A trip down memory lane: The winning streak that spurred the 2004-2005 Vermont Catamounts

When the final buzzer sounded Saturday afternoon in Bangor, Maine, Albany head coach Will Brown once again found himself in totally uncharted territory: A perfect 9-0 to open America East play, riding a nine game winning streak, both all-time bests in the program’s Division I history.

The Danes’ 9-0 America East record is the best start to conference play that the league has seen in the past nine years. Ten years ago, however, the America East bore witness to an even better one, as the 2004-2005 Vermont Catamounts – one of the greatest teams in conference history — rattled off 13-straight league wins before they finally registered a conference loss.

“That was a great team because everyone knew their roles” said former Vermont point guard T.J. Sorrentine during an earlier.

“We had our golden boys in Taylor [Coppenrath] and T.J. [Sorrentine] and we had great role players like a [Germain] Mopa-Njila and a [David] Hehn who knew exactly what they were supposed to do and embraced it,” remember former Vermont head coach Tom Brennan.

The 2004-2005 Catamounts featured a pair of 2,000-plus point scorers in Coppenrath, an unstoppable 6-foot-9 inch power forward with unworldly footwork, an uncanny ability to constantly beat his man to his spot, an unconscious shooting stroke out to behind the arc, and a preternatural scoring ability, and Sorrentine, a 5’11” ball of swgger, charisma, and fearless scoring abandon – not to mention 3-point range to well beyond the state lines, the Catamounts could put up points in bunches.

One of just two players in America East history to win the conference Player of the Year award three times, Coppenrath finished his career third in conference history in scoring with 2,442 points. The 2002 America East Player of the Year as a sophomore, Sorrentine finished his career 13th in league history in scoring (2,013 points) and second in career- 3-pointers (354).

“It was definitely an unbelievable team,” said Coppenrath in an interview over the summer. “T.J. and I were roommates and teammates for five years, and we just always knew where the other was on the court at all times.”

But according to Brennan, Coppernath and Sorrentine, it was players like Mopa-Njila, a super athletic, lock-down defender and tenacious rebounder as a 6’4” small forward, Hehn, a relentless defender and all-around glue guy as a 6’5” shooting guard, and Martin Klimes, a 6’8” center with a knack for tacking charges and dishing out elbows, who made the team go.

Vermont started out the season with a hard-fought 68-61 loss at perennial power Kansas, with Coppenrath and Jayhawk future NBAer Wayne Simien going shot for shot in the post. The Catamounts then destroyed Maris and Iona, each by 20 or more points, with Sorrentine scoring 31 points in the first victory, and Coppenrath pouring in 32 in the next.

Taylor Coppenrath. Courtesy photo / Vermont Athletics
Taylor Coppenrath. Courtesy photo / Vermont Athletics

After a surprising loss to American, the Catamounts started conference play early, and were off to the races, with Coppenrath pouring in 39 points and ripping down 12 rebounds in a 30-point win over Binghamton and his one-time arch-nemesis, Bearcats 7-footer Nick Billings.

The Catamounts lost their next game to national power North Carolina, but then rattled off 15 straight wins, with victories over non-conference foes Siena, Holy Cross and Dartmouth sprinkled in amidst 12 America East wins. Coppenrath scored 22 or more points 10 times during the 15 game overall winning streak and eight times in the 13-0 start to America East play. Coppenrath cracked 30 points three times during the Catamounts blitzkrieg of the America East, while Sorrentine broke 30 twice.

The Catamounts winning streak finally came to an end on Feb. 12 at Boston University, with Coppenrath scoring 37 points while the Terriers ran a triangle-2 defense with the “two” both covering Coppenrath for all 94 feet of hardwood.

After the loss to Boston University, the Catamounts immediately bounced back, rattling off three more America East wins to clinch the regular season title, with their only loss in that stretch coming against a Nevada squad stacked with future NBA talent as the marquee matchup of the original ESPN Bracket Buster.

With the regular season title wrapped up, Brennan chose to sit Coppenrath and Sorrentine for the final game of the regular season, and the Catamounts fell 87-66 at Maine.

The dynamic duo showed absolutely no rust in the conference tournament held in Binghamton, leading Vermont to a 76-61 quarterfinal win over UMBC, followed by a 76-65 win over the tournament hosts in the semifinals, and an 80-57 destruction over a JJ Barea-led second-seed Northeastern in the Championship Game. Sorrentine was terrific during the Catamounts third-straight America East Tournament championship, scoring a combined 56 points over the three games.

But Coppenrath was otherworldly, putting together arguably the greatest America East Tournament performance in league history, scoring 33, 34 and 37 points, respectively, in the three wins.

The run to the NCAAs, of course, set up a showdown in the NCAA Tournament First Round at the DCU Center in Worcester, Massachusetts, between the 13-seed Catamounts and four-seed Syracuse, a team led by Hakim Warrick and Gerry McNamara that many pundits had picked as a dark horse to win the NCAA Tournament.

The results of that game, of course, continue to reverberate around the college basketball landscape a decade later, with Sorrentine’s 28-foot 3-pointer in overtime propelling the Catamounts to a 60-57 overtime upset.

What many forget was that it was Mopa-Njila who stepped up and carried the Catamounts for most of the game, scoring a career-high 20 points on 9-of-10 shooting, to go with nine rebounds, five assists, four steals, among them several momentum-changing dunks and the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:55 left and subsequent steal on the other end to set up Sorrentine’s heroics.

Germain Mopa-Njila. Courtesy photo / Vermont Athletics.
Germain Mopa-Njila. Courtesy photo / Vermont Athletics.

Vermont’s season came to an end, valiantly, in the second round, with the Catamounts giving Michigan State everything the Spartans could handle, before falling 72-61. It was truly one of the most remarkable post season runs in America East history, but it began with one of the greatest regular season win streaks the conference has seen.

Only time will tell whether this year’s red-hot Great Danes squad can follow suit.

T.J. Sorrentine scored over 2,000 points during his career at Vermont, including the biggest shot in Catamount history. Photo Credit: Vermont Athletics / Sally McCay
T.J. Sorrentine scored over 2,000 points during his career at Vermont, including the biggest shot in Catamount history. Photo Credit: Vermont Athletics / Sally McCay

UPDATE: Vermont commit Josh Speidel in critical condition following car accident

Time and time again this season, we’ve been reminded that basketball is just a game in the grand scheme of life, the latest coming Sunday night when Vermont commit and Indiana high school star Josh Speidel , 18, was involved in a car accident and taken to an area hospital in critical condition.

UPDATE: According to an article published in The Republic, Josh Speidel, a 6-foot-8-inch star Indiana high school basketball player committed to Vermont, is in a “very stable state,” following a traumatic head injury suffered in a car accident Sunday night.

According to Speidel’s mother, Lisa, Speidel is breathing on his own and the pressure on his brain is at a normal level following a surgical procedure to relieve pressure performed last night. According to the article, Speidel miraculously did not suffer any internal injuries in the accident, which required the Jaws of Life to extract him from his car, but has a skull fracture on his left side and a fractured right jaw.

“The concern is the pressure remaining within a normal level. They have started to take him off the medicine that has been helping him to sleep,” said Lisa Speidel in an interview with The Republic. “He is starting to move on his own, his arms and legs, and he shifted his shoulder on his own.”

Original article:

A 6-foot-8-inch standout for Columbus North High School, according to local authorities and published reports, Speidel was the driver of a Honda that was involved in a two-car accident at 7:04 p.m. Sunday on U.S. 31 near Bear Lane in Taylorsville, about 40 minutes south of Indianapolis.

According to a preliminary investigation, a car driven by 42-year-old Janell Foley had just exited off of Interstate 65 and was traveling southbound when Speidel’s Honda entered the road way and was struck on the driver’s side. According to authorities and published reports, first responders had to use the Jaws of Life to cut the Honda’s door and the roof off to remove Speidel from the car.

Speidel was transported by ambulance first to Columbus Regional Hospital, before being transferred to the ICU at Methodist Hospital where he was being treated for a traumatic head injury. According to reports, doctors performed a procedure to remove pressure from Speidel’s brain.

Speidel had been averaging 25.6 points and 9.3 rebounds for a 14-3 Columbus North squad, and was widely considered one of the best players in the state of Indiana.

Foley, the driver of the other vehicle, was treated at the scene of the accident and released, her two children, who were passengers in the car, were not injured. An 18-year old passenger in Speidel’s car was taken to a hospital with non-life threatening injuries.

A GoFundMe campaign has already been started to help Speidel’s family with the medical costs they will be facing. Anyone wishing to help can find out more information here.

