What to Look for When the Cats Take the Court
Last year, Vermont went toe-to-toe with 15 non-conference opponents. This year, that number has been slashed all the way down to 4 due to the repercussions of the on-going pandemic. As much as the Catamounts would’ve loved to find a way to work in more games, it just wasn’t feasible. NCAA protocols around traveling and testing made it increasingly difficult for teams to fill out the OOC portion of their schedule. Despite Vermont only managing to secure four non-conference opponents this year, there’s no need to view this season as a wash.
The four non-conference match-ups Vermont will be taking on consists of Siena, Buffalo, Iona and St. Bonaventure. While there is still a slim possibility Vermont could find a way to add another foe into the mix, it’s all but official that these four teams will be it. Buffalo, Iona and St. Bonaventure will all be played at Mohegan Sun as part of “Bubbleville” and Siena will travel to Burlington to take on the Cats, as they hope to avoid falling for a ninth straight time to Vermont.
Those four non-conference games, along with the 18 America East conference contests give Vermont a total of 22 games (quick maths). Having never finished a season under 20 wins, John Becker is in danger of losing one of his most impressive accomplishments, though this season will undoubtedly have a giant asterisk penciled in next to it. A more in-depth analysis for each match-up will come at a later date, but for now let’s breakdown how each non-conference foe compares to Vermont and what to expect when the Catamounts finally take the court.
From 2010 through 2017, Vermont and Siena have squared up eight times, with the Catamounts walking away victorious in all eight contests. Since their last appearance in the NCAA Tournament (09-10), the Saints haven’t been nearly the mid-major force many expected them to become. However, after failing to top the 20 win mark from 2016-19, the Saints finally returned to MAAC contender status a season ago thanks in large to arguably the MAAC’s most touted NBA draft prospect in over a decade, Jalen Pickett.
The 6’4’’ guard averaged 15.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal and 1.1 blocks a game for the Saints last year while earning 2020 MAAC Player of the Year honors. Along with Pickett, the Saints are also returning dynamic 6’7” wing Manny Camper, who put up 13.7 points and 10.4 rebounds just a season ago. Many pundits have already predicted that the duo of Pickett and Camper are both talented enough to play at the next level.
The up-tempo, run-and-gun Saints should be one of the more exciting teams to watch this year and if not for an abbreviated season, might have possibly been able to make a push for the programs 27 win record. However, if there is one flaw in this Saints team it would be their production outside of Pickett and Camper. Only two other players for Siena would average over 10 points a game last year and both have moved on. Sophomore guard Gary Harris Jr. was the next leading scorer, but a rather pedestrian 5.3 points a game likely won’t be enough to get the job done in 2020.
Even with Vermont winning the previous eight contests, the Catamount-Saints rivalry has been a fun series over the years. This Saints team will be the strongest they’ve been in over a decade, as those days of eating a W for Vermont could be coming to an end. It sounds strange to say, but this Saints team might be Vermont’s toughest non-conference opponent.
Much like Vermont, Buffalo has had a tremendous amount of success in recent years which includes four trips to the NCAA Tournament since the 2014-15 season and is highlighted by a 32-4 record just two years ago. The Bulls would fall in the second round of the NCAA Tournament that year, but their 32 wins on the season would shatter the programs record for most wins in a year. Head coach Nate Oats would later jump ship to Alabama, though he has yet to find that same level of success down in Tuscaloosa. Likewise, Buffalo has taken a slight step back as well, though that was to be expected after reaching the ceiling of their magical 32 win season.
Even with the departure of Nate Oats, Buffalo still managed to finish 20-12 on the year, good enough for third in the MAC standings. The Bulls will be returning their top playmaker, 6’3” guard Jayvon Graves, who led the team with 17.1 points a game. They also return 6’7” forward Josh Mballa. The Frechman star paced the Bulls with 9.6 rebounds, while also averaging 10.8 points a game. They will be losing starting point guard Devonta Jordan, but incoming freshman Chanse Robinson looks like the real deal and should be ready to contribute from day one.
