From the NBA's standpoint, there might not be a more important conference in college basketball this season than the America East.
Northeastern point guard Jose Juan Barea, a blip on the NBA's radar after scoring 1,015 points through two college seasons, became a huge green blob this summer. He helped Puerto Rico to second at the FIBA Americas in Halifax, Canada, where he led all players in scoring (24.8 points per game), was second in assists (7.2) and third in steals (3.0), and added 6.8 rebounds.
|Vermont coach Tom Brennan has one of the America East's biggest stars in Taylor Coppenrath.(AP)|
NBA scouts are circling both, but they are most intrigued by yet another America East prospect. That would be Binghamton center Nick Billings, who is 7-feet-0, 255 pounds with springy legs, improving strength and a career average of 3.9 blocks per game -- 10th in NCAA history.
"I've been at Vermont almost 20 years, and I've never seen this many guys getting (professional) looks at one time," Vermont coach Tom Brennan said.
In its 25-year history, the America East has had just three first-round draft picks: Reggie Lewis (Northeastern) to the Celtics in 1987, Vin Baker (Hartford) to the Bucks in '93 and Speedy Claxton (Hofstra) to the 76ers in 2000.
In nine months, the league could add three more. Or it could add none. As one Western Conference scout told SportsLine.com, September isn't the time to say with certainty who will get drafted in the first round, especially the second half of the first round.
But with certainty we can say this: The America East is more relevant to the NBA than it has ever been -- and perhaps as relevant to the NBA as any conference, anywhere. With three potential first-round draft picks, the America East could surpass all but one conference from a year ago. Only the Pac-10 had three players go in the 2004 first round.
The Big East, Big Ten and Big 12 had two first-rounders. The ACC had one. The SEC? Zero.
Yes, the America East's conference RPI last season ranked 22nd out of 31. No, there isn't a team in the league given a shot at reaching the 2005 Final Four (but don't sleep on Vermont, which has another potential 2,000-point scorer in senior guard T.J. Sorrentine.)
Those are facts, but they aren't facts that interest the NBA. The NBA is interested in players with specific attributes, and the America East has three such players.
Barea is a scoring point guard who lit up the United States for 27 points, six assists and six rebounds in the FIBA Americas title game. Barea says Wake Forest's Chris Paul joked with him during the game to slow down -- and Paul is the ACC's quickest player.