Player of the Year: Anthony Lamb, So., Vermont
Coach of the Year: John Becker, Vermont
Newcomer of the Year: Dusan Majstorovic, Jr., Maine
Freshman of the Year: Skyler Nash, Fr., Vermont
Key Returners: Trae Bell-Haynes, Anthony Lamb, Payton Henson, Ernie Duncan
Key Losses: Dre Willis, Kurt Steidl
Key Newcomers: Sam Dingba (Quinnipiac transfer), Ra Kpedi, Skyler Nash, Stefan Smith, Bailey Patella
Postseason Projection: 12-seed (automatic bid)
Outlook: The Catamounts showed no mercy on the America East last season as they finished the conference slate without a single blemish on their resume. Perhaps they were seeking vengeance after getting "Warney-d" in the conference tournament championship back in 2016. And with a returning roster filled to the brim with both established veterans and young talent, it's tough to see anyone dethroning the Catamounts in 2018.
The ticker of this Vermont squad is senior lead guard and reigning conference player of the year Trae Bell-Haynes, but it's his own teammate - Anthony Lamb - who may actually swipe that hardware for his own mantle this season. The inside-out co-dominance of Bell-Haynes conducting the offense on the perimeter and Lamb policing the paint in the middle is simply unmatched in the America East. While there's plenty of skill to be found all across the conference, few players augment that skill with top-tier size and athleticism - precisely what this duo possesses at their respective positions. Lamb is built like a linebacker at 6'6 230 pounds, and is simply too explosive for America East forwards to check him down low. And even without an established long-range jumper, Bell-Haynes still slithers his way into the teeth of the defense almost at will, which often results in an uncontested lay-up or a pocket pass in the hands of one of the many other offensive weapons surrounding him on the floor at all times.
Those weapons will come in the form of both familiar faces and new blood this season. Payton Henson will once again join Lamb in the middle to anchor the most feared front line unit in the entire America East - the Catamounts ranked 1st in the league in both blocked shots and 2-point FG% defense on a per possession basis last year, which is directly attributable to the work of Lamb and Henson down low. So with a formidable front court already in place, it's really not fair that Becker adds a 3-star freshman Ra Kpedi and Quinnipiac transfer Sam Dingba to the mix this year, to go along with a serviceable returning veteran in Drew Urquhart.
If you're trying to poke holes in this established fortress, the only place you may find a soft spot is at the off-guard spot. The departure of Kurt Steidl should not be glossed over given he and Ernie Duncan were the two primary long range marksmen last year who kept opposing defenses from constantly double and triple teaming Lamb on the block. Getting Duncan back is enormous, but a minor gap still lingers at the final starting spot. Will head coach John Becker give the nod to a heady veteran like Cam Ward? Will he opt to play with an ultra-big lineup with Lamb at the 3 and slide Urquhart into the starting 5? Or will he toss a young and promising wing prospect in 3-star recruit Skyler Nash right into the fire from day 1? As my colleague Jim Root always alludes to, it's not who starts, but who finishes that really matters and Becker has plenty of combinations to work with depending on what matchups surface on a game by game basis.
Bottom Line: Becker deserved a ton of credit for his non-conference scheduling this season. With an experienced roster that will have a ton of continuity from last season, the Catamounts should come out of the gates in full lockstep and play high-level basketball right from the get-go. This sets up perfectly for a tough non-con slate in which Vermont will need to be firing on all cylinders if they hope to rack up a few marquee wins early on, which will position themselves for an at-large berth next March. As Becker can attest from the devastating defeat in the America East title game two years ago, avoiding the reliance on the conference tournament is certainly in the Catamounts best interest this year. The bottom line is that this team is absolutely stacked and a lot would have to go wrong for Vermont to not go dancing in 2018.
Key Returners: Joe Cremo, David Nichols, Greg Stire, Devonte
Key Losses: Mike Rowley
Key Newcomers: Alex Foster* (Bradley grad transfer), Xavier Cochran (JUCO), Matt Conway (JUCO), Ahmad Clark (JUCO), Cameron Healy, Adam Lulka, Brank Hank
*Editor's Note: Alex Foster is eligible immediately and has been added to the roster above - Foster is expected to be a key piece in the front court rotation with his size, strength and experience.
