Tempo-Free America East: Vermont Leads the Way

With half of the America East conference schedule finished – eight teams played their eighth league game last night – now is the perfect time to break out some tempo-free numbers.
According to KenPom, the conference is down as a whole, ranking 28th out of 32 leagues in the country. Don’t blame Stony Brook and Vermont – two teams residing in KenPom’s top 120 – yet the dredge of the conference has kept the America East’s collective ranking near the bottom. Five teams (yes, more than half of the league) are in KenPom’s bottom 40 of the country, a staggering number.

Here’s a look at the league standings according to efficiency margin (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency):

  1. Vermont (7-1): 0.33 points per possession
  2. Stony Brook (7-1): 0.19
  3. Albany (5-3): 0.02
  4. Hartford (4-4): -0.01
  5. UMass Lowell (4-4): -0.07
  6. New Hampshire (3-5): -0.09
  7. UMBC (3-5): -0.09
  8. Maine (2-6): -0.12
  9. Binghamton (1-7): -0.14

Breaking news! Thanks to the efficiency numbers, we can now confidently say that Vermont and Stony Brook are the two best teams in the league. That’s groundbreaking stuff. Not really, and in fact these numbers don’t tell us anything new. What they do tell us, however, is that Vermont is the true number one of the league with a fantastic efficiency margin of +0.33. They’re bludgeoning their opponents by an average of 21 points in their wins (more on this later). Stony Brook may have knocked off the Catamounts in their friendly confines, yet Vermont clearly projects as the best team in the conference, and frankly, it isn’t as close as their identical records would suggest.

No Mr. Becker, the efficiency numbers say Vermont is number one. (Photo Credit - AP)
No, Mr. Becker, the efficiency numbers say Vermont is the number one team in the America East. (Photo Credit – AP)

John Gallagher’s Hartford Hawks are the definition of average with efficiency ratings of 0.99 ppp (offense) and 1.00 ppp (defense), although Mark Nwakamma’s meniscus injury could have the Hawks trending downward real soon. Hartford, along with Albany, occupy the middle tier of respectability, while everyone else is mired in mediocrity, or worse. Pat Duquette should be handed the Coach of the Year trophy right now, irregardless of where his River Hawks ultimately finish at season’s end (OK, I’m half kidding). Seriously, though, to produce four wins by an average margin of 8.3 points per victory with a borderline Division I roster goes far beyond even the most optimistic of prognostications back in October. Getting Antonio Bivins back from a miraculous recovery of an injured Achilles (did he take deer antler spray or something?) helps Duquette’s cause.

New Hampshire, UMBC, Binghamton, and Maine make up the bottom half of the conference, which is right in line with the numbers. These teams are far from contention at the moment, although it appears Aki Thomas has his team on the fastest track back to respectability. And the Retrievers finally won a road game against the hapless Bearcats last night, their first such win in 12 tries.

Best Offenses:

  1. Vermont: 1.12 points scored per possession
  2. Stony Brook: 1.10
  3. Albany: 1.03

The first two come as no surprise, whereas Albany is meddling around 1.03 ppp in third place. For the season, the Great Danes offense is up a tick (101.4 points per 100 possessions) from last season (100.1 points), thanks to the significant improvement of D.J. Evans and Gary Johnson. Evans, Johnson, and sophomore Peter Hooley are getting to the charity stripe frequently, and the team’s converting their attempts overall. Only 13 teams in the country have a better free-throw percentage (75.7%) than Albany.

Worst Offenses:

  1. New Hampshire: 0.83 points scored per possession
  2. Binghamton: 0.89
  3. UMBC: 0.91

In New Hampshire’s defense, the conference is ranked dead last in offensive efficiency (96.2 points scored per 100 possessions) when compared to the other conferences. Still, 0.83 ppp is absurd. The aforementioned Thomas has one of the youngest teams in the country after losing all-conference guard Ryan Cook and gunner Brian Neller, so it comes as no surprise that the Retrivers are struggling to score. Not one player filling more than one-third of UMBC’s minutes has a KenPom offensive rating above 100, which is considered average. They’ve been better lately – after their home debacle against Vermont (lost 73-47), UMBC has scored 0.98 ppp in three games since. The Retrievers super athletic collection of talent may get stronger as the season heads into February.

Best Defenses:

  1. Vermont: 0.79 points allowed per possession
  2. Stony Brook: 0.91
  3. New Hampshire: 0.92

In their seven conference victories, not once have the Catamounts allowed an opponent to score 0.92 ppp or better. There’s a lot of defensive green on their KenPom page, with their effective field goal percentage against (40.4%), defensive rebound rate (78.9%), block rate (16.4%), steal rate (13.0%) and defensive free throw rate (28.0% FTA/FGA) all landing in the top spot of the America East. John Becker has this team defending at a really high level against their peers.

New Hampshire is dead last in offensive efficiency nationally (86.2 points per 100 possessions) and yet they’re only one game out of fourth place, thanks to their defense. It hasn’t been a difficult schedule for Bill Herrion’s club, but holding Marquette and Rhode Island to 0.86 and 0.90 PPP earlier this season is quite impressive. Their strength in conference play has been defending the interior – America East opponents are only making a paltry 36.7% of their twos, even though bruiser Chris Pelcher missed a chunk of the season due to a lower leg injury.

Worst Defenses:

  1. Binghamton: 1.03 points allowed per possession
  2. Maine: 1.03
  3. Albany: 1.01

Remember John’s Tempo-Free NEC article last week where he claimed that no one in the league plays defense? Well the America East is the opposite – very few teams possess the ability to score the basketball. In league play, it’s rather unbelievable that the worst defensive club is giving up only 1.03 ppp. In comparison, the AVERAGE scoring pace in the NEC is 1.09 ppp!

Luckiest Teams:

  1. UMass Lowell: 1.49 wins above expected
  2. New Hampshire: 1.26
  3. UMBC: 0.77

Unluckiest Teams:

  1. Vermont: -0.86 wins below expected
  2. Binghamton: -0.23
  3. Stony Brook: -0.16

The River Hawks have been blown out, for the most part, in their defeats and that certainly bloats their negative efficiency rating. This is why they’re considered the luckiest team thus far. New Hampshire isn’t far behind, the computers think Herrion’s club should be 2-6.

Vermont holds a share of first place at 7-1, and yet they’re considered unlucky? Well, given their fantastic numbers, Vermont is projected to finish the conference season at 16-0, which as you could have guessed, is impossible at the moment. Nevertheless, the advanced stats like Becker’s veteran team A LOT. That’s a good thing if you’re a Catamounts fan, because a number one seed in the America East postseason tournament likely nets you Hartford or UMBC (a likely #4 seed) as opposed to Albany, who plays host for the first two rounds of the America East tournament. No one wants to emulate Stony Brook’s road to the America East final last season.

(Cue the angry Stony Brook fans cringing at the thought of Steve Pikiell’s team facing the lower seeded home team in the semifinals once again.)

We’re still weeks away from that, so anything can happen, although the tiers have already formed in the America East. Nevertheless, the month of February will be fascinating to watch.

You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

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