Take a Peak into the Catamount Crystal Ball
The days are getting shorter. The weather is getting cooler. And Jon Rothstein slowly awakes from his furlonged summer hibernation. We’re inching closer to college basketball season one day at time, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves – or maybe we should?
While the official start date is still to be determined, teams can begin organized activities and practices in the coming weeks. After spending some time predicting who might earn recognition in the America East this winter, it’s only right to keep the prediction train rolling before we kick off the season. Those America East All-Conference and Player of the Year predictions were somewhat of a crapshoot, as players often progress or even regress over the season, meaning it’s far from a lock that those predictions will hold true.
Nonetheless, those award predictions were largely based on merit and statistical projections. On paper they look like solid options that could indeed all fall into place. However, this next list of predictions holds far less validity – but remember, anything is possible. Hell, there’s a chance that all five of these bold predictions could come to fruition. What bold predictions await the Catamounts? What’s the likelihood of each prediction? Let’s find out.
1. Bernie Andre Leads the Cats in Rebounding
Out of all the predictions listed before you, this one seems to be the most plausible. Andre, the Catamounts latest grad transfer, checks-in at only 6’6, but don’t let the height fool you. In the two years Andre spent at NAU before joining Vermont he averaged 7.5 boards a game. For context, Vermont’s leading rebounder last season was Anthony Lamb who brought down 7.1 rebounds a game.
Shouldn’t Vermont’s big men duo of Ryan Davis and Tomas Murphy be able to out-rebound Andre? They might, but even with less minutes a season ago, Davis only averaged 4.4 boards, while Murphy could only muster 2.8 rebounds a game. Both Davis and Murphy are three inches taller than Andre and spend more time operating out of the post, so in theory they should be the primary rebounders. Yet, for some reason Andre is the one cleaning up the glass. Maybe Andre spent some time at Carmelo’s rebounding camp.
Taking previous statistics into account is obviously in Andre’s favor, the other is where the Catamounts plan on utilizing him. Andre will likely start in some sort of wing/PF role similar to how the Cats used Lamb and Everett Duncan. Lamb paced the Cats in rebounds a season ago, while Duncan finished top five on the team with 4.2 a game. Even back-up wing, Bailey Patella hauled in 3.5 a game. All three are tenacious rebounders who aren’t afraid of contact when cleaning up the glass. Andre fits that mold to a T, as he uses his strength and attacking mindset to set the tone.
Likelihood? 7/10. As far as bold predictions go, this one was pretty light, but it’s a start.
2. Vermont Goes Undefeated in Conference Play
The Catamounts are the unanimous favorites to once again repeat as America East champs, as on paper they’re by far the most talented team in the conference. They won the regular season title four years running, boasting conference records of 16-0, 15-1, 14-2 and 14-2 during that span. Their 16-0 conference record came back in 2016-17 with star point guard Trae Bell-Haynes at the helm, as he helped guide the Cats on a 22 game win streak. Vermont set the America East record by going 16-0 that year. Can they break their own record?
With the addition of NJIT to the America East, the conference now sits at an even ten teams, meaning there will now be an 18 game conference slate and Vermont will have a chance at shattering the record they set just a few seasons ago. It won’t be easy, but considering how dominant the Cats have been in the America East over these past four years definitely makes it a real possibility. However, even with the most talented team, Vermont will still need quite a few breaks to go their way.
During their historic 16-0 conference run, the Cats only had one game within five points – a 77-74 win over rival UMBC. Last year, they had four games within five points and managed a 2-2 record in those contests. Besides being their usual dominant selfs, Vermont will need to be able to close out those close games, even if it takes a bit of luck. Stony Brooks fall from grace certainly helps their cause, but the Cats will have to stay focused and committed for all 18 games.
Likelihood? 4/10. Vermont will win the America East. Pulling off 18 straight conference wins will be a big challenge, but it is doable. More likely than not they’ll probably finish around 16-2.
3. Catamounts Sweep the America East Awards
Much like the running the table in the America East, the Catamounts have previously swept all of the major conference awards before. This was back in 2016 off the heels of the Cats 16-0 record breaking season. It was the first time in America East history that a team would capture all five major men’s basketball awards. Can the Catamounts repeat history yet again?
