the lineup, which will help Vermont retain their status as the America East’s top defensive unit. Last year, the size and length was the calling card of Becker’s defense – now, the abundance of athleticism is what opponents will have to deal with.
While there’s a scenario where Hartford could give the Catamounts a run for their money, it’s hard to see Vermont losing more than three games in league play. A 13-3 conference record should solidify yet another top-seed in the America East championship and lock up home court advantage all the way through the conference tournament title game.
Key Returners: John Carroll, Jason Dunne, JR Lynch, Travis Weatherington
Key Losses: Hassan Attia
Key Newcomers: Eddie Davis III, Romain Boxus, Darius Kinnel, Michael Dunne, Hunter Marks
Outlook: The Hartford Hawks are the only America East challenger who’s knocked down the Vermont juggernaut over the past two seasons. Vermont’s deadly combination of talent and experience was too much to handle for the rest of the league last year, but the 2019 Hawks’ will boast the oldest, most seasoned team in the America East – one that has a puncher’s chance to rob the Catamounts of their 3rd straight conference title.
After ranking 35th nationally in ‘experience’ per kenpom.com, Hartford brings back four starters from last year (all of whom are now seniors) and replaces the only departing starter (Hassan Attia) with a grad transfer in Eddie Davis III. Hawks fans are well acclimated with their terrific triumvirate of John Carroll, Jason Dunne and JR Lynch, but unsung supporting cast hero Travis Weatherington deserves more recognition for his contributions last season. The rising senior is a prototypical ‘3-and-D’ specialist and a perfect 4th banana to the big 3 - he checked in with the 3rd best true shooting percentage in the America East last year after canning 46% of his triples during league play.
With that top-4 well established, the Eddie Davis for Hassan Attia swap is really the only major difference between the 2018 and 2019 core rotation. As imposing as Attia was in the paint, Davis could wind up being a net upgrade at the 2nd forward spot alongside Carroll. Attia was a shot swatting specialist and intimidating giant in the middle of John Gallagher’s 2-3 zone, but he never figured out how to control his arms and body defensively. As a result, Attia was constantly in foul trouble and forced Gallagher to call upon his bench early and often – Attia committed 7.8 fouls per 40 minutes last year, which included a stretch where he fouled out in 7 of 8 games.
While Davis is nowhere near the rim protector that Attia was, he’ll at least be able to stay on the floor and his much improved offensive game will keep defenses from collapsing on Carroll inside. Davis logged 20 starts for a Southern Miss last season and played alongside a true 4-guard lineup that dominated the ball – thus, much like Weatherington, Davis should willingly accept his role as an opportunistic scorer and help space the floor for Carroll to operate in the middle. The one part of Davis’ game that got exposed last season was rebounding, but he was often unfairly tasked with holding down the fort inside as the lone big on the floor. Sticking Davis next to Carroll inside should help remedy that concern as Carroll corralled opposing misses at the 5th highest clip in the conference last season.
With such a stout top-5 in place, it’s hard to see any of the newcomers lifting the Hawks’ ceiling in 2019. Romain Boxus’ versatility could make him a valuable off-the-bench swiss-army knife, so don’t be surprised to see him contend for 6th man of the year (assuming Gallagher awards the final starting spot to Davis).
As a quick stylistic tangent, I love how Gallagher mixes up defenses between man-to-man and zone. From what I observed last season, the Hawks would randomly shift back and forth between both schemes, which confused opposing ball handlers and often disrupted offensive sets. Over the course of the season, Gallagher leaned more on man-to-man than he did in 2016-17 – per Synergy, the Hawks played zone on 39% of defensive possessions last season, a slight drop-off from the 56% clip two years ago.
Bottom Line: It will be uphill sledding to keep pace with Vermont’s stable of horses, but a big-3 of Lynch, Dunne and Carroll give the Hawks enough firepower to keep the Catamounts looking over their shoulder. It’s hard to see anyone robbing Vermont of their 3rd straight America East title, but Hartford has far and away the best chance to play spoiler in 2019.
