Last March Stony Brook was wrapping up a season that ended in a 10-point loss to Illinois in the NIT and included 13 conference victories along with the America East regular season title.
Then October rolled around and I was busy writing the College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 chapter that pegged the Seawolves as the America East favorites. Meanwhile the league's coaches tabbed Stony Brook to finish second behind Boston U.
Now it's February, and it turns out the coaches and I were both very wrong.
Maybe we should have seen this coming. Check out the last paragraph of my Stony Brook preview:
Filling Muhammad El-Amin's shoes will be difficult with the leftover roster pieces and two incoming guards, but if [Tommy] Brenton's able to return he could combine with a veteran cast to give Stony Brook a chance to finish at the top of the conference.
The key words are (or should have been) "difficult," "but," and "could," now that we've seen exactly what Stony Brook looks like without El-Amin and Brenton. The Seawolves, who scored a league-best 1.09 points per possession in conference play last season, are tallying (this is your cue to put down your coffee/take a seat/discard your Stony Brook mouse pad) 0.89 points per trip.
That's a rather remarkable first-to-worst transformation, and a subtraction of 18 percent of the team's points per trip. Stony Brook is now 4-7 and tied for seventh place in a nine-team league.
It would appear thaty El-Amin was the engine of this offense. The 6-5 wing took more than a third of the team's shots during his time on the floor, rarely turned the ball over, and converted at an efficient clip given the immense load he shouldered. Meanwhile Brenton, now sidelined by a knee injury, didn't finish many possessions from the post but he did earn the Seawolves quite a few new possessions with his solid offensive rebounding.
Without El-Amin things have grown tougher for Bryan Dougher, the junior guard who inherited the offense's reins. As Dougher's usage rate has risen, his efficiency has taken a dive. The 6-1 guard is more spot-up shooter than creator, as his nine percent dip in effective FG percentage this season illustrates. Dave Coley, a freshman guard tasked with picking up the rest of the slack, has endured a miserable campaign, making fewer than 30 percent of his two-point field goal attempts and generating 0.73 points per possession.
So much is made of turnover rates and offensive rebounding percentages that it's sometimes easy to forget that shooting's a fairly important part of basketball too. Stony Brook is on pace to win about six fewer conference games than they did last season despite a defense that's gone from average (0.99 PPP last season) to exceptional (0.87 now). That tends to happen when you make fewer than 40 percent of your two-point attempts.
Vermont an upset option?
Aside from Stony Brook and their unbelievable and sudden inability to score, the America East's presumed top teams have more or less held onto their positions.
Vermont, which lost superstar forward Marqus Blakely to graduation in the offseason, could have taken a step back from its 2010 plus-0.12 points per possession margin, but instead the Catamounts are clobbering opponents by a league-best 0.20 points per trip. Between shooter extraordinaire Joey Accaoui, do-it-all forward Evan Fjeld and the oddly versatile Brian Voelkel (29 percent assist rate, 26 percent defensive rebound rate), Vermont has three legitimate all-conference candidates.
Maine's stiff defense has taken a step back since last season, but its offense has gone into overdrive thanks to high-usage, high-efficiency players at most spots on the floor. Senior forward Troy Barnies is one of the conference's best rebounder-scorer hybrids and a potential America East POY.
Boston University, the coaches' preseason pick (my number four choice) has lost 0.07 points per possession from its in-conference efficiency margin after losing a number of key contributors. Ballyhooed senior John Holland is highly regarded for a reason but he needs some help, as he's taking more than one-third of the Terriers' shots when he's on the floor.
After the dominant trio of Vermont, Maine and BU, things really drop off. Albany, Stony Brook and New Hampshire all sit between -0.01 and -0.03 points per possession in league play. Hartford, Maryland-Baltimore County and Binghamton make up the weak lower third, although UMBC did pull a 84-79 upset at Maine this past Sunday.
As for what the conference is capable of next month, tournament handicappers would be smart to place their ducats (or bragging rights) on the Catamounts. Vermont v.2011 is the conference's most dominant team by two-fold and the league's best performer of the past five years, according to bbstate.com. Ken Pomeroy's numbers place this Vermont squad near the level of the 2005 team that upset Syracuse in the round of 64 and the 2009 version that won an NIT contest. If the Catamounts can avoid a conference tourney upset, they could manage an upset of their own come NCAA tournament time.
Asher Fusco is a writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at AsherFusco.