More on this situation as it develops.

OBW America East Power Rankings v10

Evan Singletary has blossomed into a go-to star for Albany. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Evan Singletary has blossomed into a go-to star for Albany. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

With seven games left in the regular season, and a full two game lead over second-place Vermont, the America East regular season title – and coveted home court advantage throughout the new conference playoff format — is officially Albany’s to lose. The Great Danes have been nothing short of remarkable since conference play started, knocking off all of the next five teams below them in the standings on the road.

That alone has been truly remarkable, but considering that Albany has won the last five games without their leading scorer and arguably their best player Peter Hooley, who returned to Australia to be by his mother’s side as she valiantly fought cancer before passing away on Friday, defies words.

After Albany, it’s a dogfight for the next three spots in the standings – a top four finish guaranteeing a first round home game in the America East playoffs.

So without further ado, here’s a look around the league at the latest OBW America East Power Rankings.

1. Albany (14-7, 9-0 in AE)
Results: W 47-44 at Vermont; W 77-59 at Maine
This Week: Wednesday vs New Hampshire; Saturday vs UMass Lowell.
You would be hard pressed to find a team in the country that has been dealing with more adversity – on and especially off the court – than Albany, which has played six of its first nine league contests on the road, including games against the next five top teams in the standings, and come out on top every time. Couple that with the far larger life and death issues that team co-captain Peter Hooley and his family were facing a world away – and the passing of Hooley’s mother, Sue, on Friday – and Albany’s run to 9-0 in league play is one of the most remarkable and inspiring in league history.

In Hooley’s absence, point guard Evan Singletary has emerged as a dynamic scorer and star, capable of putting points on the board in bunches and hitting the big shot, including the game-winning 3-pointer against Vermont. Sam Rowley continues to play like a First Team All-Conference forward in the low blocks, and freshman Wheeler Baker may have forced his way permanently into the rotation with his hot shooting.

2. New Hampshire (12-9, 6-3 in AE)
Results: W 63-58 at Maine; W 63-48 vs Stony Brook.
This Week: Wednesday at Albany; Saturday vs UMBC.
We have never had the Wildcats this high in our Power Rankings this late in the season, but this team truly looks legit. New Hampshire is defending the way Bill Herrion teams are supposed to – ferociously – and, unlike any previous incarnate, they can score the ball – it may be ugly at times, but they can score. Freshman forward Tanner Leissner is making a strong case to be considered not simply for All-Rookie honors (he should be a lock for those) but First Team All-Conference honors, scoring from all over the court at an increasingly efficient clip. Red-shirt senior shooting guard Matt Miller, playing in his first year of Division I hoops, has emerged as the conference’s best long range shooter, and combined with Daniel Dion finally gives Herrion legitimate floor spacing shooters from behind the arc. New Hampshire has benefitted a bit from playing the top of the league at home, and they may drop back down a bit in the standings as they go on the road in the second half of the AE slate, but they appear to be a legit Top-4 team. And the way they defend the ball, I don’t think anyone is going to want to play them in March.

3. Vermont (12-10, 7-2 AE)
Results: L 47-44 vs Albany; W 65-46 at Hartford
This week: Tuesday vs Maine; Saturday at Stony Brook
Vermont dropped another spot in our rankings, but, honestly, there’s no reason anyone should be disappointed with the Catamounts: This was supposed to be a rebuilding year after graduating six seniors. Instead, Vermont looks primed to make another run at the NCAAs. The Catamounts are getting scoring from across their roster, and showed just how good they can be by beating Hartford behind an incredibly balanced offensive attack in which eight players scored – among them a monster game from back-up freshman point guard Cam Ward, who pulled down 13 rebounds to go with eight points. But the Cats’ are showing signs of freshman fatigue, and will need to get more consistency from their upper class frontcourt of Ethan O’Day and Hector Harold if they are going to punch through to the NCAAs.

4. Stony Brook (15-9, 6-3 in AE)
Results: W 72-66 vs Hartford; L 63-48 at New Hampshire
This Week: Saturday vs Vermont
OK Seawolves fans, It is officially time to be worried about Stony Brook’s prospects this year. No matter how good junior center Jameel Warney is – and the 6’8” 260-pound behemoth is as good as it gets at this level – he simply can not do it alone, and right now, he’s the only player giving Stony Brook consistent production. Freshman point guard Carson Puriefoy has been erratic at best and junior forward Rayshaun McGrew seems to have hit a wall. Unless Puriefoy and McGrew can find a second wind, or the Seawolves freshmen can find a second gear down the stretch, Stony Brook is going to be an underdog (albeit not a major one) to go to the big dance.

5. Hartford (11-11, 4-5 AE)
Results: L 72-66 at Stony Brook; L 65-46 vs Vermont
This week: Tuesday at Binghamton
Seawolves fans should be concerned, but Hartford supporters should be in full-fledged freak-out mode. As we’ve said all along, when the Hawks are running their offense through star senior Mark Nwakamma, senior Corban Wroe is getting to the rim, and the entire team is knocking down open threes, they can beat anyone. The problem is – aside from Wroe’s growth – they are the exact same team they were two years ago, when they were bested by sixth-seed UMBC in the America East Tournament quarterfinals, and they are absolutely no better than last year’s squad, which was beaten thoroughly by Stony Brook in the tournament semis. Even at full strength, Hartford’s game plan relies far too heavily on outside shooting – far too unreliable to count on to win three straight games in March to go to the NCAAs. Far scarier, however, is that this team may not be at full strength, as Nwakamma went down with a leg injury against Vermont and was in a considerable amount of pain. Word is that the Hawks are hoping it is simply a bone bruise or sprain, but that there is serious concern that he tore a ligament in his knee. Without Nwakamma, Hartford flat out can not get to the NCAAs – and with six seniors on the roster, its now or back to square one for head coach John Gallagher.

6. Binghamton (4-20, 3-6 in AE)
Results: W 68-56 at UMBC; W 76-69 vs UMass Lowell
This Week: Tuesday vs Hartford; Saturday at Maine
They say it’s always darkest just before the darn, and things sure were pitch-black at the beginning of January for Binghamton, which had lost former star Jordan Reed on top of losing 14 straight games in a row. One month later, and there is again light at the end of the tunnel for the Bearcats, who have won back-to-back games while also competing as equals against the likes of New Hampshire, Stony Brook, and even for a little more than a half against Vermont. Freshman Willie Rodriguez appears to have turned the corner and is looking like the do-everything All-Rookie type performer he was billed as, fellow freshman Justin McFadden is doing a bit of everything, and freshman forward Bobby Ahearn, who was supposed to just be a body, has given the Bearcats toughness and a scoring punch on the low blocks.

7. UMass Lowell (9-13, 3-6 in AE)
Results: L 76-69 at Binghamton
This Week: Thursday vs UMBC; Saturday at Albany
After consistently out-performing expectations all season long, the River Hawks have hit a bit of a wall, losing five straight. The struggles are to be expected for a team that has nine new faces on its roster, and a team counting on freshmen to carry almost its entire scoring load – let alone a team in just its second year of Division I hoops. Red-shirt freshman forward Jahad Thomas continues to be a man among boys, and a giant among post players despite standing just 6’2”, shrugging off double and triple teams to score at a outstanding rate while also attacking the boards, making pinpoint passes and making all the little plays. Freshmen Matt Harris, Brad Schaub and Lance Crawford are all making strides on the court and showing growth, and the quartet of young, impact players make for an incredibly bright future along the Merrimack River. However, in the here and now, Lowell is quite possibly the smallest team in all of Division I and without a reliable second scoring option next to Thomas, the River Hawks will struggle.

8. Maine (2-20, 1-8 in AE)
Results: L 63-58 vs New Hampshire; L 77-59 vs Albany
This Week: Tuesday at Vermont; Saturday vs Binghamton
The record might not reflect it, but Maine has made some big strides as of late and the Black Bears have climbed out of the OBW Power Rankings basement. Undermanned and outgunned virtually every night they take the floor, Maine is playing hard and competing until the final horn. Freshmen guards Aaron Calixte and Kevin Little have looked darn good (although Little has missed considerable time due to injuries and other circumstances). And Maine’s four guard lineup, with Shaun Lawton playing the power forward position, is a tough matchup for opponents.

