Peter Hooley, left, and Jameel Warney battle for a loose ball (AP Photo)

America East Preview: Stony Brook’s title to lose?

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the America East conference:

For each of the past two seasons, the team that won the America East regular season title won it with a 15-1 league record. Vermont did it in 2013-14. Albany did it in 2014-15. This season, it’s Stony Brook’s turn, as the Seawolves return a roster that is brimming with talent.

It starts with Jameel Warney, who not only has a legitimate case as the best mid-major player in the country but as the best big man in the Northeast as well. The 6-foot-8 Warney is the two-time reigning American East Player of the Year, putting together the kind of season that any coach will salivate over in 2014-15: 16.5 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 2.5 bpg and 2.1 apg.

But here’s the thing: Stony Brook not only returns Warney, they return four other starters as well, headlined by fellow all-league first-teamer Carson Puriefoy (14.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.4 apg). Roland Nyama and Rayshaun McGrew are back as well, but the x-factor for the Seawolves this season will be the addition of Longwood transfer Lucas Woodhouse and the return of Ahmad Walker, who spent last season at a Junior College. As one America East coach put it, Stony Brook has seven starters this season.

And by far the league’s most dominant player. The biggest question will be whether this is finally the season that Stony Brook can snap their string of heartbreaking America East title game losses at four.

Last year’s heartbreaker? A three from Albany’s Peter Hooley with 1.6 seconds left that turned into one of the most touching moments of the college basketball season. You see Hooley, who averaged 13.7 points last season, left the team in the middle of league play to return to Australia to be with his mother, who passed away after a battle with colon cancer.

Hooley is back this season, as is Evan Singletary (13.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.3 apg), another first-team all-America East performer. In total, the Great Danes return five of their top seven players from last season, and while losing Sam Rowley is a big blow, they return Will Brown, who is viewed as the best coach in the conference.

On paper, Albany is the second best team in the league, but they will likely be pushed by a Vermont team that exceeded expectations in 2014-15. The Catamounts were in a bit of a transitional year last season, as they brought in a talented recruiting class after losing five of their top six scorers from 2013-14. And even with three-star recruit Ernie Duncan getting limited to just four games, the Cats finished tied with Stony Brook for second place in the league.

The biggest reason for that was the emergence of Ethan O’Day as a first-team all-league performer. O’Day proved himself as a front court presence on both ends of the floor, and with promising youngsters like Duncan, brother Everett Duncan, Dre Wills and Trae Bell-Haynes — who thrived in Ernie’s absence — all back, UVM has the pieces to make a run at a league title.

There’s a clear-cut top three in the conference hierarchy this season, but if anyone is going to break into upper third of the conference, it’s going to be New Hampshire. They were hurt with Matt Miller — a cousin of Sean and Archie Miller — not receiving a sixth-year of eligibility, but the return of sophomore forward Tanner Leissner (12.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg), UNH will make some noise in the league.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “Stony Brook is going to be loaded. They lose no starters, but they get two starters as well. Ahmad Walker is back. He’s proven as a starter, and Lucas Woodhouse has proven himself as a Division I player. They are clearly the No. 1 team in the league.”
  • Sleeper: “New Hampshire got hurt with Matt Miller not getting a sixth year. If he was back, they might have been top three and now probably settle in at four. UNH has a rep: they couldn’t score but you couldn’t score on them. Tanner [Leissner] was huge addition because all of a sudden they’re a top four offense.”
  • Star to watch: “Jameel Warney is so clearly the best player in the league. It’s not close. I don’t want to say he’s as good as anyone I’ve ever seen, but he’s as dominant at his level as anyone I’ve seen at any level I’ve been at. He’s that good offensively and defensively.”

PRESEASON AMERICA EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jameel Warney, Stony Brook

Warney isn’t just the best player in the America East, he may be the best player in all of mid-major college basketball. Not only is he a force on the block offensively and the two-time reigning America East Player of the Year, but he’s also won the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award the past two seasons. He’s a beast.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-AMERICA EAST TEAM:

  • Ethan O’Day, Vermont: O’Day is not as dominant as Warney, but he’s a very solid player that anchored a young-but-talented Catamounts team last season.
  • Peter Hooley, Albany: Hooley’s impact last season was impacted by missing half of league play. He’s talented, but, as he showed in the America East final, he has a penchant for making big plays in big moments.
  • Carson Puriefoy, Stony Brook: Stony Brook’s starting point guard and Warney’s sidekick, Puriefoy would be a star on just about any other team at this level.
  • Tanner Leissner, New Hampshire: The reigning AE Rookie of the Year, we went with the 6-foot-8 Leissner over Albany’s Evan Singletary because of the impact he provides offensively.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @RyanARestivo

PREDICTED FINISH

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

Can Kentucky cure what is ailing them?

