Perennial America East Player of the Year Jameel Warney returns for senior season, continuing Stony Brook's chase for Seawolves' elusive first NCAA Tournament appearance. (Photo courtesy of Big Apple Buckets)
Conference preview season is now upon us, but as opposed to the "32 In 32" series we have done in the past, we take on a more local focus this season with a closer look at the conferences up and down the Eastern seaboard.
First up to be profiled is the America East, where three-time reigning champion Albany will once again be in the thick of things as Will Brown and the Great Danes, who celebrated their most recent league title on Peter Hooley's three-pointer with 1.6 seconds remaining in regulation, face renewed challenges from longtime rivals Stony Brook and Vermont, not to mention an up-and-coming New Hampshire team that reached its first postseason one year ago.
While the top four may be a consensus, the America East will continue to provide its usual high quality basketball throughout the season in each of its nine members, who are listed below in the order of our preseason predictions:
1) Stony Brook - At the start of last season, Steve Pikiell referenced his team's youth, yet still guided the Seawolves to a near-masterpiece of a season, falling just agonizingly short in another championship game that added another frustrating chapter to Stony Brook's quixotic hunt for the first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history. Several months later, Pikiell and the Seawolves may have their best shot yet to finally end the second-guessing as to when the affable head coach will finally win the big one. Senior forward Jameel Warney, already considered one of the greatest players in America East history, returns for one final season as one of four incumbent starters, a group that includes his classmates, Carson "Tre" Puriefoy and Rayshaun McGrew, as well as sophomores wingman Roland Nyama. Kameron Mitchell and Deshaun Thrower augment a deep backcourt that also welcomes Longwood transfer and Long Island native Lucas Woodhouse, a gifted passer who will free up Puriefoy to play off the ball at times. Ahmad Walker rejoins the Seawolves after a year in junior college, and will fill out a rotation that also includes the likes of sophomores Tyrell Sturdivant and Bryan Sekunda, the latter a dead-eye shooter who got better as last season went on.
2) Albany - Even with three consecutive championships in tow, Will Brown's group comes up a very close second in this prognostication, although the Great Danes will almost certainly make another deep run through the America East Tournament next March. To most programs, the task of replacing a player who was the heart and soul of the team the way Sam Rowley was would be unenviable, but Albany returns six of their top eight scorers for their latest encore, including the aforementioned Hooley, the Australian hero who rejoins Evan Singletary and Ray Sanders in a troika of senior guards. Up front, 6-11 Canadian Richard Peters returns for his junior season, and Brown hinted to us in the offseason that he may continue to play Dallas Ennema as a stretch four to create a matchup advantage while Mike Rowley, Sam's younger brother, continues to blossom going into his junior season. Talented freshman guard Joe Cremo and sophomore forward Greig Stire should see their fair share of minutes as well for the other half of the America East's two-headed monster at the top.
3) Vermont - Not to be outdone by either of the top two, John Becker and the Catamounts head into the season with four returning starters of their own, headlined by surefire all-America East forward Ethan O'Day, who anchors the interior for a fourth and final season in Burlington. Junior Dre Wills and sophomore Trae Bell-Haynes reprise their roles in a backcourt that welcomes back Ernie Duncan, whose back injury last season cost him all but four games as a medical redshirt. Cam Ward, the co-Sixth Man of the Year in the America East last season, is back for his sophomore campaign as well. Up front, Kurt Steidl and Drew Urquhart look to improve on solid contributions as role players last season, and former Hofstra glue guy Darren Payen should be a stable force alongside O'Day in the paint for a team that will no doubt be in the postseason mix once more.
4) New Hampshire - Eight of Bill Herrion's top nine scorers return for the Wildcats this season, with reigning America East Rookie of the Year Tanner Leissner entering his sophomore season as a dark horse Player of the Year contender and favorite for first team all-conference honors when all is said and done. Fellow Texan Jaleen Smith, New Hampshire's assists and steals leader last season, is back for his junior year as Herrion's floor general, with sharpshooter Daniel Dion once again partnering up alongside him while Ronnel Jordan takes on a bigger role. Jacoby Armstrong, who averaged almost ten points per game as a sophomore, will once again team up with Leissner down low as Iba Camara and Frank Okeke will see significant minutes as their backups.
