Had its 15-point second half lead in the America East final last March held, you might have noticed that Vermont was playing its best basketball of the season. Heading into that fateful day in Stony Brook, the Catamounts had won seven straight and had scored at least 1 point per possession in 10 consecutive outings.
But while the focus – rightfully so given their history – was squarely on the Seawolves on that Saturday morning eight months ago, Vermont’s impressive performance, and the fact that they were there in the firstplace, were no fluke. And it also highlights just how amazing Jameel Warney’s 43-point effort in the Stony Brook comeback was that day.
“We played really well at the end of the season last year,” Vermont coach John Becker said. “I told my team I’m a glass half-empty guy, I worry about a lot of stuff, and I’m always worried the opponent. But the last five or six games of last year, we were really good. We beat Stony Brook on Senior Night and I felt really good after that game. We obviously controlled that championship game for good portions of it. We’d been playing good basketball for a while at the end of last year.”
Unless you live in Vermont, you probably didn’t notice that the Catamounts went on to post wins over Western Carolina and Seattle in the CBI before falling to Nevada in the semifinals. They finished last season 28th nationally in eFG% (54.1) and lost only Ethan O’Day to graduation. In addition, freshman Ernie Duncan played through injuries for much of the campaign.
For 2016-17, Becker has added a pair of Tulane transfers that sat out last year in Payton Henson and Josh Hearlihy, as well as what – at this point, at least – looks like a steal in freshman Anthony Lamb.
Vermont unleashed its new attack on an unsuspecting Quinnipiac Saturday afternoon, putting up 94 points and 1.24 ppp in an impressive 94-70 victory, even if it was over a apparently rebuilding Bobcat team. Making it look even better, the Catamounts stumbled out of the gate, scoring just six points in the first seven minutes (and 11 possessions) of the contest, meaning they were at 1.35 ppp in the final 33 minutes.
“We have an explosive offensive team, I’ve been saying that for a while,” Becker said.
— America East (@AmericaEast) November 13, 2016
One of the biggest problems for Becker may be finding every enough minutes. Cam Ward (19), Darren Payen (18 while playing in front of his hometown crowd), and Drew Urquhart (11) all played a fairly major role last season, but may have trouble breaking into the rotation. The Catamounts played Saturday without Hearlihy, still battling an injury, and the second half without Kurt Steidl, held out for precautionary reasons with a big lead.
Lamb, who finished with 23 points and nine rebounds in his collegiate debut is a strong, slashing 6’6”, which should create matchup nightmares in America East, while Henson is a 6’8” big who can step up and shoot if you leave him alone. Henson was a regular two seasons ago at Tulane, and even though the Green Wave struggled, he was playing against teams like UConn, Memphis, and Temple on a regular basis and had a year to get accustomed to Burlington and work on his game.
“It was tough sitting out and not being able to play, but there were definitely some good things to come from it,” Henson, an Arkansas native, said. “I enjoyed being able to explore the area more than I usually am once season is here. It was an offseason full of positives and now I’m ready to go.”
Said Becker: “He’s (Lamb’s) something else. The production is really, really impressive. This was the first college basketball game he’s ever played and he did that, so they sky’s the limit for him right now.”
The rest of America East (starting with New Hampshire who got three of nine votes in the preseason coaches’ poll) will not quite be ready to crown Vermont in mid-November, and the Catamounts still have several ways to improve. As against Stony Brook, defense struggled at times last season (205th overall in efficiency), forcing very few turnovers (263rd).
Offensively, turnovers probably hold the key as well. Point guard Trae Bell-Haynes is now an immensely talented junior and saw his turnover rate drop from an unacceptable 31.4% to a little more manageable 23.1% last season. He tied a career-high with eight assists Saturday, but did commit four turnovers, a couple coming via the new traveling emphasis, which could give him fits for a while.
“Every year is a new year, though,” Becker said. “I certainly learned that after my first season (beat Stony Brook to win America East in 2012). We returned the whole team and figured we would just pick up where we left off, but it didn’t happen. So I learned that early as a young coach that the players might be the same, but you have to start from the bottom and build back up and not skip any steps in the process. All those coaches cliches are cliches for a reason.”
Vermont did schedule an ambitious non-conference slate, beginning with a big test at Providence Monday. South Carolina, Yale, Eastern Michigan (which took Pitt to double OT in its opener), Butler, Siena, and Harvard also await, and – in addition to New Hampshire – Albany has already won at Penn State this season.
But there are signs – many of them evident Saturday at Quinnipiac – that the America East title will go through Burlington for the next couple of seasons.