Tuesday, February 10, 2009

State of America East

A long, long time ago, in a land far, far away, there was a league on the verge of parity. Every team lost at least two of its first five conference games. There was talk that the bottom-feeders had finally caught up with the front-runners, that ten wins might be enough to win the conference. No prediction was safe.

Oh, wait. Never mind. The distant league in question only appears to be distant. While the winds of change were blowing through America East, reality was quick to sink in. Three weeks ago the conference leaders had two losses and wore New Hampshire jerseys. Today the leaders wear scarlet and white and have... two losses. So much for parity.

It's a three-horse race; is there a Secretariat in this leading group, or are we in for a photo finish? Only time will tell, but here's a snapshot -- we can revisit it later should the ending prove memorable.

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

1. Vermont Catamounts
18-7 (9-3 AE), RPI 116, SOS 248
Last week: L 85-83 vs. Binghamton, W 79-70 at Albany, W 71-63 vs. Hartford
This week: 2/11 vs. Boston University, 2/15 vs. Stony Brook

The Terriers have first place in the standings courtesy of an eight-game winning streak, but Vermont hosts the America East leaders tomorrow night in what is almost certainly the biggest conference game of the year -- next Saturday's Battle of the BU's is a close second. The Catamounts monumental collapse at home against Binghamton temporarily overshadows what we like to call the big picture. That picture still labels Vermont as a deeper team than the Terriers with a slightly better efficiency margin in conference play. That, plus a somewhat easier schedule from here on out, keeps Vermont at the top of this list -- but for how long?

2. Boston University Terriers
14-9 (9-2 AE), RPI 145, SOS 230
Last week: W 77-67 vs. Albany, W 67-49 at New Hampshire
This week: 2/11 at Vermont, 2/14 vs. Binghamton

The Terriers have rebounded from a 1-2 start in impressive fashion, grinding out overtime wins before building an impressive resumé by winning on the road despite limited depth. Fatigue isn't likely to be the problem this week, but the strength of opponent is another story entirely. Vermont and Binghamton are hot on the Terriers' heels, sitting just a half-game back. BU's previous loss to Vermont hurts: if BU splits its next two games either way and all of the top three teams win out the rest of the way, the Terriers will lose the tiebreaker for first place (if tied with Vermont, the Catamounts would own a series sweep; if tied with Binghamton, the Bearcats' sweep of Vermont would give them the tiebreaker). Two wins will all but lock up the regular-season crown and an NIT autobid. The goal for Wolff & Co.? Just win, baby!

3. Binghamton Bearcats
14-8 (9-3 AE), RPI 110, SOS 226
Last week: W 85-83 at Vermont, W 63-61 at Stony Brook (OT), W 88-75 vs. Albany
This week: 2/14 at Boston University

A loss to Vermont last week would make tomorrow's BU-Vermont clash even more important, but who prefers a two-horse race over three serious contenders? Binghamton has won most of its conference games by overwhelming its opponents with big runs in short periods of time, and the comeback win at Patrick was no exception. The Bearcats scored 24 points in their last 10 possessions to shock the Burlington crowd. The Binghamton-Albany game, however, followed a somewhat different storyline. While the Bearcats' early dominance helped to build an unassailable lead, Kevin Broadus' players displayed confidence and competence for a full 40 minutes. It will take that kind of effort to grab a win in Boston and make a run at 1st place.

4. Albany Great Danes
13-11 (5-6 AE), RPI 120, SOS 169
Last week: L 77-67 at Boston University, L 79-70 vs. Vermont, L 88-75 at Binghamton
This week: 2/12 at Stony Brook, 2/15 vs. New Hampshire

What a difference a week makes. At 5-3 in America East play, the Great Danes were contenders. After a second run-in with the class of the conference? The current situation is rather less promising. All of a sudden Albany needs to find a way to win at Stony Brook to reassert its grip on the 4-seed. Not that there's much of a difference between 4th and 5th when it comes to the tournament. It's more important for the Danes to stop the bleeding and get back to .500 in conference play. Tim Ambrose and Anthony Raffa are talented but keep shooting themselves in the foot with poor decision-making. In the case of Raffa, the foot may need a rest -- literally: turf toe has limited his effectiveness during the losing streak.

5. Stony Brook Seawolves
12-11 (5-6 AE), RPI 213, SOS 277
Last week: W 70-59 at Maine, L 63-61 vs. Binghamton (OT)
This week: 2/12 vs. Albany, 2/15 at Vermont

It's been a solid three months since preseason predictions put Stony Brook in the cellar, but it still feels strange seeing more wins than losses in the overall record. With both BU and Vermont left on the schedule, plus Albany at home and two more road games, it will be difficult (but not nearly impossible) for the Seawolves to finish .500 in conference play. 7-9 is more realistic. Even 7-9, though, is a huge positive step for Stony Brook's program, particularly considering the Seawolves' youth. Tommy Brenton isn't a sexy pick for Rookie of the Year -- it's tough to get consideration for that award while scoring just over seven points per game -- but statistically he's the best rebounder in conference play with more than ten boards per game. How impressive is Brenton's rebounding? His defensive rebounding percentage of 30.4% is fourth in the nation, slotted right between Oklahoma's Blake Griffin in third and Pittsburgh's DeJuan Blair in fifth. Not too shabby.