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For the second straight game against mid-major competition, the Kentucky Wildcats looked like everything but the team that beat No. 1 Michigan State in the season opener.

On Tuesday night, the Wildcats blew a 14-point second half lead and allowed Mark Madsen’s Utah Valley Wolverines to have a couple of shots to take the lead in the final three minutes of what eventually turned into an 82-74 win. This came just six days after the Wildcats, as the No. 1 team in the country, found a way to lose to Evansville, who turned around and lost to SMU at home Tuesday.

So things have been better in Lexington.

Much better.

But panicking over anything would be silly right now.

Because the thing that this Kentucky team needs more than anything else is the only thing that cannot be rushed: Time.


What’s wrong with Kentucky? We broke it down last week.

One of college basketball’s most annoying bits of coachspeak and cliche is the saying, “This will be a different team come March.”

Sometimes it’s accurate. Sometimes it’s a coach or a columnist trying to explain away the dumb mistakes that a team keeps making.

And sometimes, it’s said in regard to this iteration of the Kentucky Wildcats, who will be a completely different team in, what, two weeks? A month? Surely not much more than that. Right now, Kentucky more closely resembles a MASH unit than it does a college basketball. Look at this seemingly ever-growing list of injuries:

  • E.J. Montgomery has missed the last three games with an ankle injury he suffered in the opener against Michigan State.
  • Ashton Hagans has been dealing with some kind of leg injury that John Calipari hasn’t specified but that had limited him early on this season.
  • Nick Richards is still battling an ankle injury that has kept him out of practices.
  • Immanuel Quickley missed the Utah Valley game with what was termed a chest injury.
  • Dontaie Allen is still recovering from a torn ACL.
  • Kahlil Whitney appeared to dislocate a finger with three minutes left before popping it back in himself. He did not return to the game.

Do the math, and the Wildcats finished this game with six scholarship players, two of whom are not at 100 percent.

That’s rough for any team to deal with, especially when three of the opening night starters are on that injured list.

But the issue is magnified for Kentucky.

The Wildcats are not only incredibly young, but they also lack the kind of elite talents we typically associate Big Blue with. There is no surefire lottery pick on this roster. More importantly, there may not be a college All-American on this roster. Tyrese Maxey is the most dangerous scorer they have, but he’s shooting 28 percent from three, has eight assists and nine turnovers in four games and has looked far from the star guard he played like against Michigan State. Ashton Hagans and Nick Richards were terrific on Tuesday, but if they’re the two best players on this team that’s a far cry from Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns, or John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis.

Hell, there isn’t anyone on this roster that is as good as P.J. Washington or Tyler Herro were last season.

At least right now. That’s the important part here.

Because, if you remember, neither P.J. Washington or Tyler Herro were as good in November as they were in February and March. They got better as the season went on, just like the guys on this roster will get better (and healthier) as the season goes on.

So when you put it all together, what you have is a team that we knew was going to need time to gel dealing with injuries to half their roster that is keeping key pieces out of games and, perhaps more importantly, out of practice. Don’t gloss over that. If injuries are keeping these guys from practicing, it’s keeping them from getting better, from learning their roles, from growing into the player they will hopefully be once league play begins. That is in no way insignificant.

Frankly, Maxey going absolutely bonkers in Madison Square Garden while Michigan State paired foul trouble with 5-for-26 shooting from three papered over a lot of these cracks.

We knew Kentucky was going to take their lumps early on these season and we ranked them where we ranked them anyway.

They are taking their lumps.

And if you are patient, they’ll look like Kentucky again soon enough.

No. 9 Kentucky gets another scare, holds off Utah Valley

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Ashton Hagans scored a career-high 26 points, and No. 9 Kentucky survived another close game against what should have been a lesser opponent, beating Utah Valley 82-74 on Monday night.

The Wildcats (3-1) dropped out of the No. 1 spot in The Associated Press Top 25 after losing at home to Evansville last week, and they had to overcome a late surge to hold off the Wolverines.

Kentucky led by 16 points early in the second half, but Utah Valley steadily chipped away until T.J. Washington’s 3-pointer got the Wolverines (3-2) within one at 68-67 with 3:26 remaining. Nate Sestina responded with a three-point play that helped the Wildcats pull away.

Kentucky was without second-leading scorer Immanuel Quickley, who sat out because of a chest injury. Quickley has scored 16 points in each of the last two games.

