Non-conference play is always somewhat unfamiliar territory. Sure, some of the teams are regular yearly opponents, but no two non-conference campaigns look alike. At last, the road to an America East title is beginning to make itself known. Conference play approaches. Who are the contenders and pretenders?
America East Power Rankings (records vs. D-I opponents only)
1. Vermont Catamounts
(7-3, RPI 52, SOS 92)
Last week: W 83-72 at George Washington (neutral court)
This week: 12/29 at Colorado State (neutral court), 12/30 at TBD (neutral court), 1/3 vs. New Jersey Institute of Technology
It was questionable for a while whether the Catamounts were the clear-cut favorite to win an America East title this year, but with non-conference schedules finally coming to a close there is no debate. Vermont's comfortable victories away from Patrick Gym against Delaware and George Washington compare favorably to the Terriers' two close losses versus those foes. Call it an extra gear Vermont can shift into, call it versatility, call it a veteran presence, call it whatever you want, but right now the Catamounts have it and nobody else does.
2. Boston University Terriers
(5-5, RPI 189, SOS 229)
Last week: Idle
This week: 12/29 at Cornell, 1/2 vs. Holy Cross
Prior to the December 21st loss to Delaware, the Terriers' non-conference results could easily be termed a success. Winning two of the final three non-conference games would put BU at 7-5 heading into America East play with plenty of experience against opponents of similar strength. A loss to the Blue Hens coupled with Vermont's recent performance, however, changes things. Compared to the Catamounts, the Terriers appear to be decidedly average with obvious weaknesses. A win tonight would erase a lot of bad memories from a weekend ago and put the Terriers back on solid footing heading into the new year.
3. Albany Great Danes
(8-4, RPI 87, SOS 237)
Last week: W 68-56 at Saint Francis (NY)
This week: 12/30 at Kansas, 1/3 at Hartford
Saint Francis is a fairly weak opponent, so not much can be taken out of the Great Danes' victory last Monday. In a sense, that's a good thing. After letting a couple of games stay competitive instead of stepping on the opponent's throat, a comfortable win is a positive sign. At worst, Albany is going to be a tough out for the top teams in the AE. On their best days, the Great Danes are one of those top teams, something few outside of the capital would have expected in early November.
4. Binghamton Bearcats
(5-4, RPI 84, SOS 117)
Last week: W 69-58 vs. Rider, W 74-73 at Tulane
This week: 12/30 vs. Marist, 1/3 at Maine
Tulane isn't a BCS-conference team, but Conference USA resides above Kyle Whelliston's "red line" separating big-money programs from the rest of Division-I. Regardless of your perspective, it's a big win for Binghamton and America East. D.J. Rivera refuses to be held down: after managing just three points in the first half, the Bearcats' leading scorer dropped 21 in the second half to finish with 24 and eight boards. If Theo Davis can acclimate himself and become an effective player down low, Binghamton will be a threat.
5. Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers
(5-5, RPI 123, SOS 120)
Last week: W 66-64 at Nebraska
This week: 12/30 at Saint Louis, 1/3 vs. Stony Brook
Speaking of teams with wins versus big-conference opposition. UMBC absolutely stunned the Cornhuskers last week with a massive first-half run. After getting embarrassed by American, the upset victory completely reverses the Retrievers' momentum. One big reason for the victory was the play of Chauncey Gilliam. After his underwhelming one-point performance against the Retrievers' rivals, Gilliam caught Nebraska off guard and took advantage. Gilliam's 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting was a game-high. With only six regular contributors, Randy Monroe needs his starters to step up night in and night out; for one night, they did.
6. Stony Brook Seawolves
(5-5, RPI 211, SOS 251)
Last week: W 68-52 at Saint Peter's
This week: 12/31 at Air Force, 1/3 at Maryland-Baltimore County
BU couldn't dispatch the Peacocks until the game's closing minutes. In contrast, the Seawolves made short work of their opposition in their most recent game. It's dangerous to compare teams on the basis of individual games, but Stony Brook is handling its admittedly weak schedule the way top contenders are expected to do. Winnable games are won with ease, not kept close or allowed to slip away. With a few obviously subpar teams at the bottom of the conference this year, similar performances against those foes will put Stony Brook solidly mid-pack -- something which isn't often heard about the Seawolves.
