Monday, November 24, 2008

The State of America East

Early returns from America East teams are mixed. Some teams have burst out of the gate with victories against weak competition. Others fought tooth-and-nail for 40 minutes -- and sometimes more -- versus opponents of approximately equal strength. Still others have threatened to steal wins from heavily favored foes, and an unfortunate few have already started to broadcast warning signs.

Which early results are true indicators of future performances, and which are red herrings? We don't know yet, but using what we've seen to date, here are our America East Power Rankings:

1. Vermont Catamounts
(1-2, 0-0 AE, RPI 229, SOS 170)
Last week: W 89-58 vs. Yale, L at Maryland 89-74 (OT)
Next week: 11/25 at Delaware

It's not every day a team with a losing record merits a spot at the top of the power rankings, but the Catamounts are not your ordinary sub-.500 team. Vermont's two losses were a one-point loss to George Mason -- perhaps not a Final Four-caliber Patriots team, but a quality team nonetheless -- and an overtime loss at Maryland where the Terrapins were lucky to escape. Friday's destruction of Yale was impressive. The Cats could easily be 3-0, and with their most visible weakness so far -- Vermont has turned the ball over 20 times per game -- likely to improve given the veteran presence in the backcourt, it'd be a major surprise to see the Catamounts languish below .500 for much longer.

2. Boston University Terriers
(2-1, 0-0 AE, RPI 281, SOS 310)
Last week: W 71-68 (OT) at Bucknell, W 67-62 vs. Saint Peter's
This week: 11/25 at Northeastern, 11/29 at Mount Saint Mary's

The Terriers' three games may not have produced any upsets, but all three have been close. Scott Brittain's return to the lineup on Saturday afforded BU a full complement of players, but it may take some time before the Terrier forward is fully effective on both ends of the floor. BU's frontcourt depth appears to be less of a concern than in previous years. Free-throw shooting needs to improve, particularly late in games. This Tuesday's contest against CAA foe and former America East rival Northeastern should be a good measuring stick.

3. Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers
(3-1, 0-0 AE, RPI 101, SOS 182)
Last week: L 67-60 at Morgan State, W 76-71 vs. Quinnipiac (neutral court), W 66-52 at Columbia
Next week: 11/26 at George Washington, 11/29 vs. Toledo

UMBC's 3-1 record thus far is bolstered somewhat by a lopsided win against local D-III Stevenson, but the Retrievers have acquitted themselves reasonably well thus far. Darryl Proctor and Jay Greene have had to carry most of the load while the rest of Randy Monroe's tight rotation adjusts to increased expectations. Fairfield transfer Rich Flemming has been effective thus far; his offensive production will come in handy when Proctor has an off night. The schedule gets harder this week. The Colonials' height and athleticism will provide the Retrievers with a stiffer test come Wednesday, and a road win against a quality opponent would be another strong indicator that the Retrievers aren't one-year wonders.

4. Hartford Hawks
(1-3, 0-0 AE, RPI 235, SOS 160)
Last week: L 99-56 at Connecticut, L 89-64 at Penn State, W 91-82 vs. Saint Francis (NY)
This week: 11/25 at Rhode Island, 11/28 at New Jersey Institute of Technology

Getting blown out by Connecticut isn't necessarily embarrassing. This year's Huskies are capable of blowing out anyone and everyone. Still, a blowout doesn't work in Hartford's favor, and the subsequent demolition at Penn State confirms the Hawks' inability to hang with the big dogs. Beating Saint Francis gives Dan Leibovitz's team the traction it hoped to gain in the season opener, but the Hawks have neither a strong performance against a quality opponent nor a series of wins, which keeps them behind the top three teams at this juncture.

5. Albany Great Danes
(2-2, 0-0 AE, RPI 71, SOS 85)
Last week: L 75-64 at DePaul, W 76-67 at Bryant, W 68-67 vs. Central Connecticut State
This week: 11/25 at Columbia, 11/29 vs. Pennsylvania

Tim Ambrose showed promise his freshman year, but few could have expected the performances the sophomore guard has turned in so far. Ambrose's 48 points in 53 minutes against Bryant and Central Connecticut State have the Danes at .500 and confident. Rebounding has been a strength thus far -- the Great Danes outrebounded both of their Big East opponents to open the season -- and while Albany hasn't been statistically dominant in any area, no obvious weakness has been exposed at this point. Considering his team's youth, Will Brown has to be pleased.

