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.

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PREDICTED FINISH

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