Vermont gets Their First Look at New Conference Foe NJIT
We’re on to NJIT. After a so-so performance against UMass-Lowell in their season opener, the Catamounts return to Burlington to take on their new conference rivals, the NJIT Highlanders. Vermont struggled initially against the River Hawks, but to be fair the early struggles were expected and again credit UMass-Lowell for rising to the occasion.
The Catamounts appeared to find their footing in the second half of game two, as they used a 21-3 run to take control of the game and never looked back. That’s the type of Vermont team we’ve seen in years past. That’s the type of Vermont team that can win a fifth straight America East regular season title. But can that type of Vermont team consistently show up?
Despite having never matched-up with NJIT previously, Vermont should feel good about their chances. The Highlanders operate out of a similar philosophy to that of the Catamounts last opponent, UMass-Lowell. Led by star point-guard Zach Cooks, the Highlanders rely heavily on Cooks to produce plays as the ball is seemingly always in his hands.
UMass-Lowell’s Obadiah Noel is more often than not operating as the team’s main scorer, facilitator and rebounder. Cooks hasn’t been as lethal on the facilitating end so far, but he currently leads the Highlanders in scoring (17.5) and rebounding (5.5). He’ll once again be tasked to carry the Highlanders and limiting his production will be no small feat.
This will be NJIT’s first conference game as a member of the America East. You best believe they aren’t going to overlook Vermont, as beating the kings of the America East would be a huge statement win for their program. Easier said than done.
Starting Line-Up Predictions – Vermont Catamounts
Stef Smith – Guard
Ben Shungu – Guard
Justin Mazzulla – Guard
Robin Duncan – Guard/Forward
Isaiah Powell – Forward
Barring any other unforeseen injuries, John Becker will likely send out the same five that started against UMass-Lowell. If either Ryan Davis or Tomas Murphy are healthy enough to play then Duncan or possibly even Powell will be supplemented. The Cats desperately need an inside presence, especially on the offensive end, so getting even one of their big men back would be a huge boost for them.
Nick Fiorillo provided the Cats with some solid minutes off the bench against UMass-Lowell and might have already leap-frogged Duncan Demuth for that first big off the bench spot. Eric Beckett also looked improved from a year ago during his limited run against the River Hawks. Because of how deep Vermont is, Beckett might not see consistent minutes on a game-to-game basis, but it’s nice to know that he can come in and contribute should John Becker need to call his number.
What to Watch for – Vermont Catamounts
In Vermont’s first match-up against UMass-Lowell the biggest question mark surrounding the Cats was how they’d look after not competing in any sort of game action in 286 days. Needless to say there were plenty of mistakes and sloppy play from both teams. The Cats cleaned up their play as the games went on, but it wasn’t until the second half of game two that they really found their composure.
Part of this was due to rust, while the other can be attributed to the absolute whistle-fest from the referees which killed both teams ability to find any flow or rhythm within their game. Against NJIT, Vermont will have to play smart and disciplined from the get-go.
In game two against UMass-Lowell, there was a brief stretch in the second half where Vermont was able to gain momentum and pull away from the River Hawks. If the Catamounts can get back into that type of rhythm offensively against the Highlanders, they’ll be able to dictate the pace and ultimately secure another conference win.
Keys to the Game – Vermont Catamounts
Get the easy ones. In the two games against the River Hawks, Vermont shot 40-105 from the field (38%). Considering the number of wide-open looks the Cats took coming from both inside the paint and along the perimeter, that field-goal percentage should be closer to 50%. Hitting those point-blank shots could be the difference between a 2-0 sweep or 1-1 split.
Keep legs fresh. As the game goes on and fatigue sets in, the legs are often the first to go. When the legs don’t work like they used to (shoutout Ed Sheeran) it leads to a notably decline in play – particularly with shooting. The back-to-back games give even less time to rest, so going deep into the bench even for short spurts at times can keep the likes of Smith and Shungu fresh all game.
Stay disciplined. The foul-fest that was Vermont vs UMass-Lowell was not a pretty sight for either team. The River Hawks felt the sting of the whistle a bit more than the Catamounts, but Vermont still has to be smarter with their fouls. Smith averaged 4.5 fouls in those two games. As the Cats leader and focal point of offense, Smith has to be more self-aware of the situation. If it’s another close contest and Smith is on the bench it could be trouble for the Cats.
Starting Line-up Predictions – NJIT Highlanders
Zach Cooks – Guard
Antwuan Butler – Guard
Dylan O’Hearn – Guard/Wing
San Antonio Brinson – Forward
Souleymane Diakite – Forward
The Highlanders have only played two games thus far, so there is a chance they could always do some experimenting with their line-ups. Cooks is a lock to start. Butler has played the second most minutes behind only the aforementioned Cooks, so he should be penciled in as well. Miles Coleman has been solid off the bench for the Highlanders, but he likely won’t be leapfrogging either Brinson or Diakite anytime soon.
O’Hearn is the only real question mark out of this line-up. The junior guard has come off the bench in both of NJIT’s games so far, yet he’s second on the team in scoring (15 ppg). He’s been supplementing Diego Willis, who’s received the previous two starting nods. O’Hearn is JUCO transfer so it could be that NJIT was hoping to get him acclimated to their style of play before anointing him a starter. This could be the right time for NJIT to add him into the starting five.
What to Watch for – NJIT Highlanders
Having only played two games (1-1) and yet to compete against any America East teams, it’s difficult to get a complete read on NJIT. Obviously Zach Cooks is their star and will be the focal point on offense for the Highlanders, but who else can NJIT depend on to make shots? O’Hearn has looked like that guy so far as he’s shooting an incredibly efficient 73% (11-14) from the field. O’Hearn will likely have a much harder time against the likes of Vermont’s renowned defense, so it’ll be interesting to see how he responds against the extra adversity.
With this being NJIT’s first game against a conference opponent since joining the America East there’s going to be plenty of motivation to prove that they belong. Getting a win in your first conference game is one thing, but to do it against the reigning America East champs? Now that’s a statement. The Highlanders seem like they could finish anywhere from 4th – 8th in the conference standing, but before they can even dream of contending for a conference title they’ll have to secure some statement wins first. This game against Vermont will be a big-time test.
Keys to the Game – NJIT Highlanders
Let Zach Cook. Pretty simple here. Feed Cooks early and often and force Vermont to play tighter and even double-team the quick-twitch guard. By forcing the Catamounts to put an extra emphasis on Cooks, it allows other players such as O’Hearn’s to keep getting those wide-open looks.
Control the paint. Vermont could be without their two starting forwards once again, meaning they’ll be at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to attacking and defending the paint. Brinson and Diakite aren’t exactly all-conference forwards, but the duo could be a huge deciding factor in the outcome of the game if they can limit Vermont’s paint presence.
Control the tempo. With the speedy Cooks at the helm, NJIT has shown an affection for playing fast and pushing the tempo. Vermont typically prefers to utilize a half-court offense approach to wear down their opponents. If the Catamounts continue to struggle with their perimeter shooting, NJIT can capitalize off their misses by pushing the tempo in transition and ultimately forcing Vermont to play much quicker and more susceptible to silly mistakes.
Best Match-up to Watch
Ben Shungu (UVM) vs Zach Cooks (NJIT)
Due to the overwhelming amount of fouls called in last week’s affair between Vermont and UMass-Lowell, we were partially robbed of the Shungu vs Noel match-up. When the two were on the floor they were often pitted against one another and each showed flashes of why they’re considered two of the more elite guards in the America East.
This week we get to see Shungu try his best to shut down Cooks. Listed at only 5’9”, Shungu has the clear height and muscle advantage over Cooks, but what he lacks in height, he makes up for in speed, lateral quickness and pure shot-making ability. If Shungu can keep enough space between himself and Cooks while still forcing him to take tough shots or pass away he’ll have done his part. However, if Shungu is forced to play tight against Cooks, then Cooks should be able to blow right past him, forcing the defense to either collapse or give up an easy bucket.
Game 1 – Vermont 74 – NJIT 65
Game 2 Vermont 79 – NJIT 70
I picked Vermont to get the sweep against UMass-Lowell last week, but sadly my crystal ball lied and the two teams ended with a 1-1 split. I’m doubling down on Vermont once again. They struggled initially out of the gate in their first two games against the River Hawks, but picked it up in the second half of both games and for as ugly as it was, they still hung around for most of game one.
If NJIT had played more games or even played a series against another America East team before this I might be tempted to give them a win depending on how they looked. Unfortunately they haven’t had the opportunity to do so yet. This series should give us a better idea of where we can expect NJIT to be slotted in the America East standings.
Sunday 3pm ESPN+ (Burlington)
Monday 2pm ESPN+ (Burlington)