9. UMBC (3-18, 1-7 in AE)
Results: L 68-56 vs Binghamton
This week: Thursday at UMass Lowell; Saturday at New Hampshire
UMBC falls to the bottom of our Power Rankings, but through no fault of their players or staff. The Retrievers – the most undermanned team in the entire league — have fought the incredibly admirable fight all season long, finding ways to compete every night despite dressing just six scholarship players and eight total bodies. But with the loss of graduate transfer Wayne Sparrow, the team’s do-everything shooting guard and leading scorer, UMBC has been reduced to just seven bodies and five scholarship players.

OBW America East Player of the Week
Evan Singletary, Jr., G, Albany

Singletary’s 13th and final points at Vermont came on his game-winning 3-pointer in a 47-44 win. The Baltimore native followed that up by tying his career-high with 21 points in a romp at Maine. Singletary added 12 rebounds and nine assists over the two games.

OBW America East Rookie of the Week
Tanner Leissner, F, New Hampshire

The longer the season goes, the better Leissner gets, and the better that Leissner gets, the more legit the Wildcats continue to look. The 6’8” Texan notched a pair of double-doubles in back-to-back New Hampshire wins, posting 11 points and 12 rebounds at Maine, and coming up huge with 19 and 11 in a beat-down of Stony Brook.

OBW America East Fab Five
*Peter Hooley, R-Jr., G, Albany
Sam Rowley, Sr., F, Albany
Evan Singletary, Jr., G, Albany
Jahad Thomas, R-Fr., F, UMass Lowell
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.

OBW America East Frosh Five
Jourdan Grant, G, UMBC
Trae Bell-Haynes, G, Vermont
Tanner Leissner, F, New Hampshire
Willie Rodriguez, F, Binghamton
Jahad Thomas, F, UMass Lowell

Jahad Thomas and Dre Wills: respect earned the hard way

Vermont's Dre Wills (left) and UMass Lowell's Jahad Thomas (right) earned each other's mutual respect on Sunday. OBW Photo / Sam perkins
Vermont’s Dre Wills and UMass Lowell’s Jahad Thomas (right) earned each other’s mutual respect on Sunday. OBW Photo / Sam perkins

More than 2,000 fans learned the answer to centuries old question when an unstoppable force met an immovable object at the rim at the Tsongas Arena in Lowell, Massachusetts, on Sunday afternoon.

It was a collision course between Jahad Thomas and Dre Wills that began when both landed in the America East conference in the fall of 2013.

With 8:54 remaining in the second half, Thomas, a red-shirt freshman for UMass Lowell, rumbled through the paint like a runaway freight train, toppling Vermont defenders like tin cans on his way to the hoop. But just as Thomas got to the rack, was intercepted by a heat-seeking missile in the form of Wills, a sophomore for Vermont

Wills was able to disrupt Thomas’ lay-up attempt, but it took all the strength he could muster in the form of a hard foul that sent both men to the floor. Wills and Thomas locked eyes while on the hardwood, breaking into simultaneous smiles and sharing a laugh and pats on the back as they helped each other up off the mat.

“He’s really good,” raved Wills, who finished with 20 points, four rebounds, three steals and an assist, with a big smile following the Catamounts’ 61-50 win.

“He’s a great player,” echoed Thomas, who finished with 20 points, five rebounds, two assists and a steal, breaking into a grin of his own.

On the surface, Wills, an explosive athlete who kisses the sky while playing elbows above the rim despite being very generously listed at 6’1” 175 pounds, and Thomas, a human battering ram who does all of his damage in the trenches below the hoop, at an equally generously listed 6’2” and an understated 235 pounds, seem to be two completely different players.

But dig a little deeper, and they are two peas from the exact same pod: Men without defined basketball positions who, running on guts and guile, hustle and hearts the size of basketballs, find ways to get the job done every night, outworking, out-muscling and out-thinking far larger opponents.

Both Wills and Thomas were also offered all but completely overlooked by the rest of the college basketball world – each receiving just one definitive scholarship offer – because they didn’t pass the eye test of looking like a college basketball player.

“They could both probably have pretty good careers in football,” said UMass Lowell head coach Pat Duquette earlier this year.

“I look forward to matching up with him further down the road,” said Wills (right)  “He’s looking forward to playing against me and I’m looking forward to playing against him,” said Thomas. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
“I look forward to matching up with him further down the road,” said Wills (right)
“He’s looking forward to playing against me and I’m looking forward to playing against him,” said Thomas. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

“Guys like him are what this league is all about – the odd shaped guys who have a lot of success in our league,” said Vermont head coach John Becker of Thomas, the front-runner for America East Rookie of the Year honors, following the game.

Becker could have been talking about his own star in Wills, who may have already run away with conference Defensive Player of the Year honors.

“He was a power forward back in his earlier days,” said Becker about Wills.

Despite being listed in the roster as a guard – not to mention one of the shortest players on the Catamounts – Wills currently leads Vermont in rebounds (5.1 rpg), and field goal percentage (.577), while ranking second in blocks (0.9 bpg) as well as a more traditional guard statistics, assists (2.5 apg). The native of Indianapolis, Indiana, draws the nightly assignment of locking down the opponent’s best back court scorer, and currently leads the America East in steals at 2.2 per game.

“Playing a good defender like that it just motivates me to get better,” said Thomas of Wills.

Wills has also begun to emerge as a go-to on offense. Wills scored a then career-high 17-points on Wednesday night at New Hampshire, before breaking it against UMass Lowell, shooting 6-of-7 from the floor, including a pair of thunderous two-handed dunks.

Wills leads the America East in steals per game, and leads Vermont in rebounds and field goal percentage. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Wills leads the America East in steals per game, and leads Vermont in rebounds and field goal percentage. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

“He can certainly score. He’s got a lot of room for growth on the offensive end,” said Becker.

Thomas has been a monster on offense, and currently ranks third in the America East in scoring (14 ppg) and fifth in rebounds (6.3 rpg), and shooting 51.1 percent from the floor, all while facing nightly double and triple-teams from players six to eight inches taller than him. Against Vermont, Thomas buried contested mid-range jumpers and threes, and took a far longer and larger Catamounts frontcourt to the rack time and time again.

“He’s a beast,” said Wills after the game. “He’s going to be a first-team all-league guy, if not this year, [then] coming up soon.”

Just like Wills offense, Thomas’ defense is also underappreciated, as the bruiser from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, usually defends the opponents best offensive player and is the lynchpin of the River Hawks resurgent defense.

“Offensively, I’m not really looking for that: defense is what gets me going,” said Thomas.

After the game, it was clear both players had earned the other’s respect, and both were eagerly anticipating their next showdown.

“I look forward to matching up with him further down the road,” said Wills.

“He’s looking forward to playing against me and I’m looking forward to playing against him,” said Thomas excitedly.

Jahad Thomas currently ranks third in the America East in scoring and fifth in rebounding. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Jahad Thomas currently ranks third in the America East in scoring and fifth in rebounding. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

OBW America East Power Rankings v9

Sam Rowley. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Sam Rowley. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

You can learn a lot about life by watching small conference college basketball — and, for the most part, you can learn about the very best parts of life. If you’re feeling really down and are desperately in need of some inspiration, you can turn to teams at both the top and the bottom of the America East for a pick-me-up.

Playing without arguably their best player in star Peter Hooley, who returned to Australia to be by his mother’s side as she battles colon cancer, the Albany Great Danes are playing truly inspired basketball, and continue to somehow find a way to not only win, but outright dismantle opponents when they should be struggling.

At the other end of the spectrum, a UMBC squad that only has six scholarship players in uniform, plus two walk-ons, and, by all logic, should have no strength – let alone hope – left, continues to take the floor and fight with everything it has every night. Even further south in our rankings, the Maine Black Bears, downtrodden, discombobulated, and, well, outright awful for the better part of the past four years, and coming off of several brutal losses, dug down deep and found the fortitude to knock of Hartford on the Hawks home court.

Here’s a look at the rest of the league in the latest edition of the One-Bid Wonders America East Power Rankings.

1. Albany (12-7, 7-0 in AE)
Results: W 62-53 at Hartford; W 69-55 vs UMBC
This Week: Wednesday at Vermont; Saturday at Maine.
“You look around the league, and in this conference, if teams lose their best player they don’t win. If Stony Brook lost Warney; they’d be in trouble; if Hartford lost Nwakamma, they’d be in trouble; if Vermont lost O’Day or Wills, they’d be in trouble. Peter Hooley is, in my opinion, the best guard in the league, without him, we should be in big trouble. I don’t know how we’re winning; it isn’t a credit to me, it’s a credit to the kids, they’re going out and finding ways and fighting with a passion I’ve never seen before.”

