With a the NCAA Tournament dreams dashed for seven of the America East’s nine teams, and a day remaining before the March Madness showdown between bitter rivals Albany and Stony Brook for all the marbles, One-Bid Wonders decided to take a look back at the America East basketball season that was in dunks. Take a look and enjoy — all nine America East teams and quite a few players are represented.
Who was the conference’s best dunker? What was the best dunk of the season? Leave us a comment below.
In anticipation of the America East championship and the start of March Madness, which tips off with top-seed Albany facing three-seed Stony Brook at 11 a.m. Saturday, OBW’s Sam Perkins linked up with Big Apple Buckets’ Ryan Restivo and the America East’s Jared Hager to take a look back a the season that was, before looking ahead to the championship game that will be.
The trio shared a great deal of laughs, as well as insider insight over the course of the night, with topics ranging from their overall impressions and biggest surprises during the regular season; thoughts on the change in the conference’s post season format, from a single-site tournament to a high-seed host playoff; the best game of the post season; and of course, detailed breakdowns and predictions of the big game itself.
The six of them sat in silence in the deserted locker room buried in the bowels of the desolate arena.
They were freshmen for a downtrodden team. They had been completely dismissed by the rest of the basketball world. They had come to the University of Hartford – a basketball no man’s land – from all over the map — from the Australian outback, the Texas sun, the snow covered winters of the midwest, and the rainy grey skies of the northwest.
They had begun the year by losing 13 straight games. They had never blinked in the face of adversity. And for 50 minutes of action earlier that evening – a knock down drag out regulation, and two back alley brawls for overtimes — they had given the most storied program in their conference, the eventual tournament champions, every thing they could handle.
They lost the game but proved they belonged to share the same court as anyone in their league. Yet none of them celebrated.
An hour earlier, Mark Nwakamma, Hartford’s raw but immensely talented freshman forward, possessing a heart even bigger than his game, had sat silently behind a podium, tears running down his face, as his senior teammate and surrogate big brother Andres Torres sobbed his heart out, the final curtain having come down on his college career in the 77-73 double-overtime loss to Vermont.
Afterwards, Nwakamma, along with then-freshmen Corban Wroe, Yolonzo Moore II, Wes Cole, Nate Sikma and Jamie Schenck, breathing in the heavy, stale air, letting the acidic taste of defeat and bitter burn of heartbreak ferment in the pits of their stomachs.
“It was really important that they never forget how badly they wanted it (a championship), and how bad that loss felt,” remembered Brian Glowiak, then Hartford’s director of basketball operations.
The six teammates never did.
On the court, they would lead Hartford to unprecedented heights, powering the Hawks to a program-record 17 wins and the first postseason appearance (CIT berth) in school history, and duplicating that win total a year later as they reached the America East semifinals.
But according to Hartford head coach John Gallagher, the impact of the first true recruiting class of his head coaching career was so much larger than wins and losses.
“That is an incredibly, incredibly special group,” Gallagher said during an interview earlier in the year. “Those are the guys that laid the foundation, that set the tone, that created the culture that will remain here long after they are gone. They left an impact on me and on themselves that will last for the rest of their lives.”
There was Nwakamma, the son of Nigerian immigrants, a 4.0+ student in high school with dreams of becoming a doctor all while playing with relentless energy on the floor.
There was Moore, the son of two deaf parents, who matured from an at times out of control, emotional guard to a fiery floor general and leader.
There was Wroe, one of the toughest players in the league, who passed on higher level offers and moved halfway around the world from his native Australia to take a chance on a downtrodden program and an unproven first year coach, and who never waivered on his commitment no matter how rocky the road grew.
There was Cole, the Texas gunslinger, and high-octane high school scorer who never complained about spending his career going back and fourth between the bench and the starting lineup.
There was Sikma, who came to Hartford with impossible to live up to expectations that come with being the son of a former NBA all-star, a burden that only got heavier throughout his injury plagued career.
And there was Schneck, who showed as much promise as anyone as a freshman, but never seemed to quite fit the Hawks system moving forward. Many players in his situation would have become a distraction, or transferred out of the program, but Schneck simply shut his mouth and kept working.
And each time their season came to an end – with Nwakamma shedding tears following a quarterfinal loss in 2013, and Wroe sobbing throughout the presser following the 2014 semifinal — it was abundantly clear just how heartbroken they each were.
This was supposed to be their year. Sadly, it ended once again in heartbreak: Fourteen wins and a fifth-place finish in a year that many outlets picked them as a conference favorite, and a 67-63 overtime loss at New Hampshire in the America East quarterfinals.
The scene in the post game press conference was hard to describe and even harder to be a part of, as Wroe and Nwakamma, and even Gallagher wept.
“My six seniors, when you take over a program, young head coach, you learn a lot of different values,” said Gallagher after the game. “These guys believed in me, followed through with the plan.”
Hartford’s seniors weren’t able to reach the elusive first NCAA Tournament in program history, but they elevated the program to a point it had never before reached as a perennial contender, and left an indelible impact on their coach, their school, and each other.
“We had high expectations and unfortunately we could not live up to that,” said Nwakamma. “But I would not give this back for anything. Regardless of our record, this is a group of guys I would not give up for the world.”
“You bring in good players who are great kids and they attract others,” said Gallagher.
Perhaps the most telling statistic about the class, which leaves Hartford as the second most winning in school history, had nothing to do with points, assists, wins or awards, but the fact that six came in together as freshmen in the fall of 2011, and all six will graduate together this spring, a true rarity in the modern “TransferU” world of college hoops.
“I’m proud of the character, and the family… [the] aura here,” said Nwakamma after the game. “To be around these guys has been an honor. Truly blessed to be a part of it. I’m so grateful to have spent four years with these guys; I don’t know what I will do without them.”
“It went too fast,” said Wroe, making no attempt to hide his tears.
There’s no way around it for Hartford’s seniors: This loss is going to hurt. It is going to hurt really badly for a while. But that pain will fade with time, leaving behind the amazing memories of the greatest of times spent with the best of friends – the long bus rides to games, the late nights in an empty gym, and the down time among best friends.
What keeps former athletes awake at night, long after the final curtain has fallen on their careers, are the unanswered questions of whether they gave everything they could when they had the chance.
I’ve made no attempt to hide my criticism of Hartford’s game plan over the past three seasons – what I saw as an over-reliance on the three, and utter disregard for the low post – but I have never had anything but respect, and absolute admiration for the character and convictions of Hartford’s senior class.
And I have no doubts that, down the road, Mark Nwakamma, Corban Wroe, Yolonzo Moore III, Nate Sikma, Wes Cole and Jamie Schneck will all be sleeping very soundly at night, knowing they gave every last once of themselves to Hartford and that they will forever be a part of the program.
One-Bid Wonders reporter Rob Wilson contributed to this story.
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.
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
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
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.
Coaches vote for a variety of different reasons — some for who they think the best players are regardless of factors or pre qualifiers, but many because they want to pay homage to the upperclassmen, or for the best player on the best team, or because they don’t like transfers or JuCos.
When it comes to our awards, we give added weight to performance in conference play, and helping carry their team to wins (important note: There is a difference between carrying a team to wins, and getting carried along for the ride). But at the end of the day, we simply try to pick the best individual players no matter their class, seniority, or how they came to play in the America East.
With that said, here’s a look at our America East men’s basketball All-Conference Third Team.
OBW America East Third Team All-Conference
Rayshaun McGrew, Jr., F, Stony Brook
McGrew had a bit of an up-and-down season, and certainly benefitted from playing behind the unstoppable force that is Jameel Warney. That being said, the 6’7” junior’s rebounding numbers – his 9.5 rebounds per game in AE play and 8.4 rebounds per game each rank second in the conference — speak for themselves:
Mark Nwakamma, Sr., F, Hartford
If Nwakamma had been healthy, instead of battling a knee injury throughout much of the conference slate there’s an excellent chance he would have landed on either the All-Conference First or Second teams. His numbers – ninth in overall scoring (11.8 ppg), seventh in rebounding (5.7 rpg), 17th in scoring in conference games (10.9 ppg) and sixth in rebounding in AE Play (5.8 rpg) — remain admirable none the less.
Willie Rodriguez, Fr., F, Binghamton
Rodriguez did everything for the Bearcats, rebounding, defending, scoring from all over the floor, while making all the little plays that don’t show up in the box score. His 11.6 points per game overall, 12.7 points per conference game, 5.5 rebounds per game and 5.7 rebounds per conference game rank 11th, eight, eight and seventh, respectively.
Ray Sanders, Jr., G/F, Albany
Saunders was a lock down defender all season long for the Great Danes, spearheading their defensive attack, but turned it on offensively down the stretch in conference play when Albany needed him the most, ranking 16th in scoring (11.2 ppg) and 11th in rebounding (5.3 rpg) in AE play.
Jaleen Smith, Soph., G, New Hampshire
Smith was the unsung hero of the Wildcats, the biggest surprise in the league. On the defensive end, he was a lock down defender and the lynchpin of the league’s best defense. On offense, he created off the dribble, got to the rim, and found the open man, while also making a dent on the glass (his 5.6 rebounds per game in AE play ranked ninth).
