New England border war could decide America East title

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the America East conference.

After four title appearances in the past five seasons, Stony Brook finally captured an America East Conference championship and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. Shortly after an 85-57 loss to Kentucky in the first round, Jameel Warney, the three-time America East Player of the Year and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Carson Puriefoy, an all-America East first team selection, and Rayshaun McGrew, another double digit scorer, all graduated. Before that, on March 19, it was announced that Stony Brook head coach Scott Pikiell was hired by Rutgers.

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It’s more than fair to assume the America East will have a new champion this season. In 2016-17, it may be a border battle between two New England programs.

Vermont, which led Stony Brook by 15 before dropping the 2016 America East title game to the Seawolves, should be tabbed as the favorite. The Catamounts graduated forward Ethan O’Day, but retain essentially every other key piece. The team will be led by Trae Bell-Haynes, who led the team with 12.2 points per game. Taking on an ever larger leadership role, the emphasis for the 6-foot-2 junior is protecting the ball as he looks to cut down on turnovers this season. He’ll be joined on the wing by Ernie Duncan, who averaged double figures in his redshirt freshman season and Kurt Steidl, who started all 36 games for the Catamounts during the 2015-16 season. The frontline will miss the 11.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game O’Day provided, but that void can be filled by a pair of Tulane transfers. Payton Henson, a 6-foot-8 forward, should add a level of toughness to the frontcourt, while Josh Hearlihy should add versatility with the ability to play 3-5 and guard pretty much every position on the floor. The Catamounts have the depth that few teams in the league can compete with night-in and night-out.

With Vermont’s additions down low, this league may come down to the frontcourt. New Hampshire boasts arguably the best one in the conference, headlined by Tanner Leissner. The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 15.9 points and 7.3 boards per game during the 2015-16 season. The frontcourt also includes Iba Camara, the team’s top rebounder also returns from a season ago. Jaleen Smith, a well-rounded guard, who averaged 13.4 points 5.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, will anchor the backcourt, while fellow guard Joe Bramanti will be in charge of locking down the opponent’s top perimeter threat. The Wildcats are coming off a program-record 20 wins and in a good position to secure its first-ever bid into the NCAA Tournament.

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Albany was in the tournament only two seasons ago. However, the Great Danes have lost its three top scorers — Evan Singletary, Peter Hooley and Ray Sanders. Albany’s attempt to reload begins with Joe Cremo, the America East Rookie and Sixth Man of the Year. The 6-foot-4 guard, who averaged 10.5 points and shot 51 percent from the field and 37 percent from three, will be surrounded by a core of junior college transfers. If Will Brown can get this group of newcomers to mesh quickly, the Great Danes can be a legitimate threat. Stony Brook enters the season with a new coach, Jeff Boals, who spent the past seven season at Ohio State. The Seawolves also enter the 2016-17 campaign without 60 percent of its scoring and 50 percent of its rebounding from a season ago. Ahmad Walker will be the focal point for the Seawolves, but how will he handle being “the man” as opposed to being a supporting member?

Binghamton, which returns all five starters, headlined by Willie Rodriguez, has the best chance to make a jump up the conference standings. The Bearcats should serve as a sleeper pick in the America East. Binghamton was in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency, but had one of the worst offenses in all of Division I. Tommy Dempsey has made changes to the backcourt which should improve the ‘Cats’ offensive woes. UMBC guard Jairus Lyles, the top returning scorer in the conference, will anchor a talented perimeter, but the frontcourt is cause for concern, especially in a league where the two favorites are strong in that department.

Hartford and Maine both took big hits this offseason when leading scorers Pancake Thomas (Hartford) and Isaac Vann (Maine) elected to transfer. UMass Lowell, in its third season in Division I basketball, returns three double-figure scorers. The Riverhawks remain ineligible for postseason play for one more season.

EAST LANSING, MI - DECEMBER 5: Matt McQuaid #20 of the Michigan State Spartans tries to steal the ball from Willie Rodriguez #42 of the Binghamton Bearcats during the first half at Breslin Center on December 5, 2015 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
Willie Rodriguez (42) of Binghamton (Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

PRESEASON AMERICA EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tanner Leissner, New Hampshire

In a league that doesn’t have a dominating senior, New Hampshire junior forward Tanner Leissner has a chance to be the league’s top player. He ended the 2015-16 season averaging 15.9 points and 7.3 boards per game and scored 20 or more points 11 times in 30 games. The skilled forward has been part of a winning culture in Durham in his two seasons — 19 wins in 2014-15, a record-setting 20 last year — and has the potential to lead New Hampshire to the conference’s top spot.

 

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON AMERICA EAST TEAM:

  • Trae Bell-Haynes, Vermont: Known for coming up big in crucial situations, Bells-Haynes has the keys to the Catamounts entering this year. He’s the leading scorer and will be in charge of running the offense. Cutting down the turnovers can only help Vermont’s tournament hopes.
  • Willie Rodriguez, Binghamton: The 6-foot-6 small forward has the chance to be the conference player of the year; a player who can turn the Bearcats from rebuild mode to competitor.
  • Ahmad Walker, Stony Brook: The 6-foot-4 guard recorded six double-double a season ago. Will need to be a fixture on offense as he is on defense for the Seawolves this year.
  • Jairus Lyles, UMBC: The VCU transfer became eligible after the first semester, scoring 23.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists in 36.2 minutes per game.

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PREDICTED FINISH

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