By Luke Coughlan/DFP Staff
It is no secret that the only route for an America East Conference men's basketball team to take if it hopes to find itself playing in the NCAA Tournament come March is to win the AE Conference championship.
It has been nearly nine years since the Boston University men's basketball team last put on its dancing shoes in 2002 when it defeated the University of Maine, 66-40, in the AE Championship game. Since then, its postseasons have been riddled with difficult losses, including last season's heartbreaker at the University of Vermont, 83-70, in the AE Championship game.
With just two conference games remaining on their schedule and riding a season-high five-game win streak, the Terriers are poised to enter the postseason with some serious momentum. However, as recent history has confirmed, anything can happen come tournament time in the AE.
First, a few points of interest about the America East Tournament:
The first round features a play-in game between the eighth and ninth seeded teams for the right to play the first seed. This game takes place this year on March 2.
Four quarterfinal games take place on March 5 and will feature the games between seeds 1 and 8/9, 2 and 7, 3 and 6, and 4 and 5.
The winners of the games between 1 and 8/9, and 4 and 5 will play each other in the semifinal round on March 6. The other semifinal game will consist of the winners of the 2 and 7, and 3 and 6 games.
Each of the previously mentioned games will take place at University of Hartford's Chase Arena. The final game for the championship will take place on the top remaining seed's home court.
Seeding is decided based on conference record, and in the case of a tie, head-to-head matchups will be used to determine which team receives which seed.
The team that the Terriers will be looking to overcome in the first round of the tournament is still unclear despite the fact that the season is winding down. Here is a brief look at each team in the conference, its remaining conference games, and some of the possible bracket matchups that could have Terrier fans feeling confident or sweating bullets come the first weekend in March:
No. 1 University of Vermont
Conference Record: 12-2
Remaining Conference Games: at Maine, BU
Seed and first round opponent if the season ended today: #1, (winner of UMBC/Binghamton match up)
The Catamounts are on a nine-game winning streak and have already wrapped up at least a share of the AE regular season title. At this point, their postseason fate lies squarely in their own hands, as a win in either of their remaining conference games guarantees them the No. 1 seed and home court advantage should they advance to the final game of the tournament.
UVM will be playing its hearts out for that top seed, as it ranks near the top of the conference in home game attendance, and home court advantage in the championship game last season was a major asset to them. Its two remaining games, however, come against the only two teams that have defeated them so far in the conference.
No. 2 Boston University
Conference Record: 10-4
Remaining Conference Games: at Binghamton, at Vermont
Seed and first round opponent if the season ended today: #2, Hartford
The Terriers guaranteed themselves a spot in the top three seeds for the AE tournament with a win over UMBC on Tuesday night. Which of those seeds they will secure is still to be determined. If they win out and get some help from Maine on Wednesday night against Vermont, the Terriers will swap places with the Catamounts tournament-seed-wise because of a conference record tie (12-4) and a 2-0 winning record for BU in head-to-head matchups over UVM. Conversely, if they lose a couple while Maine wins out, they will find themselves back in the No. 3 spot.
At this point, because the lower half of the conference could shift in ranking as well, it is impossible to predict a first-round match up with certainty, and the Terriers' best strategy is simply to keep winning games. If the season ended today, they would draw a tough first-round match up against the experienced Hartford Hawks on their home floor. If the Terriers can somehow snag the first seed, however, they will manage to guarantee home court advantage in the championship game should they get there.
It is interesting to note that after the Terriers play UVM to close out the regular season, they will not see them in the AE tournament at Hartford, as the only way they will play each other in the tournament is if they both advance to the final game, which would be played either in Burlington or Boston.
No. 3 University of Maine
Conference Record: 8-5
Remaining Conference Games: Vermont, at UNH, Albany
Seed and first round opponent if the season ended today: #3, UNH
Maine is currently caught in a four-game losing streak after opening the conference season on an 8-1 tear. The Black Bears' schedule to close out the regular season includes three opponents that they are 3-0 against so far this year. The Black Bears are only one and a half games behind BU, but still have Albany, UNH, and SBU knocking on the door for the third seed. Two wins or a win over Albany would solidify Maine's No. 3 seed.
Overcoming BU for the No. 2 seed doesn't exactly help Maine too much in the grand scheme of the tournament, however, as the No. 3 seed has just as much home court advantage as the No. 2 seed. The reason for this is that, again, the only game played outside of Hartford's Chase Arena is the final game of the tournament. A No. 2 seed or a No. 3 seed would earn homecourt against any team except for the No. 1 seeded team in the final game, and a matchup of the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds could only take place in the semifinal round of the tournament, which takes place in neutral territory.
Still, earning the second seed guarantees a first round game against the team with the second worst record in the tournament, and although some of the worst teams record-wise in the AEC are some of the most dangerous, it is very difficult to predict who will wind up with which seed at the end of the season. It would be best for Maine to trust the process and hope that the second-worst team really does wind up with the seventh seed, and to continue to pursue the second seed themselves, which is within striking distance.