3. Stony Brook
Key Returners: Akwasi Yeboah, Jaron Cornish, Jordan McKenzie, Elijah Olaniyi
Key Losses: Tyrell Sturdivant, Junior Saintel
Key Newcomers: Miles Latimer, Alex Christie, Jules Moor, Hassan Ceesay, Jeffrey Otchere
Outlook: Stony Brook has been the backbone of the America East ever since Steve Pikiell took over in 2005 and lifted the program to new heights. Over his final 7 seasons on Long Island – before he accepted the brutal challenge of trying to resurrect Rutgers (we’re all rooting for you Steve!) – the Seawolves won 12 or more conference games 6 times and played musical chairs with Vermont atop the America East standings.
With that precedent of consistent success embedded into the expectations of Stony Brook fans, last year’s regression was likely unsettling. Though, Jameel Warney and Lucas Woodhouse - two of the all-time greats in Stony Brook history - were integral parts of the recent run and last year was the first time in five years that neither one suited up in a Stony brook uniform.
This choppy transitionary period may be coming to a close with Akwasi Yeboah on the verge of stardom. Even with some established veterans back in the mix, it was abundantly clear that Yeboah’s talent superseded his elder teammates, which incentivized Boals to place the offense in the Englishman’s hands. Scoring was still a chore at times, but without Yeboah’s heroic individual efforts, Stony Brook may have been downright anemic on offense. Neither Jordan McKenzie nor Jaron Cornish (who effectively split time at point guard) took care of the ball consistently as both posted turnover rates above 24% last season. Heady decision-making was essentially guaranteed during Lucas Woodhouse’ 2-year tenure as the offensive engine – from 2015-2017, Stony Brook posted the 3rd lowest turnover rate in the league, a number that spiked to 2nd worst last year without his calming presence on the floor.
Handicapped by a limited offense, a stonewall defense kept the Seawolves afloat throughout conference play. The ball-hawkish defending of Tyrell Sturdivant fueled Stony Brooks’ league best 13% steal rate, which helped alleviate pressure off the offense by taking away precious possessions from America East foes. Even with Sturdivant, UC Iroegbu and Junior Saintel all gone, Cornish, McKenzie, and Elijah Olaniyi (last year’s America East Freshman of the Year) return as three disruptive defenders across the perimeter. Throw in the versatile Yeboah and an interior rim rejecter in Jeff Otchere, and Hartford should sport another top-3 defense in the conference. Rising sophomore 6’8 Anthony Ochefu snuck his way into the starting lineup late in the year, but Otchere’s upside as a paint protector may be too enticing to keep him on the pine – he averaged 4 blocks a game at his prior JUCO stop.
Bottom Line: After playing a methodical, motion-heavy offensive style under Pikiell, the Seawolves are slowly rebranding themselves under new director Jeff Boals. Per an interview with Blue Ribbon, Boals hinted at the fact that he wants to feature the strengths of this roster, which is plus size and top-flight athletes across multiple positions. Often times last season, Stony Brook would trot out 6’5, 6’7, 6’7 and 6’11 at the 2-5 spots, which flustered America East offenses and took away easy driving and passing lanes in the half-court. Look for the rangy arms and quick hands of the Seawolves’ collection of athletes to generate steals at high rate, which should ignite some easy transition opportunities going the other way.
Yeboah is capable of shouldering a heavy offensive load, but Stony will need to capitalize on ‘grab-and-go’ chances to get high percentage looks out on the break. The defense isn’t going anywhere and with the learning curve beginning to flatten under Boals’ 2nd year on the sidelines, Stony Brook is a lock to crack the top half of the league standings.
Key Returners: Joe Sherburne, Arkel Lamar, Daniel Akin, Max Curran, Max Portman, Nolan Gerrity
Key Losses: Jairus Lyles, KJ Maura, Jourdan Grant
Key Newcomers: Ricky Council, Kaelin Jackson, Jose Placer, Rayell Eytle-Rock
Outlook: *insert obligatory intro on the absurdity of UMBC’s upset in the tournament*
To put into perspective how insane the Retrievers’ shellacking of Virginia was last March, the smartest guys in the room – the Vegas’ oddsmakers – swung and missed by a colossal margin. Most books had Virginia as a 22-point favorite when the lines opened, which means they whiffed by an unfathomable 42 points after UMBC boat-raced the Cavs in the 2nd half en route to a jaw-dropping 74-54 beatdown.
