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America East Conference Preview: Is this Vermont’s league to lose again?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the America East.

Once again America East won’t lack for quality at the top, but the question for the other eight teams as the start of the 2017-18 season approaches is a simple one: which team is best equipped to challenge (or dethrone) defending champion Vermont?

The 2016-17 season was a special one for the Catamounts, as John Becker’s team won 29 games and ran the table in America East. After going 16-0 during the regular season and winning the conference tournament as well, UVM returns four of its top five scorers including forwards Anthony Lamb (12.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Payton Henson (11.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg), and reigning America East Player of the Year Trae Bell-Haynes (11.2 ppg, 3.9 apg, 2.7 rpg). But while the Catamounts have the tools needed to remain atop the conference, there won’t be a lack for challengers either.

A good place to start would be Albany, where head coach Will Brown welcomes back the best guard tandem in the league in juniors David Nichols (17.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.2 apg) and Joe Cremo (15.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.8 apg). Yet while Nichols and Cremo, both players who should factor into the conference Player of the Year race, are the leaders keep an eye on forwards Devonte Campbell, Travis Charles and Greig Stire as well. If they can take another step forward, the Great Danes are more than capable of winning America East.

UMBC should also be in the mix as four of Ryan Odom’s top five scorers from a season ago are back led by senior guard Jairus Lyles. Lyles, who began his college career at VCU, was second in America East in both scoring (18.9 ppg) and steals (1.7). Fellow guard K.J. Maura led the conference in steals (1.8), and forward Joe Sherburne and guard Jourdan Grant return as well. The Retrievers will have to account for the graduation of Will Darley, who averaged 16.2 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last season, but he pieces are there to contend.

New Hampshire returns one of the conference’s top front court players in senior Tanner Leissner, a first team all-conference selection who averaged 17.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Leissner and fellow senior Iba Camara will led the way in the front court, but the Wildcats will need some perimeter options to step forward for Bill Herrion if they’re to work their way into the title chase.

The same can be said for Stony Brook, with both Lucas Woodhouse and Roland Nyama having moved on. Head coach Jeff Boals welcomes back senior forward Tyrell Sturdivant and sophomore guard/forward Akwasi Yeboah, which will help matters in the second season of Boals’ tenure. A team to watch with regards to jumping into the top half of the conference standings: UMass-Lowell, as Pat Duquette returns four of his top five scorers from last season led by guard Jahad Thomas (18.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 4.6 apg).

Of the three teams that finished at the bottom of the America East standings last season, Binghamton may be best equipped to make a jump. Tommy Dempsey welcomes back his top five scorers from a season ago, led by junior guard J.C. Show and senior forward Willie Rodriguez.

Hartford, which finished last season with nine wins (four in conference), will look to move forward without leading scorer Jalen Ross, who led America East in scoring with an average of 19.9 points per game. Junior guards Jason Dunne and J.R. Lynch will be key in that regard, as will senior forward Jack Hobbs. Maine is in a similar spot, with the Black Bears losing leading scorer Wesley Myers but returning forward Andrew Fleming and guards Aaron Calixte and Ilker Er.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON AMERICA EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: F Anthony Lamb, Vermont

Lamb was the best freshman in America East last season, and he led the Catamounts in both scoring and rebounding. With a year of experience under his belt, it’s fair to expect even more from the sophomore forward.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-AMERICA EAST TEAM:

  • G David Nichols, Albany: Nichols averaged nearly 18 points per game last season, and if the shooting percentages improve he could be even better.
  • G Trae Bell-Haynes, Vermont: A very good case can be made for Albany’s Joe Cremo here. But we’re going with the reigning conference Player of the Year.
  • G Jairus Lyles, UMBC: Second in the conference in scoring last season, Lyles could catapult the Retrievers into title contention.
  • F Tanner Leissner, New Hampshire: A mainstay in the UNH lineup for three seasons, Leissner was a first team all-conference selection as a junior.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @RyanARestivo

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Vermont
2. Albany
3. UMBC
4. New Hampshire
5. UMass-Lowell
6. Stony Brook
7. Binghamton
8. Maine
9. Hartford

Thursday’s Three Things To Know: Drexel’s historic comeback, Arizona survives, Houston doesn’t

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1. DREXEL COMPLETED THE BIGGEST COMEBACK IN DIVISION I HISTORY

Drexel trailed Delaware 53-19 late in the first half on Thursday night.

