Monday, December 1, 2008

State of America East

Compared to the regularity of conference play, non-conference games can seem downright bizarre. Few fans expect to see a 40-point blowout against a regularly scheduled opponent – that is, unless your opponent du jour is the Tar Heels. Early-season basketball suffers from no such limitations. Sure, some games go according to plan. Others are all but decided by halftime. A select few games offer surprises for power-conference teams. Look closely enough and you might see Kyle Whelliston in the rafters with a satisfied grin on his face.

It’s difficult to know what to expect from an opponent before game time, but the results speak for themselves. With last week’s slate of games in the bank, it’s time for another edition of our America East Power Rankings (records against D-I opponents only):

1. Vermont Catamounts
(3-2, RPI 106, SOS 238)
Last week: W 78-63 at Delaware, W 64-62 vs. Loyola (MD)
This week: 12/2 vs. Dartmouth, 12/6 at Pittsburgh

Heading into last week nobody could criticize Vermont’s overall play through three games. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, however, was becoming somewhat of a habit. Not only have the Catamounts since demonstrated an ability to hold on in a close game, they’ve done something even better: take random chance out of the equation by building a substantial lead against a tough opponent. Delaware is a quality team in a quality conference, but Marqus Blakely and Mike Trimboli made short work of the Blue Hens. With Colin McIntosh beginning to establish himself as a complementary weapon for the Catamounts, Vermont’s offensive depth and balance is readily apparent.

2. Boston University Terriers
(3-2, RPI 159, SOS 228)
Last week: W 83-75 at Northeastern, L 78-69 at Mount St. Mary’s
This week: 12/3 at Harvard, 12/6 vs. Marshall

If Tuesday’s win against Northeastern was a statement game for the Terriers, Saturday’s loss made a different kind of statement. BU has two obvious strengths. Their names are Corey Lowe and John Holland. While the Terriers often benefit from the play of other players on the roster (like Carlos Strong on Saturday), Lowe and Holland are the only two who consistently shine. Having two star-caliber players is something most of America East can't claim, but until BU's other options show up consistently enough to take the offense to the next level, the Terriers will drop more winnable games than they would prefer. Point production isn't the only problem, either: with Scott Brittain unable to provide serious minutes, Matt Wolff is the only proven interior player on the team. The Terriers need to rebound the basketball better. Field-goal percentage defense is worthless if you can't end the opponent's possession.

3. Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers
(3-2, RPI 178, SOS 292)
Last week: L 70-64 at George Washington, W 61-56 vs. Toledo
This week: 12/3 vs. Towson

It's been a roller-coaster beginning to the season for Retriever fans, as UMBC's first five games against Division-I competition have produced four close contests. While it's clear that this year's Retriever team isn't going to be the same as the dominant one from last year, a lot of the key advantages from last year's squad are still present. No, I don't mean Darryl Proctor and Jay Greene. I mean offensive efficiency, turnover rate, and steal percentage. Last year the Retrievers emphasized taking care of the ball, and this year is no different. With a very nice turnover percentage of 16.4 percent and plenty of steals, the Retrievers are getting shots up more frequently than their opponents. An advantage in scoring opportunities goes a long way toward covering up any weaknesses, and as long as UMBC wins the turnover battle the Retrievers will win games their talent level says they should lose.

4. Albany Great Danes
(4-2, RPI 62, SOS 86)
Last week: W 66-49 at Columbia, W 73-63 vs. Pennsylvania
This week: 12/1 vs. Bryant, 12/6 at Siena

A two-game winning streak is nice but easily dismissed. A four-game winning streak, on the other hand, is a wake-up call for the rest of the conference. Albany's weapons from two championship seasons may have departed, but the Great Danes are playing hard and playing well. Tim Ambrose continues to produce for the Danes; on Saturday Anthony Raffa decided to join him as well. With a young backcourt beginning to yield real dividends for Albany, the team's strengths, particularly rebounding, have been able to turn tight games into comfortable wins. The three-point shooting still needs to improve somewhat, and the Danes can take better care of the basketball, but things are looking up in the capital region.

5. Hartford Hawks
(2-5, RPI 181, SOS 57)
Last week: W 50-37 vs. New Jersey Institute of Technology (neutral court), L 103-63 vs. Niagara (neutral court)
This week: 12/4 vs. Lafayette, 12/6 vs. La Salle

Hartford still has plenty of time to fix its issues before conference play commences, but at this point there are a number of serious concerns for Dan Leibovitz and his squad. Getting slaughtered by UConn and Penn State hurt but wasn't particularly troubling. but surrendering 94 points against Rhode Island and 103 points against Niagara indicates that something is seriously wrong with Hartford's defense. The Hawks aren't defending shooters well, nor are they forcing turnovers. To top it off, the rebounding has been abysmal on both ends of the floor. The Hawks are taking -- and making -- plenty of three-pointers, but they rank fifth here based on potential alone. Until one of Hartford's negatives is turned into a positive, the Hawks will struggle against bad opponents and get annihilated against good ones.

