Will Brown

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