The Wildcats also have been without forward EJ Montgomery, who has missed the past three games because of an ankle injury. Coupled with Quickley’s injury, Kentucky’s roster has dwindled to seven scholarship players, leaving the Wildcats short-handed in practice.

Nick Richards had 21 points and 10 rebounds, while Tyrese Maxey added 14 points.

Washington led the Wolverines with 22 points, followed by Trey Woodbury with 17 and Jamison Overton with 10.

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats are used to shooting free throws and averaged 29.7 attempts per game in their first three. Kentucky made 31 of 34 from the line against the Wolverines, including 14 of 15 in the first half. The Wildcats held a 46-27 edge in rebounding, including 34 on the defensive end.

Utah Valley: Just as Evansville did in its upset, the Wolverines spread the floor and forced the Wildcats to play defense in the open court. The Wolverines made 11 3-pointers to keep the game close.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Wildcats play two more games this week and could move up a spot or two with three victories, although games like this will surely give voters pause. The Wildcats don’t play a ranked opponent again until they take on No. 10 Ohio State at Las Vegas on Dec. 21.

UP NEXT

Utah Valley hosts Lamar on Thursday.

Kentucky hosts Mount St. Mary’s on Friday

Villanova’s Antoine medically cleared for game action

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Freshman guard Bryan Antoine has been medically cleared for game action, Villanova announced on Monday.

Antoine is a former five-star prospect that has missed the first two weeks of the season. He underwent surgery on his shoulder on May 31st.

“Bryan has been fully cleared to play in games and we’re happy for him,” head coach Jay Wright said in a statement. “He’s worked extremely hard in his rehab with Jeff Pierce and John Shackleton to get to this point.

“Our plan is to bring Bryan along slowly. He’s only just returned to practice and the learning curve is steep for any freshman. Bryan’s working hard to catch up and we’re going to do all we can to help him in this transition.”

UConn guard charged with evading police is granted probation

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VERNON, Conn. — UConn guard James Bouknight was accepted Monday into a probation program designed to leave him without a criminal record in connection with a September traffic accident.

The freshman, who was charged with evading responsibility, interfering with police, driving without a license and driving too fast for conditions, was approved by a Connecticut Superior Court judge for admission into the state’s accelerated rehabilitation program for first-time offenders.

Police say Bouknight smelled of alcohol and fled from an officer after driving another student’s car into a road sign near campus early in the morning of Sept. 27.

Under the terms of his probation, the 19-year-old from New York City must stay out of trouble for a year and pay the car’s owner for the damage to the vehicle.

“I made a terrible mistake,” Bouknight told Judge Hope Seeley. “I would like to apologize to my family, my coaches and my team.”

The car’s owner initially told police that about 20 people were in her apartment the night of the accident and her keys had been taken from a counter without permission.

She amended her statement Oct. 13 to say she had been drunk, does not remember giving Bouknight permission to drive the car but did not want to pursue theft charges.

Her family submitted a letter to the court saying it supported accelerated rehabilitation for Bouknight.

Bouknight turned himself in to police Oct. 3 and gave a statement acknowledging responsibility for the crash and saying he had been given permission to drive the car.

The 6-foot-4 guard served a three-game suspension and is expected to play Thursday when UConn (2-1) faces Buffalo in the Charleston Classic.

Outside the courtroom, Bouknight apologized and told reporters he’s learning to be “the student, best athlete, best citizen I can be.”

Dion Waiters seeks advice from Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim

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Dion Waiters returned to his alma mater over the weekend to connect with his college coach and “try to find solutions.”

Waiters is currently a member of the Miami Heat, but he was suspended earlier this month for 10 games after an incident on the team’s charter flight. According to reports, he suffered what has been termed a panic attack after eating edibles infused with THC. This is his second suspension of the season.

“I just wanted to come up and talk to Coach (Boeheim),” Waiters told Syracuse.com. “I know that’s a person who will always be there for me if I ever need anything. It’s a chance for me to come up, be around, talk to the coaches, things like that. And that’s important.”

Waiters was in attendance for Syracuse’s win over Seattle on Saturday and said that he is learning that what his former coach taught him carries some weight.

“I’m older. I understand much more what he tried to teach me when I was 18, 19. I probably was a stubborn kid back then and really didn’t understand at that time,” he told Syracuse.com. “I’m 27 and life is a lot different. Being here, talking to him, picking his brain.

“I’m pretty sure we’ve all been through situations before and Coach, too. Different situations, how he handled it. Just talk to him and try to find solutions.”