Wednesday, January 28, 2009

State of America East

Early in conference play, the standings have a tendency to appear out-of-order. Looking at the wins and losses, it's easy to imagine conference upheaval. Sure, one win by an upstart team might be an upset, but aren't two or three wins a trend?

There's parity in America East this year, for sure, but as three conference games become six or seven, the cream starts to rise to the top (and to continue the coffee metaphor, you might find an unpleasant residue at the bottom). Is your team's present outlook sweet or bitter? Let's take a look:

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

1. Vermont Catamounts
14-6 (5-2 America East), RPI 123, SOS 247
Last week: W 79-65 at Hartford, W 72-56 vs. New Hampshire
This week: 1/28 vs. Maine, 1/31 at New Hampshire

After starting off on the wrong foot in conference play Vermont has reasserted itself as the class of America East. Five straight wins by double-digit margins -- three of them coming on the road -- have propelled the Catamounts all the way up to the top of the standings. Marqus Blakely looks more human with each passing game, collecting only one double-double in conference play (how often does one double-double sound abnormally low?), but the Catamounts' exceptional balance leads to consistently strong performances.

2. Boston University Terriers
10-9 (5-2 AE), RPI 176, SOS 207
Last week: W 80-77 vs. Maryland-Baltimore County (2 OT), W 73-62 at Maine
This week: 1/31 at Hartford

The Terriers' marathon is finally over. Finding a way to string together wins without Tyler Morris and Carlos Strong originally appeared to be a daunting task, but it turns out BU is doing just fine with its depleted roster -- for now. Corey Lowe and John Holland have been asked to turn in superhuman performances. So far the duo has delivered, with Holland leading all America East players in scoring during conference play and Lowe ranking third. Lowe is also second in assists per game. Even more surprisingly, BU has been able to tough out wins. Who ever thought the Terriers could be described as a gritty team, or even a clutch team? In any case, this week offers a well-deserved rest leading up to a nationally televised game at Hartford, with a chance to be 6-2 at the break.

3. Binghamton Bearcats
11-7 (5-2 AE), RPI 152, SOS 258
Last week: W 60-47 at New Hampshire
This week: 1/28 at Maryland-Baltimore County, 1/31 vs. Maine

The Bearcats are without Dwayne Jackson, who has been suspended indefinitely, but didn't look any worse for wear while in Durham. D.J. Rivera had just six points, which can be interpreted in any number of ways. Maybe the Bearcats are finding ways to win without relying too heavily on their stars. On the other hand, maybe Binghamton's leading scorer is starting to wear down from the burden being placed on his shoulders. One of the quieter storylines has been the disappearance of Theo Davis, who has yet to log a single minute in conference play. In any case, the Bearcats haven't appeared to need Davis' services so far.

4. Albany Great Danes
12-8 (4-3 AE), RPI 121, SOS 217
Last week: L 58-45 vs. Stony Brook, W 80-71 vs. Maryland-Baltimore County
This week: 1/28 vs. Hartford

Of the teams in America East with winning records, Albany is by far the most reliant on freshmen and sophomores. That bodes well for the future, but at present it produces some maddening changes in performance level from game to game. After appearing to be invincible at home for the first half of the season, the Great Danes came out flat against Stony Brook. Albany's high turnover rate on offense gets the Danes into trouble on occassion. Not coincidentally, Albany's turnover rate decreases substantially when the Danes play at home. Like other variations from game to game, the poor level of play exhibited against the Seawolves was corrected against the Retrievers. Watch out, Hartford.

5. Stony Brook Seawolves
10-9 (3-4 AE), RPI 196, SOS 277
Last week: W 58-45 at Albany, W 72-63 vs. Hartford
This week: 1/28 vs. New Hampshire, 1/31 vs. Maryland-Baltimore County

Stony Brook's brief trip to the cellar was quickly terminated last week with a pair of wins. The Brook's triumph against Albany was its best win of the year -- don't let the name fool you, Air Force is not particularly impressive this season. The Seawolves' freshmen have momentum. Now the task is sustaining it. UMBC is reeling from a combination of fatigue, injuries, and crushing losses, but New Hampshire comes first, and the Wildcats have beaten Stony Brook in six of the last seven meetings. Old habits die hard.

6. Maine Black Bears
7-12 (3-4 AE), RPI 252, SOS 228
Last week: L 73-62 vs. Boston University
This week: 1/28 at Vermont, 1/31 at Binghamton

Maine couldn't have asked for a better start against the Terriers last weekend. Up 27-9 in the first half, the Black Bears had things under control. Of course, that's precisely when things started to unravel. It wasn't necessarily the offense's fault. Maine averaged more than one point per possession for the fourth consecutive game. No, instead the defense collapsed. More than most teams, the Black Bears need a strong defensive performance in order to win. Ten teams have averaged more than a point per possession against Maine, and all ten of those teams have won. With two more conference leaders on the horizon, the odds of Black Bear success in the near future are fairly low.

