This year, as is its custom, the America East Conference will receive one bid to the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Most years, that invitation is more of a "thanks-for-coming" courtesy than anything else, sending the low-major conference's representative into a revolving door embodied by a major power and a return home with some memories and a first-round loss. Of course, beginning in 2011, the "first-round" became something different than it had been in past years, resembling a "play-in" atmosphere more than the "real" tournament commencing two days later. Thus, an invitation to the dance's first round as a 16-seed (to compete against another 16-seed) is no longer a low-major school's goal; what they want is a second-round invitation, and an opportunity to be viewed by all those fanatics feigning illness and staying home on Thursday and Friday, rather than those haphazardly searching for truTV on their cable systems on Tuesday. Tuesday games aren't even worth a point in a bracket.
While it is still far too early to accurately predict which teams will be representing one-bid conferences in the March tourney, the "expert prognosticators" (self-labeled "bracketologists" whose predictions are generally no better than anyone with access to an RPI sheet and annual results) currently feel the winner of the America East conference will be presented an invitation merely to the new first round and will need to earn their way into the second round and onto CBS by defeating an equally dissed program. While marginally insulting, the prediction (to date) is not undeserving. Following this evening's games, a full one-third of the teams in the nine-team America East conference actually have TWO OR LESS WINS all season (one team is completely winless, another earned its first victory this evening over another weak conference foe, and the team with two wins has only defeated another winless non-conference team and that same weak conference foe). Further, the "top" of the conference has very few wins to be proud of, pulling off only one of the 137 2011-2012 Red-Line Upsets to date (a Boston University win over beyond-hapless Boston College). To say that this has been a "down" year for the America East men's league is akin to concluding that Michele Bachmann has an uphill battle in the Republican primary; it is both obvious and overwhelmingly understated.
Tonight's tilt in the AE pits two conference hopefuls, the Vermont Catamounts and the Boston University Terriers, each seeking their first conference win. Mind you, this is just the second league game for the Catamounts and the first for the Terriers, but each school's fan base has already descended into panic-mode, proclaiming this contest as a must-win. For Vermont, this likely stems more from expectations fueled by past years' successes than an actual do-or-die situation. Moreover, the 2012 UVM squad has failed to pass the "eye test" of most of the Vermont faithful, playing seemingly at both very high and very low levels of both intensity and execution within the same half of some games. Glimpses have been there (for example, well-played games against Iona and Old Dominion which revealed how good this team could be when it makes appropriate adjustments and executes) but overall the team has seemed to struggle to find a system which suits it best. Of particular concern has been an inability to score and "make plays" at critical times, and the result has been a series of sluggish games scored in the fifties.
Similarly, Boston University (perennial pre-season conference favorite) has won only 4 of 14 games coming in. Inconsistencies abound for the Terriers, as well, but as of late the biggest problem has been the absence of point guard D.J. Irving (lightning quick by AE standards), who has been suffering with concussion symptoms. Without Irving, the Terriers have been unable to establish any rhythm whatsoever. Accordingly, both teams really wanted this win, but it may not have been so much for the win. Rather, both teams really need the confidence that germinates from a win and, above all, need to play well for as many of the 40 minutes as they possibly can.
Two mild surprises during the player introductions kicked off the festivities. First, for BU, Irving was back in the starting lineup. The knowledgeable folks in the Vermont crowd immediately took this as a bad sign, expecting him to ignite a BU offense which they had hoped would continue to stall. Second, for UVM, center Ben Crenca appeared without his beard, which had earned a cult-like following and its own twitter account (@Crencasbeard). This was viewed as a positive sign or, more accurately, a "the way they've been playing, it can't hurt" sign.
Adding to the unease of the fans was the increased physical discomfort they must endure in Roy L. Patrick Gymnasium (can we please get a more intimidating name for the facility??) now that the weather has turned cold. Colder weather means more big coats, hats, gloves and scarves. All that bulky clothing inevitably gets removed in a warm gym. Problem is, in tight-fitting bleachers, there's nary a place to put them. Either you or the persons directly in front or to your sides are going to be impacted and uncomfortable. The effect trickles down, and the winter is long in Vermont. It's a good place to be a chiropractor.
A welcomed addition this evening was the increased animation of Vermont head coach John Becker. Whether out of frustration by the way his squad has been playing or simply as a motivational/teaching mechanism, Becker was louder than the Vermont faithful was used to seeing. He screamed when his team made poor passes, he hollered when somebody passed up an open shot, he even yelled when a player held the ball over his head without conviction. It would be a bit of a leap to posit that the screaming was the cause of a desired result but increased effort and better execution were fully, unquestionably on display for the Catamounts. A well-balanced and extremely aggressive offense, relentless rebounding, and gutsy defense (Luke Apfeld alone drew four charges) perhaps led to the Catamounts most complete effort of the season. The good Catamounts showed up tonight, growing a second-half lead to as many as nineteen points on route to scoring 83. A freshman, Four McLynn (20 points), and a senior, Matt Glass (19 points), led the way on the scoreboard but positive contributions came from everybody who played significant minutes. Overall, mission accomplished for the Catamounts. No need to panic anymore (unless, of course, they lose to their next foe, a one-win conference opponent). There is certainly talent on the Terriers squad, but the offense did appear to stagger at times. And it ultimately appeared Irving hadn't fully return to prior form. Whether that was due to rust or lingering effects is unknown. But it was clear that a healthy, engaged Irving would provide a huge boost for this team. In other words, there is also no need to panic for BU. Not that Terriers fans won't.
at VERMONT 83, BOSTON UNIVERSITY 69 01/05/2012
BOSTON UNIVERSITY 4-11 (0-1) -- B. Neller 2-9 0-0 6; D. Partin 6-16 4-7 19; D. Morris 3-9 3-3 9; D. Irving 1-8 0-0 3; M. Griffin 2-3 5-5 11; T. Robinson 3-7 4-5 10; M. Thomas 2-5 0-0 4; P. Hazel 2-3 0-0 4; M. Terry 2-3 1-3 5; J. Pelage 2-3 0-0 4. Totals 23-57 17-23 69. VERMONT 7-9 (1-1) -- S. Carissimo 1-7 3-3 5; M. Glass 8-12 2-4 19; B. Voelkel 1-4 2-2 4; F. McGlynn 6-12 4-4 20; L. Apfeld 2-7 9-10 13; B. Bald 3-5 0-0 7; J. Elbaum 0-0 1-2 1; C. Rugg 2-4 3-3 7; B. Crenca 1-3 1-3 3; P. Bergmann 2-3 0-0 4; R. McKeaney 0-0 0-0 0; C. Santo 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-57 25-31 83.
Three-point goals: BU 6-20 (M. Griffin 2-3; D. Partin 3-5; M. Thomas 0-3; D. Irving 1-5; D. Morris 0-1; T. Robinson 0-2; M. Terry Jr. 0-1), UVM 6-17 (M. Glass 1-3; B. Bald 1-3; S. Carissimo 0-3; B. Voelkel 0-1; F. McGlynn 4-7); Rebounds: BU 31 (D. Morris 11), UVM 35 (B. Voelkel 16); Assists: BU 11 (D. Irving 3), UVM 17 (B. Voelkel 6); Total Fouls -- BU 25, UVM 19; Fouled Out: BU-None; UVM-None.