Friday, March 7, 2008

America East Conference Tournament Preview

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The America East Conference looked like it might feature a tight league race down the stretch, but the second half destroyed any of those thoughts. From mid-January on, this was Maryland-Baltimore County’s league. The Retrievers won nine of their last 10 games to finish in first-place by three games over Hartford and Albany. Three teams finished 9-7, with just three teams finishing below .500 in conference play. On the other hand, just one team finished more than one game above .500 overall.

Favorite: Based on the way it finished the season, UMBC has to be considered the odds-on favorite to win the conference tournament. Interestingly enough, the Retrievers have the farthest to travel for the tourney, which is held in Binghamton, as they are the only school south of New York. They also have the best talent in the league, led by four players that average at least 13 points per game and the best distributor in the league, Jay Greene. Ray Barbosa and Brian Hodges are big scorers on the perimeter, while Darry Proctor and Cavell Johnson form the best interior duo in the conference.

Contenders: Hartford has some momentum heading into the league tourney, as the Hawks have won six of their last eight games, including a win over UMBC in the season finale. They are a very good outside shooting team, and their defense thrives on turnovers. Joe Zeglinski is a very good scorer on the perimeter, while forwards Warren McLendon and Morgan Sabia anchor things up front. Perennial power Albany is another team that you can’t count out. The Great Danes have lost a lot from last season’s NCAA Tournament squad, but swingman Brian Lillis is one of the best all-around players in the conference and Brent Wilson has ample experience. They are a tremendous rebounding team that gets offensive boards at one end and denies them at the other.

Sleeper: Outside of the top three teams, it’s entirely up-for-grabs. Even though Vermont is the No. 4 seed, the Catamounts are going to be my team to watch. They have to play at host Binghamton in the opener, then will get UMBC in the semifinals. However, Vermont might have the best duo in the conference in guard Mike Trimboli and Marquis Blakely, a 20-10 lock every night out. Don’t count out the Catamounts.

Prediction: Heading into the year, I really wanted to go with UMBC to win the conference. The Retrievers had a lot of talent, but a lot of it was from transfers, so chemistry was a question. I ended up choosing them to finish fourth, but I said how they could be the best team in the league come conference tournament time. Well, I’m not going against them this time. They have a tremendous starting five, with options both inside and out, and a point guard in Jay Greene to keep everyone happy. The Retrievers simply have too much talent to lose to anyone else in the America East in a big game.

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