Postseason Projection: NIT - CBI/CIT
Outlook: While everyone is already pencilling in Vermont as the 2018 America East conference champions, let me remind you who came within 3 points of stunning the Catamounts at their building in the league title game last year - yup, that's right - the Great Danes of Albany. Allow me to further jog your memory and remind you that not too long ago the pride of New York's capital was the class of the America East - the Great Danes advanced to three straight NCAA tournaments in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Will Brown is a fixture of Albany basketball as he now enters his 17th year as the head honcho of the Great Danes hoops program. No one knows the ins and outs of the America East quite like Brown does, so tread lightly when over confidently betting your house on Vermont to roll through the league this year - I can assure you Brown and his two-headed monster of a backcourt in Joe Cremo and David Nichols will have something to say about that.
Now entering their junior seasons, Cremo and Nichols are ultra-familiar executing Brown's motion-heavy, half-court offense. While Nichols was buried on the pine his freshman season, he exploded onto the scene last year and shockingly overtook his more widely known partner in crime Cremo in the scoring column. Nichols and Cremo assume very similar roles offensively and are in many ways interchangeable at the 1/2 hybrid guard spots, given there isn't a need for a ball-dominant point guard in the offense. Both are steady shooters from the outside, but they do most of their scoring damage inside the arc, whether it be dribble penetration or by coming off a screen away from the ball. Cremo is an especially crafty scorer from the mid-range area and around the rim, using an assortment of unpredictable move combinations to get his shot off or around opposing defenders. Nichols is the more gifted athletically and has one of the quickest first steps off the bounce in the entire conference.
The overarching theme of Will Brown's coaching principles is quite simple - get the ball to the rim and guard it with your life. This is why a stable front line is so pivotal in Brown's preferred style of play on the other end of the floor. With Mike Rowley graduating, the spotlight will shift to last year's leading rebounder Greig Stire, true low-post scorer Travis Charles and all-conference defensive wing Devonte Campbell. Collectively, this trio possesses all the tools you'd want from the 3, 4 and 5 positions to complement Nichols and Cremo on the perimeter.
Bottom Line: In many ways, Will Brown's system at Albany is the kryptonite for teams like Vermont - that is, teams who prefer to methodically work the offense with the intentions of getting a high percentage shot near the rim. And while Vermont has capable 3-point shooters, the way to beat them is to take away their high-major caliber size down low and force them to chuck it from the cheap seats. This matchup analysis is important given that the most likely path to the NCAA tournament for the Great Danes is clipping the Catamounts in the America East championship game. All three matchups last year between the two were painfully slow-paced, which is precisely what Brown wants - limit possessions by extending possessions to narrow the size and talent gap over the course of a 40 minute basketball game.
3. New Hampshire
Key Returners: Tanner Leissner, Iba Camara
Key Losses: Jaleen Smith, Daniel Dion
Key Newcomers: Elijah Jordan, Joshua Hopkins
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT
Outlook: While Albany feels like the most viable threat to Vermont's quest for back to back America East titles, it'd be unjust to completely remove New Hampshire from that discussion. The Wildcats are fresh off their 2nd straight 20-win season in Bill Herrion's 13th year as the main man in charge. It took Herrion over a decade to surpass the .500 mark in conference play, but he's finally found his groove over the past three seasons. This new found glory is largely attributable to a front line that has denied 2nd shot opportunities at an unprecedented rate - not just in the America East, but in the entire country...
The per game rebound numbers won't do the deeds of Iba Camara justice, but please take note of the Senegal native's per possession rebounding dominance over the past two seasons:
Now entering his final rodeo at New Hampshire, Camara will be reunited with 6'7 235 pound bowling ball Jacoby Armstrong, who redshirted last year after being suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. The fact that Armstrong redshirted as a senior is quite bizarre, particularly due to a lingering indefinite suspension, but if he can stay out of the doghouse this season he'll be a major problem for most America East bigs (I can't wait to watch him and Lamb do battle this year). Armstrong's hulk-ish physique begs the question why he hasn't already declared for the NFL draft, but it's that brute strength which makes him impossible to push off the block. Looking back two seasons ago when Camara and Armstrong were both focal points of the Wildcat rotation, I'd expect Herrion to interchange the two at the 5 position. Together, they'll take turns playing alongside the 3rd and final member of the potent New Hampshire front court, Tanner Leissner. Per the chart below, Herrion played some combination of Armstrong/Camara and the more offensive polished Leissner on the floor together on roughly 2 out of every 3 possessions.