7. New Hampshire Wildcats
6-11 (2-4 AE), RPI 274, SOS 292
Last week: L 60-47 vs. Binghamton, L 72-56 at Vermont
This week: 1/28 at Stony Brook, 1/31 vs. Vermont

The Wildcats carried momentum into their double-overtime loss to Maine. It appears that momentum decided to stay behind at the Alfond. Two consecutive losses, each by a sizable margin, leave UNH in a familiar position: seventh, precisely where it finished a year ago with similar personnel. Sooner or later the image of the Wildcats as a team loaded with talented perimeter players and jump-shooters is going to fade away, and rightfully so. That image, quite frankly, isn't accurate. New Hampshire shoots a lot of 3s, but fully 70 percent of them end up as misses. The Wildcats are much more competent on the defensive end, largely due to outstanding defensive rebounding. If UNH could do a better job of keeping opponents off the free throw line, its defense would be excellent. As it is, the Wildcats are relegated to being average defensively and atrocious offensively.

8. Hartford Hawks
6-15 (2-5 AE), RPI 250, SOS 156
Last week: L 79-65 vs. Vermont, L 72-63 at Stony Brook
This week: 1/28 at Albany, 1/31 vs. Boston University

Despite the loss of Joe Zeglinski, the Hawks have managed to not embarrass themselves too much in America East play. The problem is, they rarely manage to actually win a game. Nobody can criticize the Hawks' effort or desire, but losing repeatedly by reasonable margins doesn't get a team anywhere but the cellar. Once or twice a month the Hawks manage a strong effort, either on offense or defense, and pull out a win. Maybe in February we'll see another one.

9. Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers
7-11 (2-5 AE), RPI 229, SOS 215
Last week: L 80-77 at Boston University (2 OT), L 80-71 at Albany
This week: 1/28 vs. Binghamton, 1/31 at Stony Brook

There's a lot more fight in the Retrievers than most last-place teams usually have. That's further evidence of the parity in America East this year. On the other hand, UMBC isn't likely to see much improvement from its star players, and there aren't many other sources to get additional production from, given the thin bench. This is the danger of under-utilizing the bench on a healthy team: when you need bench players to replace production, they aren't ready to step in. To be fair, UMBC never had much of a bench to work with in the first place, but the few remaining reserves aren't prepared to play at this level. Unless those players manage to step up, the Retrievers will find it tough sledding from here on out.

Conference performance
OOC record: 52-57 (Last 7 days: 0-0)
Conference RPI: 16 out of 31 (last week: 16)
Conference SOS: 20 out of 31 (last week: 24)

Conference SOS improved, probably because the AE is better than usual and AE members are playing conference games. There aren't any non-conference games scheduled until ESPN BracketBusters on February 21st.

All games:

Conference games only:

Now that America East play is almost halfway completed, there's enough data to produce a conference-only efficiency table with some real meaning. The methodology for generating this will be detailed a bit farther down, but first let's take a look at the numbers.

Anyone wondering what separates the Terriers and the Bearcats (well, besides the Terriers' win in Vestal), look no further than the efficiency margin for conference play. The Terriers' offense is the conference's best on a per-possession basis, and it's fueling Boston University's +10.3 overall margin. While the defense needs to be tightened up a bit, it's going to be hard for other teams to keep up with the Terriers' ability to score the basketball.

On a more negative note, the Retrievers look pretty bad on a per-possession basis. Hartford has still been worse over the course of the entire season, but the Hawks' early-season schedule was significantly harder. Strength of schedule can be factored out when generating the conference table because everyone plays everyone else twice over the course of the season, and after almost one complete trip through the conference Hartford appears competent if not particularly threatening. UMBC is last overall and lacks potency on either side of the ball, ranking 8th in offensive efficiency and 9th in defensive efficiency.

As was alluded to earlier, New Hampshire is lacking on the offensive side of the ball. The Wildcats' deficiencies on offense haven't improved in conference play, either. Against an average defense, the difference between UNH's offense and the Terriers' league-best attack is more than one point per five possessions. Over the course of one game played at the pace of those two teams (59.5 possessions per 40 minutes for each team), that's about 12 points. UNH's defense ranks 4th in the conference, but defense gets you nowhere when you can't score. Both Alvin Abreu and Tyrone Conley have eFG% marks in the low 40s; the resulting offensive ineptitude shouldn't come as a surprise.

Now for a quick note about the methodology used for compiling these tables. Both tables' metrics measure the same things (points per possession and tempo), but over different sets of data. The overall table includes data from every game -- you can find the numbers at Ken Pomeroy's site,, under raw offensive efficiency, raw defensive efficiency, and tempo. Margin, as explained in previous editions of this feature, is the difference between a team's offensive and defensive efficiency.

The conference-only table requires a bit more work. Kenpom doesn't provide conference-only statistics, so the raw data for each game (points scored, points allowed, and possessions) were put in an Excel spreadsheet and used to generate the efficiency statistics. Adjustments are made for the number of overtimes each team has played -- the Terriers' tempo would be significantly higher if they weren't credited for an additional 30 minutes played. Each week's spreadsheet, starting with this week, is available upon request.

No comments: