The landscape has changed drastically in the America East with perennial league powers Vermont and Boston University coming back to the pack and Northeastern packing and leaving for the Colonial Athletic Association. Those changes should unleash the Great Danes. Albany, in only its seventh year in Division I, will be the odds-on favorite to capture the school’s first America East crown thanks to the return of four starters. In junior guard Jamar Wilson, coach Will Brown just may have the AE’s top returning player. The 6-foot-1 Wilson averaged 16.9 points and gets lots of support from 6-2; senior Lucious Jordan, who chipped in 14.8 points per game. Senior forward Levi Levine (10.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and 7-1 senior Kirsten Zoellner (6.6, 5.2) are solid inside, and 6-8 Brent Wilson was an All-Rookie selection last year. The biggest obstacle for Albany may be history. The Great Danes haven’t finished higher than seventh in any of the school’s first four years in the America East. They’re 1–16 all-time against Vermont and Boston University in AE competition.
2. Binghamton (12–17, 8–10)
The Bearcats are another relatively new AE member who could benefit from the power shift in the conference. Coach Al Walker has four starters back, headed by senior guard Andre Heard (14.3 ppg) and junior sharpshooter Troy Hailey (36.4 percent 3-point shooting) outside and senior Sebastian Hermenier (6.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg) inside. Binghamton also gets to host the first three rounds of the 2006 AE Tournament in the sparkling Events Center, where the Bearcats have led the league in attendance the last two years.
3. Boston University (20–9, 14–4)
The Terriers will continue to thrive on defense. BU led the nation last year in field-goal percentage defense (37.1 percent) and was third in points allowed (55.7 ppg). That’s nothing new for coach Dennis Wolff’s tenacious Terriers, and that’s the main reason they’ve finished in the top three in the league the past four years. All-conference performers Chaz Carr and Rashad Bell are gone, but senior guard Shaun Wynn and his 3.4 assists and 1.83 steals per game are back. The Terriers need more from senior forward Kevin Gardner (7.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and 6-8 sophomore Tony Gaffney (3.1, 2.9), among others.
4. Vermont (25–7, 16–2)
New head coach Mike Lonergan won a Division III national championship at Catholic University four years ago, but he has a tough act to follow in Burlington, where the Catamounts are coming off a dream season that saw them win 25 games, a third straight conference title and pull a shocker by knocking off Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament. Now not only is coach Tom Brennan gone, but so are former AE Players of the Year Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine. Lonergan has some big men -- 6-8 junior Martin Klimes, 6-8 sophomore Josh Duell, 6-11 Rhode Island transfer Chris Holm and 6-7 incoming freshman Colin McIntosh -- but he’s still looking for backcourt help. Freshman Mike Trimboli could be a solution.
5. Maine (14–15, 8–10)
The Black Bears have one of the top one-two combinations in the league in senior guards Kevin Reed (12.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 38.8 percent 3-point shooting) and Ernest Turner (13.7, 2.6). The 6-2 Reed does a little bit of everything, and he’ll have to take charge until some of coach Ted Woodward’s big men prove they can play.
6. New Hampshire (9–19, 5–13)
The big news in Durham is the return of coach Bill Herrion to the America East, where he turned Drexel into a powerhouse in the mid-’90s. Point guard Chris Vetrano, who averaged 3.4 assists, came on late last year as a freshman, and 6-8 sophomore Mike Christensen (9.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg) can be special, particularly if he can develop more of a low-post game. Junior guard Jermaine Anderson (8.3, 2.7) is one of the league’s best defenders, and junior forward Blagoj Janev (10.9, 4.0) can score.
7. Hartford (8–20, 4–14)
After an upward arc in coach Larry Harrison’s first two years, the Hawks have regressed the last two seasons. Three full-time starters are back, including all-conference guard Aaron Cook (14.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and fellow seniors Charles Ford (7.9, 2.6 ) and David Ruffin (8.1, 3.9). Hofstra transfer Kenny Adeleke can help inside.
8. Stony Brook (12–17, 6–12)
Coach Steve Pikiell has some talent but not a lot of size or experience on his first Seawolves’ team. Sophomore Antwan Hardy (11.0 ppg) and senior Bobby Santiago (10.9) make up a strong backcourt, made even stronger by the return of Mitchell Beauford (16.8) from a broken foot.
9. UMBC (11–18, 5–13)
Second-year coach Randy Monroe has seven newcomers in the program this year, plus rising sophomore guard Brian Hodges, who averaged 16.2 points per game over the last six contests last year. Monroe hopes 6-8 freshman Uwem Eshietedoho and 6-11 transfer Gordon Karacic will be as tough on opposing centers as they are on opposing public address announcers.