Monday, December 15, 2008

State of America East

College basketball mirrors the college academic schedule in many respects. Early success renders neither a team nor a student immune to future pressures. Early failures, though concerning, can be corrected via progressive improvement. In both schoolwork and basketball, it's not how you start, it's how you finish. We're nowhere near the end of the road for this college basketball season, but with academic finals knocking on the door, it's time for some regularly scheduled evaluations.

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

1. Vermont Catamounts
(5-3, RPI 118, SOS 136)
Last week: W 89-68 vs. North Carolina-Wilmington
This week: 12/21 at Quinnipiac

The Catamounts continue to take care of business, winning every game they should win and frequently doing so in style. As the season progresses, Vermont continues to demonstrate its versatility. Sunday's 21-point win despite just eight points and six rebounds from Marqus Blakely is an example. The Catamounts may not be a truly dominant force against the top half of the AE -- four of Vermont's five wins have come against relatively unimpressive foes, compared to a 1-3 mark against George Mason, Maryland, Delaware, and Pittsburgh -- but taking care of business against the bottom half goes a long way toward capturing the top seed in the conference.

2. Boston University Terriers
(5-4, RPI 153, SOS 215)
Last week: W 55-43 vs. Yale, L 74-67 at Notre Dame
This week: 12/21 vs. Delaware

For schools competing at the lower levels of Division-I, there is a such thing as a good loss. Losing by seven to Notre Dame on the road qualifies. BU's perimeter play has been the best in the conference, Vermont included. Where the Catamounts edge the Terriers is down low. BU has no match for Marqus Blakely. What the Terriers do have, though, is a recipe for success when Vermont shows up on the schedule, one honed against a McAlarney-Harangody duo that trumps Trimboli and Blakely. BU can't out-Blakely Blakely, but the Terriers won't need to if they can replicate their performance from last Saturday.

3. Albany Great Danes
(6-4, RPI 132, SOS 249)
Last week: L 65-64 at Lehigh, W 74-46 vs. Canisius
This week: 12/19 at Sacred Heart

Albany finally looked like a young team last Monday, blowing a 15-point lead in their 65-64 loss to Lehigh. Learning how to step on an opponent's throat is a difficult task for a young team. If Tim Ambrose hadn't rescued the Great Danes against Central Connecticut State earlier this season, perhaps coach Will Brown's team would have learned its lesson earlier. In any case, the Danes rebounded nicely in ther 74-46 win over Canisius. The Danes have youth with upside and more than one or two players capable of carrying the load, evidence suggesting the Danes' relatively strong performance to date is sustainable.

4. Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers
(4-4, RPI 130, SOS 134)
Last week: W 67-56 vs. Central Connecticut State, L 91-56 at Pittsburgh
This week: 12/20 vs. American

The Retrievers were the latest victim of the Pittsburgh steamroller, which is nothing to be ashamed of. Still, the Retrievers continue to demonstrate some concerning tendencies, none of which have improved significantly in the past few weeks. The Retrievers are one of the worst teams in the country at ending opponents' possessions, sporting both a horrendous defensive rebounding percentage and a subpar opponent turnover percentage. Throw in below-average field goal percentage defense and you have a recipe for a bad defensive team.

5. Binghamton Bearcats
(3-3, RPI 100, SOS 149)
Last week: L 63-60 at Bucknell
This week: 12/20 vs. Manhattan

Binghamton looked to be flying high after a three-game winning streak, but a familiar Bearcat nemesis reappeared against Bucknell. The Bearcats' roster is virtually devoid of perimeter shooting, which will pose a problem against most of the rest of the AE. Binghamton's athleticism suggests an offensive style designed to embrace dribble-drive penetration, but if the Bearcats can't hit open jumpers, opponents will be free to focus on protecting the area around the rim and dare the Bearcats to shoot. Binghamton has been surprisingly good at protecting the ball recently and forces plenty of turnovers, none of which will matter unless shots start to fall.

