Albany has dominated the America East over the last two seasons, stringing together consecutive unbeaten league campaigns en route to the conference's automatic invitation to The Big Barbeque. The question dominating the league prior to the start of 2015 is necessarily related to the Great Danes' recent fury within the America East: Is the combination of Albany's losses through graduation and the presumed development of programs that have traditionally helped define the top of the conference table enough to preclude the Danes from, once again, asserting despotic rule over an otherwise balanced league?
Examining the America East's regular season conference-only results over the last five seasons, three themes emerge: (1) Programs can get hot and surge over a handful of seasons; (2) The top crust of the league isn't all that far from the meaty middle of the league; and (3) Vermont has had massive issues competing in the America East.
There are tiers in the league, but those tiers -- save for the Catamounts' existence at the lowest level of the hierarchy -- aren't all that different from each other. This is the volition that the league may take if Albany's run of influence is mitigated in 2015.
Underlying background information -- team and league storylines -- that structures the plot.
|Four-Year Average Conference Adjusted Pythagorean Win Expectation Value (Conference Strength)||45.39%||7|
|Four-Year Average Conference Adjusted Pythagorean Win Expectation Value Rank (Conference Strength)||6.75||7|
|Standard Deviation of League Members' Adjusted Pythagorean Win Expectation Values (Internal Competitiveness)||0.1328||3|
|Average Standard Deviation of League Members' Adjusted Pythagorean Win Expectation Value Rank (Internal Competitiveness)||3.25||3|
|TEAM||AVG. APYTH. WIN EXP.||NT'L RANK||AVG. APYTH. WIN EXP. RANK||NT'L RANK|
- The Great Danes have issues more pressing than the potential path that it will take through the NCAA Tournament should Albany qualify as the America East's representative, but the team's potential positioning as a play-in game participant is dangerous for the Danes. This wasn't an issue with the Great Danes last season -- Albany had an RPI ranking of 13th, strong enough to assure the Danes of direct entry into the bracket-proper as a auto-bid team -- but 2015 may create issues for Albany if the Great Danes aren't as strong as they were last season and find residence in the auto-bid pool: The four play-in game participants are likely to come from the America East, MAAC, Northeast, and Southern Conference if there isn't a drop in quality from the top of THUNDERDOME! or another conference, forcing these four leagues to assume a play-in game nightmare. An extra game -- no matter the quality of the opponent -- creates a host of issues for a team in its quest to advance deep into May, and a season that falls short of what Albany created last year puts the Great Danes in the awkward position of hoping that its RPI ranking is stronger than that of an automatically qualifying team from another conference. This probably isn't an issue if Albany is a top 20 team, but that situation didn't stop Bryant from engaging in an extra game last year in order to find a place in the true bracket.
- The Bearcats' offense took a major step forward in 2014, finishing the year ranked 29th in adjusted offensive efficiency. Considering that the program averaged a ranking of 47th in that metric between 2011 and 2013, Binghamton's increase in offensive strength and ability was a major step forward for the program and helped fuel the Bearcats' push to a 7-8 record with five victories earned against America East competition. Binghamton, though, may feel some struggles at the offensive end of the field in 2015 (at least in the beginning of the year) given the presence of two facts: (1) The team lost three of its top five point generators from a season ago; and (2) The team concentrated a high volume of its offense within that quintet last year, and that quintet is not returning intact this coming spring. The details here are somewhat concerning for the Bearcats:
BINGHAMTON'S OFFENSIVE QUINTET: 2014 PLAYER GOALS ASSISTS POINTS SHOTS SHOOTING % Matt Springer* 39 3 42 112 34.82% Tucker Nelson 14 28 42 45 31.11% Mike Antinozzi* 23 13 36 89 25.84% Paul O'Donnell 19 10 29 62 30.65% Kelly Donigan* 7 6 13 45 15.56% TEAM TOTAL 143 91 234 502 28.49% QUINTENT RESPONSIBILITY 71.33% 65.93% 69.23% 70.32% 28.90% * LOST CONTRIBUTIONS 48.25% 24.18% 38.89% 49.00% 28.05%
- The Hawks have had an odd existence in the America East over the last 10 seasons: From 2005 through 2010, the program failed to make an America East Tournament appearance (the league started sponsoring a postseason event in 2006) and went a combined 3-28 against league competition; the Hawks then flipped the switch, making three straight America East Tournaments between 2011 and 2013 and holding a 9-6 regular season record against its most violent rivals; and in 2014, Hartford fell back to 1-4 against America East competition and missed out on the America East Tournament. Will the 2015 iteration of the Hawks look more like its character in its three-year span of postseason inclusion or more like the program that has done no better than 1-4 in regular season play in seven of the last 10 years? The difference between participating in the conference's postseason event and quietly cleaning out lockers in early May is slim in the America East, and how Hartford performs against weaker league competition and the meaty middle of the conference could ultimately define the Hawks' postseason desires. Hartford let a beautiful opportunity against Binghamton escape their grasp in 2014, falling by a goal and the result serving as one of the differences between Hartford conducting a May adventure and the Hawks only watching it as a spectator (the team's four-goal loss to Stony Brook at the end of the season also contributed to the team's exclusion from its league's most important event). These are the games that matter most to the Hawks as they were the driving factors to Hartford's surge in the league only a few seasons ago.