Vermont and Buffalo don’t match up very often, as their last meeting took place back in 2015. The Bulls toppled Vermont 77-71, but both teams have shifted their identities significantly since then. Quite frankly, it’s a bit surprising that these two programs don’t play each other more often. Both teams have had a great deal of success in recent years and a yearly match-up between the two schools could prove to be a phenomenal resume builder for postseason consideration. This game will be part of the Mohegan Sun “Bubbleville” package, but hopefully will lead to a future home-and-away series between the two northeast squads. Another very tough and high quality OOC opponent for Vermont.
The national spotlight might soon be shining on Iona, as this upcoming season marks the return of the legendary, yet disgraced head coach Rick Pitino. The former Louisville head coach has been removed from the college basketball scene since 2017, after he was terminated from the program for his involvement with a recruitment scandal that shocked the nation. Yet life is seemingly all about second chances and if Iona can return to the NCAA Tournament this year, the spotlight will once again be focused on Pitino and his comeback story.
Before Pitino it was Tim Cluess at the helm for the Gaels. Cluess unfortunately was forced to step down due to health concerns, but he had the program buzzing with six NCAA Tournament appearances during his nine years in New Rochelle. Tra Arnold briefly filled in last year, though his 12-17 record was the program’s worst finish since the 2008-09 campaign.
Iona appears to be one of the bigger wildcards this year. Yes, they’ve had an overwhelming amount of success recently through their domination of the MAAC and have picked up one of college basketball’s most prolific coaches of all time, but there’s still more questions than answers for the Gaels. Their top three leading scorers from a season ago have all moved on, leaving 6’4” guard Isaiah Ross as the focal point of their offense now. Ross is a fine player, but his 11 points, 3.2 boards and 1.1 assists a game likely won’t cut it for a team that now consists of seven unproven freshmen. In all likelihood Pitino will try to establish a new identity and philosophy at Iona, meaning this season could ultimately be a wash for the Gaels as he looks to build towards the future.
Vermont and Iona have only squared up twice in the past decade, with each team taking home a victory and splitting the series. On paper this projects to be Vermont’s easiest non-conference opponent, as their experience far outweighs that of Iona and should play a pivotal role in the outcome of this contest. Although it might not hold the same weight as it once did, John Becker would surely love to add a win against a coach of Pitino’s pedigree to his resume. Expect Vermont to come out strong in this one.
St. Bonaventure Bonnies
Vermont and St. Bonaventure are set to once again battle it out against each other, as their upcoming match-up marks the fourth straight year these two schools will meet. What initially originated as a home-away-neutral series arrangement has quickly blossomed into a budding rivalry that will hopefully continue in the years to come. Two of the last three affairs were decided by just two points, while the other was a six-point win for Vermont who managed to edge out the Bonnies in a double-overtime thriller back in 2018. If recent history is any indication of what to expect this year we could be in store for another memorable affair.
Coming out of the A10, the Bonnies have proven themselves to a very good, albeit not great team. Since taking the reins in 2007, head coach Mark Schmidt has done an excellent job at keeping the Bonnies in contention status throughout the years. Before his arrival, St. Bonaventure only managed 24 wins over four years and were widely considered the bottom dwellers of the A10. However, with only two NCAA Tournament appearances to boot during his 13 year tenure, the Bonnies might decide to look elsewhere if Schmidt can’t elevate them to that next level.
One thing that will help Schmidt and the Bonnies take that next step is that the majority of St. Bonaventure’s core will be returning to Olean this year. Star guard Kyle Lofton (14.1 pts, 6 asts) should once again lead the way for the Bonnies, as he’ll be accompanied by guards Dominick Welch (11.8 pts, 6.9 rebs) and Jaren English (11.9 pts, 4.8 rebs), along with forwards Osun Osunniyi and (10.8 pts, 8.4 rebs) Justin Winston (8.7 pts, 3.4 rebs). With another year of comfortability and progression together, the Bonnies should find themselves as a much stronger contender coming out of the A10.