Monday, December 8, 2008

State of America East

November is a month for early-season surprises. Teams expected to be nobodies regularly shock supposed somebodies. As December arrives and the season progresses, preseason expectations are forced to adapt to the changing realities of the college basketball landscape. Many teams are, as Dennis Green so eloquently put it, who we thought they were, and that's okay. It might take a few games for some teams to get their sea legs, but we'll let them off the hook. For other teams, though, realities -- both good and bad -- are starting to set in.

America East Power Rankings (records against D-I opponents only)

1. Vermont Catamounts
(4-3, RPI 131, SOS 137)
Last week: W 88-71 vs. Dartmouth, L 80-51 at Pittsburgh
This week: 12/14 vs. North Carolina-Wilmington

Forgive the Catamounts for Saturday's thrashing at the hands of the Panthers. Nobody in America East can be expected to hang with a top-five team in the country. What Saturday does confirm is Marqus Blakely's effect on the game. With Blakely out of the game, Vermont is a different team -- look no further than the first game of the season, where George Mason grabbed 5 offensive rebounds in overtime after the Catamount star fouled out with 3:34 in the extra frame. With Blakely on the floor, even Pittsburgh had to resort to double teams every time the ball entered the post, and most if not all America East opponents don't have the requisite talent level to play four-on-three with Vermont while Blakely is doubled.

2. Boston University Terriers
(4-3, RPI 177, SOS 242)
Last week: W 75-59 at Harvard, L 84-80 vs. Marshall
This week: 12/10 vs. Yale, 12/13 at Notre Dame

Earlier in the season Tyler Morris' play inspired more doubt than confidence, but with each passing game the junior guard recaptures more of his Rookie of the Year form. Although overshadowed by Corey Lowe in Saturday's loss to Marshall, Morris put together his best game of the year, scoring 13 points on 3-of-4 shooting while adding five assists and three rebounds. If Morris can continue to fill up the stat sheet while his shot returns, he becomes an excellent complementary option. One area in need of immediate improvement from Morris is turnovers. Yale, while not a particularly strong opponent, has been excellent at forcing turnovers, so the Bulldogs should provide a good test.

3. Albany Great Danes
(5-3, RPI 86, SOS 146)
Last week: W 57-47 vs. Bryant, L 71-64 at Siena
This week: 12/8 at Lehigh, 12/13 vs. Canisius

Losing to the class of the MAAC in front of more than 13,000 raucous fans is a reminder of Albany's youth and inexperience, a 5-3 record at this point constitutes a successful start to the season. The Great Danes have compensated for their obvious weaknesses -- a lack of perimeter shooting and young, turnover-prone ballhandlers -- by crashing the boards. Thus far it's paid off handsomely. Albany ranks in the top 50 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, something only a dozen other schools can claim. Despite poor shooting and an unimpressive turnover margin, the Danes' rebounding has yielded a +2.5 efficiency margin.

4. Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers
(3-3, RPI 195, SOS 256)
Last week: L 82-65 vs. Towson
This week: 12/10 vs. Central Connecticut State, 12/13 at Pittsburgh

UMBC wasn't overly reliant on efficient shooting last year. The Retrievers were 110th nationally in effective field goal percentage for the 2007-08 season. That, however, doesn't excuse the team's performance to date. The Retrievers' performance from beyond the arc is 7.3% worse than last year, and their two-point field goal percentage has fallen by 3.3% as well. Randy Monroe emphasizes ball control and smart play from his team, but UMBC's ability to avoid turnovers doesn't provide much of an advantage when the Retrievers are missing those extra shots ball security affords them.

5. Binghamton Bearcats
(3-2, RPI 55, SOS 90)
Last week: W 74-58 at Quinnipiac, W 66-56 at Rutgers
This week: 12/9 at Bucknell

After a 25-point loss to Central Connecticut State, Kevin Broadus called his team out for playing as individuals instead of playing together. While his comments may have awoken something in his team, Binghamton's improved play from that point coincides with the return of Malik Alvin from suspension. The Bearcats have improved with each victory, and with Alvin back on the court Binghamton is taking better care of the basketball. In Binghamton's two losses, the Bearcats turned the ball over 17 times per game. During the three wins that followed, the Bearcats averaged just 9.7 turnovers per game.

6. New Hampshire Wildcats
(2-3, RPI 198, SOS 201)
Last week: W 57-54 at Colgate, W 64-61 vs. Brown
This week: 12/9 at Rhode Island, 12/13 at Long Island

Sometimes the first win is the hardest to get. The Wildcats hope so, as they had to battle tooth and nail to emerge from Hamilton with a victory over Colgate. UNH has periodically allowed opponents to go on runs at crucial times. It happened at Colgate when a ten-point lead with 12:30 remaining evaporated in six minutes' time, then again at home when Brown nearly put the Wildcats away early in the second half by grabbing a 14-point advantage. New Hampshire has enough talent on its roster to beat Colgate and Brown without playing a full forty minutes, but the upper crust of the AE will punish them severely unless this bad habit is corrected.