They won 85-83.

Both of those things are 100 percent true and 100 percent happened.

2. ARIZONA WON WITHOUT ALLONZO TRIER … BARELY

No. 14 Arizona was forced to play without Allonzo Trier on Thursday night at Oregon State after Trier tested positive for a banned substance again. The Wildcats led by 12 points in the first half, but Wayne Tinkle’s club slowly but surely chipped away at the lead. They were ahead with less than a minute left with OSU missed two wide-open threes on the same possession before a pair of Rawle Alkins free throws forced overtime.

Alkins — who finished with 16 points on the night — took over in the extra frame, but if there is anything that we learned in the 45 minutes that Arizona played without Trier available on Thursday, it’s that they are going to struggle to win games if they do not have their second-leading scorer available.

3. TUBBY SMITH FINALLY BEAT A RANKED TEAM

Tubby Smith has been crushed throughout his tenure with Memphis, and deservedly so. The Tigers are not selling tickets and are not competing at a level that is expected of that program in the post-John Calipari era. That said, they aren’t terrible. On Thursday night, Memphis beat No. 23 Houston in FedEd Forum — Smith’s first win over a ranked opponent since he took over the job — to alleviate some of the heat that has been directed his way this season.

Houston, on the other hand, is probably pretty safe when it comes to inclusion into the NCAA tournament at this point, but they sure have had a weird seven days. It started with a win over Cincinnati, then turned into a 21-point win at Temple and concluded with a loss to Memphis. Such is life in the AAC, I guess.

Ford leads No. 22 Saint Mary’s past Pepperdine, 75-61

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MORAGA, Calif. (AP) — Jordan Ford had 18 points and a career-high 10 rebounds, and No. 22 Saint Mary’s rolled to a 75-61 victory over Pepperdine on Thursday night.

Calvin Hermanson scored 14 points and Tanner Krebs added 12 for the Gaels (26-4, 15-2 West Coast Conference). Jock Landale scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds.

Ford shot 7 for 11 from the field and 4 for 6 from 3-point range and fell two points short of tying his career scoring high.

Saint Mary’s remained one game behind Gonzaga (26-4, 16-1), a 77-72 winner at San Diego, in the WCC with one regular-season game to play. The Gaels can earn a share of the WCC regular-season title with a victory at home against Santa Clara and a Gonzaga loss at BYU on Saturday.

Saint Mary’s point guard Emmett Naar, who injured his left ankle late in the first half against Portland on Saturday, started and had three points and six assists in 14 minutes, most of those in the first half.

Trae Berhow and Knox Hellums each scored 13 points for Pepperdine (4-25, 1-16).

Ford had 14 points and six rebounds in the first half, when Saint Mary’s built a 46-26 lead.

Pepperdine guard Eric Cooper Jr., who averages 13.2 points, did not make the trip because of a shoulder injury. Udenyi Amadi started in his place.

BIG PICTURE

Pepperdine: The Waves lost their eighth straight game and are locked into sole possession of last place in the WCC. Pepperdine will be the No. 10 seed in the upcoming conference tournament.

Saint Mary’s: The Gaels won their second straight after losing back-to-back games to Gonzaga on Feb. 10 and San Francisco on Feb. 15. Saint Mary’s had won a school-record 19 straight games before falling to Gonzaga.

UP NEXT

Pepperdine hosts Portland on Saturday in its WCC regular-season finale. The Waves fell 85-76 in overtime at Portland on Feb. 1.

Saint Mary’s hosts Santa Clara on Saturday in its final WCC regular-season game. The Gaels beat the Broncos 81-57 on Jan. 11 at Santa Clara.

Thornton, Rivers lead Memphis past No. 23 Houston

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Jimario Rivers and Raynere Thornton each scored 21 points, helping Memphis beat No. 23 Houston 91-85 on Thursday night.

Rivers also grabbed nine rebounds and Thornton made four 3-pointers as Memphis (17-11, 8-7 American Athletic Conference) earned its third straight victory.

Rob Gray had 30 points and seven assists for Houston (21-6, 11-4), which entered the Top 25 this week for the first time this season. Armoni Brooks and Corey Davis Jr. each scored 15 points.