Per our historical game database that goes back to 2008, the Retrievers’ cover margin of 42 points was the highest of any NCAA tournament game over the past 11 seasons, tied with Villanova’s destruction of Oklahoma back in 2016. If we expand the sample to all regular season, conference tournament and NCAA tournament games with recorded spreads – roughly 40,000 games in our database – only 15 times has a team covered by more than 42 points. Folks, that is why the NCAA tournament is, and forever will be, pure gold.
While the odds of what transpired were astronomical, the Retrievers’ tournament magic wasn’t a complete fluke – that is to say, the 12/24 shooting display from downtown was a resemblance of how UMBC beat teams all season long. With two dynamic dribblers in KJ Maura and Jairus Lyles, head coach Ryan Odom revolved the offense around their individual creation and scattered shooters all around them. Per Synergy, UMBC scored 34% of their points last year on spot-up jumpers, most of which manifested from Maura and Lyles’ penetration and kick-outs.
So, with these two table setters no longer around to serve up 3-point shooters, the spotlight shifts to Providence transfer Ricky Council and JUCO import KJ Jackson. Council’s 6’5 stature is nearly a whole foot taller than the little jitterbug Maura – he’s proficient at creating space off the bounce, but matching Maura’s teleportation-esque quickness will be hard to replicate. Both Council and Jackson are cut from ‘combo-guard’ cloth, so sliding them off the ball will make the best use of their shooting and scoring mindsets. Odom will likely need freshman Jose Placer, the Puerto Rican heir apparent to Maura, to step in as the primary offensive facilitator. If he can accelerate his maturity and cement his spot as the primary point guard right away, it should forge more catch-and-shoot opportunities for the sharpshooting Council and allow the high-scoring Jackson to go hunt his shot.
While Odom’s main focus will be sorting out the perimeter rotations, a deep assortment of forwards will be the bedrock of this new look Retriever roster. Returning starters and All-Conference candidates Joe Sherburne and Arkel Lamar will be penciled in to the 3 and 4 spots on the wing. Lamar stands just 6’5, but his length and bounce enable him to check opposing 4s defensively. He was already an adept slasher and productive rebounder, but a newfound stroke from long distance transformed him into an offensive weapon. Lamar and Sherburne knocked down a combined 127 threes last year at a 41% clip.
If Odom opts to slot Lamar at the 4, Daniel Akin, Max Curran, Max Portman, Nolan Gerrity and Sam Schwietz will all be fighting tooth and nail for minutes at the 5. Akin started every game in America East play last year, which should give him the early edge in seizing the final spot in the rotation, but the other four reserves have the chops to play in high leverage situations if needed.
Bottom Line: The backcourt was ripped to shreds this offseason, which means it’s back to the drawing board for Odom and his new band of guards. Council and Jackson each carry strong pedigree, but the Maura / Lyles tandem was special, so some natural offensive regression seems unavoidable. A loaded group of wings and forwards should keep the outer edges and middle of the defense well-fortified, but another top-2 finish feels ambitious, given how much the Retrievers lost this summer.
Key Returners: Devonte Campbell
Key Losses: Joe Cremo, David Nichols, Greig Stire, Travis Charles
Key Newcomers: Cam Healy, Rayshawn Miller, Philip Flory, Reece Brooks, Malachi De Sousa, Nikola Jerotic, Kendall Lauderdale, Sasha French, Antonio Rizzuto, Jeremiah Starks
Outlook: After a near-upset of Louisville in the KFC Yum center last December, Albany had to be entering league play surging with confidence. I sincerely believed the Great Danes would give Vermont all they could handle in the America East title race last year, and this episode only reinforced my confidence heading into the conference portion of the season.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have beat my chest so quickly…
That irrational confidence quickly evaporated into thin air after Albany stumbled to an 0-2 start in conference, putting the Great Danes in a hole far too deep to climb out of. When Vermont eventually came to town on February 8th, Albany raced out to an early lead and sustained a slight edge well into the 2nd half. Unfortunately, the Great Danes ran out of gas over the final 10 minutes, marking yet another instance of Albany’s inability to close out tight games. Will Brown’s squad crossed the finish line in 4th place with a respectable 10-6 record, but it wasn’t enough to outlast the Catamounts. who tripped up just once all year (despite star big man Anthony Lamb being out of the lineup).