Given the glaring contrast of skill sets and stylistic tendencies between Armstrong and Camara - who lean more on their physical gifts - and Leissner - who possesses an endless array of interior post moves - it makes sense that Herrion is so cognisant of balancing out the lineups appropriately.
So with a cornerstone set of forwards in tact, the Wildcats just need to sort out what the perimeter rotations will look like. Herrion admitted this offseason that he rode his two senior co-leads in the backcourt - Jaleen Smith and Daniel Dion - a bit too hard last year, which now leaves a ton of uncertainty as to who will handle the ball, make shots and create for others. Herrion has high hopes for a pair of redshirt juniors in Jordan Reed and Darryl Stewart who will finally see the limelight in 2018. Reed showed signs of his potential down the stretch last season as he saw his shooting percentages and overall offensive efficiency improve throughout conference action after a rough start to his inaugural season in a Wildcat uniform. Stewart has been licking his chops all offseason after being prohibited from playing last year due to the NCAA's [wildly inconsistent] credit acceptance policy. Herrion has high hopes that Steward can translate his success at the JUCO ranks into consistent production in the America East this year.
While the ball handling and shooting reliability is certainly a cause for concern for the unproven backcourt, what is certain is that Reed and Stewart each possess excellent size for their respective guard positions. This should only enhance an already stout defensive unit which will always be anchored on the backend by the big boys in the paint.
What's unique - and perhaps a bit confusing - about the Wildcats defensive tendencies is that despite having one of the bigger front lines in the league, they rarely block shots. Herrion's defensive playbook is built around the principles of defending the 3-point line and being solid in all other facets. In other words, the Wildcats will abstain from gambling for steals and they'll rarely, if ever, be out of position.
Bottom Line: Since Camara, Armstrong and Leissner joined forces in 2015, New Hampshire has trotted out a top-4 defense in the America East in each of the past three seasons. And with an athletic perimeter core consisting of Reed, Stewart and incoming freshman Elijah Jordan, the Wildcats should continue to boast one of the league's premier defenses. The question is can Leissner carry the offensive load without the inside-out balance that Smith and Dion brought to the table last season.
Key Returners: Jairus Lyles, Joe Sherburne, KJ Maura
Key Losses: Will Darley
Key Newcomers: Brandon Horvath, Dan Akin, Max Portmann
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT
Outlook: As much as I hate to overreact to a relatively small sample size - in this case, one season - Ryan Odom may have been a grand slam hire for UMBC. With all due respect to his predecessor Aki Thomas, the Retrievers were simply an irrelevant member of the America East conference over the four year span from 2013 to 2016. I'm not implying Odom walked on to campus, waved his wand and magically turned the Retrievers from a 7-win dumpster fire to a 20-win America East contender all by himself, but he was certainly the common denominator in that remarkable turn around.
While UMBC played relatively up-tempo in the years leading up until Odom's arrival, the Retrievers took on a persona of their own mascot and ran at an even faster pace last season. UMBC boasted the A-East's 3rd shortest average offensive possession two years ago, but stepped on the gas even harder last season with the league's shortest average possession duration of just a tick under 16 seconds. And while Odom rightfully deserves the credit for last year's transformation, it doesn't seem like rocket science to let the strength of your team dictate the style of play.
That strength comes in the form of arguably the most dynamic backcourt in the conference capable of going toe-to-toe with the esteemed Vermont and Albany guards on any given night. While rising senior and alumnus of the renowned DeMatha high school Jarius Lyles will get all the notoriety, what brought this team together last season was the injection of an unselfish floor general in KJ Maura. Despite standing 5'8 on his tippy-toes, the Puerto Rican native is as quick as they come and instantly became the glue in the Retrievers' offensive attack last season. The forgotten 3rd component of the backcourt is veteran Jourdan Grant, a jack of all trades contributor whose versatility has made him a fixture in the the black and gold for three consecutive years. He split time at the 3rd perimeter spot with wing/forward tweener Joe Shelburne last year, but Grant will continue to be a key cog in the core rotation for Odom this season - it's worth noting that Grant is currently the only player in school history to compete in 30 or more games in three straight seasons.