Albany head coach Will Brown offered the above assessment of his team’s 7-0 start to conference play, the best start to the America East slate in Brown’s 14-year career at Albany, the last three wins coming after Hooley returned to his native Australia to stand by his mother’s side as she fights against colon cancer.

The Great Danes win on the road a week ago at Stony Brook was impressive, but it was also perhaps not entirely unexpected coming on the heels of Hooley’s departure – team’s often get a momentary boost, rallying around tragic and traumatic events. But for the Great Danes to follow it up by downing Hartford convincingly can no longer simply be dismissed as a team running on adrenaline and emotion: Albany is playing some serious basketball right now. Rowley has elevated his game and emerged as a go-to scorer who wants the ball, point guard Evan Singletary continues to make things happen, but it’s role players – like athletic wing Ray Saunders, sharp-shooting forward Dallas Ennema, and big-bodies Richard Peters, Greig Stire and Mike Rowley – who have made the team complete.

2. Vermont (11-9, 6-1 AE)
Results: L 73-68 at New Hampshire; W 61-50 at UMass Lowell
This week: Wednesday vs Albany; Saturday at Hartford
Losing to New Hampshire wasn’t a huge shocker – even during their worst years, the Wildcats have always had a way of being a thorn in Vermont’s side – but the way Vermont lost – missing free-throws, and struggling to open the floor up by posing any threat from behind the arc – was a bit concerning. But only a little bit. Vermont is extremely young, and they aren’t always going to be a well oiled machine. Going in the Catamounts favor: they are young, and don’t seem to have a clue that they are “supposed” to be rebuilding. Vermont’s backcourt continues to make the team go, with Dre Wills turning into an absolute monster – a slam dunking, shot-punching, pick-pocketing monster – and the focal point of the Catamounts on both ends. Junior center Ethan O’Day remains the key to the season: When he can stay out of foul trouble and on the floor, Vermont can beat anyone, but when he’s on the bench, they are vulnerable.

3. Stony Brook (14-8, 5-2 in AE)
Results: W 65-45 at UMass Lowell; W 61-54 at Binghamton
This Week: Wednesday vs Hartford; Saturday at New Hampshire
Stony Brook bounced back from a smackdown at the hands of Albany with two wins over teams they should beat, including an annihilation of a solid River Hawks squad on the road. Against Binghamton point guard Carson Puriefoy seemed to snap out of his slump, erupting for 27-points in a win over Binghamton. On the other hand, even with Puriefoy’s monster game, the Seawolves could never truly put away a Bearcats squad that was at a massive disadvantage in size, depth and experience… not to mention game-ready talent. Center Jameel Warney remains far and away the best player in the league, but just like last year (albeit to a much lesser degree) the 6’8” beast seems to have run into a bit of a wall in conference play, with his numbers taking a dip. Make no mistake, Warney alone, let alone Warney, Puriefoy, and a solid supporting cast makes Stony Brook an automatic contender for the NCAAs, but the Seawolves need consistent play from their roll players.

4. New Hampshire (11-9, 4-3 in AE)
Results: W 73-68 vs Vermont
This Week: Wednesday at Maine; Saturday vs Stony Brook
New Hampshire got a huge win at home against a then undefeated Vermont squad, showing toughness, tenacity, and an ability to win extremely close games in the final minute – all traits absent in Durham during previous years. Freshman forward Tanner Leissner continues to impress as the team’s go to scorer, and with sophomore Jacoby Armstrong finally rounding into form, the Wildcats have arguably their best front court since the days of Chris Brown/Ben Sturgill/Assane Faye/Austin Ganly. But the big difference has come from red-shirt senior Matt Miller, who has been absolutely unconscious from behind the arc in his first year of Division I hoops, giving Bill Herrion a true, go-to shooter for the first time in his entire tenure in Durham. And, of course, there’s still the defense: With guards like Joe Bramanti, Jaleen Smith, Ronnell Jordan and Tommy McDonnell imposing their will on opposing back courts.

5. Hartford (11-9, 4-3 AE)
Results: L 62-53 vs Albany; L 70-61 vs Maine
This week: Wednesday at Stony Brook; Saturday vs Vermont
Hartford beat New Hampshire, the team above them in the rankings, at the last second on the road, and we strong considered keeping the Hawks in fourth. However, they found a way to lose, at home, to Maine… Maine. That Maine team. And not only lose, but lose RESOUNDINGLY. As always, when the Hawks are on – forward Mark Nwakamma is out of foul trouble and getting post touches, and Hartford shooters are knocking down uncontested threes – this team can beat anyone in the league. But it’s such a complex style of play, and one that is extremely hard to consistently execute well.

6. UMass Lowell (9-12, 3-5 in AE)
Results: L 65-45 vs Stony Brook; L 61-50 vs Vermont
This Week: Saturday at Binghamton
Lowell continues to be undersized and overmatched (at least in terms of game-ready talent) every single time they take the court. And yet, nine times out of 10, the River Hawks find a way to compete as equals against teams that, on paper, should be wiping the floor with them. Jahad Thomas continues to be both a marvel and monster on the court, finding ways to help the River Hawks win with his passing, defense, and intangibles now that team’s are keying on him completely as a scorer. While Lowell will struggle to beat any of the teams above them this season, the fact that freshmen like point guard Lance Crawford, shooting guard Matt Harris, and forward Brad Schaub are showing noticeable improvement bodes well for the team’s long-term future.

7. UMBC (3-17, 1-6 in AE)
Results: W 76-59 at Maine; L 69-55 at Albany.
This week: Wednesday vs Binghamton
UMBC is suiting up eight players, only six of them on scholarship. They are without sophomore Rodney Elliot, a First Team All-Conference level talent. They have no business competing against anyone in the league right now. And yet, they’ve given just about everyone they’ve played in the league not named Albany a real game – a pretty remarkable feat that speaks to the team’s heart. Graduate transfer Wayne Sparrow has been a wonder on both ends of the floor, serving as both a go-to scorer and facilitator, senior Devarick Houston has been a terror on defense, and junior forward Cody Joyce is close to unstoppable when he gets the ball in his hands around the rim.

8. Binghamton (2-20, 1-6 in AE)
Results: L 61-54 vs Stony Brook
This Week: Wednesday at UMBC; Saturday vs UMass Lowell
Even with the loss of Jordan Reed, Binghamton remains one of the most athletic – and, arguably, talented, at least in terms of raw talent — teams in the conference. However, they are incredibly young and have also been racked by injuries. Dirty work freshman forward Willie Rodriguez seems to be getting his second wind, wing Romello Walker continues to fly around the court impacting the game at both ends, wing Justin McFadden is starting to show flashes as a high energy defender, and forward Bobby Ahearn has shown signs of being able to score the ball and hold his position in the low blocks.

9. Maine (2-18, 1-6 in AE)
Results: L 76-59 vs UMBC; W 70-61 at Hartford
This Week: Wednesday vs New Hampshire; Saturday vs Albany
Hats off to the Black Bears. Seriously. Entering Sunday, the Black Bears were riding a 13 game losing streak – many of those loses coming in the demoralizing, and perhaps downright embarrassing fashion. It had been several weeks since Maine had simply competed for 40 minutes, or been able to stop a nosebleed on the defensive side of the ball. But the Black Bears found a way against Hartford – or, arguably, freshman shooting guard Kevin Little found a way and took the rest of his teammates along for a ride.

OBW America East Player of the Week
Sam Rowley, Sr., F, Albany

Rowley scored a career-high 22 points to go with eight rebounds, three steals and two blocks while absolutely destroying reigning First Team All-Conference selection Mark Nwakamma in Albany’s 62-53 win at Hartford, and followed it up with 12 points in a win over UMBC.

OBW America East Rookie of the Week
Kevin Little, G, Maine

Little exploded for a career-high 25 points, hitting 8-of-16 shots, including 5-of-10 from behind the arc, to carry Maine to a massively needed road win at Hartford. Earlier in the week, Little scored 15 points in a loss to UMBC.

OBW America East Fab Five
*Peter Hooley, R-Jr., G, Albany
Sam Rowley, Sr., F, Albany
Evan Singletary, Jr., G, Albany
Jahad Thomas, R-Fr., F, UMass Lowell
Jameel Warney, Jr., C, Stony Brook
Dre Wills, Soph., G, Vermont

*Peter Hooley has missed the past three games after taking an indefinite leave of absence from Albany to be with his ailing mother. 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.