6. Maine Black Bears
(3-4, RPI 156, SOS 191)
Last week: L 73-66 vs. Quinnipiac, L 71-59 at South Alabama, L 66-56 vs. Tulane (neutral court)
This week: 12/4 vs. Maine-Presque Isle

Three losses in a week is never a good sign, but for a defensively-oriented team, most of Maine's vital signs look fairly good at this point. The Black Bears have defended perimeter shooters very well so far and are winning the turnover battle. Like a lot of teams in the AE, Maine's Achilles heel has been interior play. With a net rebounding percentage of -9.5 percent, Maine's opponents have been getting more second-chance opportunities, and Maine's inefficient offense hasn't been able to keep up. However, Maine has looked competitive in every game, even against superior opponents, which bodes well come January. The Black Bears don't have the talent of some of the other teams in America East, but if their strengths continue to show up a few months from now, Maine will be winning more games than many expect.

7. New Hampshire Wildcats
(0-3, RPI 280, SOS 142)
Last week: L 63-61 at Marist
This week: 12/3 at Colgate, 12/6 vs. Brown

The Wildcats have played well at points in each of their three contests against D-I opponents, but at some point Bill Herrion has to wonder if his team will ever play well enough to win a game. UNH has been effective in a number of areas, particularly defensive rebounding -- the Wildcats' 77.0 percent defensive rebounding percentage is sixth in the nation -- but for every strength the Wildcats demonstrate, a new weakness appears. Saturday the Wildcats rebounded reasonably well and were +11 in turnovers but shot 4-of-26 from beyond the arc while the Red Foxes shot 52 percent from the floor. New Hampshire has the ability to win some of these games, as their 23-6 run in Saturday's second half proved, but the Wildcats need to take the next step and actually win a game instead of just looking dangerous.

8. Binghamton Bearcats
(1-2, RPI 190, SOS 134)
Last week: L 76-51 at Central Connecticut State, W 73-66 vs. Utah Valley
This week: 12/1 at Quinnipiac, 12/6 at Rutgers

The Bearcats have an uncanny ability to resemble two completely different teams, often changing from one to another in a matter of minutes. Sometimes Binghamton is calm and collected, its players poised -- and then Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde. The Bearcats can be effective when they play as a team, as the win over Utah Valley shows, but far too often the ugly version of the Bearcats shows up. When that happens, Binghamton can lose to anyone at any time. If Kevin Broadus can get his team to resemble the one that won on Saturday more often, a lot of good things can happen, but at present it's hard to believe Wednesday's performance against CCSU won't repeat itself rather soon.

9. Stony Brook Seawolves
(2-3, RPI 281, SOS 301)
Last week: L 56-53 vs. American, W 62-60 at Columbia
This week: 12/2 at New Jersey Institute of Technology, 12/5 vs. Lehigh, 12/7 vs. Mount Ida

There's good news for Stony Brook: the team looks like a slightly better version of someone familiar. Unfortunately, that familiar someone is Stony Brook from last year. As always, the Seawolves play a down-tempo game with a good turnover ratio. So far this year the Seawolves have also shown the ability to shoot from inside the arc and rebound on defense. Tommy Brenton and Dallis Joyner have been effective while playing substantial minutes as freshmen. The problem is, Stony Brook hasn't corrected any of its other weaknesses. The Seawolves still can't shoot threes or rebound on offense. In addition, Stony Brook has played one quality opponent (American) and a whole bunch of mediocre ones, meaning its vital signs are most likely going to get worse once the competition gets tougher. If the Seawolves beat Lehigh and NJIT, they'll be 4-3 against D-I opponents, but it'll be an empty winning record.

Conference performance
OOC record: 21-25
Conference RPI: 15 out of 31
Conference SOS: 19 out of 31

It's still early, but right now the RPI and SOS both look pretty good for America East. While the conference doesn't have any wins against power-conference foes, Vermont and BU both notched road wins against very good CAA teams. Those two wins, when added to the overall performance of our power rankings' top four schools, do a lot to help buoy the conference RPI. While it's doubtful the RPI will stay at 15 for long, so far America East commissioner Patrick Nero has to be pleased with the conference's performance.

Tempo-free statistics

Vermont still paces America East in efficiency margin, fueled in large part by its league-best defense. One would think outstanding rebounding is fueling Vermont's defensive efforts -- after all, Marqus Blakely is the league's best rebounder -- but the Catamounts have actually allowed opponents to grab 37.3% of their own misses. No, it's field-goal percentage defense and turnover rate that are helping to produce Vermont's 92.0 mark on defense. Opponents are managing a meager 44.3% eFG% against the Catamounts when they manage to get a shot off, which is less often than you might think. Vermont is forcing turnovers on 24.4 percent of possessions.

Stony Brook sits at third in efficiency margin, but it's a deceiving third. Adjusted efficiency margin, which accounts for strength of opponent and venue, puts Stony Brook at a rather ugly -11.4. The adjustment isn't always accurate early in the season due to a lack of data, but given the magnitude of the difference between adjusted and raw efficiency margin (the margin given in the table), it's safe to say Stony Brook isn't really performing at the level its raw efficiency margin would otherwise indicate.

Hartford, on the other hand, is performing at the level its margin indicates, and that level is not particularly good. The Hawks' matador defense was even worse than usual against Niagara: the Purple Eagles' offensive efficiency was an unreal 144.6 on Saturday. Hartford's rebounding woes are a significant factor here. Field-goal percentage defense is important, but it's useless if the opponent's possession doesn't end after a missed shot. To be fair, the Hawks are struggling with more than just rebounding on defense -- they're struggling with everything on defense -- but correcting some of the rebounding issues will alleviate a bit of the pressure Hartford defenders are faced with. It's hard enough to defend one shot attempt on a possession, and right now the Hawks are shooting themselves in the collective foot by allowing their opponents second and third chances.

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