It’s crazy how much difference a year — or even a few weeks — can make, at least for Hartford sophomore guard Justin Graham.
A year ago, the San Antonio, Texas native rarely left the bench for more than a few minutes of mop-up duty at the end of blowouts. For the first two-thirds of this season, Graham’s primary role was to be a terrific teammate and try to hold his own when he gave the starters an occasional breather.
Now, as the Hawks are heading towards the winner-take-all America East tournament — the last chance for their six seniors to make it to the Big Dance — Graham has two new roles: go-to gunner and leader.
“It is hard to describe the level of commitment that Justin does to get better,” raves Hartford head coach John Gallagher.
After averaging 0.8 points and 8.4 minutes per game as a freshman last season (scoring just 26 points total in 31 games), Graham failed to reach double figures through the first 15 games of Hartford’s season. But in the last 12 games, he’s been a man possessed, emerging as one of Hawks’ best scorers — if not the best — reaching double figures in nine games during that stretch, including the last six in a row.
The difference? He’s finally buying in to what his head coach has been telling him all along: he can really shoot the ball.
“I’m feeling good right now,” Graham says. “It took me long to get used to the pace of the game, but I’m finding ways to score. It’s all about proving yourself.”
Some coaches keep their players — especially their young players — on a short leash. One ill-advised or errant shot and they’re banished to the end of the bench. John Gallagher has never been one of those coaches. Gallagher has always preached that his shooters shoot “with great confidence,” and have the mindset to never pass up a good shot. For much of his early career in West Hartford, it was a mindset that Graham did not embrace.
“I had to adjust to a new system,” says Graham of the difficult transition from Brandeis High School to Hartford. “It was more of a free-for-all: I had to adjust to the size and speed, and in high school I was more of a point guard, bigger than most then.”
But Graham’s early struggles on game day weren’t due to a lack of effort or energy in practice. Far from it. In order to compete at the college level, Graham devoted himself to the weight room and to getting up extra shots in the gym at all hours.
“He is a tireless worker,” says Gallagher. “His availability to the be in the gym is contagious. As a team we were looking for energy midway through the season, and Justin doesn’t get tired, so players started to take part of that work ethic. He has carried us recently.”
On Jan. 14, things finally clicked for the 6-foot-1 combo guard, as Graham hit 3-of-6 shots from the floor and scored 12 points in Hartford’s 68-67 win at New Hampshire.
Graham has continued the double-digit trend since then, including a career-high 17 points at home against New Hampshire on Feb. 10.
According to Gallagher, Graham’s breakout performance has been the ultimate case of hard work paying off.
“He is accountable, reliable and honest,” says Gallagher. “He is just so tough, caring, one unbelievable teammate and overall respected.”
Hartford’s offense had been sputtering badly before Graham found his shooting stroke, and the sophomore’s ability to stretch the floor will be a key if the Hawks are going to make a run at the first NCAA tournament in school history. Graham believes he is up to the challenge.
“I can keep going,” Graham says.
Graham also believes that Hartford has a lot more left in the tank to make some noise come March.
And as far as the future for Graham and Hartford, Gallagher sees a bright one.
“I feel good about our future because he is in it,” Gallagher says. “He is our best guard and he has the ability to play all day. My only concern is that he is in the gym too much.”
But as long as Graham stays on a roll, Gallagher isn’t about to change any of his habits.
“I’ll talk later with [Graham], but right now with the way he has been playing you don’t want to disrupt his preparation,” he says, adding, “lately, it feels like it’s the beginning for him”
The America East men’s basketball Tuesday night lineup saw a pair of preseason America East favorites who had been floundering, badly, heading into the home stretch grab a pair of much needed wins. Here’s a look at the action:
Stony Brook 59 Albany 56
The Seawolves needed this game. Badly. Really, really badly. Star center Jameel Warney scored 20 points, pulled down 11 rebounds and sent five shots packing, junior point guard Carson Puriefoy added 14 – albeit not particularly efficiently – and junior forward Rayshaun McGrew ripped down 14 rebounds for Stony Brook. But the difference maker for the Seawolves was seldom used red-shirt junior Scott King, who tied his season high by scoring 12 points – more points than he had scored in Stony Brook’s last eight games, combined – on 5-of-6 shooting.
“When coach [Pikiell] puts me into the game, he expects me to shoot the ball. When I made the first one, I got into a decent rhythm. I just tried to get some rebounds and bring energy off the bench,” said King of the performance.