5) Binghamton - Tommy Dempsey and a young Bearcats squad battled their way through a 6-26 season filled with growing pains (a 2-20 start) and a promising end to the season, highlighted by a win over Vermont and a near-upset of Stony Brook in the America East quarterfinals. Sophomore Willie Rodriguez, Binghamton's leading scorer in an All-Rookie season a year ago, leads a cast that returns nearly everyone to its ensemble, including 6-9 center Dusan Perovic, whose torn ACL limited him to just 15 games as a freshman. Guards Romello Walker and Marlon Beck II anchor the backcourt, which also features sophomore Justin McFadden and redshirt freshman John Schurman on the wings. Burgeoning big man Bobby Ahearn, the Bearcats' third-leading rebounder in just 19.8 minutes per game last year, and incoming freshman Thomas Bruce of the vaunted DeMatha Catholic program, will shore up the front line and increase scoring opportunities for Rodriguez and the guards of a true sleeper pick in the America East.
6) Hartford - The Hawks rebound from a disappointing 2014-15 campaign, and do so by attempting to replace a senior core whose nucleus, forward Mark Nwakamma, is now playing overseas in Israel. Guards Taylor Dyson and Justin Graham, the latter having served as Hartford's top reserve en route to splitting co-Sixth Man of the Year honors with Vermont's Cam Ward last season, will hope to carry their marksmanship into their senior and junior years, respectively, while Irishman John Carroll builds off a solid rookie season as the top returning forward for head coach John Gallagher. A trio of transfers will have the opportunity to make an immediate impact for the Hawks, with Eastern Michigan expatriate Jalen Ross and New Mexico castoff Cleveland Thomas joining the backcourt, while one-time Fordham role player Jake Fay chips in up front.
7) Maine - Bob Walsh takes the helm for his second season in Orono hoping to improve on the Black Bears' 3-27 record from one year ago. The good news for Walsh is that both of his leading scorers, sophomore shooting guard Kevin Little and senior forward Till Gloger, are back to spearhead the effort. Sophomore point guard Aaron Calixte also returns, as does senior Shaun Lawton, who led the Black Bears in steals last season. The front line is still a work in progress, but Maine welcomes back Canadian Marko Pirovic after he was limited to only nine games last year, and junior Garet Beal should take another step forward. Vincent Eze, a 6-8 freshman who decommitted from Manhattan and was signed by Walsh in the offseason, should also see an immediate impact.
8) UMass Lowell - Pat Duquette's River Hawks are young, with nine players on their roster entering either their freshman or sophomore seasons, including their leader, sophomore guard Jahad Thomas. Thomas, UMass Lowell's leading scorer and rebounder last season, should be ready to go for the season opener after rehabbing from a torn ACL that prematurely ended a rookie season that saw the Pennsylvania native garner All-Rookie and third team all-league honors. Fellow sophomore Matt Harris should join the starting lineup this season after a promising sixth man freshman year that saw him lead the team with 47 three-pointers, on which he connected at a 37 percent clip. Redshirt freshmen Dontavious Smith and Josh Gantz should lighten the load up front along with junior Tyler Livingston, while Jordan Shea returns from a medical redshirt to partner with Thomas and Harris in a backcourt that will see a competition at the point guard spot among a trio of rookies in Keith Hayes, Ryan Jones, and Isaac White.
9) UMBC - The Retrievers have nowhere to go but up after a 4-26 season last year, and the future looks promising under head coach Aki Thomas. Leading scorer Wayne Sparrow has graduated, but 6-8 forward Cody Joyce leads the charge going into his senior season in Baltimore, one in which he will have to carry the load in the paint for a guard-heavy roster. Junior wing Will Darley should help Joyce on the boards, but the highest potential on this team comes from sophomore guards Jourdan Grant (40 assists per game last season) and Malcolm Brent, (.366 three-point percentage) who will be joined by VCU transfer Jairus Lyles after the first semester concludes.
2015-16 America East First Team Predictions
Player of the Year: Jameel Warney (F - Stony Brook)
Ethan O'Day (F - Vermont)
Tanner Leissner (F - New Hampshire)
Peter Hooley (G - Albany)
Evan Singletary (G - Albany)