With no team having more than six conference games remaining, we are officially in the home stretch of the regular season, with the America East Playoffs bearing down on teams like a bespectacled Austin Ganly on a helpless defender in the open court. At this point, there is a clear separation between the top four in the league standings and everyone else, with that quartet looking like the only teams with a true shot at winning the whole thing and going dancing.
So without further delay, here’s a look at how the teams stack up with the latest OBW America East Power Rankings.
1. Albany (16-7, 11-0 in AE)
Results: W 63-62 vs New Hampshire; W 69-59 vs UMass Lowell
This week: Tuesday at Binghamton; Friday at NJIT
What more can be said about the Great Danes at this point? Playing in the shadows of tragedy – Colon cancer that took the life of Great Dane’s star Peter Hooley’s mother, Sue, and has kept Hooley from the team for roughly three weeks – Albany has found a way to go on a remarkable run, opening the conference play by going a perfect 11-0. In Hooley’s absence, senior forward Sam Rowley has entrenched himself as a near unstoppable scorer in the low post, and JuCo transfer Evan Singletary has stepped into the spotlight as a star scoring point guard who will take – and make – the biggest shots of the game without conscience or remorse. The Great Danes have gotten enough from their role players – the bigs play physical, JuCo wing Ray Saunders locking down defenders – to continue to win, but they may be running a little bit on fumes as of late, eeking out a win at home over a Tanner Leissner-less UNH squad and being given a real game by a Jahad Thomas-less UMass Lowell. Hooley is expected to return following the Binghamton game and make no mistake this is the America East team to beat.
2. Vermont (914-10, 9-2 in AE)
Results: W 68-49 vs Maine; W 57-48 at Stony Brook
This week: Wednesday vs UMass Lowell; Saturday vs UMBC
The Catamounts became the latest America East team to be reminded that, in the grand scheme of things, basketball is just a game, and there are things in life so much bigger than wins and losses, when top Vermont recruit Josh Speidel was critically injured in a car accident on Feb. 1. Since the accident, which left Speidel in critical but stable condition recovering in an Indiana hospital, Vermont has played inspired basketball in their future teammate’s honor, destroying Maine at home, before roaring back from a 17-point halftime deficit to KO Stony Brook on the road. According to head coach John Becker, “it seems like it’s a different group of 5-6 guys every night who step up and play their best basketball,” and against Stony Brook, three of the biggest heroes proved to be star center Ethan O’Day, reserve freshman shooter Brandon Hatton, and all guts no glory freshman Josh McRoberts. The one constant throughout the season for Vermont has been shooting guard/flying tank Dre Wills, arguably the league’s Defensive Player of the Year who does literally everything every night out for the Catamounts. While Vermont needs to get consistent play from their front court offensively, the Catamounts remain powered by frenetic back court defense.
3. New Hampshire (14-10, 7-4 in AE)
Results: L 63-62 at Albany; W 80-46 vs UMBC
This week: Tuesday at Hartford; Saturday vs Binghamton
The Wildcats are officially no joke, and a team whose sum is far greater than any individual part, as proven by their last second, one-point road loss at Albany despite playing without their best all around player (and far and away best scorer) freshman forward Tanner Leissner. While the Wildcats have gotten back to head coach Bill Herrion’s bread and butter – ferocious team defense for 94 feet – they have a completely new look and new attitude from any previous team Herrion’s nine-year tenure, capable of scoring around the hoop courtesy of Leissner and Jacoby Armstrong, in the mid-range (Leissner), and from downtown thanks to Matt Miller and Daniel Dion. They can also create off the dribble behind Dion and Jaleen Smith and finish the fast break with authority with players like Ronnel Jordan. And, considering various nagging injuries that have bothered them for much of the year, they still haven’t hit their ceiling.
4. Stony Brook (15-10, 6-4 in AE)
Results: L 57-48 vs Vermont
This Week: Wednesday at UMBC; Saturday vs Maine
Following a loss to Vermont that would be impossible to call anything other than bad after coughing up a 17-point second half lead (OK, some stronger language than bad might be appropriate) Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell was steadfast in his resolve that he feels the best is yet to come for the team. Me, I’m pretty darn concerned about Stony Brook, which has now lost two straight and currently sits at 1-4 against the three teams above them in the standings. Center Jameel Warney remains an automatic double-double and the most dominant player in the league, but he simply can not win games alone against the top of the league and he’s getting almost nothing from his supporting cast. Furthermore, as was the case in each of the past two seasons, Warney appears to be hitting a bit of a wall, as a season’s-worth of double and triple teams may be catching up to him again.