What made the Retrievers' so hard to guard last season was the fact that Odom would showcase a 4-out, 1-in lineup that was made possible by the long range marksmanship of a prototype stretch forward in Will Darley. Darley was not your typical low-volume, high-percentage stretch shooter - he canned 45% of a whopping 187 attempts from behind the arc. So while Odom was somewhat of a one trick pony (a 10.4% defensive rebounding rate is poor for a 6'8 forward), replacing his shooting efficiency at that volume will be a major challenge for Odom. Expect Shelburne to slide over to a small ball 4, which will allow Odom to play Shelburne and Grant at the same time next to Nolan Gerrity at the 5. Gerrity is a more standard option at the 5 as a true low-post presence and serviceable shot-blocker, and super freak athlete Arkel Lamar could actually get some run at "center" as well. Lamar is tailor-made for Odom's system as a more perimeter-oriented slasher on offense, and was shockingly the Retrievers' top two-way rebounder on a per possession basis despite standing just 6'5 - expect his lackluster shooting numbers to improve as he continues to refine his offensive game.
Bottom Line: The ability to consistently get stops on the defensive end is the only thing standing between UMBC and a top-3 finish in the conference. Last year, the Retrievers' couldn't keep dribble penetration out of the lane, which forced an undermanned frontline to resort to fouling in order to prevent uncontested layups at the rim. The guards and wings need to improve at slowing down penetration at the point of attack, while Lamar and Gerrity - though polar opposite in appearance and physique - will once again anchor the middle. Despite the defensive concerns, the offensive firepower alone should guarantee Odom a second straight top-5 finish in the league and any significant improvement on the other end will help the Retrievers inch their way even higher in the final standings.
5. Stony Brook
Key Returners: Tyrell Sturdivant, Akwasi Yeboah
Key Losses: Lucas Woodhouse
Key Newcomers: Jason Cornish (JUCO)
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: No Warney. No problem. That sums up the attitude of Jeff Boals' first season at the helm in Stony Brook after replacing the late great Steve Pikiell (Pikiell was churning out 20-win seasons like a McDonald's assembly line before bolting for Rutgers). Boals just missed the opportunity to coach one of the all-time mid-major greats in Jameel Warney - whose heroics in the America East 2016 championship game should never be forgotten (43 points on 18/22 shooting, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks and just 1 foul) - but he did catch the tail end of a cerebral, hyper-skilled point guard in Lucas Woodhouse last season. Surrounding Woodhouse on the floor last year were a bunch of unknown commodities who Boals did a masterful job of molding into defined roles. While Pikiell's teams were best known for declaring war on the rim on both ends of the floor with plus size, Boals had to transition the Seawolves to a more perimeter-oriented identity in order to revolve the offense around Woodhouse. So now with Woodhouse moving on to greener pastures, it's officially the beginning of a new era in Stony Brook.
Boals will look to build around the duo of Tyrell Sturdivant and Akwasi Yeboah, both of whom are tricky matchups for opposing forwards. The 6'7 senior Sturdivant was an understudy to Warney for his first two collegiate seasons and finally got his time to shine last year as the featured interior low post weapon. And while his production was by no means anything to snuff at last season, nagging injuries somewhat limited his ceiling and overall efficiency in the alpha scoring role. I'm betting on a big senior season for Sturdviant now with one year of experience as the featured offensive option under his belt, but his output may actually be surpassed by the uber talented and versatile Englishman in Yeboah...
The following clip gives a glimpse into the beautiful, positionless nature of Yeboah's game:
While Yeboah was an overqualified 6th man in his first full season at the D1 level, he'll be a flexible asset for Boals this year with his ability to rotate across the 3, 4 and 5 positions rather seamlessly. This should allow Boals to continue playing Sturdivant, and other forwards Jakub Petras and Junior Saintell at their familiar spots on both ends of the floor.