6. Stony Brook Seawolves
(4-4, RPI 260, SOS 295)
Last week: L 61-56 vs. Hofstra
This week: 12/15 at Connecticut

The Seawolves' early-season performance -- close losses against teams of questionable quality -- failed to inspire confidence. Stony Brook's play the past couple of weeks, however, merits a closer look. Neither Maine nor New Hampshire nor Hartford has a win as impressive as the Seawolves' 71-50 dismantling of 6-3 Lehigh. The Seawolves' most positive indicator may be last Wednesday's close loss to CAA contender Hofstra. Stony Brook has made a habit of being a bottom-feeder since joining America East for the 2001-02 season, but none of the Seawolves' talented freshmen contributed to those years of mediocrity. Stony Brook's resume is deserving of a middle-of-the-pack AE team, not a doormat.

7. Maine Black Bears
(4-5, RPI 148, SOS 161)
Last week: W 67-56 vs. Colgate, L 78-52 at Oklahoma
This week: 12/21 vs. Harvard

Nobody expected the Black Bears to beat Oklahoma. Truth be told, even a horrendous result against the Sooners is preferable to more games against the likes of Maine-Presque Isle. Maine did manage to avoid the spectre of an extended losing streak by taking care of business against Colgate. The Black Bears' statistical profile reveals a team whose perimeter shooting and perimeter defense masks an inability to do anything else well. In a conference flooded with perimeter shooting (Binghamton excepted), Maine is in danger of being overmatched.

8. New Hampshire Wildcats
(2-5, RPI 255, SOS 235)
Last week: L 88-56 at Rhode Island, L 76-72 at Long Island
This week: No games scheduled

Should the Wildcats have beaten Rhode Island? Certainly not. That doesn't make the 32-point margin excusable. Nor is Long Island isn't a particularly strong opponent. When New Hampshire beats a team, the win comes despite repeated Wildcat attempts to waste the effort; when the Wildcats lose, reasons for optimism are few and far between. For all the talk about the talent Bill Herrion has assembled, there's been little to no return on investment.

9. Hartford Hawks
(4-7, RPI 197, SOS 146)
Last week: L 72-62 at Brown, W 59-55 at Sacred Heart
This week: No games scheduled

Believe it or not, the Hawks are making progress. Hartford held Sacred Heart below 40 percent shooting from the field. Excluding the 50-37 snoozefest versus NJIT, that qualifies as the Hawks' best defensive performance to date. With games against Baylor and Stanford lined up, Hartford appears headed for a disappointing 4-9 record at the beginning of conference play, but the Sacred Heart win gives the Hawks some reasons for optimism. Combine better field goal percentage defense with improvement -- any improvement -- in the rebounding department and the Hawks might be able to win some games in the AE after all.

Conference performance

OOC record: 37-39 (last 7 days: 6-9)
Conference RPI: 14 out of 31 (last week: 13)
Conference SOS: 21 out of 31 (last week: 24)

A relatively rough week for the conference has pushed the OOC record below .500, but an improved strength of schedule -- courtesy of games against Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame -- goes a long way toward maintaining the AE's surprising conference RPI. No AE school can be found in the 300s, balancing out the lack of any top-99 RPI teams (Surprisingly, it's Binghamton that checks in at 100).

Tempo-free statistics

Stony Brook's weak strength-of-schedule continues to inflate the Seawolves' raw efficiency margin, but with each passing week the Seawolves' position atop the table becomes more difficult to ignore. Compared to the rest of the conference, Stony Brook's defensive efficiency is extremely impressive. Desmond Adedeji gives Steve Pikiell an interior weapon few America East teams can match. Expect the Seawolves to be competitive at the very least.

On the other hand, the Retrievers' abysmal defensive numbers are becoming increasingly apparent. While it's true that UMBC's thrashing at the hands of Pittsburgh took a toll on the Retrievers' defensive efficiency numbers, Maryland-Baltimore County's poor defense has been evident all season. The adjusted efficiency numbers tell the story: at 110.2, the Retrievers' adjusted defensive efficiency is even worse than their raw efficiency. UMBC's three departed transfers were highly regarded for their abilities on the offensive end, but given the Retrievers' offensive prowess, it appears Randy Monroe may miss their defensive talents even more.

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