The five major America East awards are as follows: Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year, Rookie of the Year and Coach of the Year. Last season, the Cats nearly completed the sweep again, as they took home four of the five awards and find themselves in a great position to walk away with more hardware this year. The Cats should be considered favorites to win at least three of the five right now. Player of the Year (Stef Smith), Defensive Player of the Year (Ben Shungu) and Coach of the Year (John Becker). The final two of Sixth Man of the Year and Rookie of the Year are going to be a bit more challenging.
The Cats have some solid options as to who could capture Sixth Man of the Year. Aaron Deloney, Robin Duncan and Bailey Patella are all fantastic players who will likely be the Cats biggest contributors off the bench. However, the question remains, can one of those three elevate their game to the point of recognition? Rookie of the Year is also going to be an uphill battle. The only freshman on the Vermont roster is forward Georges Lefebvre and while he’s without a doubt one of the most talented freshmen in America East, playing time could be scarce. Anthony Lamb was the last Catamount to take home the award, as Vermont typically likes to ease their freshmen in rather than throw them straight to the wolves. Lamb was a generational talent who was too good to sit on the bench. Lefebvre doesn’t have to emulate Lamb, but he’ll need to seriously bust his chops to have a shot at Rookie of the Year.
Likelihood? 2/10. Definitely can see the Cats going four out of five in the award race, but considering how deep this team is, it’s hard to envision Lefebvre walking away with the hardware.
4. The Catamounts Lead the Nation in OPP PPG
Believe or not, Vermont actually finished top five in the nation in scoring defense just a season ago. The Catamounts came in fourth, allowing only 59.5 points per game to their opponents, sitting behind only Virginia, Liberty and San Diego State. It’s no secret that John Becker and Catamounts put a strong emphasis on the defensive side of the ball, as their suffocating style of play has helped them earn national recognition despite playing in what some might call a lesser conference.
The Cats are losing some great defenders in Lamb, Duncan and Daniel Giddens, but their roster is still quite formidable and are returning America East Defensive Player of the Year, Ben Shungu. Vermont kept their opponents under 60 points 18 times last year and 13 times under 55 points. John Becker preaches defensive accountability and won’t give extensive minutes to anyone who he can’t trust to properly handle their defensive assignments.
We all know the upcoming season is going to be much different from any other season in years past due to the on-going pandemic. If for some reason the NCAA cuts back games and relies extensively on a conference based schedule, the Catamounts chances of finishing with the best scoring defense will without a doubt be greater. Either way, if John Becker can instill that defensive mindset to his latest batch of incoming Catamounts, then Vermont should be in a solid spot to compete for the nation’s top defense.
Likelihood? 3/10. It would take a huge defensive commitment from the players, but this is definitely possible. Undoubtedly would be one of John Becker’s greatest accomplishments.
5. Vermont Wins Not One, but Two NCAA Tournament Games
Despite the program’s tremendous amount of success, Vermont has never reached the Sweet Sixteen portion of the NCAA Tournament. In all their years, the Catamounts only have two NCAA victories to their name – a win against Lamar in 2012 as 16th seed play-in game, along with some other irrelevant win back in 2004 against Syracuse which I doubt anybody even remembers. Advancing past the first round of the NCAA Tournament would be a remarkable accomplishment for John Becker, but reaching the Sweet Sixteen would all but cement his legacy in Catamount lure.
Obviously a few things need to break Vermont’s way in order for this to unfold. First, they’ll need to win the America East Conference Tournament. Seems easy enough, but as we’ve seen before, you can’t take any for granted. Next, they’ll need to secure a good seed and even better match-up with their first round opponent. The Cats last two appearances saw them as 13 seed battling against the likes of Purdue and Florida State. While the Cats fought hard in both contests, they weren’t able to match-up properly against either foe and eventually fell short, losing by ten (Purdue) and seven (Florida State).
Last year, Vermont stunned St. Johns in New York and took defending national champions Virginia down to the wire in Charlottesville. In recent years they taken on top five ranked opponents in Kansas and Kentucky, with both games highly contested affairs. The Catamounts are right on the cusp of that signature win over a high major program. 2020 is already one of the strangest and wildest years anyone can recall, so why not send Vermont to the Sweet Sixteen.
Likelihood? 1/10. It’s improbable, but not impossible. As a player and coach you’re never satisfied just being in the tournament – you play with the mindset to win. Watch out for those Cinderella Cats.