Monday, December 22, 2008

State of America East

Finals are over and Christmas is right around the corner. Without further ado (or a long-winded speech about the significance or lack thereof of this week's rankings), let's get down to business.

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

1. Vermont Catamounts
(6-3, RPI 76, SOS 119)
Last week: W 84-79 vs. Quinnipiac
This week: 12/27 vs. George Washington (neutral court), 12/28 vs. TBD (neutral court)

The Catamounts continue to dispose of opponents efficiently. Ignoring the loss to Pittsburgh, Vermont has won five straight heading into the Outrigger Hotels Rainbow Classic. Vermont has had eight different players score in double figures, and while Blakely and Trimboli are the Catamounts' only true stars, the depth of quality offensive options provides a clear advantage.

2. Boston University Terriers
(5-5, RPI 182, SOS 206)
Last week: L 70-68 vs. Delaware
This week: No games scheduled

Dennis Wolff was less than pleased with the Terriers' performance against Delaware. With eight days separating Sunday's loss and the team's next contest, Wolff and his coaching staff should have more than enough time to get their message across. With the loss, however, the Cornell game on December 29th becomes somewhat more important. If the coaching staff's work over the next week isn't readily apparent in Ithaca, there won't be much time left to make adjustments before conference play.

3. Albany Great Danes
(7-4, RPI 105, SOS 230)
Last week: W 60-59 at Sacred Heart
This week: 12/23 at Saint Francis (NY)

Talk about learning a lesson and then applying it. After snatching defeat from the jaws of victory against Lehigh, the Great Danes imitated the Mountain Hawks' performance by snatching victory from the jaws of defeat against the Pioneers on Saturday. Bryant and Canisius aren't particularly formidable opponents, but considering the three power-conference foes and other capable teams on the schedule, to be guaranteed a winning record in non-conference play with two games remaining is an accomplishment for such a young team.

4. Binghamton Bearcats
(3-4, RPI 119, SOS 106)
Last week: L 86-80 vs. Manhattan
This week: 12/23 vs. Rider, 12/27 at Tulane

Theo Davis' Bearcat debut was underwhelming to say the least, but don't pin Binghamton's home loss squarely on a him. 15 of the 19 Bearcat turnovers had nothing to do with Davis. Davis also can't be blamed for the 45 free throw attempts surrendered by Binghamton, as the 6-9 forward committed only one foul. While Davis may prove to be a useful player for the Bearcats down the road, it's been years since the Gonzaga transfer has played significant minutes. Give him some time to adjust.

5. Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers
(4-5, RPI 166, SOS 140)
Last week: L 74-61 vs. American
This week: 12/23 at Nebraska

How does Binghamton pass the Retrievers in the power rankings while losing? Even ignoring how American had disposed of UMBC by halftime, Binghamton's loss was primarily due to issues the Bearcats have shown the ability to correct -- turnovers and playing defense without excessive fouling. The Retrievers, on the other hand, have been consistently unable to defend at even an average level. That includes field-goal percentage defense, defensive rebounding, and turnover rate. UMBC doesn't turn the ball over on offense, which is certainly important, but if the opponent isn't relieved of possession every so often ball control becomes somewhat less valuable.

6. Stony Brook Seawolves
(4-5, RPI 230, SOS 234)
Last week: L 91-57 at Connecticut
Next week: 12/28 at Saint Peter's

Stony Brook wasn't going to beat UConn. That's a given. Saint Peter's, on the other hand, is a team the surprising Seawolves should be able to handle, even on the road. Yes, you read that right: expect Stony Brook to win on the road. These aren't your mother's Seawolves anymore -- they play defense, pass the ball, and win games they should win. I know the phrase "your mother's Seawolves" is somewhat nonsensical considering the program's recent jump to Division-I, but truth be told, Stony Brook looks decent. That's saying an awful lot.

7. Maine Black Bears
(4-6, RPI 205, SOS 203)
Last week: L 76-63 vs. Harvard
This week: 12/23 vs. Boston College

Maine doesn't have a wealth of efficient scorers, so it's critical that the Black Bears take care of the basketball. Of course, given the team's slot in the power rankings, "How well do the Black Bears take care of the basketball?" has an obvious answer. Maine has donated the ball to its opponent on 24.3 percent of possessions, last in the conference. Yes, that's just 0.4% worse than the Catamounts, but the Catamounts make up for that by doing just about everything else correctly. Maine doesn't have that luxury.

8. New Hampshire Wildcats
(3-5, RPI 260, SOS 248)
Last week: Idle
This week: 12/23 at Fordham, 12/27 vs. Hofstra

UNH has plenty of offensive talent on the perimeter. It's down low where the Wildcats find themselves lacking. It's not just subpar offensive rebounding ailing New Hampshire. Bill Herrion's team isn't getting to the free throw line. Between the lack of interior scoring and lack of free throw attempts, there isn't any consistent, high-percentage option for the Wildcats -- just shoot threes and hope they fall. With an effective field goal percentage even worse than the Black Bears', the threes aren't falling often enough. Oh, and the field-goal percentage defense is abysmal. That too.

9. Hartford Hawks
(4-7, RPI 219, SOS 166)
Last week: Idle
This week: 12/22 at Baylor

Baylor might score 100 points against the Hawks tonight. Baylor happens to be pretty good this year, so that's not a huge embarrassment for Hartford -- plus there's also the alternate scenario where Hartford plays defense and keeps the Bears below the century mark -- but the strength of many Hawks opponents shouldn't distract from the problem with Dan Leibovitz's team. It doesn't matter how good the offense is if the defense is non-existent. Frankly, this should have been evident last year. The Hawks managed to get the two-seed in the America East tournament, but poor team rebounding and a negative point differential in conference play screamed "average team." Without McLendon, the already-poor rebounding has somehow managed to get even worse; without significant improvement this year will not end well for the Hawks.

Conference performance
OOC record: 39-44 (last 7 days: 2-5)
Conference RPI: 15 out of 31 (last week: 15)
Conference SOS: 17 out of 31 (last week: 21)

Despite consecutive subpar weeks in the win-loss department, a surging strength of schedule has helped the AE maintain a top-half RPI. Compared to last year, this is a marked improvement and bodes well come tournament time.

Tempo-free statistics

Stony Brook has fallen from first to fourth in efficiency margin after getting blown out by UConn. In fairness, Stony Brook's previous position atop the table was a product of the Seawolves' absurdly weak strength of schedule. A SOS correction has moved the Seawolves to a more appropriate position. What is interesting -- and reinforces the idea of Stony Brook being a decent team -- is the gap between the Seawolves and a respected-but-flawed Maryland-Baltimore County team. Even Binghamton still lies south of the Seawolves. Ladies and gentlemen, the third-fiddle SUNY school is for real this year. Even if "for real" means average.

Just to show how different offensive styles and personnel sets can be effective on offense, consider UMBC and Vermont, the two most efficient offensive teams in the league right now. The Retrievers are built around ball control and rely on a pass-first point guard who stands 5'8". It's rare to see Randy Monroe use more than six players in a game -- perhaps the need to preserve energy while using a tight rotation has something to do with the Retrievers' pace, the slowest in the conference.

In contrast, Vermont plays at a pace that far exceeds anything else seen in the AE, more than six possessions per game faster than any other school. Nick Vier is the closest the Catamounts come to having to a point guard; Mike Trimboli, who does much of the handling, is really a combo guard. The Catamounts' roster is deep, experienced, and balanced, but doesn't take particularly good care of the ball. Vermont's offense doesn't look much like the Retrievers', but both are effective.

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