Albany saw off shooting nights across the board, hitting just 20-of-58 shots (34.5 percent) from the floor. Sam Rowley and Ray Saunders scored 12 points a piece, Dallas Ennema added 11, and Evan Singletary added eight, but the quartet shot just 15 for 46 from the floor.
The loss snapped Albany’s 13 game winning streak and gave the Great Danes their first conference loss on the year to 12 wins, but it wasn’t particularly unexpected, as the team had won several close games as of late. That, coupled with the emotional homecoming of Peter Hooley after spending nearly a month back home in Australia, to be by his mother’s side before she passed away from colon cancer, perhaps made the Great Danes due for an off night.
On the other side, the Seawolves needed a win badly against a top-four team in the America East, and they needed to win a game exactly like this: By getting contributions from players not named “Jameel Warney.”
With three games left to play and a one-game lead over second place Vermont, the Great Danes remain in the driver’s seat for the regular season title and home court advantage in the conference playoffs, but the Catamounts have been playing arguably the best basketball in the league over the past two weeks and another slip up could see Albany take a drop in the standings.
Hartford 55 UMBC 52
This wasn’t so much a must-win as it was an absolutely, positively, no-bleeping-way can you lose game for the host Hawks, who nearly managed to find a way to fall on their home court to a crippled Retrievers squad.
Sophomore point guard Justin Graham scored 10 points, his fifth straight game in double figures and eighth in his last 11, after going the first 15 games of the season without reaching double-digits, and seniors Wes Cole and Corban Wroe came off the bench to combine for 24 points.
Hartford wasn’t particularly sharp from the floor, hitting 37.5 and 22.7 percent of their shots, but the Retrievers were even worse, hitting just 30.4 and 21.4 percent, respectively.
On another night against another team, you might be able to chalk the Hawks win up to gritty defense, but against a UMBC squad that is suiting up just eight serviceable bodies, only seven of them scholarship players and only a handful legit Division I talents, it’s hard to put much stock in the win from any angle – especially from a senior-laden Hartford squad that was supposed to be competing for an America East title but now sits in fifth place at 6-7 in league play.
For UMBC, this was yet another herculean effort for a team showing more grit, guts and heart than any other in the league. Power forward Cody Joyce scored 17 points and pulled down nine rebounds, senior forward Devarick Houston added 10 points, 10 boards, three steals and two blocks and freshman Malcolm Brent added 13 points.
OBW America East Player of the Night
Jameel Warney, Jr., C, Stony Brook
20 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks, 9-of-18 shooting.
OBW America East Rookie of the Night:
Malcolm Brent, G, UMBC
13 points, 4-of-8 shooting, 2-of-5 three-point shooting, five rebounds
America East Standings
Team conference record (overall record)
1. Albany 12-1 (18-8)
2. Vermont 11-2 (16-10)
3. Stony Brook 9-4 (18-10)
4. New Hampshire 9-4 (16-10)
5. Hartford 6-7 (13-13)
6. UMass Lowell 5-8 (11-15)
7. Binghamton 3-10 (4-24)
8. Maine 2-10 (3-22)
9. UMBC 1-12 (3-23)
With just two weeks remaining in the regular season, the water is rising – or falling – to its own level in the America East and the conference’s playoff standings are beginning to take shape.
With just four regular season games remaining and a two game lead over Vermont, Albany remains firmly in the drivers seat to secure home court throughout the playoffs, with the Catamounts as the only team with a true chance of overtaking the Danes. New Hampshire has also insured itself of no worse than a fourth place finish, while Stony Brook has all but locked up another spot in the top for. And while the final order in the top four remains up for grabs, it’s a safe bet that the winner of the conference playoffs is going to come from that quartet of teams.
So without further ado, here’s a look around the league with our latest America East Power Rankings
1. Albany (18-7, 12-0 in AE)
Results: W 62-46 at Binghamton; W 65-59 at NJIT
This week: Tuesday vs Stony Brook, Friday vs Hartford
Albany’s winning streak is now at 13 games – the program’s Division I era record – 12 of them coming in America East play. But it was the non-conference win, Friday night at NJIT, that was perhaps the biggest – and certainly most emotional – of the team’s season, as star Peter Hooley made his return after an eight game absence, during which time he returned home to be by his mother’s side as she battled colon cancer, before laying her to rest after her passing. In Hooley’s absence, senior forward Sam Rowley established himself as the team’s go to scorer, and junior point guard Evan Singletary shouldered Hooley’s normal load as the team’s big shot extraordinaire. Hooley played limited minutes coming off the bench, but cracked double-figures while surpassing the 1,000 career point plateau. If Albany can get Hooley back to form, the Danes are easily the odds-on favorites to win the league playoffs and punch their ticket to the NCAAs.
