America East men’s basketball quarterfinal preview: #5 Hartford at #4 New Hampshire

New Hampshire sophomore Jacoby Armstrong. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

America East men’s basketball Quarterfinal Preview:
#5 Hartford at #4 New Hampshire

If you watch only one America East Playoff Quarterfinal game (and with all four games streaming on AmericaEast.TV, we’d recommend watching them all), this is the one to keep an eye on.

New Hampshire sophomore Jacoby Armstrong. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
New Hampshire sophomore Jacoby Armstrong. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

Fifth-seed Hartford and fourth-seed New Hampshire are not only the closest in the standings and seedings of the eight America East teams who will square off tonight, but they have already engaged in two knock-down drag-outs, splitting the regular season series as each team pulling off a victory on the other’s home court, with Hartford hanging on for a one-point win in the first meeting between the two, and New Hampshire gutting out an overtime victory in the rematch.

On paper, this could prove to be an incredibly interesting matchup, with a senior laden Hartford squad capable of catching lightning in a bottle bombing away from behind the arc, facing off against an underclassmen-led New Hampshire squad featuring the league’s most ferocious perimeter defense.

While all tournament games are huge in a one-bid league, this game is of particularly massive proportions for both Hartford head coach John Gallagher and New Hampshire head coach Bill Herrion.

Gallagher has been riding his six-man senior class since they were freshmen, and with no obvious replacements for power forward Mark Nwakamma, the team’s epicenter; wing Corban Wroe, the team’s toughness, heart and soul; and point guard Yolonzo Moore III, the Hawks are set to take a big step back next year. While Gallagher’s seat isn’t red-hot year, with a new AD at the helm of the athletic program, and a tenure that has been building to this year, this is close to a must win for the Hawks.

Standing in front of the opposite bench, this game may be of even greater magnitude to Herrion than his counterpart. Herrion began the year with a knife hanging over his head in the form of a contract expiring at the end of next season. Thrown in the fact that Herrion had never experienced a .500 season, let alone a winning year, during his nine-year tenure in Durham, and this was a must win season. Herrion responded by completely changing his offensive approach, turning the team over to underclassmen (something he has seldom been comfortable doing) and leading the Wildcats to not only a winning record, but the best season the program has experienced in 20 years.

Here’s a closer look at the matchup:

Season series: Jan. 14 Hartford 68 at New Hampshire 67; Feb. 10 New Hampshire 76 at Hartford 70 (OT).

#4 New Hampshire 11-15 in AE (4th place), 18-11 overall
Projected starting lineup:
F – Jacoby Armstrong, Soph., 6’6” 230 – 9.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg, .533 FG%
F – Tanner Leissner, Fr., 6’6” 210, — 12.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg, .448 FG%
G – Joe Bramanti, R-Soph., 6’2” 195 – 4.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.4 apg
G – Matt Miller, R-Sr., 6’4” 190 – 9.4 ppg, .500 3ptFG%, .491 FG%
G – Jaleen Smith, Soph., 6’4”195 – 10.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.7 apg

Key reserves
G – Daniel Dion, Soph., 6’ 175 – 9.3 ppg, .369 3ptFG%, .760 FT%
G/F – Ronnel Jordan, Jr., 6’3” 195 – 4.6 ppg, 2.2 rpg, .349 3ptFG%
F – Frank Okeke, Jr., 6’6” 220 – 3.4 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 15.4 mpg

New Hampshire has gotten back to what Herrion hangs his hat on: frenetic, fanatical, ferocious defense, with Smith, Bramanti, Jordan and Tommy McDonnell running opposing shooters off the 3-point arc, while pressing, trapping and annihilating them in the back court.

