By Craig Meyer/DFP Staff
1) University of Maine
A difficult non-conference schedule that included road wins over Penn State University and the University of Massachusetts has translated into an incredibly successful 8-1 start to conference play for Maine. Leading the team in both scoring and rebounding, forward Troy Barnies has worked himself into conference Player of the Year discussion, while guards Gerald McLemore and Raheem Singleton have paced the team’s backcourt. Thanks to performances like these and a blistering start to conference play, what seemed laughable a year and a half ago may now be entirely imminent – Maine may very well, for the first time ever, represent the America East Conference on college basketball’s biggest stage.
2) University of Vermont
Just when many figured the 2010-11 season would be nothing more than a rebuilding effort for a Vermont team dealing with life after Marqus Blakely, Mike Lonergan has again worked his magic in Burlington and made his Catamount team become a conference title contender far more quickly than most expected. Forward Evan Fjeld – and his pronounced mustache – has had a breakout season in the absence of Blakely, posting a team-high 15.9 points. Youth has also served thus far for the Catamounts with the emergence of star freshman Brian Voelkel, who, in addition to being the leading rebounder in the conference, has provided a raw team with about every intangible imaginable.
3) Boston University
The preseason pick to win the conference for the fifth season in a row, the Terriers have yet to prove why this season will be no different than the previous four, when they fell short of the conference title and the NCAA Tournament. Forward John Holland has lived up to his preseason hype and looks like a runaway choice for conference player of the year right now, but the Terriers have been plagued by injuries – to center Jeff Pelage to start the season, and most recently with an ankle injury to Jake O’Brien. With seven freshmen and three transfers, BU has struggled to find consistency, but if it succeeds anytime soon, the team widely regarded as the conference’s most talented could be a leading contender to reach the Big Dance.
4) University of Hartford
The jury is still out on the young tenure of first-year head coach John Gallagher, but this much is evident – the Hawks, picked to finish in the bottom third of the league, have proven that they can contend. After a disheartening 2-10 start to the season, Hartford has responded by winning five of its last eight games to climb to third in the conference standings. Forward Morgan Sabia has paced the team in points and rebounds in light of the shooting struggles of senior guard Joe Zeglinski, who is shooting 34 percent from the field this season.
5) University at Albany
Picked to finish near the bottom of the conference, embattled head coach Will Brown and his Great Danes have managed to put together a solid season thus far. Guard Tim Ambrose has rebounded from a disappointing junior campaign to lead Albany in points per game (16.1) and assists per game (3.7). Guard Logan Aronhalt has been a pleasant surprise and has teamed up with Ambrose and 2010 America East Rookie of the Year Mike Black to form perhaps the most formidable backcourt in the league. A season thus far highlighted by a win over city rival Siena College looked temporarily derailed by a 1-4 start to conference play, but the Danes have responded with two straight wins.
6) Stony Brook University
Another team that entered the season with high expectations, only to see those expectations crumble under the weight of some bad breaks and underwhelming play. The defending regular season conference champions have struggled for much of the season trying to compensate for not only the graduation of 2010 AE Player of the Year Muhammad El-Amin, but also the loss of dynamic forward Tommy Brenton, who has been out the entire season with a knee injury. Steady backcourt play from Bryan Dougher and Marcus Rouse, combined with strong inside play that has led to an average of 37.4 rebounds per game, have been promising for the Seawolves, but with a 2-5 conference record, it’s really beginning to feel like a lost season on Long Island.
7) Binghamton University
It will probably take years for the Binghamton program to recover from the wave of off-court issues that received national attention and scorn a little over a year ago, and the Bearcats are still in something of a transitional phase. Far from the most talented team in the conference, Binghamton has been seriously deflated by a disappointing senior season from preseason all-America East selection Greer Wright. The team managed to win its first three conference games, but a recent four-game slide, highlighted by a 76-37 loss at Albany, show why this is clearly one of the worst teams in the conference.
8) University of New Hampshire
Perhaps the most misleading ranking on this list goes to the Wildcats who, despite reasonably optimistic hopes for the 2010-11 campaign, find themselves in the cellar of the conference standings with a 2-7 conference record. The season has all but come to an end for UNH through a barrage of injuries and suspensions. Star guard Alvin Abreu was lost in the second game of the year to a season-ending injury. They lost forward Ferg Myrick for five games with a leg injury. And most recently, center Dane Diliegro, the team’s leading rebounder, was dismissed from the team. At this juncture in the season, it’s probably fair to say Lady Luck isn’t taking up residence in Durham.
9) University of Maryland-Baltimore County
Three years removed from a conference title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament, head coach Randy Monroe and his Retrievers have fallen a ways in the last couple seasons. Undone by the graduation of several key players and the exodus of players like Chauncey Gilliam who opted to transfer elsewhere, UMBC sports a 3-17 record, making them, statistically, one of the worst teams in Division I basketball. There is hope, though, as the team, buoyed by strong play from point guard Chris De La Rosa and forward Justin Fry, has tripled its season win total in seven conference games by going 2-5 with impressive wins over BU and Hartford.