OBW America East Frosh Five
Jourdan Grant, G, UMBC
Trae Bell-Haynes, G, Vermont
Tanner Leissner, F, New Hampshire
Willie Rodriguez, F, Binghamton
Jahad Thomas, F, UMass Lowell

Growth, growing pains, and high expectations for Vermont basketball

Vermont freshman point guard Trae Bell-Haynes has thrived after being thrown into the fire as a starter on Day 1. Courtesy Photo / Vermont Athletics
Vermont freshman point guard Trae Bell-Haynes has thrived after being thrown into the fire as a starter on Day 1. Courtesy Photo / Vermont Athletics

John Becker, the reigning America East Coach of the Year, is taking on a different challenge in his fourth season as Vermont basketball’s head coach this season. Having the 23rd youngest team in the nation with seven freshmen, the Catamounts remain one of the favorites to win the America East conference championship – quite the load to place on the shoulders of mostly inexperienced players.

“You know the media has made a big deal about us being the No. 1 seed,” Becker said. “We were picked fourth in this league to start the season. We got off to a great start, but it’s early in conference play.”

After a tough, physical 73-68 road loss at New Hampshire in a game the Catamounts rallied time and time again but couldn’t ever quite get over the hump, the Catamounts currently sit at 10-9, including a solid 5-1 record in conference play – good for second in the current standings. Vermont had won five consecutive conference games until they hit a speed bump in Durham.

Having lost six seniors and five starters from last year’s regular season America East champions, this season has been a year of growth and growing pains for the Catamounts, who are seeing new faces in places across their roster. Ethan O’Day a 6’9” junior power forward is the only player on the roster with more than one year’s worth of game experience in the entire program. The Catamounts brought in eight newcomers, including seven freshmen (Brandon Hatton, Zach McRoberts, Trae Bell-Haynes, Cam Ward, Ernie Duncan, Drew Urquhart and walk-on David Urso). The Catamounts also added Darren Payen, a transfer to Vermont after two seasons at Hofstra, who will sit out the 2014-15 season per NCAA transfer rules.

Reflecting on how his young team has been playing so far this season, Becker has positive praise.

“I think Trae Bell-Haynes has been pretty good, he has started point guard for us all year,” Becker said. “Zach McRoberts has come on lately and has been playing good like we thought he would. Urquhart has taken awhile to develop like all big men. Brandon Hatton has been up and down, battling consistency and Cam Ward has been pretty good too. Having Ward and Bell-Haynes playing the point together has been great, they both complement each other well. But, we are really unexperienced across the boards.”

Becker also acknowledged that even the Catamounts seniors, forward Hector Harold and center Ryan Pierson, hadn’t played much coming into the season, leaving O’Day, who averaged 20.4 minutes per game last year, as the only battle-tested really veteran on the young Catamount team.

O’Day offers a big presence in the paint for Vermont, as well as a defensive factor. O’Day is sixth all-time among shot blockers in UVM men’s basketball history with 110 blocked shots.
Becker wants O’Day to be the guy to rely on now.

“He hasn’t been a player to really rely on every night, but now being one of the more experienced guys he needs to be there for us every game and avoid foul trouble,” Baker said. “He has been there mostly lately, but he has to be there all the time.”

O’Day leads the team in scoring, averaging 11.6 points per game and field goal percentage, shooting an impressive 57.4 percent.

There is no guess at how far this year’s Catamounts team can go, but it is certain that they are being circled on many conference foe’s schedules as being one of the teams to beat. It’s no surprise though, UVM has expected this ever since they began to dominate the conference more than a decade ago.

“We are just trying to win as many games as we can to get better,” Becker said. “I don’t know what seed we will be, but the media said we should win it, so we take that as a compliment. Obviously it’s our goal, but we got a long way to go.”

OBW America East Power Rankings v8

Hartford is trending up in the latest America East Power Rankings. Courtesy photo / Steph Crandall
Hartford is trending up in the latest America East Power Rankings. Courtesy photo / Steph Crandall

Sometimes in life, basketball can be so much more than a game. Sometimes, life is so much more important than the game. The past week and a half saw a great deal of shuffling in the OBW America East Power Rankings, but it’s hard to focus on the court when a player like Peter Hooley is facing so much more off it.

With that said, here’s a look at how the teams stack up.

1. Vermont (10-8, 5-0 AE)
Results: W 55-52 vs Dartmouth; W 71-54 at UMBC; W 64-44 vs UMBC.
This week: Thursday at UNH; Sunday at UMass Lowell.
The Catamounts took care of business last week, winning games they were supposed to win (albeit with a bit of a scare against Dartmouth), while dismantling UMBC and Binghamton. The Catamounts are deep, extremely fast and athletic, and are exploiting their energy and speed on both ends of the floor, playing in transition on offense, attacking the rim in the half court, and pressing and smothering the bejesus out of opposing back courts. Center Ethan O’Day has returned to early season form, giving the Catamounts a reliable scorer around the rim on offense and a shot blocker on D. The return of redshirt sophomore Brendan Kilpatrick, an extremely athletic and energetic forward who has battled a litany of injuries, could also prove to be a big boost.

2. Albany (10-7, 5-0 in AE)
Results: W 73-58 vs Binghamton; W 64-47 at Stony Brook.
This Week: Thursday at Hartford; Sunday at UMBC.
It’s hard to talk about Albany basketball in light of the far, far large real-life tragedy being faced by Great Danes’ redshirt junior Peter Hooley, who returned home over the weekend to his native Australia to be by his mother’s side as she battles cancer, and his family.

The duality of life can be cruelly ironic, and those dualities played out for the Great Danes last week, when Hooley helped head coach Will Brown earn the 200th win of his career over Binghamton, and only days later was forced to fly home. Without Hooley, but playing with arguably their best player in their hearts, Albany went out and played truly inspired ball, taking it to Stony Brook on the Seawolves home court. Forward Sam Rowley is playing like a dominant low post presence and First Teamer, and point guard Evan Singletary also looks like a star as a tough, scoring guard. If Albany can keep playing like they did on Long Island, they will quickly move to the very top of these rankings, but one has to wonder how much of that was a sustainable level of play in Hooley’s absence (there is no timetable on his return), and how much of it was going out, running on emotion and adrenaline and winning one for their teammate.

3. Stony Brook (12-8, 3-2 in AE)
Results: W 64-54 vs UMBC; W 82-39 at Maine; L 64-47 vs Albany.
This Week: Thursday at UMass Lowell; Sunday at Binghamton.
For the first time all season, I’m genuinely worrying about Stony Brook. Don’t get me wrong, this is absolutely a top-3 team and remains a strong contender to win the conference tournament and finally break through to the NCAAs, but there are legitimate cracks in Stony Brook’s armor. Junior center Jameel Warney remains an absolute man among boys and far and away the best player in the league, but since their Jan. 10 loss at Vermont, the game plan (crafted by UVM head coach John Becker) is out: Let Warney get his in single-coverage, and focus on stopping the rest of the cast. And thus far, the Seawolves supporting cast, has not been able to shoulder the load. Point guard Tre Puriefoy has been in a funk shooting the ball, and Stony Brook simply hasn’t been able to find enough consistent offense outside of Warney. One bright spot has been the play of redshirt freshman Roland Nyama, who is turning into a very good junkyard dog and jack of all trades on both ends of the floor.

4. Hartford (8117, 4-1 AE)
Results: W 68-67 at New Hampshire; W 68-62 (OT) vs UMass Lowell; W 65-63 at UMBC.
This week: Thursday vs Albany; Sunday vs Maine.
Is the glass half full or half empty? Hartford has proven it can find ways to win close games – a mark all championship teams must have; grinding out three wins in three straight last minute finishes, including a gut-check on the road at UNH and an overtime thriller that saw the team collapse in the second half only to find a way to victory in overtime against UMass Lowell. On the other hand, Hartford really had it’s hands full with two teams in UMass Lowell and UMBC that a true America East top dog – or top hawk — really should have put away, and has struggled when playing with leads in the second half. We’re going to go with glass half full for a change, mostly because Hartford senior Corban Wroe is back in a really big way, knocking down big shots and creating havoc on both ends of the floor. While Wroe has done a lot of scoring from behind the arc, he’s the rare Hartford guard who can also generate offense going to the hoop and keeps defenses honest.

