America East ShootAround: Can UMBC defend its title?

Updated: August 5, 2008

Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Hartford coach Dan Leibovitz has the Hawks looking up.

John Chaney's influence on Hartford

In the height of the July evaluation period, when downtime is more or less a pipe dream, Hartford head coach Dan Leibovitz still found the time for an hour-long phone call with his family friend and mentor, former Temple coach John Chaney. If that surprises you, consider their main talking point.

"The other night, seriously, he talked to me for 25 minutes about how to make pork ribs in your backyard," Leibovitz said, laughing in part about the unspoken conflict between his own Jewish faith and the consumption of the so-called other white meat.

Lest you think Chaney was being ignorant, realize that he spent part of his youth working for a Jewish catering company and, according to Leibovitz, is well versed in the faith's prayers, traditions and culture. Rather, this conversation was just the latest cultural exchange between two men from different generations and very different backgrounds who are much more similar than you would think.

Chaney says he sees a lot of himself in Leibovitz, whom he calls "one of his great sons." Chaney grew up very poor in Jacksonville, Fla., went to historically black Bethune-Cookman College and used his position at Temple, in part, to try to enact positive change in the black community in Philadelphia. Leibovitz was raised in a comfortable suburb outside Philly and graduated from Penn in the historically lily-white Ivy League.

But when Leibovitz showed an interest in coaching after working with his former high school program during his time at Penn, Chaney quickly offered him a graduate assistant spot. Leibovitz repaid Chaney's faith in him by staying at Temple for 10 years, an unheard-of stretch of time for a young assistant at his first program.

Now, Leibovitz understandably has taken a lot of Chaney with him to his first head-coaching job at Hartford.

"Everything that I know and everything I believe in basketball pretty much comes from Coach Chaney," Leibovitz said. "… When I talk to my staff, the things that Coach Chaney says, or used to say, just flow out of me. It's not like I walk around trying to quote him, but when you deal with a given situation, you just hear his voice [in mine]."

Leibovitz credits Chaney with helping him stay patient in his approach to building the Hartford program, and the tack is working. Last year, in just his second season in charge, the Hawks won a program-best 18 games at the Division I level, and they return almost every key piece from the club that finished second to UMBC and lost to the Retrievers in the America East title game. Hartford, long a dormant program, and Leibovitz are now being noticed.

"They only know how to play one way: hard," said UMBC head coach Randy Monroe, whose Retrievers split a pair of one-point games with Hartford in the regular season before dusting the Hawks by 17 for the championship. "He and his staff have done a terrific job of getting the best out of each and every one of his guys, and his team will be one to be reckoned with."

Don't expect Leibovitz and Chaney's mutual admiration to fade anytime soon, even though they're apart. Now retired from coaching, Chaney said that he's living vicariously through Leibovitz and that he watches the Hawks on TV whenever they are on. He said that he and Leibovitz talk in such depth that "I know some of his players almost as well as he does." Leibovitz says that Chaney is "the closest thing you can have" to a father figure after his own parents.

Now with children himself, Leibovitz has the chance to pass this relationship down to the next generation. As in his head-coaching career, he's off to a good start there, too. Three months ago, he and his wife, Nancy, welcomed their second child, a baby boy. The infant's middle name? Chaney.

Five Things To Watch in '08-09

Who's the favorite this season?
More often than not, the first team mentioned by league coaches was Boston University. The Terriers were very young and banged up for a good part of last season but played well down the stretch, winning nine of their final 12 games. This season, they have everyone back and guard Tyler Morris, the league's 2007 rookie of the year, should be back at 100 percent after slogging through the second half of last season upon return from injury. With Morris healthy and back in playing condition, the Terriers will have numerous solid scoring options to complement their typically stingy defense. Don't be fooled by last season's 14-17 overall mark. BU has the talent and now the maturity to make a serious title run.