- The River Hawks will enter their first season of Division I lacrosse hoping to exceed the performances of those that have recently made the tour that Massachusetts-Lowell will embark upon in the coming weeks and months. Since 2011, first-year programs have averaged an adjusted Pythagorean win expectation value of 19.40 percent, holding an average ranking of 59th nationally in their first season as an actual lacrosse thing. Meeting that standard would be a major success for Massachusetts-Lowell, finishing ahead of the performances that Furman and Monmouth put together in 2014. That fact -- having the performance profile of a team that is expected to win around 20 percent of its games -- is likely more important to the River Hawks than assembling a campaign that bases its success on the number of wins corralled, and that's valuable in two contexts: (1) The team has, at a minimum, three reasonable opportunities for victories (Wagner, VMI, and NJIT), but bagging kills in those moments aren't necessarily appetite-satiating; and (2) The biggest thing for the River Hawks in 2015 is learning how to get on and off the bus like a Division I team, and that requires care in execution more than earning victories against some of the weakest programs in the nation.
- The Seawolves have a lot of positives in their grasp this year: The team's top five point generators from a season ago return to stabilize the team's offense (this quintet accounted for over 77 percent of the team's points in 2014), those contributors featuring three players -- Mike Rooney, Challen Rogers, and Matt Schultz -- that put together 50-point seasons; two of the team's starting close defensemen from the team's final game against Albany last spring are available to Jim Nagle in 2015; the team's starting long-stick midfielder also maintains 2015 eligibility; and 13 juniors and seniors that are hungry to reestablish Stony Brook at the top of the America East's pecking order are still kicking around the north shore of Long Island. Yet, there are two dicey situations for the Seawolves at the sunrise of the season: (1) Kyle Rowe has transferred to Duke, leaving Stony Brook without a face-melting faceoff specialist; and (2) The team needs to address a goalkeeping situation that was less than admirable last spring. It's that second point that earns extra detail -- Hayden Johnstone closed the year for the Seawolves in the net, but his and the team's overall goalkeeping profile is worrisome entering the new year:
STONY BROOK'S GOALKEEPING STRUGGLES: 2014 METRIC VALUE NT'L RANK Saves per 100 Defensive Opportunities 35.76 21 Team Save Percentage 46.13% 62 Shots per Defensive Opportunity 1.38 66 Shots on Goal per Defensive Opportunity 0.78 65 Ratio of Shots on Goal to Total Shots per Defensive Opportunity 56.12% 13 Raw Defensive Shooting Rate 30.23% 55 Raw Defensive Shots on Goal Shooting Rate 53.87% 62
- The combination of Phil Poe's graduation -- he was a possession-generating machine for the Retrievers at the dot -- and UMBC's struggles to field an efficient defense over the last four seasons creates a dynamic that signals a degree of concern about the Retrievers' ceiling in 2015. Yet, the team returns its starting goalkeeper from a season ago (limiting the pain associated with Wes DiRito's transfer to Maryland), its three starting close defensemen from a season ago (Mike Dahl, Ian Gray, and Zach Esser), its primary long-stick midfielder (Seth Mackin) from 2014, another long-stick midfielder that sat out 2014 with an injury (Nathan Klein), and a short-stick midfielder (Steve Winsor) that played in all 15 games last season, all holding a junior or higher classification. These defensive assets have important potential to raise the Retrievers' fortunes going into the coming spring, and it's this core of contributors that will attempt to erase the memories of a four-year streak in which the Retrievers have held an average ranking of 54th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. Balance matters, and a focusing of performance from UMBC's defense stands as a major factor in the Retrievers' potential fortunes in the coming spring.
- Can the Catamounts pull off a couple of upset victories in 2015? Vermont failed to win a game last season against a team in which it was an underdog, earning five wins against teams that were either the Catamounts' peer or inferior in quality to Vermont. A campaign devoid of upset victories is somewhat unique to Vermont: In 2013, the Catamounts upset Sacred Heart, Bryant, and Binghamton; in 2012, the team upset Sacred Heart and Binghamton; and in 2011 the team dropped Colgate as an underdog. Those six wins constitute around 35 percent of the team's 17 total wins over the last four years, and as the Catamounts have relied -- at least in part -- on upsets to tally wins, Vermont's performance as an underdog this season may heavily define what kind of reality the program manufactures in 2015. Over 60 percent of the team's roster is dotted with freshman or sophomores, and a victory against an opponent in an upset situation could create some combustion within a roster construction that hasn't had a lot of experience at college lacrosse's highest level.
Four important conference games that will define the discussion.
GAME I: Albany at Stony Brook -- March 14
GAME II: UMBC at Albany -- April 25
GAME III: UMBC at Stony Brook -- March 21
GAME IV: Hartford at Binghamton -- March 28
Illustrating the landscape of the universe.
In terms of internal competitiveness, the America East has done a great job at assembling programs that are relatively equal in their ability to smash faces, even if Vermont has historically struggled to keep pace with the rest of the conference. While the league has earned recognition in recent seasons for the efforts that Albany and Stony Brook have strung together, the strength of the league ultimately lies with the meat of the conference holding a similar grade. With Albany potentially taking a step back from the Danes' position in the national hierarchy last season, the race in the conference in 2015 could potentially accelerate in important ways in the coming spring, even if Albany is the favorite to earn the league's automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row.
Four tiers appear relevant in the America East: Tier I -- Albany; Tier II -- Stony Brook and UMBC, slightly behind the Great Danes and in a decent position relative to Tier III; Tier III -- Binghamton and Hartford grouped together, fighting for the league's final berth to its postseason event; and Tier IV -- Vermont and newcomer Massachusetts-Lowell, programs looking to create some internal momentum.