As Brown looks to put last year’s shortcomings behind him, he’ll have to replace his two top dogs, Joe Cremo and David Nichols, the offensive co-leads in the backcourt last year. Nichols was an explosive driver who could crack the first line of defense with ease, while Cremo was a well-rounded three-level scorer. In Brown’s motion-intensive offense, the primary source of shot-creation last season was through a steady dose of ball screens to free up driving lanes for Nichols and Cremo. When defenses were able to bottle that up, Albany countered by playing inside-out through the post, with either Travis Charles or Greig Stire on the low block.
Welp, Charles and Stire graduated alongside their backcourt cohorts, leaving Devonte Campbell at the lone returning member from the 2017-18 starting lineup. Last year, Campbell was appropriately cast as a defensive stopper on the wing, who rarely looked for his own shot offensively – given he made just 7 of his 50 tries from downtown (14%), this was well intended. Campbell’s offseason focus must be geared toward becoming a more assertive scoring threat, but the bulk of last year’s offensive production will have to be replenished by a new pack of Great Danes – and oh boy are there a lot of them…
How much talent can be found in this hodgepodge of newcomers will ultimately determine what becomes of the 2019 season. Making sense of who will emerge is like looking for a needle in a haystack, but here’s a quick rundown of the names you’ll see this year – note these are organized by prior destination:
Australia Natives: Redshirt freshman guard Cam Healy will be tossed right into the fire, who played with some of the nation’s blue-chip prep prospects at Monteverde Academy. Fellow Aussie Adam Lulka also redshirted last year who brings a big body and a smooth shooting stroke to the mix.
D1 Transfers: Two more ‘down transfers’ in Rayshawn Miller (UMass) and Philip Flory (Seton Hall) are eligible and safe bets to crack the rotation – though, neither made much of an impact at their prior schools.
JUCO Transfers: Reece Brooks is a tiny, ‘Mini-me’ spark plug that could be a huge jolt to an offense in dire need of a boost, while Kendall Lauderdale is a beefy 6’8 245 pounds that can mix it up inside.
Other Freshmen: Antonio Rizzuto, Nikola Jerotic, Malachi de Sousa and Brett Hank round out the rest of the freshmen class. Rizzuto is the odds-on favorite to emerge right away as he enters Albany with a reputation as a lights-out shooter and should be a good fill-in for Cremo.
Bottom Line: This quote from Will Brown in Blue Ribbon is framed in a positive light, but it’s indicative of how no one – not even him – knows what to expect this year.
“I like the fact that nobody has a feel for us. The problem is I don’t have a feel either. We have a lot of new guys. We’re young, we’re inexperienced, but we’re not lacking talent.”
Hearing this doesn’t exactly give me fuzzies inside and implies there will be a lot of lineup shuffling early on while Brown tinkers with the primary rotation. Hopefully by conference play, he will have the depth chart decisions ironed out, but until I see a reliable offensive alpha step forward, a middle of the pack finish seems to make sense for the Great Danes.
6. UMass Lowell
Key Returners: Ryan Jones, Josh Gantz, Obadiah Noel
Key Losses: Jahad Thomas, Matt Harris, Rinardo Perry
Key Newcomers: Darius Henderson, Christian Lutete
^ That’s a live look at Pat Duquette, who has finally escaped from the purgatory that is the NCAA’s [dumb, pointless and] mandatory transitionary period. The River Hawks finally got their first taste of March Madness last season after being shunned from postseason play for four years – granted, it was a quick appetizer that lasted just 40 minutes after the soon-to-be 2019 NCAA tournament darlings UMBC Retriever’s dispatched the River Hawks in the 1st round of the A-East tourney.