6. Maine Black Bears
(3-1, 0-0 AE, RPI 82, SOS 154)
Last week: W 58-55 at Princeton, L 83-62 at Providence
This week: 11/25 vs. Quinnipiac, 11/29 at South Alabama

Ted Woodward's resume as head coach of the Black Bears offers little to inspire confidence, but even the most stubborn Maine fans have to admit early returns this season are overwhelmingly positive. The opponents aren't impressive -- this year's Princeton isn't likely to live up to the name -- but a 3-0 start suggests Maine might be more capable than usual. Ball control is an issue, as Maine has turned the ball over on fully one-quarter of its possessions. The Black Bears will have trouble in the post all year, and a net rebounding percentage below 45% is a major concern, but for now Maine's backcourt depth and strong shooting are enough for sixth.

7. New Hampshire Wildcats
(1-2, 0-0 AE, RPI 310, SOS 250)
Last week: L 80-69 vs. Harvard, L 70-50 at Penn State
This week: 11/29 at Marist

The Wildcats' sole win this year was by a 51-point margin. Of course, it was against D-III Suffolk, but the margin was appropriate for a D-I school (more on this later). Harvard shot the lights out -- and the Crimson figure to be significantly improved from last year -- but New Hampshire acquitted itself reasonably well. Penn State didn't shoot as well, and the Wildcats hung around for a while before the Nittany Lions pulled away, but the overall defensive picture remains far from rosy. Offensively UNH has displayed depth, balance, efficiency and excellent ball control; if the Wildcats can improve their field-goal percentage defense, better results will follow. Until they win a game, though, it'll be hard to move higher than seventh.

8. Binghamton Bearcats
(1-1, 0-0 AE, RPI 270, SOS 165)
Last week: W 80-62 at Mansfield (D-II), L 71-57 at George Washington
This week: 11/25 at Central Connecticut State, 11/29 vs. Utah Valley

Two games into the season, the Bearcats have obvious talent at positions where the team was previously lacking. But talent isn't the question at Binghamton. Chemistry is, and the Bearcats displayed none of it in their loss to George Washington. A 14-point loss on the road to George Washington isn't embarrassing, but Binghamton never looked capable of leveraging its strengths to try and win. A plus-14 rebounding advantage was negated by a subpar performance at the charity stripe, poor shooting and a -9 turnover differential. Transfer guard Tiki Mayben's seven turnovers against the Colonials says it all. Add in the surprisingly competitive game against D-II Mansfield, and the Bearcats have failed to impress on the court thus far.

9. Stony Brook Seawolves
(1-2, 0-0 AE, RPI 315, SOS 305)
Last week: L 80-71 at Lafayette, L 65-62 vs. Wagner
This week: 11/25 vs. American, 11/29 at Columbia

A home win against Maryland-Eastern Shore is the one bright spot on the Seawolves' resume thus far. The Seawolves aren't the worst team in Division-I -- that would be the New Jersey Institute of Technology -- but they aren't far removed from worst-in-D-I territory. Head coach Steve Pikiell spreads the playing time out throughout his roster, so Stony Brook's many young players will get the opportunity to prove themselves. Despite that, the Seawolves' ceiling isn't much higher than their current low level of performance, and even if one or two of the freshmen prove to be real talents, whether Pikiell will opt to tighten the rotation and give his best players the bulk of the minutes is anyone's guess. The Seawolves are the worst team in America East, and they'll remain in the power rankings cellar until there's a convincing reason for them to move up.

Conference performance
OOC record (D-I opponents only): 12-15
Conference RPI: 20 out of 31
Conference SOS: 26 out of 31

Both the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) and SOS (Strength of Schedule) wildly vary in the early weeks of the season, so for now neither number means particularly much. Last year, in what was a generally down year for the conference despite the highly contested race among the second-through-sixth place teams, America East ranked 26th in both categories. Just like the RPI and SOS ranks for individual teams (which are out of 343), a lower numerical rank is better.

Right now the important number for America East is the OOC record. 12-15 is about average at this stage. With a few more lucky bounces the conference could be above .500 right now, but luck runs both ways.

One of the better ways to encapsulate teams' overall offensive and defensive strength is by removing tempo from consideration. The table below shows America East teams' offensive and defensive efficiency against Division-I opponents, expressed in terms of points scored per 100 possessions. While the numbers are still heavily influenced by opponents' strength and style of play this early in the season, some figures do stand out.

Vermont is playing at a faster pace than the rest of the league so far, and is finding success on both sides of the ball while doing so. The Retrievers and Terriers may have the highest offensive and defensive efficiencies, respectively, but Vermont is demonstrating strength on both ends against tougher competition.

Hartford and New Hampshire are clearly having difficulty preventing other teams from scoring. In their defense -- no pun intended -- neither has faced a weak offensive team thus far, but at some point the stops are going to have to come. The Hawks' offense hasn't been awful on a per-possession basis by any means, but offensive potential won't help much if the opponent is scoring at will. Each team's next game should provide a somewhat more reasonable test.

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