Monday, January 5, 2009

State of America East

It's conference season. There are no more freebies -- these games count. Teams that succeed will be thankful come tournament time, while those who falter here will regret it when the brackets are set. As Bruce Buffer says before a big UFC fight, ladies and gentlemen, it's time!

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

1. Vermont Catamounts
9-4 (0-0 AE), RPI 104, SOS 226
Last week: L 82-76 vs. Colorado State (neutral court), W 84-59 vs. Colorado (neutral court), W 73-47 vs. New Jersey Institute of Technology
This week: 1/8 at Binghamton, 1/11 vs. Albany

Vermont lost a winnable game versus Colorado State, but two out of three in Hawaii is a good result for an AE school. Two wins by a combined 51 points have the Catamounts rolling into conference play with a chance to assert themselves against two major contenders for the league title. Mark your calendars for both Vermont games this week -- they're both big ones.

2. Binghamton Bearcats
7-4 (1-0 AE), RPI 116, SOS 267
Last week: W 73-71 vs. Marist, W 70-62 at Maine
This week: 1/5 vs. Stony Brook, 1/8 vs. Vermont, 1/11 at Utah Valley

Surprise! The Bearcats have won four straight and are streaking into conference play. A road win is a good way for Binghamton to start conference play. The Bearcats will need to ride this hot streak for as long as they can, because the schedule is packed full of games over the next few weeks. Saturday's defeat of the Black Bears began a stretch of eight games in 20 days with no more than two consecutive days off at any time. That's what happens when only six games are scheduled during the first semester.

3. Albany Great Danes
8-6 (0-1 AE), RPI 107, SOS 244
Last week: L 79-43 at Kansas, L 64-54 at Hartford
This week: 1/8 vs. Boston University, 1/11 at Vermont

It was not a good week for the Great Danes. The Kansas game was bad enough, but at least the result was somewhat expected. Losing to Hartford, on the other hand, may pose some problems for the Great Danes. Albany enjoyed a significant edge in the paint and on the boards but let the Hawks get to the line too frequently. Albany's perimeter defense wasn't atrocious (Hartford shot 35 percent from beyond the arc) but free throw attempts will take even the best defense and render it useless. Expect Will Brown to make some adjustments for the second game in the series.

4. Boston University Terriers
5-7 (0-0 AE), RPI 260, SOS 289
Last week: L 89-59 at Cornell, L 68-49 vs. Holy Cross
This week: 1/8 at Albany, 1/11 vs. New Hampshire

The Terriers' outlook has changed for the worse, and it's done so in a hurry. All of a sudden BU has dropped four straight contests, the last two by ugly margins. None of those games count towards the conference record, but the Terriers have to generate their own momentum now and do so in conference play against hungry opponents. With Albany coming off a disappointing loss of its own, Thursday provides a good chance -- we'll see how the Terriers respond.

5. Stony Brook Seawolves
7-5 (1-0 AE), RPI 157, SOS 261
Last week: W 67-64 at Air Force, W 69-61 at Maryland-Baltimore County
This week: 1/5 at Binghamton, 1/8 vs. Maine

Stony Brook continues to impress, reeling off three straight including a road win to begin conference play. A road win against the Bearcats might be too much to ask -- but is it? We know the Seawolves are good. What we don't know is how they'll stack up against the big guns in the conference. Part of that answer will be revealed by tonight.

6. Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers
5-7 (0-1 AE), RPI 197, SOS 166
Last week: L 81-60 at Saint Louis, L 69-61 vs. Stony Brook
This week: 1/10 vs. Maine

The Retrievers still have their statement win from Nebraska, but the luster of a non-conference victory fades awfully quick once January arrives. Everyone's favorite preseason doormat reminded UMBC that a new conference hierarchy is being established. The Retrievers would do well to reverse their momentum with a win on Saturday before things go farther south.

7. New Hampshire Wildcats
3-7 (0-0 AE), RPI 285, SOS 282
Last week: W 58-54 vs. Santa Clara
This week: 1/7 vs. Hartford, 1/11 at Boston University

The Wildcats keep finding themselves in close games but found themselves on the right end of the result for a change. The reason why? Alvin Abreu hit seven threes and the defense helped produce 19 Santa Clara turnovers. There are a million ways to win a basketball game, but the vast majority of them involve taking and making more shots than your opponent. New Hampshire's turnover advantage gave the Wildcats five extra shot opportunities, a major factor in a game decided by just two possessions. More performances like that will give UNH some wins in conference play.

8. Hartford Hawks
5-9 (1-0 AE), RPI 175, SOS 88
Last week: L 69-55 at Stanford, W 64-54 vs. Albany
This week: 1/7 at New Hampshire, 1/10 at Yale

Two months ago a Hartford victory over Albany would have surprised few. The Hawks' 10-point triumph, however, comes as somewhat of an eye-opener given both teams' performance to date. It's not easy to play defense without rebounding well, but holding Tim Ambrose scoreless allowed Hartford to do just that. Work on the boards still has to be a priority for the Hawks, but a win is a win.

9. Maine Black Bears
4-9 (0-1 AE), RPI 265, SOS 209
Last week: L 56-43 vs. Canisius, L 70-62 vs. Binghamton
This week: 1/8 at Stony Brook, 1/10 at Maryland-Baltimore County

Maine is losing, but that's not particularly surprising. The problem is the strength of some of Maine's opponents. Canisius is not a good team, but the Black Bears lost to the Golden Griffins by double digits. Given a performance like that, the real surprise with Maine is that the Binghamton game was even competitive. Other than defending perimeter shooters, the Black Bears don't do anything particularly well, and the offense is downright awful. A turnaround is possible -- it's just hard to see where the improvement will come from.

Conference Performance
OOC record: 50-55 (Last 7 days: 5-7)
Conference RPI: 16 (out of 31)
Conference SOS: 23 (out of 31)

With non-conference play all but over, it's difficult for America East teams to do much to affect conference RPI. We'll continue to track these numbers -- RPI has a major impact on how analysts unfamiliar with the conference perceive America East's level of play -- but where the numbers go from here is largely out of the teams' hands.

Overall Efficiency

With nearly seven more points per 100 possessions than any other team in the conference, Vermont has established itself as the class of the conference. The surprise continues to be Stony Brook. The defense has come back to earth slightly -- 93.2 points per 100 possessions is not significantly better than either Vermont or Albany -- but the offense has picked up the slack. The Seawolves now rank fifth in the conference in raw efficiency and are closing in on BU for fourth. Turnovers are at the heart of Steve Pikiell's team's success this season. Stony Brook's average turnover margin is +4.38 heading into tonight's game at Binghamton. BU's mark is next best, but the Terriers' +1.33 mark is more than three turnovers per game worse than that of the Seawolves. As UMBC proved last year, extra possessions make a team very difficult to beat. The ability to maintain that turnover margin will be critical if Stony Brook hopes to make some noise in America East this year.

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