5. New Hampshire (8-8, 1-2 in AE)
Results: L 68-67 vs Hartford; W 73-66 (OT) at Binghamton; W 67-64 (OT) vs UMass Lowell.
This Week: Thursday vs Vermont; Sunday at Maine.
A constant struggle for New Hampshire teams during the last, oh, lets say nine seasons, has been their ability to win close games that go down to the final possessions. While the Wildcats once again came up short against Hartford, they proved on back-to-back overtime outings against Binghamton and UMass Lowell that they can find ways to win close, hotly contested games – a big step for a program that’s looking like arguably the best during head coach Bill Herrion’s tenure. Freshman forward Tanner Leissner continues to sparkle, scoring in unorthodox ways from all over, and point guard Daniel Dion can light it up from behind the arc, but the biggest boost the Wildcats have gotten since the start of conference play is the play of forward Jacoby Armstrong around the rim and shooting guard Matt Miller from downtown, giving UNH a legitimate low-post threat and floor-spacing shooter from behind the arc.

6. UMass Lowell (9-10, 3-3 in AE)
Results: W 62-59 at Maine; L 68-62 (OT) at Hartford; L 67-64 (OT) at New Hampshire.
This Week: Thursday vs Stony Brook; Sunday vs Vermont.
The River Hawks are in the midst of a tough stretch, losing two in a row, four of their last six, and eight of their last 11. In the grand scheme of things it really doesn’t matter because head coach Pat Duquette continues to be a miracle worker along the Merrimack River. Duquette’s incredibly young squad is massively undersized across the board at every position even in the tiny America East conference, yet they continue to give opponents everything they can handle. With 10 games remaining, Lowell currently sits one win away from matching last season’s improbable Division I win total, and Duquette’s freshman class continues to shine. Red-shirt freshman forward/fullback Jahad Thomas remains the league’s best Rookie, finding ways to put the ball in the hoop, grab rebounds, and beat up and bully his front court opponents despite giving up a half of a foot in height on every night, and freshman Matt Harris is also finding his shooting stroke. The River Hawks remain a team that’s sum is far larger than its individual parts, and will continue to be a thorn in the side of the rest of the league all season.

7. UMBC (2-16, 0-5 in AE)
Results: L 64-54 at Stony Brook; L 71-54 vs Vermont; L 65-63 vs Hartford.
This week: Thursday at Maine; Sunday at Albany.
If Aki Thomas hasn’t earned himself at least a small contract extrension I don’t think anyone in the AE deserves one. The fact that UMBC is competing at all, let alone competing against the top of the conference, is astounding. This UMBC squad is massively – MASSIVELY undermanned – suiting up just eight players, only six of them on scholarship. They’ve been without their best talent, a true star in the making in Rodney Elliot, all season long due to a torn labrum. They’ve been without their best – albeit enigmatic – athlete Charles Taylor due to a suspension. Stretch-four Will Darley, who appeared to be coming into his own, has been lost for significant time due to a knee injury, as well as role players Malik Garner and Aaron Morgan, also suspended – not players to write home about, but given their current roster every healthy body would make a difference. The Retrievers are still searching for their first league win, but they are fighting as hard – if not harder – than anyone else in the league, and that says a lot about Thomas as a coach.

8. Binghamton (2-19, 1-5 in AE)
Results: L 73-58 at Albany; L 73-66 (OT) vs New Hampshire; L 64-44 at Vermont.
This Week: Sunday vs Stony Brook.
Binghamton is at the first floor of a complete program rebuild – a long ways to go, but at least a floor up from the basement they were in just a short time ago. The Bearcats are struggling without any impact veterans on the roster, coupled with injuries to 6’9” forwards Dusan Perovic (lost for the season) and Nick Madray (out for extended time). Binghamton is incredibly young and inexperienced, and continuing to battle through growing pains. With that said, this team is talented – very talented – with the bulk of that talent residing in their freshman class. Wing Romello Walker is an insane athlete, impact defender and now coming into his own on offense. Willie Rodriguez is a junkyard dog of a 6’5” power forward and the kind of player who gets things done in the America East. Those two, along with several other hard working freshmen, give head coach Tommy Dempsey a nice foundation to build upon. The fact that such a young, impressionable team hasn’t quit on the season or its coach says something about the coaching staff and the kids suiting up.

9. Maine (1-17, 0-5 in AE)
Results: L 62-59 vs UMass Lowell; L 82-39 vs Stony Brook; L 65-55 vs NJIT.
This Week: Thursday vs UMBC; Sunday at Hartford.
When a pattern of behavior is treated as acceptable for a generation of players, it becomes an ingrained habit. It is incredibly, incredibly hard to kick a habit once it becomes a part of a teams nature. Such is the case for Maine basketball, where for the past decade a nonchalant attitude, utter abhorrence to playing cohesive team basketball, and above all, complete contempt for defense or 40 minutes of effort was the norm. First year Maine head coach Bob Walsh has found himself fighting against that ingrained behavior all season long, culminating in second half defensive implosions for the past month. Walsh has every reason to make excuses and take a “wait till next year” attitude when he will have several highly-regarded incoming recruits of his own choosing, filling out a roster almost devoid of leftover talent from the previous regime. But he doesn’t want to hear about it, and won’t accept any explanation for the team’s struggles. It’s probably going to be a long remainder of the season, but it sure is fun to watch a coach who seems to genuinely care about building a program in Orono.

OBW America East Player of the Week
Evan Singletary, Jr., G, Albany

Singletary scored 50 points in three Great Danes wins, including 21 points a piece in victories over UMass Lowell and Stony Brook, to go with 14 assists and eight rebounds during that stretch. Against Stony Brook, playing without star Peter Hooley by his side, Singletary was the best player on the floor.

OBW America East Rookie of the Week
Jahad Thomas, F, UMass Lowell

Thomas scored 50 points, pulled down 30 rebounds, swiped nine steals and dished out seven assists in three games, highlighted by a 19-point 13-rebound effort against a New Hampshire team that may be the league’s best defense, and a near-triple double against Maine.

OBW America East Fab Five
Peter Hooley, R-Jr., G, Albany
Sam Rowley, Sr., F, Albany
Jahad Thomas, R-Fr., F, UMass Lowell
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
Jahad Thomas, F, UMass Lowell
Romello Walker, G/F, Binghamton

Dre Wills — hard work pays off

Vermont sophomore Dre Wills has worked his way to becoming one of the best players in the league. Courtesy photo / Vermont Athletics
Vermont sophomore Dre Wills has worked his way to becoming one of the best players in the league. Courtesy photo / Vermont Athletics

With 1:53 left in the game, Vermont shooting guard Dre Wills stood behind left wing, the ball in his hands in the biggest moment in biggest game of the season – a showdown on the Catamounts home court against America East favorite Stony Brook, a battle of two then-unbeaten teams. The shot clock was winding down and the Catamounts once 14-point lead now stood at five, all but evaporated.

Standing between the 6-foot-1-inch Wills and the hoop was Stony Brook junior center Jameel Warney – a 6-foot-8-inch unstoppable juggernaut who has owned the paint seemingly every time he has set foot on any court this season.

Wills didn’t even blink. Instead, he blew by Stony Brook guard Kam Mitchell, who had been pressuring him on the perimeter, and drove right into the belly of Stony Brook’s beast, putting a shoulder into Warney’s sternum while soaring around the looming defender, banking his shot off the glass and in.

“That was the biggest play of the game and Dre Wills had zero fear or hesitation to take the shot on the most intimidating player in the league,” marvels Vermont head coach John Becker looking back. “He’s got that swagger. He’s just tough, he’s the kind of guy you can win a championship with because he has no fear.”

“I think you have to have confidence to be successful in this game,” says Wills in an accent that straddles the divide between the midwest and the south. “You certainly can’t be playing afraid.”

Talk to anyone around the Catamounts, and they will tell you that confidence is a trait that Wills, who as an undersized shooting guard leads the Catamounts in rebounds (5.3 rpg), field goal percentage (.590) and ranks second on the squad in blocks (1.0 bpg), has in spades.

“He’s never afraid on the court – he wants to defend the best player, or have the ball in his hands in the biggest moment, and that really rubs off on all of us,” says freshman point guard Trae Bell-Haynes.

“He’s got two technicals this year that I don’t condone at all, but he’s got a swagger that we need with this young group: He’s not going to back down from a Corban Wroe; he’s going to dunk on someone and have some bravado,” says Becker.

DreWillsSLU

Confidence and bravery were necessary charter traits for Wills to pursue his dreams of playing Division I basketball, which meant leaving his comfort zone in the hustle and bustle of big city Indianapolis (the nation’s 12th largest city at more than 820,000 residents) to spend a season at prep school at Mercersburg Academy in Mercersuburg, Pennsylvania (population of less than 2,000).

“I went to a prep school out in the middle of nowhere,” he laughs, saying the the isolation “allowed me to just focus on basketball.”

Growing up, basketball and family were forever intertwined for Wills, whose brother Tony plays at Illinois State.

“All my family played basketball so it was a big part of my life and I knew I was going to do that. Growing up I started in AAU and kept playing realizing I wanted to play college ball and recognizing I had some talent,” he says.

What he didn’t have was a position.

“He’s got an awkward game, he’s kind of a power forward trapped in a shooting guard’s body. He’s one of those America East type of players that’s a 6’2” power forward learning to play shooting guard that can be really successful in this league,” says Becker.

“I never felt I had a true position but if there is somewhere I knew I could improve at I would,” says Wills.

That desire for constant improvement and willingness to do whatever the team needed led Wills to become what Becker calls a “total throwback; a guy who just does all the things no one else wants to do – defends, rebounds, blocks shots, plays with great energy.”

While Becker was blown away by the potential, athleticism and – above all – defensive tenacity he saw from Wills during his prep season, most other coaches across college basketball never noticed the tenacious man without a position. In fact, New Orleans was the only other Division I school to offer Wills a scholarship.

“I definitely liked the fact that coach was always honest and open with me from the beginning. He believed in me and I believed in him,” says Wills.

It’s never easy for a kid to travel half way across the country away from home to attend college, and going from Indianapolis to the snowy mountains of Burlington could be quite the culture shock. But according to Wills, he hasn’t minded at all.

“Culture wise I never found a problem because I have the type of personality that allows me to get along with anyone and adjust well to my surroundings,” he says.

Wills’ freshman season on the court, however, was another matter.

“It was definitely really hard, because you want to be out there playing a big role, and I was used to playing a big role in high school and prep school,” says Wills of his first year, in which he battled a broken finger and was also buried on the depth chart behind several seniors and averaged just 6.6 minutes in 19 games.

DreWillsHARVARD2

According to Becker, Wills attacked his offseason workouts in a way that few other players ever have during his time coaching.

“He is as good a competitor as I’ve ever coached, and I’m talking a Marqus Blakely, Brian Voelkel type of competitor. And they are different cats, they are different dudes, and you have to coach them differently and he’s one of those guys,” says Becker.

“I felt like I needed to get better and needed to get back in the gym to put myself in the position to play in the next years. I am the guy who kept on working and got myself here,” says Wills.

And the time in the gym has paid off, as Wills has emerged as arguably the Catamounts’ best player and quite possibly the best defender in the league.

“He’s made as big a jump from freshman to sophomore year as anyone that I’ve seen,” says Becker of Wills, who is averaging 8.4 points and 2.9 assists per game. “I certainly think he is the best defender I’ve ever coached,” says Becker. High praise considering the fact that Becker has coached former America East Defensive Player of the Year winners in Blakely and Voelkel.

“It’s unbelievable how many jump shots he’s blocked this year. And I’m talking pull-up jump shots, guys taking two or three dribbles and pulling up, and Dre is sliding with them and then goes up and blocks it, which is almost impossible to do, and these are the best scorers,” Becker marvels.

As for Wills, he just wants to win.

“I really don’t care what my numbers are, as long as I helped the team get a win, that is all that matters,” he says.

DreWillsHARVARD

OBW America East Power Rankings v7

Dre Wills has been a beast for Vermont. Courtesy photo / Vermont Athletics
Dre Wills has been a beast for Vermont. Courtesy photo / Vermont Athletics

Just week after Stony Brook scored the biggest America East win of the season, the Seawolves fell to Vermont in the biggest America East game of the season (at least to date).

Looks like it’s going to be that kind of a year in the ol’ “AE,” which means we’re all in store for one wild ride.

Last week Stony Brook was riding high fresh off the biggest win in program history, an upset over then 13th ranked Washington, while Vermont was fighting the good fight but struggling to get over the hump against tough foes and Albany was struggling to find consistency. A lot can change in a week, and while the trio of true contenders (at least in our eyes) remains the same – the usual suspects of top America East dogs and cats – they’ve once again bunched back up, with very little separating them in our eyes. With that said, here’s a look at the latest OBW America East Power Rankings.

1. Vermont (7-8, 3-0 AE)
Results: W 68-54 at Maine; W 71-57 vs Stony Brook.
This week: Wednesday vs Dartmouth; Saturday at UMBC (AE)
The young, bloodied, bruised and banged up Catamounts took out what had been the America East’s top dog in Stony Brook and they did so in absolutely terrific fashion, executing a very bold game plan from head coach John Becker to perfection. Up until Saturday, virtually every team that had faced Stony Brook had thrown a “stop Jameel Warney at all costs” defense at the Seawolves, focusing on doubling and tripling the walking, talking double-double and nations leading rebounder. Becker, instead, opted to single cover Warney all night, and allow the unstoppable Juggernaut to get his while focusing on stopping every other player in a Stony Brook uniform. The end result: Warney finished with 26 and 10 on 10-of-14 shooting, but the Catamounts came away with a 14-point win. Certainly the game was closer than the final score, and a flurry of free-throws in the game’s final 90 seconds opened up the final margin, but Vermont won this game from start to finish and the Catamounts crazy athletic and relentless back court defense and transition offense is no bleeping joke.

As an aside, what in the world does Becker have to do to earn a contract extension at this point? Yes, the Catamounts head coach still has three more years remaining on his contract, but when you take a step back and look around the league, only Albany’s Will Brown has a more impressive resume at his current post. And, when you look around the league and see other coaches landing contract extension after contract extension for seemingly getting out of bed, brushing their teeth, and not mucking things up, you have to wonder if Vermont’s head coach is going to start to feel a bit slighted – and perhaps at least entertain the calls that are going to start coming in to bolt for greener pastures.

2. Stony Brook (10-7, 1-1 in AE)
Results: W 70-61 at Columbia; L 71-57 at Vermont
This Week: Wednesday vs UMBC; Saturday at Maine.
We all knew Stony Brook wasn’t going to go undefeated during the America East slate, and if you’re going to lose a game, losing a thriller on the road in the hostile environment of Patrick Gymnasium is as good as a loss can be. Jameel Warney is a monster and the most unstoppable player in the league, and not many teams can duplicate the kind of back court pressure the Catamounts threw at Stony Brook. Jameel Warney alone is going to make Stony Brook one of the favorites to win the America East, and the Seawolves have shown that when the supporting cast is carrying its weight, they are as good – and arguably better – than anyone else in the league. However, the blue print is now out to try to take down the Seawolves: Let Jameel Warney get his 20-25 points and shut down everyone else. Point guard Carson Puriefoy is in a funk and as long as he is sputtering, the Seawolves are definitely vulnerable.

3. Albany (8-7, 3-0 in AE)
Results: W 80-56 vs Maine; W 64-62 at New Hampshire; W 64-51 at UMass Lowell
This Week: Wednesday vs Binghamton; Monday at Stony Brook.
The Great Danes are on the mend after apparently going 12 rounds with the bubonic plague, and they are once again looking like a team to be reckoned with. The Great Danes are getting terrific play from the one-through-four positions, with power forward Sam Rowley and shooting guard Peter Hooley giving their usual, blue-hat and lunch pail performances. Small forward Ray Sanders is also making a growing impact defending the ball and knocking down open shots. But the difference maker, and quite possibly the team’s most talented and best player (quite the statement considering how good Rowley and Hooley are) might be point guard Evan Singletary, who has been taking over games with increasing regularity. Albany’s bigs clog the lane and put a body on opponents, and if head coach Will Brown can get even a little bit more out of them, Albany might find itself in the America East’s driver’s seat. Monday’s match-up at Stony Brook will be incredibly telling.

4. New Hampshire (8-8, 1-2 in AE)
Results: W 68-61 vs Brown; W 63-60 at UMBC.
This Week: Wednesday vs Hartford; Saturday at Binghamton.
This is definitely looking like Bill Herrion’s best team since the Wildcats were less than two-minutes away from hosting the title game. In true Bill Herrion style New Hampshire is defending like crazy, but in previous years that was only enough to make them a pesky nuisance to the top two-thirds of the league. The difference this year is that they can score – often in ugly fashion, but they are putting up points. Sophomore point guard Daniel Dion is creating and burying daggers from anywhere inside the building, and freshman forward Tanner Leissner as some of the craftiest and gutsiest moves in the league. But the big difference makers as of late have been senior shooting guard Matt Miller, who despite playing the first Division I hoops of his career has given UNH a long-range threat to stretch the floor, and bruising and athletic sophomore power forward Jacoby Armstrong, who is beginning to look like the All-Conference talent he was supposed to be.

