Friday, March 5, 2010

America East Tournament: Quarterfinals Preview

Saturday is right around the corner, and America East will have four games on tap for the quarterfinal round tomorrow. There's a conference favorite and its least favorite underdog, a group of veterans in top form challenged by hometown heroes, a one-man army battling a team in need of a star, and a perennial dark-horse pick upstaged by former cellar-dwellers. We'll go game-by-game, starting from the beginning.

No. 1 Stony Brook University Seawolves (21-8, 13-3 AE)
No. 8 University at Albany Great Danes (7-24, 2-14 AE)
Time: 12:00 PM
Previous meetings: SBU 67-61 @ SBU, SBU 68-66 @ Albany
Current streaks: SBU Lost 1, Albany Lost 3

The Seawolves sleptwalked through their regular season finale at New Hampshire after locking up the top overall seed against Vermont the previous Wednesday, but make no mistake, Stony Brook is in excellent form heading into the America East Tournament. Stony Brook's 82-78 victory against the Catamounts was the team's 10th straight. The Seawolves play solid fundamental basketball and might be the one team in the conference without a real weakness.

Albany, on the other hand, has had to endure a nightmarish season. The Great Danes swept UMBC but are winless against the rest of the conference. Will Harris and Tim Ambrose started the season as go-to players, but Ambrose's out-of-control style and defensive indifference have done more harm than good, and Harris' decent raw stats fail to capture his team's tendency to play worse with him on the court. The Danes' poor play is in large part a product of abysmal ballhandling: the Danes cough up the ball on almost a quarter of their possessions, far and away the worst figure in the conference.

That being said, Albany gave the Seawolves all they could handle in both meetings this season. The Danes even held a slim lead late in the second half of February's contest before Muhammad El-Amin buried a two-pointer with 2 seconds left to give Stony Brook the win. Assuming past performances offer some information about future performances, expect this one to be reasonably close.

No. 4 Boston University Terriers (17-12, 11-5 AE)
No. 5 University of Hartford Hawks (8-21, 6-10 AE)
Time: 2:15 PM
Previous meetings: BU 84-70 @ Hartford, BU 58-55 @ BU
Current streaks: BU Won 4, Hartford Won 1

The Terriers enter the America East Tournament as a textbook example of a team playing its best basketball at the end of the season. BU has won its last four and six of the last seven, with the one loss coming by a single point. John Holland is a legitimate Player of the Year candidate, but what makes thee Terriers truly dangerous is his supporting cast. It's usually a big deal when five players score in double figures in the same game -- BU has five players averaging 10 or more points. More surprising is the Terrier defense, tied with Maine for the best defensive efficiency during conference play.

Hartford recovered from some disappointing non-conference results to reach .500 in America East play through ten games before dropping five of six to end the regular season. As is typical for the Hawks, rebounding has been a real issue, but unlike last season, Hartford has found a strength to partially counterbalance its various problems. The Hawks take excellent care of the basketball and force turnovers at an above-average rate. Joe Zeglinski is the focus of opposing teams night in and night out, but Morgan Sabia has evolved into a capable second option and Andres Torres is an effective point guard when healthy.

Hartford's trip to Case Gym last month featured one of the worst shooting performances by a winning team you'll ever see -- out of the almost 5,000 games played this season between two Division-I teams, only four teams managed to secure victories while posting effective field goal percentages below BU's 30.1 mark. A repeat performance won't bode well for BU's hopes to advance, but given the Terriers' improvement at both ends of the floor over the past month, it will take more than home court for the Hawks to slow their opponent down.

No. 2 University of Vermont Catamounts (22-9, 12-4 AE)
No. 7 University of Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers (4-25, 3-13 AE)
Time: 6:00 PM
Previous meetings: Vermont 73-58 @ Vermont, Vermont 79-60 @ UMBC
Current streaks: Vermont Won 1, UMBC Won 1

The Catamounts lost three straight games toward the end of January. Since that point, Vermont has won eight of nine and Marqus Blakely has cemented himself as the Most Dangerous Man in America East. Opponents' focus on Blakely opens things up for Evan Fjeld on the low block or Maurice Joseph on the perimeter. The supporting cast is certainly capable, but more than any other team in the America East Tournament, the Catamounts will go as far as their star can take them.

UMBC has spent its entire season trying to fill the void left by Jay Greene and Darryl Proctor. Success has been hard to come by. At one point, the Retrievers held a 1-20 record. Things have improved somewhat since then, with three wins over the last eight games, the last one being an out-of-nowhere 79-50 victory at New Hampshire to conclude the regular season. The Retrievers aren't exactly on a hot streak -- more like lukewarm -- but with the steadying hand of Chris De La Rosa at the point and a couple of young, useful pieces surrounding him, UMBC isn't in dire straits entering the America East Tournament.

Of the quarterfinal contests, this one figures to be the biggest mismatch. The Retrievers, for all their efforts, had nothing for the Catamounts in both meetings, and it showed on the scoreboard. Ken Pomeroy puts the odds of UMBC pulling the upset at 7 percent. That seems about right. A big day from Chauncey Gilliam and a rough shooting night for UVM's guards would be enough to keep the Retrievers within striking distance, but it will take an all-around team effort for UMBC to advance -- and there haven't been many of those.

No. 3 University of Maine Black Bears (19-10, 11-5 AE)
No. 6 University of New Hampshire Wildcats (12-16, 6-10 AE)
Time: 8:15 PM
Previous meetings: Maine 56-42 @ Maine, Maine 72-53 @ New Hampshire
Current streaks: Maine Lost 1, New Hampshire Won 1

Only the program implosion in Binghamton saved the Black Bears from last place in the preseason poll, but Maine ended non-conference play with a bang, toppling Boston College at Conte Forum, and proceeded to race to the top of the America East standings before settling in at third place. Maine's calling card is defense. The Black Bears contest every shot and keep opponents off the free throw line. Meanwhile, Gerald McLemore has evolved into one of the most feared shooters in the conference, and the rest of the roster has found ways to conjure up points and ride the defensive effort to wins.

Every year New Hampshire is the trendy pick to challenge the conference leaders. After such high expectations, a 6-10 conference finish is disappointing. As usual, the Wildcats contest shots and pull down a boatload of defensive rebounds, but none of that matters much because UNH simply can't score. The ability to make shots (or lack thereof) is the most important factor influencing offensive efficiency, and the Wildcats' effective field goal percentage ranks among the lowest in Division-I. Defense can keep New Hampshire in games, but more often than not, the Wildcats haven't been able to find enough output at the other end.

UNH's shooting against Maine has been horrifically bad, even compared to New Hampshire's typical shooting woes. Even an average Wildcat shooting performance would erase most of the deficit from the team's two losses to Maine. On the other hand, Maine's stifling defense had a lot to do with the shooting issues. UNH putting forth a solid defensive effort seems likely. But generating enough offense to pull the upset? That's a much taller order.

Link: M. basketball to face Hartford in the first round

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