On offense, this Wildcats team is complete unlike any other that Herrion has coached before in Durham in the fact that it, well, actually executes an offense. The Wildcats scoring begins with Leissner, an unorthodox power forward who can score from anywhere on the floor and finish with either hand and is perhaps the first true go-to scorer Herrion has coached at UNH. While Leissner is the Wildcats’ leading scorer, he is hardly their only scorer. Smith’s ability to create off the dribble has served as the catalyst for the Wildcats, and Miller’s ability as the best sniper in the league to ability to drill catch and shoot threes prevents defenses from selling out to stop Leissner.

The most important Wildcat, however, may be 6’6” five-man Jacoby Armstrong. After scoring in double-figures just twice in New Hampshire’s first 14 games following offseason surgery on both his toes, Armstrong has reached double-digits in 12 of the last 15 games, including a season-high 20 points against second-place Vermont. Extremely strong and very athletic, he can score from all over and is a perfect compliment for Leissner.

#5 Hartford 7-9 in AE (5th place) 14-15 overall
Projected starting lineup:
F – Mark Nwakamma, Sr., 6’6” 220 – 11.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, .502 FG%
F – Nate Sikma, Sr., 6’7” 235 – 4.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.0 apg
G/F – Corban Wroe, Sr., 6’2”195 – 9.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.5 apg
G – Justin Graham, soph. 6’1” 175 – 6.9 ppg, 2.2 rpg, .369 3ptFG%
G – Yolonzo Moore III, Sr., 6’1” 175 – 8.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.7 apg

Key reserves
G/F – Taylor Dyson, Jr., 6’4” 195 – 8.0 ppg, 2.9 rpg, .354 3ptFG%
F – John Carroll, Fr., 6’8” 220 – 6.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 15.0 mpg
G – Wes Cole, Sr., 6’ 165 – 4.7 ppg, 1.0 rpg, 17.5 mpg

When Hartford is on, they are ON, and whe Nwakamma goes ham in the post, and the likes of Wroe, Graham, Moore, Dyson and Cole drill 3-pointers in barrages, they can beat anyone in the America East anywhere, anytime.

The problem is that even in the best of times, the Hawks offense is incredibly erratic, with Nwakamma struggling with fouls throughout his career and the Hawks shooters just as capable of firing up bricks and blanks as they are of finding the bottom of the net. And this year’s Hartford squad is hardly entering conference play at full strength, let alone with momentum, having lost four of its last six and eight of its last 11.

Nwakamma is both the biggest x-factor and question mark of the game, as the senior has been a shell of himself since suffering a knee injury against Vermont on Jan. 31. Before his injury, Nwakamma had scored in double-figures in 13 of his previous 14 games, but since returning to the court (after missing the next two games), he has reached double figures just twice in his last five contests. Nwakamma’s injury was originally feared to have been season-ending, but the Hawks have listed it as a bone bruise. Murmurs around the league from multiple coaches are that Nwakamma’s injury is far more serious, and the Texan has played just four minutes, scoring zero points, in his last two games combined. Without Nwakamma, Hartford is paper thin up-front and liable to get massacred on the glass and struggle to defend the post.

Still, Nwakamma’s heart is massive, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him pull a Jack Youngblood and gut out an inspired performance on one leg. If Nwakamma remains too banged up to make an impact, Hartford is going to literally be living on a wing and a prayer from deep, hoping that their shooters can catch lightening in a bottle from deep.

Prediction: Never underestimate the power of seniors facing down the end of their college career and playing inspired ball, and I have a feeling that the Hawks six seniors are going to come out and leave absolutely everything they have on the floor.

However, this Wildcats’ team just seems to be different than any previous incarnate. UNH’s front court of Leissner and Armstrong is a handful for even the best front courts in the league, and the duo is going to simply be too much for a Hartford squad featuring a badly banged up Nwakamma and no other reinforcements on the low-blocks. My gut says that the Hawks give the Wildcats a serious scare, maybe even take a lead late in the second half, but that New Hampshire pounds the ball in to their dynamic front court duo to reclaim the lead, and Miller then puts the final nail in Hartford’s coffin in the form of a couple of 3-balls.

Prediction: New Hampshire.