2. Vermont (16-10, 11-2 in AE)
Results: W 96-53 vs UMass Lowell; W 74-51 vs UMBC
This week: Wednesday at Binghamton
Don’t look now, but in the Great Danes’ shadows there is another America East team riding emotional to an inspiring winning steak. The Catamounts have now won five straight games, four of them since top-ranked recruit Josh Speidel suffered a traumatic head injury in a car accident. And while the Great Danes have been finding ways to win in the closing minutes and seconds, the Catamounts have been straight smacking people. Freshman point guard Trae Bell-Haynes has hit a bit of a wall down the stretch, but fellow frosh Cam Ward and Brandon Hatton have picked up the baton and carried on, while junior center Ethan O’Day is playing the best basketball of his career, scoring at will around the post. The Catamounts have officially joined the Great Danes in distancing themselves from the rest of the America East pack.
3. New Hampshire (16-10, 9-4 in AE)
Results: W 76-70 (OT) at Hartford; W 66-48 vs Binghamton
This week: Saturday at UMass Lowell
This is officially the best season the Wildcats have experienced in two decades. With a win over Binghamton Saturday, UNH assured itself winning seasons both in league play and overall for the first time since the 1994-1995 season. Three more wins and the Wildcats will surpass the 94-95 team’s win total in conference play and tie it’s overall number of wins (19). The secret sauce behind New Hampshire’s success: Toughness, energy and selfless play according to head coach Bill Herrion. Sophomore forward Jacoby Armstrong’s return to form, paired with freshman stud Tanner Leissner, gives the Wildcats one of the best front courts in the league, senior gunner Matt Miller remains the best shooter in the America East, and Herrion has revived his trademark defense – arguably the best in the league. The Wildcats remain unproven, and no one of the roster has experienced post season success, but make no mistake, this is a team no one wants to play in the post season.
4. Stony Brook (17-10, 8-4 in AE)
Results: W 73-61 at UMBC; W 80-52 vs Maine
This week: Tuesday at Albany; Saturday vs Binghamton
The Seawolves got two huge shots in the arm on Saturday in the form of a career-high 24 points from raw but talented red-shirt freshman wing Roland Nyama and 15 rebounds from junior forward Rayshaun McGrew. Whether those performances can translate against the top of the conference – as opposed to the dregs of the league – remains to be seen, but if Stony Brook is going to make a run at the first NCAA Tournament appearances in league history, they are going to need to get consistent play from their supporting cast. Junior center Jameel Warney is a horse, but against the crème of the America East crop, it has been proven that Warney can’t do it alone.
5. Hartford (12-13, 5-7 in AE)
Results L 76-70 (OT) vs New Hampshire; L 69-63 at UMass Lowell
This week: Tuesday vs UMBC; Friday at Albany
Hartford got a huge boost over the weekend with the return of star senior forward Mark Nwakamma, who went down two weeks ago against Vermont for what was originally feared would be a season-ending knee injury. Hartford needs Nwakamma on the court, demanding double teams and spacing the floor to open up the perimeter to their shooters. Unfortunately, even with Nwakamma on the court, the Hawks haven’t proven they can consistently knock down enough shots to be a real threat, as evidenced by Saturday’s loss against a UMass Lowell team playing without its top talent.
6. UMass Lowell (11-15, 5-8 in AE play)
Results: W 67-51 vs UMBC; L 69-59 at Albany
This week: Wednesday vs Maine; Saturday vs New Hampshire
The River Hawks continue to inspire as one of the league’s best stories (they would be the best if not for the inspiring seasons of Albany and Vermont). When do everything freshman star Jahad Thomas (who was running away with the Rookie of the Year award) went down with a torn ACL two weeks ago, the River Hawks season was supposed to be over. Instead, they’ve kept fighting, with freshmen Matt Harris and Brad Schaub stepping up their games, while seniors Kerry Weldon, Marco Banegas-Flores and Chad Holley are going out the way all seniors should: leaving everything on the floor. Lowell has now surpassed last season’s win total despite playing with far less overall talent and experience – a testament to head coach Pat Duquette’s abilities.
7. Binghamton (4-24, 3-10 in AE)
Results: L 62-46 vs Albany; L 66-48 at New Hampshire
This week: Wednesday vs Vermont; Saturday at Stony Brook
The tough season continues for the banged up Bearcats, who are back on the snide having lost four straight. Binghamton’s freshman class has shown ability across the board – from Romello Walker’s athleticism and energy, to Justin McFadden’s defensive ability, Willie Rodriguez’ toughness, Dusan Perovic’s scoring and Bobby Ahearn’s toughness – but they can’t avoid the injury and illness bug, and haven’t been able to field enough healthy – let alone experienced – bodies to compete day in and day out.