7. New Hampshire Wildcats
(2-7, RPI 300, SOS 256)
Last week: L 60-56 at Fordham, L 62-57 vs. Hofstra
This week: 1/4 vs. Santa Clara
Another week, another golden opportunity wasted. Make it two for the Wildcats in the past seven days. With all the close losses, New Hampshire is better than its ugly RPI suggests -- but not by much. Ignoring the non-Division-I win, the Wildcats have two victories, neither of which was impressive. There won't be opportunities for more unless Bill Herrion's team learns to play a full 40 minutes. Putting a stop to ugly shooting performances would help too. Tyrone Conley was 0-of-13 from the field against Hofstra, and it was a home game to boot. That isn't going to cut it against anyone, let alone a CAA contender.
8. Maine Black Bears
(4-7, RPI 199, SOS 170)
Last week: L 99-61 at Boston College
This week: 12/30 vs. Canisius, 1/3 vs. Binghamton
There are certain power conference teams against whom a blowout loss is understandable. Boston College is not one of those teams. Maine's record may be better than that of their nearby hockey rival, but New Hampshire's close losses suggest the Wildcats may win some more games in the near future. When Maine loses, the Black Bears are thoroughly outclassed, which doesn't bode well down the road.
9. Hartford Hawks
(4-8, RPI 197, SOS 115)
Last week: L 74-59 at Baylor
This week: 12/30 at Stanford, 1/3 vs. Albany
A month ago, Hartford would have lost to Baylor by 30 or 40 points. From that perspective, the Hawks have improved. Still, even as Hartford's vice-like grip on the cellar loosens, it will take another win to escape the bottom of the power rankings. This week isn't promising, but after these two tough games the following three are at New Hampshire, versus Yale, and versus Maine. Yes, opportunity knocks -- it's a new calendar year. Maybe the Hawks' new year's resolution will involve rebounding.
OOC record: 45-48 (last 7 days: 6-4)
Conference RPI: 13 out of 31 (last week: 15)
Conference SOS: 17 out of 31 (last week: 17)
As non-conference play approaches its end, the America East RPI has risen once again. Expect the RPI to fall a couple of slots in conference play, but at this point the end result is likely to be no worse than somewhere in the mid-teens. America East has to have a .500 record against itself, which is very similar to both the conference's current strength of schedule and its overall record to date. This will keep the components of the RPI from fluctuating wildly as the season progresses. Provided one of the stronger America East teams wins the autobid, a reasonable NCAA seed is likely. If Vermont wins, a 13-seed (what the Catamounts earned the year they beat Syracuse in the round of 64) is a reasonably likely proposition -- ESPN has the Cats as a 14-seed and rising.
In case you weren't willing to believe it earlier, it's time to give up and acknowledge Stony Brook's presence as a legitimate team in America East. The bottom three teams in the conference are going to struggle to beat the Seawolves, and the teams in the middle of the pack will have their hands full. Even Vermont shouldn't expect an easy win.
Binghamton's offense is now averaging over a point per possession for the season thanks to D.J. Rivera's play. Rivera takes more than 32 percent of his team's shots while on the floor, but he's not your prototypical volume shooter. For one, he relies much less on his perimeter shooting than most volume shooters at this level. Perhaps more significantly, he's an efficient player despite the load placed on him. Rivera's turnover rate of 10.3 percent ranks in the top 100 nationally among qualifying players, and his eFG% is nearly 53 percent. None of the other scoring guards in the AE is a particularly good match for Rivera. The best match, interestingly enough, might be Tim Ambrose: the Albany guard is slightly less efficient but takes an even higher percentage of his team's shots while on the floor. The difference? Ambrose is a much better distributor, with an excellent assist rate of 33.9 percent.
New Hampshire continues to rebound well on the defensive end, grabbing 71.4 percent of available boards. Why can't the Wildcats rebound on the offensive end? It's not necessarily true that a strong defensive rebounding team is a strong offensive rebounding team, but the Wildcats are only slightly better than awful on the offensive glass despite cleaning up at the other end. Dane Diliegro has been the Wildcats' one strong offensive rebounder, ranking 153rd in offensive rebounding percentage. If it's a conscious decision by New Hampshire to forego the offensive glass in favor of preventing fast breaks, that choice might be worth reexamining. A lack of second chance opportunities makes it awfully hard to sustain offense over extended periods of time, and scoring droughts have been frequent in Wildcat losses.