The glaring question mark is point guard: How and/or with who do you replace the on-floor management ability of Lucas Woodhouse and his automatic stroke from downtown...
Rising sophomore Michael Almonacy is the odds on favorite to get the first crack at filling those enormous shoes, but that prognosis is based more on a lack of alternative options rather than Almonacy's actual on-floor production or recruiting potential. Outside of Almonacy, Boals may have to tinker with lineups that feature five guys that all stand anywhere from 6'5 - 6'7 - this may imply Yeboah and Bryan Sekunda may actually have to help bring the ball up and initiate the offense, which would be a major adjustment from the roles they played last season.
Bottom Line: The advanced metrics will be the first to tell you that this team massively overachieved last year given their 12-4 2nd place conference record did not match up with their 5th ranked efficiency margin, per kenpom.com. While that disparity is indicative of the masterful coaching work by Boals in his first season, I'm biased towards what the stats say and they are warning me that a regression may be in store for Stony in 2018. The counterforce pushing against such a regression is a looming breakout season for Yeboah, who could be in-store for a special sophomore campaign.
6. UMass Lowell
Key Returners: Jahad Thomas, Matt Harris, Ryan Jones
Key Losses: Tyler Livingston
Key Newcomers: Shawn Jones, Joey Naccarato, Obadiah Noel
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Before diving into to the actual UMass Lowell preview, I'm sending out an SOS to anyone out there willing and able to explain to me the rationale behind - and the process associated with - the NCAA's 4-year transition period. During this time, any team making the leap from Division II to Division I - precisely what the Riverhawks set out to do four years ago - is disqualified from participating in postseason competition, which includes both the conference tournaments and all of the notable postseason tournaments. UMass Lowell is finally out of timeout and 2018 marks the first season the Riverhawks are eligible for postseason action.
While I'm sure head coach Pat Duquette would've much rather participated in the America East conference tournament over the last four years, the stars may have aligned just right from a timing perspective. The in-conference record dip from 2016 to 2017 doesn't reflect the incremental strides made last year as the Riverhawks continued to build around an enticing core of Ryan Jones, Matt Harris and Jahad Thomas. Under the 'no rules, no restrictions' policy of Pat Duqette's run-and-gun offense, this three-pronged unit has stuffed the offensive stat columns over the past two seasons. Jones and Harris resemble prototypical combo guards with a score-first mindset that do most of their damage from behind the arc. This duo was largely responsible for the Riverhawks top -40 nationally ranked team 3-point shooting percentage last season as Jones & Harris connected on 39% of their triples.
Jones, Harris and promising JUCO newcomer Shawn Jones will all feed off of the play of Jahad Thomas, who is the the undisputed conductor of the Riverhawks' lightning paced offense. At 6'2 215 pounds, Thomas is a unique talent who can't be pigeon-holed into any of the five traditional positions on the floor. He slashes with reckless abandon and can simply outmuscle his defender to create space for an open shooting window once he gets deep into the lane. If he continues to expand his offensive arsenal outside just his patented left-handed, heads-down dribble drive, he will be a major problem for opposing defenses. His outside jumper is still a work in progress with range that tops out at the midrange area, but his work ethic is evident in the impressive 17% improvement in his conversion rate from the charity stripe from 2016 to 2017. This is not only indicative of him rounding out a more dynamic offensive skill set, but it's also critical given how frequently he draws trips to the free throw line with his bully ball mentality. After tearing the ACLs in both of his knees earlier in his collegiate career, it's astounding how well he's responded considering how dependent he is on the quick burst and leaping ability around the rim.
Bottom Line: The challenge for the Riverhawks is mitigating their lack of upfront height, which has manifested in opposing teams scoring at ease inside. For as strong and athletic as Thomas is, his 6'2 frame limits his ability to protect the rim, especially since he typically bangs with true 4s and 5s on the defensive end. Last season Duquette frequently played a 5-out offensive lineup with Tyler Livingston - a 6'6 stretch wing - at the 5 next to Thomas down low, which left a glaring hole in the middle on defense. With Dontavious Smith returning and Josh Gantz expected to be fully healthy after breaking his leg last season, the Riverhawks have two plus athletes with both the size needed to check bigger post players down low, but also the lateral quickness needed to rotate and recover on the back end - this is critical whenever Duquette decides to ramp up the defensive pressure with a multitude of trapping schemes on the perimeter. The bottom line is that this should be Duquette's best team since UMass Lowell moved up the totem pole to the D1 ranks, but it's tough to envision this squad cracking the top-5.