Building any sort of momentum will have to be done without Jahad Thomas, the human engine to the River Hawks’ hyper-fast offense over the last four years. A rare breed of athlete by America East standards, Thomas ignited the transition attack that always had conference foes backpedaling on their heels. Thomas did everything and then some for UMass Lowell, and routinely ranked among the conference leaders in just about every statistical measure – the advanced stat player page from kenpom.com shows his America East ranks in each category below:
With Thomas sailing off into the sunset, the 2019 roster looks a lot more ordinary this year – that is, the primary rotation will likely feature more traditional forwards up-front, as opposed to Thomas playing the nominal 4 on defense. As good as Thomas was, utilizing a longer lineup with legitimate size should help cover up the interior cracks that have been unattended to over the last two years. During that time, the River Hawks have surrendered the highest effective field goal percentage in America East play, the price you pay for playing 4 true guards with no intimidating presence inside to act as a backstop. Darius Henderson, a 6’9 force, should be a revelation on this side of the ball and shun easy, unchallenged shots at the rim.
Another impact of a rejiggered roster may be a corresponding tweak to a previously guard-oriented, pick-n-roll dependent offense. Per the chart below, the River Hawks’ offensive possessions ended in some variation of a screen-n-roll incepted shot 25% of the time, the 5th highest rate in the country. Not surprisingly, Thomas was typically the trigger man in these situations.
No more Thomas means All-Conference candidate Ryan Jones, rising sophomore Obadiah Noel and Radford transfer Christian Lutete will get their crack at showcasing their pick-n-roll prowess.
Bottom Line: Seeing the River Hawks play without the bowling ball that was Jahad Thomas out there will be tough to get used to – the iron man played 95% of all available minutes in conference play, the highest percentage in the league. Jones and Gantz have played in Thomas’ shadow since they joined the program back in 2015, but both will likely finish their careers as 4-year starters and staples of ‘the Guinea pig’ class that helped transition UMass Lowell to the bright lights of Division 1 basketball. Jones and Gantz will have to bring along a deep stable of newcomers, but the veteran presence of Lutete should add some stability to the backcourt and put the River Hawks on the doorstep of a top-5 conference finish.
Key Returners:JC Show, Thomas Bruce, Everson Davis, Timmy Rose
Key Losses: Willie Rodriguez
Key Newcomers: Sam Sessons, Chancellor Barnard, Richard Caldwell Jr.
Outlook: Tommy Dempsey accepted Mission: Impossible when he took command of a basketball program that had been tarred and feathered many times over back in 2012. Unless you hail from upstate New York, it’s likely you’re unfamiliar with the slew of scandals that ravaged the Binghamton athletic department roughly a decade ago. That tale is too long and too tragic to address at this juncture, but it explains why Dempsey has had the deck stacked against him…
After running in place for essentially five years, last year offered a ray of hope for a step in the right direction. The Bearcats returned everyone of importance, led by two All-Conference caliber players in JC Show and Willie Rodriguez, along with seven other core rotational pieces from the 2016-17 campaign. Somehow, that same cast of characters slid further into oblivion and Dempsey found himself all alone in the basement of the America East standings for the fourth time in six seasons.
Show (which rhymes with “cow”) is well acquainted with being one of the punching bags of the America East, who now enters his 3rd and final season in a Binghamton uniform. His loyalty and commitment to helping Dempsey rebuild the program deserves a round of applause, but his production on the court will have to reach new heights if the Bearcats are to re-write the sorry script of the past two seasons. Touted as a premier shooter when he transferred in from Bucknell, Show’s percentages fell last year as his volume and usage skyrocketed. Most would agree that he’s a better shooter than last year’s 34% 3-point conversion rate would suggest, but nagging injuries (knee and shoulder) may have played a part.
The good news for Show is that Dempsey brought in a reliable point guard, Sam Sessons, who should be able to get Show open looks running off screens. Sessons will almost surely replace Timmy Rose as the primary option at point, a lineup switch that is a microcosm of what to expect this season across the entire roster. After watching what was essentially the same team as the 2016-17 squad flame out last season, Dempsey needs to shake things up a bit and roll the dice on some newcomers this year. One example of this might involve fast tracking Richard Caldwell and Chancellor Barnard into the starting lineup, two new imports who should leapfrog a few of the incumbents at the 3 and 4 spots. Sessons, Show, Caldwell and Everson Davis should be a serviceable group of guards to go to war with this season.