5. Hartford (12-11, 5-5 in AE)
Results W 62-61 at Binghamton
This week: Tuesday vs New Hampshire; Saturday at UMass Lowell
Plain and simple, Hartford is a bad team without Mark Nwakamma, a reality the Hawks were forced to face for the better part of the last two games after a knee injury to the team’s star senior forward and offensive epicenter. The good news: Nwakamma will hopefully return to the lineup Tuesday night. The bad news: While the Hawks are markedly better with Nwakamma in the lineup, they haven’t exactly been a good team with him either. Roughly three-quarters of the way through the season, playing a rotation that features six seniors, at this point Hartford is what it is: A team that can get hot from behind the arc and beat anyone, but seems unlikely to be able to sustain that type of white-hot shooting for any consistent period of time – certainly not three straight games in March, which is a prerequiste to punch through to the NCAAs. The odds of Hartford undergoing a metamorphosis into a complete basketball team at this late juncture are pretty slim.
6. UMass Lowell (10-14, 4-7 in AE play)
Results: W 67-51 vs UMBC; L 69-59 at Albany
This week: Wednesday at Vermont; Saturday vs Hartford
The River Hawks lost red-shirt freshman Jahad Thomas for the remainder of the season two weeks ago at Binghamton to a torn ACL – his second in as many years. To call Thomas’ loss a huge blow to the River Hawks is a massive understatement: The 6’2” 235 pound battering ram had emerged as the America East’s version of Charles Barkley (or the reincarnation of former America East star Darryl Proctor). Without Thomas, Lowell will struggle to find consistent scoring. But the River Hawks defend like crazy, play with discipline, and execute their offense, and in the bottom half of the AE that will still win you some games.
7. Binghamton (4-22, 3-8 in AE)
Results: L 62-61 vs Hartford; L 67-64 at Maine
This Week: Tuesday at Albany; Saturday at New Hampshire
Binghamton is still struggling to execute consistently, as evident by their loss against previously hapless Maine. But the Bearcats are playing a lot of very young but very talented players a lot of minutes, and sooner than later the experience they are gaining is going to start turning into wins.
8. Maine (3-21, 2-9 in AE)
Results: L 68-59 at Vermont; W 67-64 vs Binghamton
This week: Saturday at Stony Brook
After competing for the first half against the likes of New Hampshire, Albany and Vermont only to get annihilated after the intermission, the Black Bears found a way to stem the second half tide and score a much needed win over the visiting Bearcats. Head coach Bob Walsh inherited a completely bare cupboard, and a team with a decade-old culture where subpar effort, surrendering easily, and accepting losing. Breaking such ingrained habits isn’t easy, and Walsh more than has his work cut out for him, but Maine is taking steps in the right direction, and it likely is no coincidence that Walsh’s two recruits – explosive scoring guard Kevin Little and heady, steady point guard Aaron Calixte – appear to be the team’s two best players.
9. UMBC (3-20, 1-9 in AE)
Results: L 67-51 at UMass Lowell; L 80-46 at New Hampshire
This week: Wednesday vs Stony Brook; Saturday at Vermont
Head coach Aki Thomas, his coaching staff, and what’s left of his team, because they are all working harder than perhaps any other team I have ever seen and they have so little tangible to show for it. At this point, the Retrievers’ plight has been well told: Down to seven healthy bodies, only five of them scholarship players, after a rash of injuries, suspensions and other misfortunes, UMBC is completely gassed at this point, yet they keep finding the courage and resolve everyday to dig down deep and fight. It sounds corny, but the fact that Thomas has his team playing so hard is a huge victory in its own right.
OBW America East Player of the Week and Rookie of the Week
Kevin Little, Fr., G, Maine
In two games, Little played 79 of 80 available minutes for the Black Bears, scoring 38 points to go with nine rebounds while shouldering a massive load for Maine, all while playing on what is rumored to be a badly injured lower leg/foot. The fearless freshman gunner drilled what would prove to be the game winner for the Black Bears with 41 seconds remaining against Binghamton on Saturday, and spent the entire week playing with veteran confidence and swagger. This kid is going to be good.
OBW America East Fab Five
*Peter Hooley, R-Jr., G, Albany
**Jahad Thomas, R-Fr., F, UMass Lowell
Tanner Leissner, Fr., F, New Hampshire
Sam Rowley, Sr., F, Albany
Evan Singletary, Jr., G, Albany
Jameel Warney, Jr., C, Stony Brook
Dre Wills, Soph., G, Vermont
*Peter Hooley has missed the past four games after taking an indefinite leave of absence from Albany to be with his mother, Sue, who passed away on Friday. During his absence Hooley is not an “active” member of the Fab Five, but his play up until his leave was stellar and he had entrenched himself on the team, thus we feel he still deserves to be recognized.
**UMass Lowell red-shirt freshman forward Jahad Thomas has been, according to raw numbers and advanced statistics, easily one of the five best players in the America East all season long, ranking second in points and fifth in rebounds, and scoring at an insanely effective clip despite constant double and triple teams. However, Thomas will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL and thus will likely fall out of First Team All-Conference contention due to sheer games played.
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