6. Maine Black Bears
7-16 (3-8 AE), RPI 264, SOS 210
Last week: L 70-59 vs. Stony Brook, L 73-68 vs. Maryland-Baltimore County (OT)
This week: 2/11 vs. Hartford

Maine might be behind UNH and UMBC in the conference standings, but that 3-8 record hasn't come without a fight. The Black Bears' efficiency margin in conference play is a very respectable -3.3, slightly better than the Great Danes' margin and leagues ahead of both the Wildcats and the Retrievers. Maine has yet to lose by more than 11 points against an America East opponent, something only two other teams can claim (Vermont and Stony Brook). While Maine hasn't done much to deserve praise, a point differential of -22 through eleven games is deserving of a better record. Pythagoras apologizes profusely for the disservice and says a win should arrive promptly, perhaps as soon as tomorrow.

7. New Hampshire Wildcats
8-13 (4-6 AE), RPI 250, SOS 260
Last week: W 62-55 at Hartford, L 67-49 vs. Boston University
This week: 2/10 at Maryland-Baltimore County, 2/15 at Albany

While Maine has yet to lose by 12 or more, New Hampshire's only loss by 12 points or less came against Maine in double-overtime. The Wildcats are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. If enough shots fall to make UNH's offense appear respectable, Dr. Jekyll's excellent defensive rebounding helps New Hampshire escape with a win. When the threes aren't falling, Mr. Hyde responds by shooting even more threes, resulting in more misses, extended droughts, and blowout losses. Last time the Wildcats saw UMBC it was not a three-happy affair, as UNH played under control and cruised to an 18-point win. If the Wildcats hope to build some momentum heading into season's end, a repeat performance would be a good way to start.

8. Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers
9-13 (4-7 AE), RPI 211, SOS 187
Last week: W 73-68 at Maine (OT)
This week: 2/10 vs. New Hampshire, 2/14 at Hartford

The Retrievers' ability to limit turnovers has kept the offense afloat, but at this point in the season the defense is unlikely to improve. That's a problem, because UMBC has been downright awful when the other team has the ball. It's tough to win when the other team puts up points at will. Note that the Retrievers have yet to win when their opponent posts an offensive efficiency of above 115 for the game. That stat isn't unusual. The problem is, that's happened ten times this season, including five league games. The Retrievers can't force turnovers, negating their biggest advantage. Opponents taking -- and making -- a lot of shots is a harbinger of doom. UNH misses a lot of those shots, though, so there's a chance for a win tonight.

9. Hartford Hawks
6-19 (2-9 AE), RPI 280, SOS 168
Last week: L 62-55 vs. New Hampshire, L 71-63 at Vermont
This week: 2/11 at Maine, 2/14 vs. Maryland-Baltimore County

There's not much to say about Hartford. The Hawks play hard for 40 minutes, but the lack of an interior presence makes the Hartford offense one-dimensional. If that dimension included a healthy Joe Zeglinski the Hawks would be more competitive, but that's strictly a hypothetical. Maybe next year.

Conference performance
OOC record: 52-57
Conference RPI: 16 out of 31
Conference SOS: 18 out of 31

BracketBusters have been announced, with Vermont as the big winner. The Catamounts get Buffalo in a game slated for ESPN2 -- beyond the RPI and SOS implications for the conference, a win would help the Catamounts case should they receive an autobid for one of the postseason tournaments. The remaining BracketBuster games are not televised and feature MAAC opponents. Boston University draws Iona, currently tied for 6th; Hartford gets 9th-place Marist; UMBC's opponent is 3rd-place Rider.

Overall Efficiency

Conference Efficiency

The standings say there's three teams in contention, but the conference efficiency numbers aren't so high on Binghamton's chances. Of course, what ultimately matters is the wins and losses columns, and it would be foolish to count Binghamton out. What the conference table indicates is how these teams have been winning their games. Vermont and BU have gone the scorched earth route, winning big and doing so habitually. Binghamton tends to make things somewhat more interesting. Binghamton's experience in close games may be an edge against Vermont, as the Catamounts haven't been able to pull out a win against the Bearcats. The Terriers have been less fazed by tight contests -- experience from winning overtime games earlier in the season certainly helps there -- but made sure to step on Binghamton's throat in the teams' first meeting, something Vermont couldn't do.

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