Barnard will join what’s arguably the top defender in the conference in Thomas Bruce up front. The 6’9 forward is blessed with go-go-gadget arms, which allows him to get his paws on anything coming off the rim. Bruce posted the league’s 2nd highest defensive rebounding rate and 5th highest block rate last year as he continues to become more and more comfortable with Dempsey’s diverse defensive playbook. Dempsey employs a mix of non-traditional defenses which morphs back and forth between full-court and half-court zone looks. It had its moments at times last year – particularly against less familiar non-conference opponents – but coaches around the America East had no trouble finding the soft spots. The Bearcats clocked in with the 4th worst defense in the league, which could’ve been far worse without Bruce perusing the paint.
Bottom Line: Tommy Dempsey’s number one priority has been wiping away the scandal smear that’s tainted Binghamton’s image for years. He’s had to error on the side of caution when it comes to talent evaluation and selection, which has forced him to take a zero-tolerance recruiting policy. The inability to take any amount of risk has constricted the potential talent pool, a major reason why the Bearcats have become a permanent tenant in the America East Cellar. Hope for a basketball rebirth in Binghamton is slowly slipping away, but there’s some moderately intriguing pieces on this team that could help Dempsey get back on track.
8. New Hampshire
Key Returners: Jordan Reed, Josh Hopkins, Elijah Jordan, John Ogwuche
Key Losses: Tanner Leissner, Iba Camara
Key Newcomers: Marque Maultsby, Jayden Martinez, Nick Guadarrama, David Hall
Outlook: While New Hampshire isn’t the only squad in the America East waving goodbye to program legends this summer, in the Wildcats’ case, it’s a ‘Super-Size’ loss, both in terms of actual on-court impact and literal mass. Tanner Leisnner, Iba Camara and Jacoby Armstrong and their combined 700 pounds of weight leave Durham, NH with a thunderous exit, creating a hole the size of a crater inside – the Wildcats’ front court now looks like Christian Bale after he lost 50 pounds in preparation for his role in the Machinist.
All jokes aside, Leisnner and Camara will likely be remembered as one of the best frontcourt pairngs in program history and Jacoby Armstrong’s action-figure physique won’t be soon forgotten as well. With so much size gone, UNH will look nothing like what we witnessed last year. This schematic DNA shift will be seismic, which presents an alluring opportunity for Jordan Reed, Josh Hopkins, Elijah Jordan or John Ogwuche, the crux of last year’s backcourt. This trio will now have a much bigger role in the offense after deferring to their front line counterparts last season.
When you factor in incoming freshman Marque Maultsby and San Diego transfer Mark Carbone, the perimeter depth chart begins to look overcrowded. Maultsby’s game breaking speed has generated a ton of hype this summer, which may shift Elijah Jordan – last year’s de facto point guard – to more of a combo guard to give Maultsby more reps as the primary offensive creator. The sheer imbalance of this roster could require a 4-out, 1-in lineup (with either David Watkins, Luke Rosinski or Chris Lester as the center point) to realize the offensive upside.
However, it’s only fair to question whether that strategy will come at the expense of interior defense and rebounding, two of Herrion’s resounding coaching principles. Even with such an elite rebounding unit last season, the Wildcats still graded as the 6th best defensive team in the America East. This begs the question whether or not the defense could be doomed in 2019 if UNH can’t dominate the boards like they have over the past three seasons.
While the losses of Camara and Leissner are no doubt concerning, Herrion’s shell-like defense is almost ‘personnel agnostic’ – in other words, it’s a defense where you can plug-and-play guys of all shapes and sizes and produce similar outcomes. One highly similar case study is at George Mason, where Dave Paulsen engineers a near replica of Herrion’s defensive scheme. Paulsen’s system was put to the ultimate test last year as he played a 4-guard lineup along with an undersized freshman as the nominal 5. The super small lineup did deflate Mason’s offensive and defensive rebounding rates below their usual standards, but the decline was not catastrophic.
Bottom Line: Let’s throw in another random D1 school comparison, shall we? New Hampshire ranks right up there with Charlotte in the Conference USA - a team transitioning from a run-and-gun, NBA-influenced coaching mind in Mark Price to a slow, methodical style under former Virginia assistant Ron Sanchez) - in teams about to undergo the largest stylistic makeover from 2018 to 2019. Herrion is one of the wiser coaching minds around, so I trust this vision is the right approach long-term – but in the near-term, I remain skeptic until proven otherwise.
Key Returners: Isaiah White, Andrew Fleming, Vincent Eze, Ilija Stojiljkovic, Celio Araujo
Key Losses: Aaron Calixte
Key Newcomers: Sergio El Darwich,Terion Moss,Stephane Ingo,Vilgot Larsson, Mykhalio Yagodin, Soloman Iluyomade
Outlook: Last season’s 3-13 showing in the America East was a repeat performance of the 2016-17 campaign – but the fact that the Black Bears avoided another locker room brawl has to count for something right?!
Welp, apparently that small, moral victory didn’t cut it for the Maine athletic department. Bob Walsh was ultimately canned after a forgettable four year span that featured a grand total of 12 conference wins and whole lot of losses – it’s worth mentioning that in all four seasons, Maine finished in the bottom-20 of kenpom.com’s overall rankings.
Not surprisingly, the AD decided to make a move. As many programs around the country have done recently, Maine opted to take the path of least resistance by filling the head coaching vacancy with an ‘in-house’ hire…
But by ‘in-house’, I don’t mean from within the men’s basketball department. Nope, the athletic department anointed Richard Barron as the new head honcho, the former women’s head coach at Maine from 2011 to 2017, in hopes that his coaching acumen will transcend gender walls.
While I have no idea how this decision will pan out, I commend Maine for thinking outside the box. Trying to get young kids to come to Orono, Maine to play basketball is a chore, so I suspect Barron will have some creative ideas on how to approach recruiting – but for the here and the now, the 2019 outlook looks bleak.
Maine loses their only semi-efficient offensive player from last season, who just so happened to be the main ball handler, primary creator and top shot-maker all rolled into one. Aaron Calixte took the graduate transfer route to Oklahoma, leaving Barron with a ‘barren’ (lol) crop of returners. The other four starters besides Calixte return, but none were efficient as complementary role players last year – thus, unless one of the newcomers steps into the driver’s seat in place of Calixte, I’m not sure more shots for Andrew Fleming and Isaiah White is necessarily a good thing. Fleming and White at 6’7 and 6’6 respectively, are prototypical ‘tweeners’ who can do a little bit of everything, but excel at nothing. Fleming is the more brawny of the two, while White is the superior athlete and can be a nuisance as a defender.
A grand entrance is in order for Sergio El Darwich, who comes in at a time in need as the most qualified newcomer to replace Calixte at the point of attack. El Darwich had a cup of coffee at South Dakota State before going the JUCO route, but he was an everyday starter during that brief stint. He’ll be an extension of Barron on the court and must take responsibility for helping to shepherd along the transition to a new offensive scheme.
Barron will need to implement an offense that factors in the limitations of personnel, something Walsh failed to do last season. After playing at a moderately paced tempo in 2016-17, Walsh revved up the offense into high gear last year. Unfortunately, that turned out to be the equivalent of giving the car keys to a 5-year old and telling him to floor it.
The whole notion of ‘pace and space’ sounds good, but if you don’t have the talent and skill level to execute it, playing fast can backfire in a hurry. Last year’s offensive train wreck was a prime example of this, as the Bears’ juiced up tempo coincided with careless turnovers and questionable shot choices. In conference play, Maine posted a league worst 22% turnover rate, a figure which only a few schools in the entire country rivaled – as the picture below from kenpom.com reveals, Maine coughed up the rock at a significantly higher rate than the rest of the America East.
Bottom Line: There’s a small, minute possibility that I’m not giving enough credit to the new shipment of transfers and freshmen – Mykhalio Yagodin and Terion Moss are two to names to track – but it’s unlikely any of them lift Maine out of the America East gutter. Vincent Eze returning from injury could provide a nice spark, but there just isn’t a lot else to get excited about on this roster. Barron has nowhere to go but up, and avoiding another last place finish would qualify as an A+ performance in his first year at the helm.