The Cougars led 43-37 at halftime, but they shot 32.3 percent from the field in the second half. The Tigers made 54 percent of their shots while rallying for the victory.

Memphis went ahead to stay with a 22-8 surge that made it 76-68 on Mike Parks Jr.’s basket with 6:28 remaining. The Tigers closed it out at the line, making 29 of 36 attempts for the game.

Houston had won five in a row. It went 18 of 20 at the line.

BIG PICTURE

Houston: The Cougars, one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the conference, went 4 for 15 from beyond the arc in the second half. They also surrendered their most points this season.

Memphis: Leading scorer Jeremiah Martin left in the first half with a lower body injury. Thornton picked up the scoring after the break, scoring 19 points in the second half.

UP NEXT

Houston: Entertains East Carolina on Sunday.

Memphis: Travels to UConn on Sunday

No. 6 Gonzaga rallies to beat San Diego, 77-72

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SAN DIEGO (AP) — Killian Tillie scored 17 points, Rui Hachimura added 16 and No. 6 Gonzaga beat San Diego 77-72 on Thursday night to clinch at least a share of the West Coast Conference title.

The Bulldogs (26-4, 16-1 WCC) defeated the Toreros (17-12, 8-9) for the eighth straight game and for the 19th time in their last 20 meetings.

Olin Cater III led San Diego with 21 points.

After trailing at halftime and falling behind by eight points in the second half, the Bulldogs didn’t seize the lead until midway through the second half, when Tillie’s 3-pointer made it 52-51.

It was a back-and-forth affair from there, with the Toreros relying on their stingy defense to slow the up-tempo Bulldogs. But Gonzaga had too much firepower and was helped by four straight free throws from Hachimura when taking the lead for good with four minutes remaining.

Gonzaga demolished San Diego in last year’s visit by 58 points. The Bulldogs built an early six-point lead in this one but San Diego bounced back, tying the score at 27 with five minutes left on the first of three straight 3-point baskets by Carter. When he hit his second one, San Diego had a three-point advantage, its first edge since the game’s opening bucket.

Tyler Williams’ mid-range jumper gave San Diego a 35-30 lead and it was 37-34 at halftime. San Diego finished the first 20 minutes by converting 4 of 7 3-point shots.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: When Gonzaga fell behind early in the game, it was the first time it had trailed in four games. … The Bulldogs have earned at least a share of the WCC title in 17 of the past 18 seasons and 18 of the last 20. … Gonzaga is the only team in the nation with seven players to score at least 20 points in a game this season.

University of San Diego: The highest-ranked team the Toreros have beaten is No. 14 UCLA in the 2002-03 season. … Forward Cameron Neubauer was honored before the game on senior night.

UP NEXT

Gonzaga is at BYU on Saturday night.

San Diego is at San Francisco on Saturday night.

Carsen Edwards scores 40 points, No. 9 Purdue beats Illinois 93-86

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Carsen Edwards scored career-high 40 points and Dakota Mathias added 18 to help No. 9 Purdue outlast Illinois in a 93-86 victory on Thursday night.

The Boilermakers were without their second-leading scorer Vincent Edwards but had no problem scoring.

Purdue shot 58.3 percent from the field and 47.8 percent from beyond the 3-point line. Edwards and Mathias each had four from behind the arc.

There were eight lead changes in the first half, highlighted by two big runs. With just under 10 minutes left Edwards stole the ball and went down for a huge dunk to spark a 17-6 run for the Boilermakers. The Illini responded with a 10-3 run to close out the half trailing 43-38.

Illinois stayed within striking distance the rest of the game, but ultimately Purdue’s size and Edwards scoring were too much. The sophomore scored 25 of his points in the second half, including a monstrous dunk on Trent Frazier with just under seven minutes to play.

The Boilermakers also outrebounded the Illini 33-20.

Leron Black led Illinois with 28 points, notching his fourth-consecutive 20-point game.

BIG PICTURE

Illinois continues to struggle in close games. The Illini have now lost 10 games this season by single digits.

After losing three straight games, Purdue has reestablished itself in the Big Ten with two close victories over Penn State and Illinois. The Boilermakers are one win away from tying the second most victories in school history.