7. Maine Black Bears
(3-4, RPI 171, SOS 196)
Last week: W 126-50 vs. Maine-Presque Isle (D-III)
This week: 12/8 vs. Colgate, 12/10 at Oklahoma

Ignoring the Black Bears' win versus D-III Maine-Presque Isle, Ted Woodward's team has dropped four straight. Looking ahead, Maine has two very difficult road games at Oklahoma and Boston College as well as a tough (albeit winnable) home game against Harvard. Realistically, today's game versus Colgate is Maine's best opportunity to avoid a long losing streak and preserve some of its early-season momentum. The Black Bears' 3-0 start still counts for something, but none of those wins would be particularly impressive if Maine's preseason expectations weren't higher. Looking competitive against better teams and beating terrible ones isn't the mark of a cellar-dweller, but Maine's performance thus far isn't that of a contender either.

8. Stony Brook Seawolves
(4-3, RPI 254, SOS 309)
Last week: W 60-39 at New Jersey Institute of Technology, W 71-50 at Lehigh, W 95-40 vs. Mount Ida (D-III)
This week: 12/10 vs. Hofstra

Stony Brook beat Lehigh by 21? On the road? Really? Maybe the Seawolves aren't as awful as was originally expected. Ricky Lucas and Mitchell Beauford are gone, but freshmen Tommy Brenton, Bryan Dougher, and Dallis Joyner all appear ready to be major contributors in conference play this year. Junior center Desmond Adedeji is back from suspension and has played well in limited minutes, tallying a combined 14 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks in 23 minutes against NJIT and Lehigh. 6-1 Hofstra may prove to be more than Stony Brook's young guns are ready to handle, but even so the Seawolves have been a pleasant surprise to date and shouldn't be expected to roll over against anyone.

9. Hartford Hawks
(3-6, RPI 212, SOS 136)
Last week: W 97-82 vs. Lafayette, L 70-64 vs. La Salle
This week: 12/9 at Brown, 12/14 at Sacred Heart

The offense is more efficient than it was early in the season, but at this point it's safe to say Hartford's defense is broken and unlikely to improve any time soon. Opponents have shot to the tune of a .561 eFG% so far this season, and Hartford's defensive rebounding woes offer Hawks foes second and third chances should a shot not fall. The Hawks have shot the ball well and taken surprisingly good care of the ball -- a turnover rate below 20 percent is nothing to sneeze at -- but the Hawks' abysmal rebounding and inability to defend anyone are crippling weaknesses. Hartford's best win so far is last Thursday's home victory against the 2-5 Leopards; unless the defense improves, that win will remain their best.

Conference performance
OOC record: 31-30 (last 7 days: 10-5)
Conference RPI: 13 out of 31 (last week: 16)
Conference SOS: 24 out of 31 (last week: 20)

Is America East the 13th best conference in the country? No. An RPI closer to 20-22 would more accurately reflect the conference's true strength, and as December continues the conference RPI will likely fall to a more reasonable level. However, a winning record at the end of December's first week is a wonderful result for America East and all but guarantees the conference will improve on last year's disappointing results: a conference RPI of 26 and a 15 seed for UMBC in the NCAA tournament.

Tempo-free statistics

Stony Brook's league-best efficiency margin is a product of the Seawolves' league-worst strength of schedule -- the Seawolves' adjusted efficiency margin of -2.8 is more revealing -- but as America East teams play more and more non-conference games, things are starting to fall into place. Below Stony Brook are Vermont and Boston University, representing the top of the conference. Binghamton has recovered after a rough beginning to the season and now finds itself in the middle of the pack, along with UMBC and the surprising Great Danes. At the bottom, Hartford's offense is approximately league-average despite rebounding woes, but the Hawks' porous defense is far too much to overcome.

Stony Brook's defense has been particularly surprising. That 86.4 defensive efficiency mark is driven by turnovers: the Seawolves have forced turnovers on 27.2 percent of opponents' possessions. Against better opponents, this number is likely to fall somewhat, but the extra possessions the Seawolves are generating will help cover up many of the mistakes Stony Brook's freshmen are likely to make.

Upon further inspection, New Hampshire's defensive performance resembles Hartford's, but with one crucial difference: rebounding. New Hampshire is second in the country in defensive rebounding percentage, grabbing an amazing 79.2 percent of opponents' misses. While the Wildcats have somehow managed to allow opponents even more open looks than the Hawks -- Wildcat opponents have compiled a .562 eFG% -- excellent defensive rebounding has helped to alleviate some of the pressure on the defense. In retrospect, this explains UNH's inconsistent defensive performances. New Hampshire's opponents have been able to put together runs with hot shooting, but when the shots stop falling there aren't any second-chance buckets to keep the offense afloat.

No comments: