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Jack Freifelder | NCAA.com | October 10, 2016

College basketball preview: America East Conference

  Stony Brook looks to maintain its success from a year ago despite losing guard Carson Puriefoy, among others.

The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.

As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.

RELATEDMidnight Madness 2016 times and dates

Up first: the America East Conference.

Recap:

The race for the top spot in the America East a year ago was marked by the gap between the top four spots and the bottom half of the conference. Stony Brook, Albany, Vermont and New Hampshire all posted double-digit wins in conference, while the remaining five teams meandered below the .500 mark.

 But when Albany — the 2015 champion — fell in the first round of the 2016 America East Conference tournament, the road opened for Stony Brook to find a way into the NCAA tournament for the first time in the program’s history. That’s just what the Seawolves of Stony Brook did, cutting down the nets in the America East Championship against a hard-charging Vermont squad. 

The reward for exiting the America East Conference fray as the victor: a date with the Kentucky Wildcats in the first round of the Big Dance. And while it may have been a brief visit for Stony Brook, a chance to get into the Dance served as the swan song for former head coach Steve Pikiell (now with Rutgers). 

The challenge now facing Stony Brook and new head coach Jeff Boals will be replicating a 14-2 performance in conference from a year ago. It will certainly be hard to top the school’s first trip to the NCAA tournament, and the departure of the team’s top three scorers — including the tandem of forward Jameel Warney and guard Carson Puriefoy — will only complicate that equation for Stony Brook.

Best Player:

Just one note to piggyback off an earlier point: Warney, the former Stony Brook standout, has been the defending America East Player of the Year award winner the last three years in a row. That’s only been done three times in the near 40-year history of the conference. 

As a result, the voters in the America East Conference will have their hands full in finding a replacement to take the helm as the conference’s best player. The rule of thumb that it has to be an upper classmen was thrown out the window in 2014.

But eyes could be focusing in on a couple notable freshmen, among others, looking to have standout showings in the 2016-17 season.

  Vermont guard Ernie Duncan is one of several returning players looking for a run at an American East title.
Ernie Duncan came to campus at UVM and took to head coach John Becker’s system quite nicely. The Evansville, Indiana native was thrown into game action from the get-go and performed capably in his role, reaching double figures in 21 of the 33 games he played in.

Duncan shot nearly 45 percent from the 3-point line (good enough for third in the conference and 12th overall in the nation), while also showing an ability to rebound (2.9 boards a game) and help distribute the basketball (2.6 assists a contest).

Another year under his belt could prove beneficial for Duncan. Odds are his coaches are excited about things too.

(An honorable mention should also fall to Joe Cremo of Albany. As a freshman on a senior-laden squad, Cremo managed to average double-digit points in just about 20 minutes a night. A deadeye shooter whose number of touches is sure to increase with more playing time, Cremo will look to mesh with some new pieces in an Albany offense that lost three seniors averaging 10+ points a game a year ago. He could also be an under-the-radar candidate for POY honors as well.)

Best Team:

Given the aforementioned departures facing Stony Brook, the logical next step would be to look at the runner-up in the conference. On paper, that’s really a toss-up between the Albany Great Danes (who finished second in the regular season) and the Vermont Catamounts (who came in at second in the postseason tournament). However, a deeper look at the rosters back in the mix for both squads would seem to tip the scales in Vermont’s favor.

Vermont returns five of its top six scorers from a year ago, including junior lead guard Trae Bell-Haynes and senior forward Kurt Steidl. Experience is key in collegiate athletics, and this team has it coming back in spades. For the players on this roster who might need a little more seasoning before conference play opens up, how about nonconference matchups with Harvard, Yale, Providence, South Carolina and Butler. By the time the postseason slate swings around, this Catamounts squad will be battle-tested.

Sleeper Team:

It's hard not to sleep on a team that only won seven total games a year ago, but that's the scenario facing the UMBC Retrievers entering the start of the season in November. Sure, three wins in conference is not a lot to build from (7-25 overall record, 3-13 in America East), but it's a start. And UMBC does have its top four scorers back in the mix, including the leading scorer in the conference, Jairus Lyles (23 points per game).

A new coach at the helm in Ryan Odom — formerly of Lenoir-Rhyne, a DII school — could give a little jolt of enthusiasm to this squad. Who knows, maybe Odom has what it takes to bring the Retrievers from worst to first. In his one year at Lenoir-Rhyne, Odom led the Bears to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II tournament.

Take a high-scoring guard on a team playing poor basketball, add in one very rough season, sprinkle in a new head coach and let sit for a full season. Sounds like a decent recipe for a turnaround. To be honest, things can't get much worse than the tenure under former coach Aki Thomas (28-95 overall record in four years).

Freshman to Watch:

Keeping with the team at the bottom of the standings, one freshman to keep an eye on could be UMBC’s Max Curran. Curran, at 6’9”, is the tallest recruit in this year’s class for the Retrievers, and his rebounding prowess could help a team that ranked 298th in the country a year ago in rebounding margin a year ago.

Another freshman who could make some waves in early-season action is Andrew Garcia, who will suit up for the Seawolves of Stony Brook. The tape on the New York-bred guard shows immense scoring potential, but his new coaching staff will likely look to see how Garcia gels in a system where his job is not necessarily just scoring the basketball. At the 2015 Nike Global Challenge in Chicago, Garcia averaged a team-best 19.3 points to earn all-tournament honors.

Schedule Highlights:

  • Playoff seeding is critical again this year as the higher seed hosts each round of the America East Playoffs for the third-straight year. Home teams are 10-2 in this format over the past two seasons and the regular-season champion has won the last two conference titles.
  • The schedule begins on January 5 with four contests, including first-year head coaches Jeff Boals (Stony Brook) and Ryan Odom (UMBC) leading their teams into league action for the first time.
  • Opening night is highlighted by the Seawolves visiting New Hampshire, which won a program-record 20 games last year and has the bulk of its roster returning this season, including first-team All-Conference standout, Tanner Leissner.
  • Stony Brook and Albany, which have combined to win the last four America East titles and have both made postseason appearances each of the last four years, meet Jan. 8 on Long Island and Feb. 4 at Albany. The two teams have split their last 18 meetings.  
  • Presumptive conference favorites Vermont and New Hampshire square off on Jan. 16 at New Hampshire and Feb. 9 at Vermont. The matchups will feature six players who have earned All-Conference honors in the past in the Catamounts’ Trae Bell-Haynes, Kurt Steidl and Dre Wills and the Wildcats’ Leissner, Jacoby Armstrong and Jaleen Smith.
  • A rematch of last year’s America East championship game takes place Jan. 28 at Stony Brook, where the Seawolves overcame a 15-point second-half deficit to beat Vermont, 80-74 last March. The two teams close out the season in Burlington on Feb. 25.