Catamounts and River Hawks Set to Square Off
As you’re most likely well aware of, the America East conference schedule has a different twist to it this year. Instead of a traditional conference schedule where the games are split up, the new format pits two schools against each other on back-to-back days. Vermont will be traveling to UMass-Lowell to take on the River Hawks on Monday (12/21) and Tuesday (12/22). Those games were initially supposed to happen the weekend before, but a positive Covid test resulted in pushing the games back to the following Monday and Tuesday.
Unlike Vermont, UMass-Lowell was able to partake in an abbreviated non-conference schedule. The River Hawks went 1-3 in their four games. On the surface the River Hawks look to be their same mediocre selfs, but their one win came against San Francisco and could be argued as their best win in program history. San Francisco was the highest KPI ranked team (84) that UMass-Lowell has ever beat. Good on you River Hawks, but damn that is a sad ass stat.
Starting Line-up Predictions – Vermont Catamounts
Guard – Stef Smith
Guard – Ben Shungu
Wing/Guard – Justin Mazzula
Forward – Tomas Murphy
Forward – Ryan Davis
Stef Smith and Ben Shungu were starters last year and two of the best guards in the conference, so as long as they’re healthy, consider them automatic locks to start every game. Justin Mazzula might seem like a surprise start, but early whispers were that he looked like a stud at practice. He’s also a bigger guard who was a proven commodity at George Washington. Robin Duncan or Bailey Patella could also get the nod here and it wouldn’t surprise anyone. Both are more than capable of handling themselves with the first unit, but their energy and experience coming off the bench gives Vermont a potent second unit.
Although Ryan Davis wasn’t a starter last year, he’s as close of a lock to start as you can get. The reigning America East Sixth Man of the Year looks ready to make an even bigger leap as he enters year three in Burlington. Tomas Murphy earns the final spot next to Davis in the starting five. Much like Mazzula, Murphy was a solid contributor at his previous school (Northeastern) and if not for suffering an injury early on last year for the Huskies, he could’ve been a real force to reckon with. Both Murphy and Davis have dealt with nagging injuries in the past, so it wouldn’t be a major shock to see Isaiah Powell or Duncan Demuth step in if John Becker decides to play it safe with either of his big men.
What to Watch for – Vermont Catamounts
With no preseason or non-conference schedule, this will be Vermont’s first game of the season. The biggest storyline has to be how the Catamounts look as they not only try to shake off the rust, but also how they gel as a unit. Vermont is favored to win this match-up, but remember, no more Anthony Lamb, Everett Duncan and Daniel Giddens to lean on.
Giddens didn’t provide much offensively, though he was quite the intimidating presence inside the paint. Duncan was a leader in the locker room and a dependable two-way player who could knock down big shots. Lamb was… well Lamb was the GOAT. Nuff said.
Even though Vermont will be favored, don’t expect these games to be pretty. John Becker has previously mentioned that this team still has a lot of work to do. While that’s likely just “coachspeak”, the Cats are held to a much higher standard than the majority of other America East teams.
The River Hawks aren’t going to be mistaken for Gonzaga or Iowa anytime soon, but this team isn’t going to just let Vermont walk all over them. It might get sloppy at times, but if Vermont can shake off the cobwebs, expect the Cats to walk away 2-0.
Starting Line-up Predictions – UMass-Lowell River Hawks
Guard – Obadiah Noel
Guard – Ron Mitchell
Forward – Salif Boudie
Forward – Connor Withers
Forward – Allin Blunt
There’s less mystery around the River Hawks starting five, as they’ve deployed the exact same group in all four of their games thus far. Obadiah Noel is already off to a fantastic start and looks like a legit contender for America East honors. Ron Mitchell has filled the starting void at the other guard spot, but junior guard Bryce Daley has supplemented Mitchell in terms of minutes and overall production so maybe he earns the starting nod instead.
Similarly to Mitchell, Salif Boudie has started all four contests for UMass-Lowell, but his minutes per game average is the lowest out of all the River Hawks who have played in every game thus far. Maybe forward Darion Jordan-Thomas gets the start, though for now it seems Boudie is their guy. Connor Withers and Allin Blunt both average over 26 minutes a game for the River Hawks and appear to be safe bets to start as well. It’s no secret that the offense runs through Noel, yet for the amount of floor time they see you’d expect better from Withers and Blunt who only average a combined 13.8 points a game.
What to Watch for – UMass-Lowell River Hawks
Vermont is the superior team and UMass-Lowell knows it. But, this is college basketball and anything can happen – look no further than to what happened to San Francisco earlier. The River Hawks are frisky and with this being Vermont’s first game there will undoubtedly be some dumb mistakes. If UMass-Lowell can capitalize on Vermont’s lack of game readiness, they should have a real chance to stick with them throughout these games.
Noel is the driving force for the River Hawks, but he can only do so much. He leads the team in nearly every major statistical category (20.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 4.5 apg, 1 spg) and while he’s faced quality opponents previously, he’ll have to find a way to get past Stef Smith and Ben Shungu – with the latter being the reigning America East Defensive Player of the Year.
The Catamounts will likely double or even triple Noel when possible, forcing someone else from the River Hawks to step up and beat them. Unfortunately, outside of Noel no other River Hawk is even averaging 8 points a game. In order for UMass-Lowell to win, let alone even have a chance, Noel’s supporting cast are going to need to have a big-time performance.
Monday (12/21) – Vermont 71 – UMass-Lowell 65
Tuesday (12/22) Vermont 67 – UMass-Lowell 59
Vermont completes the sweep. Even with all their cobwebs and rust the Catamounts should be able to take home two victories. The River Hawks will keep it interesting, but this Vermont team has too much talent from top to bottom to fall victim to UMass-Lowell.
John Becker will likely deploy a bend, don’t break strategy in terms of limiting the amount of damage Noel does. Completely shutting him down isn’t possible, but forcing him into bad shots and errant passes will be the Cats main objective.
America East Game of the Week(end)
Albany vs. UMBC (12/19 & 12/20)
Battle of the dogs. UMBC has looked great so far during their non-conference stretch and should be a legit America East title contender this year. Albany has taken a step back recently and there’s even some whispers that Will Brown is on the hot seat (mostly from me).
Despite what appears to be two teams headed in different directions, this should be a great match-up between two of the better America East teams in recent years. UMBC has looked like a complete team early on and will likely be favored in this contest. On the flip side of that coin you have Will Brown – the fiery and exuberant head coach who can’t be overlooked. If UMBC continues to play at the level they’ve been at, expect the Retrievers to come out on top, but if they overlook Albany and fall victim to the Danes, it could easily be a series split.