Key Returners: JC Show, Willie Rodriguez
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Caleb Stewart (JUCO), Albert Odero
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: The obvious headline for the Bearkats heading into 2018 is the return of the "J.C. Show show" - note: his last name is actually pronounced "Sh-ow" which rhymes with "how", so that intro grabber doesn't really make much sense :( - oh well, let's carry on...
Before Show's sophomore campaign was cut short after just 12 games last year, he was "show"-ing flashes of brilliance as one of the premier sharpshooters in the America East. Show's 39% 3-point percentage is rather impressive when you consider the lack of air space he typically has on offense, which forces him to jack up highly contested shots whenever he gets a moment of daylight. In order for Show to carry forward his hot start from last season, point guards Timmy Rose and Yosef Yacob must continue to improve as primary facilitators. Rose is first on the depth chart and appeared to solidify that spot last season by cutting down on his carelessness with the basketball after a rocky freshman season. Both Rose and Yacob were key variables in the monumental shooting improvement the Bearkats made as a team from 2016 to 2017 - that clip should trend even higher with a full season of Show bombing away from the outside.
Joining Show off the ball will be the bedrock of the Binghamton basketball program over the past few seasons: 6'6 wing Willie Rodriguez. Rodriguez should be commended for playing through injury last year, but when healthy and right, he is a truly multi-dimensional weapon on both ends of the floor. The encouraging sign about Rodriguez' development last season was the improvement in his long-range jumper, which rose to 41% in conference play - a far cry from his sub-30% conversion rate in the two years prior. Rodriguez has never been the poster child of efficiency, but last year's shooting renaissance combined with a full offseason to rest and recover, should culminate in a breakout performance as a senior.
Much like Rodriguez, the other notable members of the core rotation are all experienced guys who have earned their chops playing meaningful minutes in each of the past two seasons. The combination of Bobby Ahearn, Thomas Bruce and Dusan Perovic should give head coach Tommy Dempsey a deep set of forwards to work with, but none present any real upside on the offensive end. Perhaps the addition of 6'9 stretch forward in Caleb Stewart can help ease the scoring burden off of Show and Rodriguez and provide some much needed floor spacing on the offensive end.
Bottom Line: Tommy Dempsey finally has an experienced and healthy roster (*knock on wood*) entering his 7th season at the helm in upstate New York. These dynamics should help boost the Bearkats win total by a few games this year in the A-East after sharing the basement with Maine last season.
Key Returners: Jason Dunne, Hassan Attia
Key Losses: Jalen Ross
Key Newcomers: Travis Weatherington
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Head coach John Gallagher has shared the same frustrations as Binghamton's head coach Tommy Dempsey over the past few seasons - inexperience and health misfortunes have put a ceiling on their respective teams' potential. That should no longer be an issue this season as Gallagher will lean on a core rotation of primarily upperclassmen this year. However, the lingering thorn in Gallagher's side will be figuring how to replace the scoring production of Jalen Ross, who posted the league's 2nd highest usage rate last year.
The key to the Hawks success in 2018 centers around the growth of Jason Dunne, who could be in-store for a monster junior campaign. Dunne has deferred to two ball dominant guards in each of his first two seasons in Hartford (Ross last year and Pancake Thomas the year prior), but he'll now become the clear cut alpha on offense. There are 452 shots to go around this season with the departure of Ross, the majority of which should be gobbled up by Dunne who jacked up 200 3s of his own last year. There is no team in the America East who will be more leveraged on the offensive efficiency of any one player than Hartford will be on Dunne this season. In Gallagher's trigger happy offense that gives anyone who steps on the floor the green light to chuck it from deep, Dunne must continue to improve his long range precision. His steady 75% stroke from the free throw line is an indicator that he could further advance an already solid 37% conversion rate from downtown.
While there isn't a defined owner of the point guard duties, JR Lynch typically kick starts the offense and is a much more willing passer than Dunne and should also gobble up some of those shot opportunities left on the table by Ross' exodus. Gallagher added to his long range shooting repository with the addition of Travis Weatherington, a highly regarded 3-point shooter that should assimilate perfectly to Gallagher's system. Rounding out the laundry list of shooting weapons is stretch forward/wing Jack Hobbs, a key returning starter from last year's team.
While the 3-point reliant offense tends to lean heavily on the guard play, the frontcourt is sneaky deep as well. While Egyptian Hassan Attia's commanding presence will once again anchor the middle of Gallagher's extended 2-3 zone, the real X-factor is Irish big man John Carroll. Carroll has simply been a shell of himself since an ACL tear cost him the entire 2015-16 campaign as he struggled to return to top form last season. And while he doesn't quite fit with the bombs away style of this offense, he gives Gallagher a different scoring dimension on the low block which could add some much needed balance to the offense.
Bottom Line: While the Hawks success on a night to night basis will be largely contingent on how hot they are from downtown, the defensive end on the floor is where Gallagher must make some adjustments. Despite having a monster like Attia in the middle, Gallagher's recent affection for playing zone has somewhat reduced the value of Attia on the defensive end, particularly on the glass:
Attia is a one man wrecking crew on the boards, but he alone cannot cover up the many soft spots that arise from typical 2-3 zones. And those soft spots become even wider with the wrinkle that Gallagher embeds in this particular zone, which allows the top two guards and two baseline wings to gamble and extend far beyond the paint in hopes of jumping passing lanes to generate steals. And while the Hawks did lead the league in steal rate last year, they were often gashed on the backend whenever their rolls of the dice didn't pay off. I'd hope Gallagher reels in his defense to be more protective this season and maximize the value of a weapon like Attia down low.
Key Returners: Aaron Calixte, Ilker Er, Andrew Fleming
Key Losses: Wes Myers
Key Newcomers: Dusan Majstorovic (LaSalle transfer)
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Welp, let's make this one snappy - the Black Bears of Maine have tallied just 9 total wins over the past three seasons as Bob Walsh has struggled to keep a consistent team on the floor. The high rate of transfers, suspensions and injuries has forced Walsh to constantly patch up roster holes with quick fixes, which has - not surprisingly - resulted in poor chemistry on the floor, and especially off the floor. The below excerpt recaps a local report from a "jaw"-dropping incident in which a locker room fight broke out over a dispute about what music was playing:
Basketball staff and players later told police that the fight started after Myers told Pirovic to turn off his music in the locker room. Pirovic refused, and Myers tried to forcibly turn it off. At that point, the police report said, the two players started fighting and Myers broke Pirovic’s jaw with one punch. The fight abruptly stopped when they realized that Pirovic was hurt and together Myers, Pirovic, and a few teammates cooked up the story that Pirovic had fallen in the shower to avoid getting in trouble. Pirovic didn’t want to press charges, and in a written statement given to police he said that both players were at fault for an argument that got out of hand, per the Bangor Daily News, who first reported on the fight last night.
It's tough to find a positive spin on the 2018 outlook for Bob Walsh, but I'll highlight two players I think are most likely to move the needle this season:
- Andrew Fleming: Maine's top returning scorer essentially used last year as one extended practice session, which helped him quickly adjust to the speed and physicality of D1 game and further hone his collection of crafty interior moves. Given the turmoil he witnessed last year inside the locker room, I'm shocked he didn't join five of his former teammates who opted to transfer this summer.
- Dusan Majstorovic: The former La Salle transfer could emerge as one of the Bears top scorers this season and provide some additional floor spacing for Fleming to operate down low - he'll likely be slotted next to 3-point specialist Ilker Er and serviceable point guard Aaron Calixte on the perimeter.
Bottom Line: Maine actually wasn't horrific on the defensive end last year, ranking a respectable 5th overall in adjusted defensive efficiency in the America East - it was their complete incompetence at putting the ball in the basket that sent the Black Bears into a tailspin. The freshman to sophomore leap of Fleming and the insertion of Majstorovic are two flickering rays of hope for some marginal improvement in 2018, but it's hard to envision a scenario where Maine climbs out of the gutter this season.