8. Maine (3-22, 2-10 in AE)
Results: L 80-52 at Stony Brook
This week: Wednesday at UMass Lowell; Saturday at UMBC
There’s a common trend among the bottom three in the league, and that is rebuilding programs who are lacking enough healthy bodies to compete for 40 minutes. Maine continues to fight the good fight under first year head coach Bob Walsh, but the team is battling against a culture of apathy engrained over the past decade, and injuries to key players. Freshman scoring guard Kevin Little has been electric for stretches, and freshman point guard Aaron Calixte is cool under pressure. That duo, combined with next year’s incoming class, should give Black Bear fans hope of a brighter tomorrow.
9. UMBC (3-22, 1-11 in AE)
Results: L 3-61 vs Stony Brook; L 74-51 at Vermont
This week: Tuesday at Hartford; Saturday vs Maine
You have to be impressed by the job head coach Aki Thomas, his staff, and his players have done when staring down the most daunting and insurmountable odds in the league. No team has shown more heart over the season than UMBC, which has somehow found the resolve to show up and fight with everything they have every day despite suiting up just eight bodies – only four or five of whom are really Division I quality players.
OBW America East Player of the Week
Sam Rowley, Sr., F, Albany
Rowley scored 36 points, ripped down 23 rebounds and dished out five assists in a pair of Great Danes wins, including a 20-point 15-rebound effort against Binghamton, to help Albany push its winning streak to 13 straight.
America East Rookie of the Week
Tanner Leissner, F, New Hampshire
Stony Brook’s Roland Nyama had the best game of the week, going off for a career-high 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting in a route of Maine, but Leissner had the best week, scoring 30 points and pulling down 21 rebounds while playing a whopping 81 minutes in a pair of Wildcats wins, including a 14-point 15-rebound effort against Binghamton.
OBW America East Fab Five
Ethan O’Day, Jr., F, Vermont
Sam Rowley, Sr., F, Albany
Evan Singletary, Jr., G, Albany
Jameel Warney, Jr., C, Stony Brook
Dre Wills, Soph., G, Vermont
OBW America East Frosh Five
Jourdan Grant, G, UMBC
Trae Bell-Haynes, G, Vermont
Tanner Leissner, F, New Hampshire
Kevin Little, G, Maine
Jahad Thomas, F, UMass Lowell
With just two weeks remaining in the regular season, every game is magnified for America East teams jockeying for position in the standings and seedings in the America East Playoffs — seedings that are more important than at any other time in recent history with the new, high-seed host format.
With just a handful of conference games left, Albany has distanced themselves from the pack at 12-0 in league play, and a regular season title and home court advantage throughout the playoffs would appear to be theirs to lose, with an 11-2 Vermont squad as the only other team with a realistic shot.
Here’s a look at sights, sounds and results from a huge Saturday of hoops with the America East men’s basketball roundup.
New Hampshire 66 Binghamton 48
The Wildcats were expected to roll over the Bearcats and they did just that, but make no mistake, this was a huge win for the players, the program, and head coach Bill Herrion. Now standing at 16-10 on the year and 9-4 in America East play, New Hampshire has officially clinched a winning record for the first time in Herrion’s tenure and the first time since the 1994-1995 season (There is no scenario where the Wildcats could lose more than four America East contests without a win, or five total games including a post-season birth without a victory, ensuring a winning season).
Freshman forward Tanner Leissner posted his fourth double-double of the season and third in the past five games he has played, scoring 14 points to go with a career-high 15 rebounds to pace four Wildcats in double-figures.
The undermanned Bearcats got 10 points apiece from sophomore guards Yoseph Yacob and Marlon Beck II and freshman forward Bobby Ahearn, but were held to just 27.8 percent from the floor (15-of-54) by the vaunted Wildcats defense.
UMass Lowell 69 Hartford 63
Valentine’s Day was a huge win for the host River Hawks and an outright bad loss for the visiting Hawks. Despite playing without the team’s offensive and defensive epicenter, freshman forward Jahad Thomas, lost for the rest of the year with a torn ACL, UMass Lowell continued to play with tremendous heart and effort, outworking and out-willing Hartford all night while executing a methodical game plan on both ends of the floor.
