Wednesday, March 4, 2009

State of America East: Tournament Edition

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, America East's "second season" is about to begin. We've seen non-conference play, where some teams showcased their strengths while others realized their shortcomings. We've also seen conference play, with every team meeting each opponent twice. March, however, is an altogether separate entity.

Cynics will tell you the regular season doesn't really matter, that the season begins now, that nobody ever won a championship in January or February (a statement Binghamton no doubt disagrees with). Such statements are factually based but don't tell the whole story. Nearly four months after the season's first games, we can say plenty about America East's nine teams. We know who the stars are, who lives and dies by the 3, who misses free throws in crunch time, who can't take care of the ball, and all the other details. Most of the surprises -- a Dennis Wolff team relying on zone defenses? Really? -- aren't surprises anymore.

The only thing we don't know is how each of these teams' stories will end. We can forecast, though, and this week we will, seed by seed. Starting at the bottom, it's the...

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

9. Hartford Hawks
6-25 (2-14 AE), RPI 303, SOS 162
Results against Maine: W 76-71 (home), L 68-63 (away)

Even considering the devastating loss of Joe Zeglinski to season-ending injury, the Hawks' season has been a disappointment. While it's difficult to find a positive outlook for a team losing 14 straight games heading into the conference tournament, Hartford's overtime loss at BU suggests the Hawks will be able to put up a good fight against Maine. Hartford split with the Black Bears during the regular season. If Dan Leibovitz's team can get significant offensive contributions from multiple players, the Hawks will stand a good chance. However, even if the nine-seed manages to reach the quarterfinals, it's unlikely this team will be able to cope with Binghamton's athleticism and depth for 40 minutes.

8. Maine Black Bears
8-20 (4-12 AE), RPI 270, SOS 181
Results against Hartford: L 76-71 (away), W 68-63 (away)

Toss out the benefit of playing Hartford at home and the Black Bears haven't won a game since their double-overtime victory versus New Hampshire on January 19th. For a long time, Maine teased observers by playing competitive games against better teams, but as the season progressed it became clear Maine wasn't going to win any of those games. If the Black Bears have an advantage Friday night, it's the relative comfort of not carrying around a double-digit losing streak. Maine hasn't won a tournament game since 2005; if the Black Bears win one this year, they almost certainly won't win a second.

7. Albany Great Danes
14-15 (6-10 AE), RPI 178, SOS 190
Results against Vermont: W 82-77 (away), L 79-70 (home)

A month ago the Great Danes were 5-3 in conference play, in the middle of the league's regular season title race, and playing excellent basketball. Since then? They've gone 1-7. Anthony Raffa hasn't scored in double figures since January and hasn't played since mid-February; without him, Albany's major sources of offense number just two (Tim Ambrose and Will Harris). The Great Danes are at their best when imposing their will on opponents in the rebounding department. If Albany owns the boards, don't count the home team out against anyone.

6. Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers
12-16 (7-9 AE), RPI 191, SOS 155
Results against Boston University: L 80-77 (2OT) (away), L 82-65 (home)

Last year Randy Monroe relied on his starters by choice. This year he's done so out of necessity. UMBC has a bench in name only, so Jay Greene and Darryl Proctor have had to play an enormous amount of minutes. What the Retrievers lack in quantity they make up for in quality, but Greene and Proctor will be hard-pressed to repeat last year's tournament results. The Retrievers' perimeter defense has been porous all year and doesn't figure to improve now. Given the number of guard-oriented teams in America East, another championship doesn't appear to be in the cards.

5. Stony Brook Seawolves
15-13 (8-8 AE), RPI 184, SOS 236
Results against New Hampshire: L 70-61 (home), L 58-57 (OT) (away)

Stony Brook could suffer a blowout loss in the quarterfinals and this season would still be a success. A massive defeat is unlikely, though: the Seawolves' biggest loss against a conference opponent this year had just an 11-point margin. Stony Brook can make a run this year, but Bryan Dougher needs to be productive at the point guard position. The Seawolves are 13-6 when Dougher scores in double figures and 12-5 when winning the turnover battle; if those two things don't happen, Stony Brook is just 2-7 and 3-8, respectively.

4. New Hampshire Wildcats
13-15 (8-8 AE), RPI 216, SOS 217
Results against Stony Brook: W 70-61 (away), W 58-57 (OT) (home)

Of the teams outside the top three, New Hampshire has the most momentum, winning four of five to pull level with Stony Brook and bring the home jerseys to Albany. The Wildcats enjoyed a season sweep of their quarterfinal opponent and performed well against the Bearcats in their second meeting, so New Hampshire's chances of making a deep run in this year's tournament are much better than one would have guessed a few weeks ago. The Wildcats' defense has done an excellent job contesting shots in recent weeks, so the offense hasn't had to be overly efficient. This weekend we'll see just how far defense can carry UNH.

3. Boston University Terriers
17-12 (11-5 AE), RPI 149, SOS 193
Results against Maryland-Baltimore County: W 80-77 (2OT) (home), W 82-65 (road)

The Terriers' chances for a regular season title were swept away by a mid-February slump, but BU carries plenty of momentum into this weekend's games. A potential semifinal meeting with Vermont looms in the distance, but the Terriers' first opponent is a legitimate threat. Never discount the six seed -- BU beat Albany as a six-seed just last year. Luckily for the Terriers, this year's offensive strengths match up quite nicely with their opponent's weaknesses. If Corey Lowe, John Holland, and Jake O'Brien aren't hitting their shots, the Terriers are quite beatable, but with an eFG% ranking second in the conference, the odds of poor marksmanship are rather low.

2. Vermont Catamounts
23-7 (13-3), RPI 85, SOS 221
Results against Albany: L 82-77 (home), W 79-70 (away)

Despite missing out on the top seed, Vermont appeared to be in top form heading into the tournament -- except for one Mike Trimboli, that is. The Catamounts' star guard is out with an undisclosed illness and may not be available for the tournament. Trimboli isn't Vermont's undisputed best player (that would be Marqus Blakely), but he is their on-court leader and a major source of offensive production. All of a sudden the Catamounts appear vulnerable. It's not impossible for Vermont to win the tournament without Trimboli, but if he isn't available or isn't playing at full speed, the chances of a Catamount NCAA bid become much worse.

1. Binghamton Bearcats
19-8 (13-3 AE), RPI 92, SOS 222
Results against Maine: W 70-62 (road), W 83-77 (home)
Results against Hartford: W 66-59 (home), W 62-44 (road)

After all the bad press, legal issues, and general uncertainty surrounding this year's Bearcats basketball team, it's Binghamton standing alone at the top of the standings. Well, not alone -- the Catamounts are co-champions -- but certainly on top. The Bearcats are this year's favorites in March and have everything necessary to win it all. A deep and talented backcourt? Check. An athletic, hard-working frontcourt? Check. Desire? Check. Perhaps most importantly, Binghamton finds ways to win close games, either coming from behind at the end or holding off rallying opponents just long enough to hear the final buzzer. Binghamton isn't likely to win the tournament going away, but it will take an incredible effort to knock them out.

No comments: