The America East carries a recent history as a league with leveraged competitiveness through five members. Albany, however, upset the top-to-bottom insanity of the league in 2013, and the Great Danes are poised to once again rule the conference with a despotic fist of injustice. That fact, though, doesn't totally erase the relative balance that the league promotes: Stony Brook, UMBC, Binghamton, and Hartford are competitive peers, even if the delineations between the four schools are subtly pronounced and important. The invitations to the America East Tournament were decided as late as possible a season ago, and it appears as if the fight for three of the four bids to the league tournament in 2014 could feature just as much bloodlust as it did in 2013. The strength of the league, consequently, isn't Albany as a dark horse candidate for a trip to Baltimore in late-May; it's that every league date matters in the America East, something that many conferences can't claim as an attribute to their efforts.
Underlying background information -- team and league storylines -- that structures the plot.
|4-YR. AVG. LEAGUE PYTHAG. WIN EXPECT. (POWER)
|4-YR. AVG. LEAGUE PYTHAG. WIN EXPECT. STDEV (INTERNAL COMPETITIVENESS)
|AVERAGE PYTH. WIN EXP.
- The Great Danes are the class of the America East this season and it's not even close. I'm not sure that there's another league in 2014 that has one team as heavy of a favorite as Albany will be in its conference this season. Unless something goes violently wrong for the Great Danes as the year unfolds, Albany should have a lock on the America East's automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament. And that's exactly the concern that penetrates the Great Danes' existence this coming spring: (1) Will Albany avoid lapses in performance in league play to ensure the conference's bid to The Big Barbecue; and (2) If Albany falters in the America East Tournament, will the Great Danes have enough juice on their resume to earn an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament. The second layer of the concern is more important than the first: Albany went 2-3 against teams ranked in the top 20 in Pythagorean win expectation last year (each win was by one goal). Will a similar record in 2014 push Albany toward a May adventure should the America East's guaranteed path not work out for the Great Danes? That's scary and fun at the same time.
- The Bearcats are on the hunt for wins this season, but there's something more pressing for Binghamton: Noted developmental growth in Scott Nelson's third season in Vestal. Increased victories are often the residue of maturation, but wins and losses are often dictated more by who you play than tangible development in performance. The Bearcats did a handful of things well last season that signal that Binghamton is headed in the right direction -- the team wasn't prone to committing penalties; man-down efforts improved; and the team received stabilizing play in the crease -- but indicia of limiters to competitiveness remain -- the team was one of the worst in the nation in valuing the ball (especially at controlling unforced turnovers) and offensive shooting percentage. These are fundamental issues that Binghamton needs to control in 2014 to take the step that the program seeks. Once baseline production points change into the positive, the Bearcats could see a higher volume of wins.
- The departure of Jack Bobzien for Denver was a major loss for the Hawks in the offseason, but Hartford's 2014 season isn't necessarily defined by how the Hawks replace his efforts. The Hartford storyline is built around maintaining an offensive identity that generates assisted tallies at a high rate while efficiently making the scoreboard blink. Over the last two seasons, the Hawks have ranked as one of the best in the nation at sharing the bean at the offensive end, producing offensive assist rate values that stand in contrast to the talent that the Hawks are perceived to have on their roster. Despite holding high offensive share rates, though, the team's offensive efficiency slipped from ninth in the nation in 2012 to 41st in 2013. That's a problematic issue: The Hawks are getting the looks they want, but the offense has slowed in its production. This isn't a fill-Bobzien's-hole issue; this is a fill-Bobzien's-Compitello's-Bender's-et al.-hole issue. The roster is the roster at Hartford, and the team needs to find consistent offensive competence on that roster to avoid having to grope out wins.
- The Seawolves' were one of the most fun teams in the nation to watch in 2013, but Stony Brook had a fatal flaw that limited the Seawolves from achieving national recognition and praise: Stony Brook was abysmal at generating and maximizing offensive opportunities. Much was made in 2013 of Syracuse's possession issues, but the Orange were livin' the dream compared to Stony Brook:
STONY BROOK'S PERVASIVE POSSESSION PROBLEMS METRIC VALUE NT'L RANK Opportunities per 60 Minutes Margin -5.22 60 Possession Ratio 46.05% 60 Faceoff Percentage 40.43% 57 Clearing Percentage 82.55% 55 Ride Percentage 9.42% 58
- It is really difficult to win without balance. There are only a few teams in the nation that can get away with the ability to lift a Volkswagen with their right arm and an inability to lift a pen with their left. UMBC is not one of those teams, and the program's continued deficiency on the defensive end of the field has limited the team's ability to truly contend in the America East:
UMBC: 2010-2013 YEAR RECORD ADJUSTED DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY RANK ADJUSTED OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY RANK 2013 7-8 (3-2) 51st 31st 2012 5-8 (3-2) 52nd 37th 2011 6-7 (3-2) 53rd 38th 2010 4-9 (3-2) 32nd 36th
- The Catamounts, long a basement dweller in Division I, drastically decreased their overall strength of schedule from 2012 to 2013. The result was an increase in the team's winning percentage by about 15 percent (the Catamounts were two wins better in 2013 compared to 2012). It's unclear whether the team's strength of schedule will continue its drop in pursuit of victories in 2014, but the team has a crucial stretch from early-March until late-March where Vermont will see five teams -- Boston University, VMI, Richmond, Wagner, and Sacred Heart -- that will define Vermont's season. If the Catamounts fail to come out of that stretch unscathed, the team's season may spiral into the abyss. If they move through that portion of their agenda with total victory, the Catamounts could build the kind of momentum that has eluded the program since 2006. Vermont is in a tough spot in a lot of ways, and simply understanding the components to winning is the biggest issue surrounding the program right now.
Four important conference games that will define the discussion.
GAME I: Stony Brook at Albany -- April 12th
GAME II: Albany at UMBC -- April 19th
GAME III: Stony Brook at UMBC -- March 28th
GAME IV: Binghamton at Hartford -- March 29th
Illustrating the landscape of the universe.
The America East looks like it will shake out in three tiers this season: Tier I -- Albany; Tier II -- a mess of UMBC, Stony Brook, Binghamton, and Hartford; and Tier III -- Vermont. The potential sub-tiers in Tier II are especially interesting: Stony Brook and UMBC look stronger than Hartford and Binghamton, but that is still an unorganized pit in the meaty middle of the conference. The race for America East Tournament positions in Tier II is what's going to make the league a watchable product this coming spring; movement in that tier could be fluid and somewhat surprising. Slotting teams in that tier proved difficult, and the margins between positions two and three and positions four and five are essentially non-existent.