Led by senior forward Kerry Weldon’s 15 points – among them an emphatic dunk – eight different River Hawks scored, including 13 points off the bench from sharp-shooting freshman Matt Harris, nine points from reserve junior guard D.J. Mlachnik and eight points apiece from Brad Schaub, Marco Banegas-Flores and Chad Holley. Defensively the Rive Hawks held the bombs-away Hawks to just 24 percent from downtown (6-of-25) and 42.9 percent from the floor (24-of-56), while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 34.8 percent from downtown.
For Hartford, the loss – the team’s sixth in its last seven games – was another painful reminder of the team’s shortcomings in what was supposed to the “their year.” With six seniors on the roster – including star forward Mark Nwakamma, heart and soul guard/forward Corban Wroe, and fiery leader and point guard Yolonzo Moore II – Hartford was supposed to be built to compete for a title this season. But with the daunting task of a complete roster rebuild next year, the Hawks have not only failed to build on their momentum from the past two years – a pair of 17 win seasons in which they won 10 regular season America East games – but have now begun a serious back slide.
Stony Brook 80 Maine 52
Red-shirt freshman forward Roland Nyama exploded for a career-high 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting, to go with five rebounds. Junior forward Rayshaun McGrew added a 15-rebound, 10-point double-double, junior center Jameel Warney posted a double-double of his own with 13 points and 11 rebounds and junior point guard Carson Puriefoy chipped in 12 points.
After disheartening losses to New Hampshire, in a game they never competed, and Vermont in a game they coughed up a massive second half lead on their home court, the Seawolves’ have benefitted from back-to-back basement dwellers, following up a 12-point win over UMBC with a massacre of Maine. The pair of beatings over a pair of massively undermanned and overmatched squads should go a long way in restoring the Seawolves’, but it’s hard to gauge how much of their recent play will translate against the top of the league (Stony Brook’s record currently stands at 1-4 against first place Albany, second place Vermont and third place New Hampshire).
Getting production from players not named “Jameel Warney” is a must if Stony Brook is going to make a run at the NCAAs, and while their supporting cast has proven they can dominate the have-nots of the league, they are going to need to show consistency against the America East “haves.”
For Maine, this was a game where the Black Bears – at the bottom of a ground up program build under first year head coach Bob Walsh — were simply and completely overmatched
Vermont 74 UMBC 51
The Catamounts have now won five straight games, including four emotional wins in honor of recruit Josh Speidel who was severely injured in a Feb. 1 car accident.
Junior forward Ethan O’Day continued his inspired play, matching his career-high with 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting to go with eight rebounds and three blocks in just 25 minutes, and Vermont shot a blistering 51.9 percent from the floor (28-of-54). Nine Catamounts broke into the scorers column and 10 played double-digit minutes as Vermont turned a six-point first half lead into a route.
Dre Wills continued to shine as the Catamounts do-everything star and lynchpin, scoring 10 points to go with four assists, two rebounds, a steal and a block.
For UMBC, the game one again highlighted the Retrievers horrific lack of depth following a litany of injuries and suspensions, but even more amazing their indomitable heart and hustle. Playing just seven players, one of them walk-on Ben Grace, the Retrievers gave Vermont everything the Catamounts could handle for a half, before running out of gas in the second half.
OBW America East Player of the Game
Ethan O’Day, Jr., F, Vermont
22 points, 9-of-12 shooting, eight rebounds, three blocks
OBW America East Rookie of the Game
Roland Nyama, F, Stony Brook : 24 points, 9-of-12 shooting, 6-of-8 3pt, five rebounds
It was just an ordinary day after practice three years ago this past January. Hartford was coming off a win at Binghamton in its first conference game of the America East slate and talented Hawks wing Taylor Dyson was getting up some extra shots from just outside the key — his go-to mid-range game, a pull up jumper so lightening quick and pure that it had forced Hartford head coach John Gallagher to abruptly pull the plug on his preseason plans of red-shirting the talented but rail thin freshman.
“The plan was to red-shirt him and let him build up his body and adjust to a new country and new style of play, because we knew how good the kid could be and we didn’t want to waste a year,” says Gallagher of the Australian native. “The problem was the kid was too good: He forced his way onto the court.”
But after his 10th shot, Dyson felt a sudden sharp pain ride up his shoulder. Just a stinger Dyson thought as he sat down for a few minutes to let the pain subside, which it did. Dyson quickly returned to hoisting jump shots and soon forgot about the episode.
The next day was different – a day that Dyson won’t ever forget.
“I was taking shots and then I noticed my arm got purple,” Dyson says. “I couldn’t even clench my own fists.”
Dyson knew something was seriously wrong and so Gallagher, now entering his fifth year as the Hawks head coach.