No. 4 University at Albany
Conference Record: 6-7
Remaining Conference Games: at Binghamton, UMBC, at Maine
Seed and first-round opponent if the season ended today: #4, SBU
No. 5 University of New Hampshire
Conference record: 6-8
Remaining Conference Games: Maine, at Hartford
Seed and first-round opponent if the season ended today: #6, Maine
No. 6 Stony Brook
Conference record: 6-8
Remaining Conference Games: @ Hartford, Binghamton
Seed and first-round opponent if the season ended today: #5, Albany
No. 7 University of Hartford
Conference record: 5-7
Remaining Conference Games: Binghamton, at UMBC, SBU, UNH
Seed and first-round opponent if the season ended today: #7, BU
Albany, UNH, Stony Brook, and Hartford are all within a half of a game of each other, which makes postseason prediction a particularly challenging task. While Hartford bottoms out the pile of middle-ranked teams, it still has four conference games remaining before the end of the season, allowing it the opportunity to surpass the other three teams at the moment with simply two wins.
While SBU holds the head-to-head tie-breaker over UNH (and therefore draws the No. 5 seed) everything could change down the stretch for these teams. And, UMBC and Binghamton are lurking not too far in the background just waiting for one or more of them to lose out and give up their spot in the middle of the pack.
No. 8 University of Maryland-Baltimore County
Conference record: 4-10
Remaining Conference Games: Hartford, at Albany
Seed and first round opponent if the season ended today: #8, Binghamton
No. 9 Binghamton University
Conference record: 3-9
Remaining Conference games: at Hartford, Albany, BU, at SBU
Seed and first round opponent if the season ended today: #9, UMBC
The two teams ranked last in the conference will go head-to-head on March 2 and are at a major disadvantage because they have to play an extra game compared to the rest of the field in the tournament. This is another reason for why the no. 1 seed is such a coveted position (the no. 1 seed's first round opponent is the possibly fatigued winner of that play-in game).
UMBC and Binghamton may be in the cellar of the AE, but just like the teams in the middle of the pack, there is still the potential for movement up the AE rankings before the season is over. UMBC may have one more win than Binghamton, but the Bearcats have two games in hand over the Retrievers, giving them the potential to overcome them on the long run. However, swapping the no. 9 seed for the no. 8 seed does not change a team's trajectory in the AE tournament very much at all. They would still need to play in the play-in game, and because it takes place in Hartford, being ranked higher than an opponent does not necessarily translate into a home court advantage.
So, look for these bottom two teams to try to scratch their way into the top seven, as those spots do not require the extra play-in game and the potential for fatigue and injury that comes with it.
With just two games remaining in the conference regular season, the fact that the Terriers still have few clues about what the America East Tournament bracket will look like can be frustrating. As it is, there is still very little to be said for sure about the 2011 postseason. Here is what can be said with certainty for the Terriers:
BU will have a spot in one of the top three seeds.
BU will not play the University of Vermont until the final round, if ever, in the tournament.
Based on the outcome of Wednesday night's game between UVM and Maine, the Terriers will either have to opportunity to win their final two conference games en route to the No. 1 seed, or will not be able to overcome Vermont for the best record in the conference and the top seed.
If BU advances to the final game of the AE tournament, it will be played in Boston unless UVM also advances to the final game and BU does not overtake them for the no. 1 seed (in which case it will be played in Burlington).
Again, if the Terriers take the No. 1 seed, they will be guaranteed a match up against a team that had just played two days earlier. They will also be guaranteed to avoid the no. 2 and 3 seeds until the final game of the tournament, which would be held in Boston.
So, if it isn't yet clear enough, a lot is riding on Wednesday's game in Orono. If Vermont defeats Maine, look for the Terriers to stay aggressive in wrapping up the no. 2 seed, as it guarantees a game against the no. 7 seed in the first round. While right now this may not be the best possible match up (against Hartford), there is a good chance that, once the regular season comes to a close, a more favorable team could climb or drop into the no. 7 spot.
If the Terriers could pick an opponent in the first round, they would benefit from choosing the team that wins the play-in game, as that team will have short rest and little time to prepare for the quarter finals.
If they cannot choose that position, the Terriers would seemingly benefit from a matchup against Albany (crushed them at MSG and swept the season series) or SBU (the Seawolves are injured and inconsistent offensively, and BU swept the season series). Tougher games for the Terriers to play in the postseason could be Hartford (it has a natural homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, and it beat BU earlier in the season at home/hung with BU in Boston) or UNH (it held its own against the Terriers in Boston and embarrassed BU in New Hampshire).
When the America East Conference gathers in Hartford on the first weekend in March, all of these questions will have disappeared and the first round games will be set in stone. The following are, in this writer's humble opinion, what those match ups will be, including anticipated final conference records:
No. 1 UVM 13-3 vs. No. 8/No. 9 UMBC 5-11 or Binghamton 4-12
No. 2 BU 12-4 vs. No. 7 SBU 7-9
No. 3 Maine 9-7 vs. No. 6 Albany 7-9
No. 4 Hartford 8-8 vs. No. 5 UNH 7-9
Such a possibility for the final bracket reveals just how close the 4, 5, 6 and 7 seeds could be at the end of the season (a three way tie in this version). Therefore, the Terriers may have a hard time trying to predict a first round opponent. Instead they may want to focus on achieving what they can control at this point in the season: home court advantage and a potential top seed.