Is BU a lock to win the league?
Far from it. In fact, you can make fairly convincing arguments for up to six of the league's nine programs, which should make the A-East a lot of fun this season. Vermont adds Michigan State transfer guard Maurice Joseph to a strong core led by league player of the year Marqus Blakely and combo guard Mike Trimboli. Hartford has everyone back from its second-place club except for forward Warren McLendon, who was dismissed from the program. UMBC, the defending league and tournament champ, still has matchup nightmare Darryl Proctor in the post and point guard Jay Greene, who led the country in assist-to-turnover margin last season. Albany is loaded with young talent that should mature in time for league play, while fellow SUNY school Binghamton is rolling the dice with some high-talent (and high-risk) transfers.

What is Binghamton doing?
Supporters of second-year head coach Kevin Broadus' open-door policy will point out that UMBC won the league going away last season with the considerable help of one-year transfers Ray Barbosa and Cavell Johnson. This year, Binghamton's two biggest incoming names are guard Tiki Mayben -- who was kicked off his high school team, didn't qualify academically at Syracuse and then played one season at UMass -- and Theo Davis, a former Gonzaga center who was the other player arrested for drug possession with Josh Heytvelt in February 2007. There's no doubt that the Bearcats have improved their talent level significantly, but on the heels of the negative publicity from the Miladin Kovacevic case (even though he never played for Broadus), what they do off the court may be just as important as what they do on it.

Is there a spoiler in the house?
The Wildcats may not have enough to threaten to win the league, but a number of people around the A-East say to watch out for New Hampshire. The Wildcats return everyone except forward Mike Christensen from a team that was at times very potent offensively and now gets James Madison transfer Colbey Santos as an additional weapon.

Who is the biggest X factor?
It's probably Trimboli, the Catamounts' dynamic yet erratic floor leader. There's no doubt that he can score in bunches, but Joseph's arrival to complement Blakely should mean that there's less of a need for him to put up big scoring numbers. If that's the case, the onus will be on Trimboli to improve his assist-to-turnover numbers, which are very low for a lead guard. Last season, Trimboli had 11 games with at least five giveaways, which helped contribute to Vermont's 16 games where the Catamounts turned it over on at least 20 percent of their possessions. If backup point Nick Vier can become more efficient himself, Trimboli also could find some time at off guard, where his long-range shooting can better be utilized. If Vermont can cut down on its miscues, the Catamounts have a very real chance to win the league.

If I were commish …

The conference coaches made a suggestion that the conference tournament rounds be held at higher seeds instead of one neutral site prior to the final. The athletic directors will look into this proposal. It's not bad for a tournament that has really struggled to draw in early rounds.

In this scenario, the America East schools are earning the home games in the conference tournament. The conference tournament will be in Albany this season, taking place at the same time as the MAAC tournament in the same city. They will be playing in different buildings but attracting fans could be an issue.

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2008-09 Team Capsules

America East
AlbanyAlbany
The Great Danes you see in November probably won't resemble the club you'll see come America East play. Albany could have freshman Anthony Raffa and juco transfer Michael Johnson starting in its backcourt sooner rather than later. Given time to jell with returnees like guard Tim Ambrose (7.2 ppg) and forward Brian Connelly (10.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg), expect the Danes to be a much more freewheeling bunch than last season's half-court grinders. The bigger questions are whether they can defend in a 94-foot game and, without departed senior forwards Brian Lillis and Brent Wilson, if they will be able to rebound like last season. Albany was the second-best team in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage, allowing opponents to claim only 25.6 percent of their misses.

BinghamtonBinghamton
Rolling the dice on Theo Davis, a Gonzaga transfer, could be smart business for a team that really struggled to defend inside the arc and rebound its defensive glass last season. While fellow transfer Tiki Mayben, formerly of UMass, might help stabilize the Cats on the offensive end, Davis is the kind of athlete you rarely see in the A-East. If he takes his second chance seriously, the rest of the conference could be in for some long nights in the paint.

BUBoston University
What was a very young team the past two seasons is now maturing, and it's time for the Terriers to become more efficient on offense. According to kenpom.com, no individual BU player was even above average offensively last season. That and the injuries help explain how BU ended up in the nation's bottom 100 in both 2-point and 3-point shooting percentage. Throw in turnovers on 21.3 percent of the Terriers' possessions (197th in Division I), and that makes for a very mediocre offense. One good thing going for BU is that Corey Lowe, the Terriers' leading scorer and highest volume shooter, made a team-best 37.1 percent from the arc. He'll need some help, though, if the Terriers are going to fulfill their preseason promise.

