A league in transition
If we told you there was an America East team that went 57-11 in league play the past four years and won at least a share of the regular-season title in three of those seasons, you'd probably believe us.
If we then told you that school is not Vermont, would you be surprised?
Thus has been the fate of the Boston University Terriers.
BU's terrific run has been undermined by a couple of heartbreaking conference tournament losses and, oh yeah, the historic performance of the senior class at Vermont, which graduated this past spring with three straight NCAA Tournament berths (the first three in school history) and a shocking first-round upset of Syracuse to its credit.
While the obvious story is how Vermont will move forward without stars Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine and a number of other significant players, the Catamounts are not alone in facing an uncertain 2005-06 campaign. BU lost its two leading scorers, and Northeastern, which finished second last year ahead of the Terriers, has moved to the Colonial Athletic Association.
"I think it's a league in transition, clearly," BU coach Dennis Wolff said. "I think the Northeastern move more than Vermont's [losses] is [the key]. My opinion of this level [of conference] is that it's cyclical. Vermont had a very good cycle. We also had a very good cycle but a little short of what they did. Vermont's now lost guys; Northeastern's gone; Maine lost guys ... as much as any of the 11 years I have been here, this is a year where there is absolute uncertainty as to how good any of the teams will be."
Most folks around the league likely won't spend too much time worrying about Wolff's program. Despite losing forward Rashad Bell and guard Chaz Carr, the Terriers return six players who played at least 14 minutes a game last season. Throw in splashy new Agganis Arena on campus, and BU looks primed to continue as one of the league's flagship programs.
"We're going to have six or seven guys who haven't played a minute for us, so there is some uncertainty short-term," Wolff said. "But I feel the same way about our program and BU's spot in this league, regardless of the other group of teams leaving [notably Drexel and Delaware in the late 1990s] when they did or Northeastern leaving now. We have everything in place here to compete for the championship in our league, and with everything we are given here, we can continue, year in and year out, to compete for the league title."
The same can't be said at Vermont, where new head coach Mike Lonergan must carry on from new state legend Tom Brennan with a roster that has lost four starters and a valuable reserve guard from last season. Lonergan said Brennan, still a morning radio host in the area, has been as positive and supportive of him as anyone, but this still will be a difficult transition.
"A lot of people in coaching told me that [I] might not want to take [this] job because [Vermont's] never really had success and then they had the last four years and then everyone graduates," he said. "But of the six or seven D-I jobs I have interviewed for, I think this is the best one. This was the one place that had fan support. If you can have a competitive program, the local fans will support you."
Managing expectations of the locals who have grown used to national-level success could be as difficult as trying to replace local cult hero Coppenrath, but Lonergan believes the school's administration understands the challenges the program will face in the short term.
"This is definitely a special place. Hopefully, we'll get good again," Lonergan said. "... We have good kids returning, but they don't have much experience. It's going to be a tough, tough job [to maintain the program's level and manage the fans' expectations], but the people who hired me know what I am walking into."
Lonergan also noted that his adjustment period to the league is not being helped by good hires and progress made at some of the other league schools. With very successful former Drexel coach Bill Herrion now in Lonergan's backyard at New Hampshire and Steve Pikiell taking over at Stony Brook, along with solid returning casts at Albany and Hartford, this might be the year the America East gets a measure of revenge on the Catamounts.
Like many smaller conferences, the America East also struggles with its ability to compete with stronger conferences and gaining the respect that comes with those victories. Although Vermont and Northeastern ended the season in the RPI top 50 and BU spent much of the latter part of the season there, the conference still went 1-16 against other teams in the top 50 before Vermont's tournament upset of the Orange. More notably, Vermont was given a 13-seed despite a final RPI of 19.
Still, Wolff is not that fazed by the workings of the RPI and how the America East is perceived.
"I just don't know how you can qualify an answer to [how to make the league stronger in RPI]," he said. "We beat Michigan last year, actually, the last two years, and at one point two seasons ago, they were a top-100 team that became a top-50 team. We [also] have some geographic concerns ... we've tried to schedule Rhode Island and UMass, and they're not where they have been in the past.
"I don't know how our RPI remained as consistently high as it did [last season]. There was an emphasis last year on road games and we had a million road games. You just have to continue to play good teams. ... It's very important to the league to play as tough a non-conference schedule as possible."
With the league entering what likely will be a down year, though, talk of RPI and conference power ratings seems premature. Almost certainly, it will once again be the three games in the conference tournament that loom the largest on any America East team's schedule.
Ask BU. The Terriers definitely know how that goes.
Wolff is not the only person who thinks Albany could be a dangerous team in the America East this season. Our very own bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, has the Great Danes as the America East's automatic bid winner.
Albany went 9-9 in conference play last season, good for fourth place. Assuming former league freshman of the year Jon Iati returns from a shoulder injury, the Danes return the top six players in their rotation.
After three straight regular-season championship campaigns, a late-season swoon dropped BU behind rivals Vermont and Northeastern in the standings.
* -- NCAA Tournament
# -- NIT participant
Five of the America East's top 10 scorers graduated, leaving large scoring voids at schools across the league. There is only one player remaining who averaged more than 15 points per game last season. Albany features two of the top three returning scorers.
Andy Glockner is the men's college basketball editor for ESPN.com. E-mail him here.