“I knew something was wrong right away,” Gallagher says. “I’ve been in this thing a long time, and I’ve never heard anything like it.”
Dyson was taken to the hospital, and later found out the severity of his injury: He was going to need successful surgery to not only be able to ever play the game again, but to simply enjoy a normal life. According to Dyson, doctors explained to him that every time he lifted his arm above his head, it would cut off blood circulation – a condition sometimes found in baseball players, but almost never in basketball.
Dyson saw many surgeons and they each came back with only one option: a tricky surgery that required his chest to be cut open to crack the sternum to get to Dyson’s top ribs, which the surgeons had to remove in order to clear a pathway allowing blood flow to not be disrupted.
“The doctors were confident that Dyson would be able to come back the following season in full health,” Gallagher says.
And he did.
Dyson would began a vigorous rehab, training his body to get back to basketball shape during the summer of 2013.
“I couldn’t wait to get back,” Dyson says, recalling the memory.
Dyson’s return to health was a fairly smooth ride, but it took a little longer for him to get back into Division I basketball mindset after his health scare.
“I was a little nervous,” Dyson admits. “I didn’t want to charge or attack the basket that much during that time.”
He was worried that he might get injured again.
In between games that season, Dyson went to the weight room to get stronger. He also ate a lot of food, while focusing on the mental aspects of preparing himself to return to his pre-injury mindset of playing with fearless physicality.
From afar, Dyson’s severe injury was a wakeup call and a rallying cry to his team, according to Gallagher.
“Makes everyone appreciate of their opportunity to play,” Gallagher says.
Dyson didn’t let the injury stop him from being the caring and ambitious player that got him recruited from the other side of the world in the land down under, a region the Hawks visited during a team building trip and series of exhibitions.
“He wanted his teammates to get a good glimpse where he came from,” Gallagher says. “He is just so good at sharing. He shows great leadership ability and just cares a lot about his teammates.”
Despite his injury, and event that might have sent many kids scurrying back home, Dyson has adjusted well to living far from home in United States, according to Gallagher. He is well liked on campus, something Gallagher attributes to the type of infectious character possesses: Coming from a loving family, holding on to his values and sharing it with everyone he meets, infectious.
“He exemplifies the character that you want from your son,” Gallagher says.
So how did Dyson find himself in Connecticut after growing up in Sassafras (yes, that is the actual name of his hometown) anyways?
It all started when Dyson was 5-years-old. His father, a businessman in Melbourne, supported the professional basketball team, the Melbourne Tigers of the National Basketball League, and found himself with tickets, where he would take his three sons and watch the game.
Dyson fell in love, and immediately got himself playing in local leagues, where he began to learn how to play the game. Dyson’s game evolved over the years, and when he turned 14 he felt he was ready to tryout for a travel team. He made it. One year later, Dyson made the Australian U16 team. Another year later, he made the prestigious U17 national team.
“It was awesome and it happened all so fast,” Dyson says, reflecting on his rise as a skilled basketball player. “I got recognized by the right people,” he continues.
As Dyson climbed the rungs of the Australian national basketball scene, more opportunities within the game began to present themselves. And after an AAU tournament in Los Angeles, Dyson began to draw interest from American college programs, including Hartford.
“I wanted to find somewhere I could trust, fit and play,” Dyson says. “When I visited Hartford, I knew I wanted to be here. I clicked with all the teammates right away.”
Since joining Hartford, Dyson along with his fellow countrymen Corban Wroe and Dougal Weir, have seen their unique, unmistakably Australian flair not only welcomed, but embraced by the student body and community. At Chase Arena an Australian flag hangs high above the court, and the Hawks even play the Australian national anthem before every home game.
In his first season back after injury, Dyson averaged 8.1 points and 2.4 rebounds in 33 games, making 15 starts, injecting a new dimension to the Hawks offense with his ability to create off the dribble, after moving into the starting lineup. This year, Dyson has improved upon those numbers, as the 6’4” scorer is averaging 8.9 points and 3.0 rebounds in 24 games, 22 of them starts. He’s also shooting an impressive .380 three-point percentage.
“I’m feeling good,” Dyson says. “I think I could perform better and it’s something I’m still working at.”
Even though Dyson feels like his performance this season has been only average, his head coach thinks otherwise.
“I think he is having a very good year,” Gallagher says. “His best ball is still ahead of him next month. We are fortunate to have him, and I think he is a great competitor.”
Despite everything he endured early in his career at Hartford, Dyson is thankful for it all.
“I’ve grown so much from being out here in the U.S.,” Dyson says. “Having this experience and going through what I went through has helped me grow. I am much better because of it.”