5. Hartford (8-7, 1-1 AE)
Results: W 69-59 vs Binghamton
This week: Wednesday at New Hampshire; Saturday at UMass Lowell.
The Hawks won their only contest of the week, downing a hard-fighting but massively undermanned Binghamton squad. It isn’t that we’re down on Hartford as much as it is that we’ve seen a lot more from the four teams above them. Corban Wroe is beginning to score the ball again in the same manner as down the stretch last season, when he single-handedly gave the Hawks a new dimension. As always, when Hartford hits their three’s and senior Mark Nwakamma stays on the floor they can beat anyone, but can they do that consistently or devise a Plan B for emergencies?

6. UMass Lowell (8-8, 2-1 in AE)
Results: W 73-61 (OT) at UMBC; L 64-51 vs Albany.
This Week: Tuesday at Maine; Saturday at Hartford.
The River Hawks stand at 2-1 in league play, with seven Division I wins on the season – just two DI wins away from last season’s total, one amazing accomplishment for second year head coach Pat Duquette. The truth of it is, the River Hawks are incredibly limited overall, with red-shirt freshman Jahad Thomas – an undersized man-among-boys – as virtually the entire UMass Lowell offense. Team’s are beginning to throw the typical Jameel Warney defense at Thomas, AKA swarm, mug and stop him at all costs, and UMass Lowell has struggled to find consistent second and third scoring options. They may finally have found one, however, as freshman shooting guard Matt Harris has scored 29 points in the past two games and 39 over the past three, after scoring just 45 in the River Hawks first 12 contests.

7. UMBC (2-13)
Results: L 73-61 (OT) vs UMass Lowell; L 63-60 vs UNH.
This week: Wednesday at Stony Brook; Saturday vs Vermont.
The good news: UMBC is really, really defending the ball extremely well, junior forward Cody Joyce is beginning to come into his own as an automatic low-post scorer, and graduate transfer Wayne Sparrow has given UMBC a go-to scorer. The better news: Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, head coach Aki Thomas has the Retrievers playing harder and longer than they have at any point since Darryl Proctor and Jay Greene graduated back in 2009, and freshman Jourdan Grant is blossoming as a playmaking point guard. The bad news: UMBC is dressing just eight players for games, only six of them on scholarship, and one of them a recent addition to the team as a walk on, and playing just seven in their rotation. As long as UMBC keeps fighting, they are going to stay in games and will squeak out a few wins, but they really do not have the horses.

8. Binghamton (2-16, 1-2 in AE)
Results: L 69-59 at Hartford; W 65-46 vs Maine.
This Week: Wednesday at Albany; Saturday vs New Hampshire.
Binghamton is officially on the board in the Division I wins category, soundly steamrolling Maine in the second half for a 65-45 victory. Much like with UMBC, head coach Tommy Dempsey deserves kudos for keeping his very young, very impressionable squad fighting hard despite player defections and injuries. High-flying freshman wing Romello Walker has taken a step from impact defender to offensive threat, and forward Willie Rodriguez also appears to have found his second win. A season-ending knee injury to forward Dusan Perovic and a leg injury that has kept forward Nick Madray on the bench present large obstacles in the Bearcats’ short term prospects.

9. Maine (1-14, 0-3 in AE)
Results: L 68-54 vs Vermont; L 65-46 at Binghamton.
This Week: Tuesday vs UMass Lowell; Saturday vs Stony Brook.
It’s going to take time for head coach Bob Walsh to be able to recruit his own players and implement his demanding and complex system, so fans should not fret. To be blunt, this is the least talented team to suit up in Orono in a very, very, very long time – quite possibly ever – thanks to the revolving door of disenfranchised and disgusted players who jumped ship during previous years under the former regime. However, this Maine squad – despite it’s struggles to defend in the second half – is playing SIGNIFICANTLY harder than any Black Bears squad in recent years, which is a very positive sign in the long term.

OBW America East Player of the Week
Dre Wills, Soph., G, Vermont

The favorite for America East Defensive Player of the Year honors continued to make a far larger impact than his raw numbers, propelling the Catamounts to a pair of wins. That’s saying something considering his numbers for the week: 26 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, eight steals and three blocks. In a huge grudge-match win over bitter conference rival Stony Brook, Wills completely locked down Seawolves point guard Carson Puriefoy, holding the dynamic playmaker to six points on 2-of-12 shooting, while forcing him into four turnovers.

OBW America East Rookie of the Week
Romello Walker, G/F, Binghamton

Walker is coming into his own, making a big impact as an extremely energetic and athletic disruptor on defense, while turning into a human-highlight reel on offense. In arguably the Bearcats best two games of the season – a hard-fought loss at Hartford and Binghamton’s first Division I win of the season in a dismantling of Maine – Walker combined for 35 points, 13 rebounds, and three steals.

OBW America East Fab Five
Peter Hooley, R-Jr., G, Albany
Sam Rowley, Sr., F, Albany
Jahad Thomas, R-Fr., F, UMass Lowell
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
Jahad Thomas, F, UMass Lowell
Romello Walker, G/F, Binghamton

A trip down memory lane: The dominance of Taylor Coppenrath even in defeat

Taylor Coppenrath.
Taylor Coppenrath.

Can a player be truly dominant in a loss?

It’s a question I’ve heard asked many times, in many ways over my years of first following and now covering college ball. And it’s a question that I’m once again hearing on the heels of Stony Brook’s 71-57 loss to Vermont, a game in which Seawolves center Jameel Warney scored 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting, to go with 10 rebounds, two blocks an assist and a steal in 35 minutes of action.

I’ve heard many basketball purists say no, that by very definition a dominant performance would ensure a victory. Now I can’t say whether Warney’s performance on Saturday afternoon was dominant, or merely great. The Catamounts executed a game plan that boiled down to letting Warney get his, forgoing the standard swarming double-teams thrown at the 260-pound bruiser, leaving the New Jersey native in single coverage, while focusing on stopping the entire rest of the Seawolves roster – a game plan that paid big dividends.

But I can say, with the utmost confidence, that a player can completely dominate a game in a losing effort. And I can say it without a shadow of a doubt for one simple reason: I was sitting in the Agganis Arena on Feb. 12, 2005, when Vermont legend Taylor Coppenrath came to town and completely dismantled host Boston University.

I had never, ever seen a spectacle like what I saw on that day before, and I have yet to see one like it since.

Boston University found a way to withstand Coppenrath’s end-of-days level storm on the court, hanging on to a 61-55 win, but the story of the night was the West Barnet, Vermont, native.

Coppenrath’s final stat line — 37 of Vermont’s 55 points, 13-of-24 from the floor, 10-of-10 from the line, to go with 13 rebounds and a block for good measure – was jaw-dropping. Yet it didn’t begin to tell the story. Coppenrath scored 27 points in the first half, scoring 25 straight Vermont points during one stretch in the game that overlapped both halves.

That still isn’t the craziest part of the game.

Coppenrath scored 37 points, including 25 straight, while Boston University head coach Dennis Wolff, one of if not the greatest defensive minds in league history, employed a triangle-2 defense. The catch: The “2” – First Team All-Conference selection Rashad Bell, a super-athletic power forward with tremendous skill, and a rotating cast that included 6’9” athlete and future First Teamer Kevin Garner, extremely athletic future overseas pro Etienne Brower, and insanely long future NBAer Tony Gaffney – were BOTH covering Coppenrath. The double coverage extended to well beyond when Coppenrath had the ball, as the Terriers’ big men blanketed him from the minute he stepped across half court for virtually the entire final 30 minutes of the game.

Despite Coppenrath’s fellow 2,000 point scorer T.J. Sorrentine handling the rock for the Catamounts, Wolff’s strategy against Vermont was the complete opposite of Becker’s strategy against Warney and the Seawolves 10 years later: Stop Taylor Coppenrath at all costs; Do not let Vermont’s bigman beat you singlehandedly, because he will.

Wolff’s strategy, of course, was a sound tactical move: One season earlier, after missing nearly a month with a broken left wrist, Coppenrath returned to the floor, cold, for the 2004 America Championship game against Maine. Maine head coach Dr. John Giannini decided to start the game with Coppenrath in single coverage.

What proceeded was the greatest one-man butt-whooping in conference tournament history, with Coppenrath scoring 28 first half points en route to a championship game record 43.

Boston University was able to hang on for the win when the Terriers were able to finally deny Coppenrath the ball in the post, and Vermont was unable to capitalize on the 4-on-3 advantage they had across the rest of the court. But despite the loss, the 6’9” inch 250-pounder was devastatingly dominant none the less.