HartfordHartford
Addition by subtraction? We'll see how the Hawks can replace the production of forward Warren McLendon (12.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg), who was dismissed from his second Division I program after also flaming out at The Citadel. The Hawks like to score and rebound en masse, so in theory they should be able to replace the inconsistent McLendon's production, but they were a terrible rebounding team last season even with him around. Improved chemistry can go only so far if you can't rebound. What Hartford can do, though, is shoot the ball. The Hawks are led by junior Joe Zaglinski (16.2 ppg), who knocked down 41 percent of his 251 3-point attempts last season.

MaineMaine
UMBC won the league at 13-3. Maine finished tied for last at 3-13. So, of course, the Black Bears went on the road on Jan. 12 and upended the Retrievers 77-74 in the second league game of the season. Unfortunately, not much went right after that for Maine, which lost 13 of its last 15 games. The good news is that the Black Bears bring back virtually everyone for another run.

UMBCUMBC
It's not easy being green? Kermit the Frog received a strong rebuttal last season from Retrievers point guard Jay Greene (7.2 assists, 2.1 turnovers per game). He was a huge reason why UMBC was the second-most careful team in the nation, only coughing up the ball on 14.7 percent of its possessions. How Greene balances his shooting and dishing with less firepower around him this season will be a key to UMBC's title defense.

UNHNew Hampshire
It's a good thing the Wildcats can shoot the 3, because last season they couldn't defend it or make shots from inside the arc. UNH was lit up for 39.3 percent shooting from the arc (320th) in Division I, so its own proficiency from that range was muted. The Wildcats were smart to take so many of their shots from the arc, though, given they were worse than all but two teams in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage. Despite its shooting imbalances, UNH still returns eight of its top nine scorers.

Stony BrookStony Brook
Head coach Steve Pikiell has to replace the top two scorers from last season's 7-23 squad. In Demetrius Young and Dayton transfer Desmond Adedeji, the Seawolves have some bulk inside, but on paper, they lack quality scoring options, which is troublesome given their struggles on that end last season.

VermontVermont
You hate to play the "what if?" game, but you have to believe that Catamounts head coach Mike Lonergan will occasionally look wistfully at Boston College box scores this season and daydream about how well former Catamounts forward Joe Trapani would fit into this guard-heavy team's lineup. Back to reality … It will be interesting to see how former Michigan State guard Maurice Joseph changes the Cats on both ends. Last season's club played some of the most "3-free" ball in the land, finishing in the bottom 40 both in percentage of shots taken and allowed from 3-point range. In his sophomore season at Michigan State in 2006-07, Joseph took 116 3s in just 520 minutes.

2007-08 America East Standings

Overall record America East record
UMBC* 24-8 13-3
Hartford 18-16 10-6
Albany 15-15 10-6
Vermont 16-15 9-7
Binghamton 14-16 9-7
Boston University 14-17 9-7
New Hampshire 9-20 6-10
Stony Brook 7-23 3-13
Maine 7-23 3-13
*NCAA tournament

For all the America East news and notes, check out the league page.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
Marqus Blakely, Vermont, Jr. 19.0
Corey Lowe, Boston University, Jr. 18.1
Mike Trimboli, Vermont, Sr. 17.9
Joe Zeglinski, Hartford, Jr. 16.2
Darryl Proctor, UMBC, Sr. 15.1

Top Returning Rebounders

Player RPG
Marqus Blakely, Vermont, Jr. 11.0
Darryl Proctor, UMBC, Sr. 8.4
Lazar Trifunovic, Binghamton, Jr. 7.1
Demetrius Young, Stony Brook, Sr. 6.7
Scott Brittain, BU, Jr. 6.3

Final Shot

• The America East may not be known as a basketball powerhouse, but two teams finished in the top 160 in ESPN.com's Prestige Rankings of all Division I programs since the 1984-85 season. Prestige Rankings

• Hartford came up just short of the NCAA tournament with an America East title-game loss to UMBC. Can the Hawks break through this season? Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootArounds archive.