It’s Cats vs Dogs Once Again
The Catamounts get set to return to court action this weekend, as they welcome longtime conference rival Albany up to Burlington for a weekend series. Vermont is coming off a tough last second loss to NJIT, which resulted in them splitting their series match-up. For Albany, they were out of action last weekend, but in their most recent America East series they fell victim to UMBC twice, though both games were highly competitive.
The Great Danes bark is certainly bigger than their bite these days, as they’ve taken a step back from their usual America East title contender status. The Danes will be looking to shift the tides back in their favor, but for as much as we consider Albany to be one of Vermont’s top rivals, the Danes have not beaten Vermont since 2016.
The Catamounts also find themselves in uncharted territory. Even in such a bizarre and strange season, the Cats surely did not expect to find themselves sitting at 2-2 in conference play and 5th in the America East standings. These conference games are of the utmost importance and neither team can afford to fall even further down the ladder. Let’s get into it.
Starting Line-Up Predictions – Vermont Catamounts
Stef Smith – Guard
Ben Shungu – Guard
Justin Mazzulla – Guard/Wing
Isaiah Powell – Forward
Ryan Davis – Forward
The three-headed backcourt attack of Smith, Shungu and Mazzulla isn’t likely to change at any point this season, as all three provide Vermont with excellent backcourt options. Aaron Deloney and Robin Duncan add great depth as well, though neither has yet to have their breakout performance off the bench thus far.
Star forward Ryan Davis returned to the Cats line-up a week ago and looked incredible. Not only does he allow Powell to play at his more natural four-spot, his presence in the paint adds a whole nother dimension to the Cats offense. Besides the return of Davis, the sudden emergence of Nick Fiorillo has been a welcome surprise in the Cats frontcourt. Expect even more minutes for the walk-on from Maine, as Tomas Murphy continues to slowly regain his strength and find his footing.
What to Watch for – Vermont Catamounts
In the first game against NJIT last week the Catamounts absolutely crushed the Highlanders. By the first media time out the Cats had already raced ahead to a 15-0 lead. They controlled the game from start to finish and looked like the Cats of old. As expected, NJIT picked it up in game two, but again the Cats led by 10 mid-way through the second-half. Unfortunately Vermont went into cruise control at that point thinking NJIT would just roll over, but the Highlanders came storming back. We were treated to not one, but two overtimes before NJIT somehow managed to tip in an errant shot with 0.1 seconds remaining to steal game two from Vermont.
You best believe John Becker gave his team an earful after taking their foot off the gas. In recent years the Catamounts haven’t had to face much adversity in conference play. Yet here they sit at 2-2 in the middle of the pack – a strange and uncharted territory no doubt.
How will the team respond? John Becker finds himself in a tough predicament. Does he condense his line-up to around 8-9 players to ensure only his best players are out there or will he continue to favor his bench, providing more rest to his starters? Having his best players out there for extended periods will certainly give the Cats a better chance of walking away with a victory, but coming off a double-overtime affair and now a back-to-back series ahead of them, rest is going to be incredibly valuable in the long-run.
Keys to the Game – Vermont Catamounts
Play a full 40 minutes. As was just mentioned, the Cats looked like they were on their way to their third conference victory before NJIT came racing back. All it took was a small handful of possessions for the Highlanders to tie the game. Vermont can’t let that happen again.
Stop giving up career games. In both of the Cats losses someone for the opposing team has gone off for a new career high. First it was Ron Mitchell of UML, then Souleymane Diakite for NJIT. Shungu has picked up where he left off in terms of locking up the opposing team’s best player, but the rest of the Cats are struggling to add more help. This trend needs to stop now.
Make the extra pass. Vermont is a very unselfish team by nature, but in game one against NJIT the team had 17 assists in the first-half alone. Granted, they were able to get all those assists because they were making their shots, but all those extra passes led to wide-open shots and the Cats capitalized. Keep finding the open man and good things will happen.
Starting Line-Up Predictions – Albany Great Danes
JoJo Anderson – Guard
Antonio Rizzuto – Guard
C.J. Kelly – Guard/Wing
Kellon Taylor – Forward
Jarvis Doles – Forward
Albany will be short-handed against Vermont, as they have a number of players dealing with injuries who likely won’t be available. Star Aussie guard, Cam Healy, is one of those players not expected to be on the floor come Saturday, meaning we’ll likely see a lot of Anderson, Rizzuto and Kelly in the backcourt for the Danes.
The Danes frontcourt will also be put to the test, as big man Adam Lulka is also on the injury report and not expected to be available. Albany is likely to turn to Doles or Brent Hank at the other forward spot, or possibly run a guard heavy rotation similar to their last game against Niagara. Guards Will Amica and Jamel Horton are also questionable to play.
What to Watch for – Albany Great Danes
Albany didn’t get in on the America East action a week ago, as what should’ve been a week of rest and recovery actually turned into a nightmare scenario for the Danes. In their previous match-up against UMBC, the Danes fought extremely hard against arguably the best team currently in the America East. Both games came down to the wire, as the Danes ultimately fell by one (61-60) and five points (65-60) in those contests.
Even at full health the Danes are likely borderline America East contenders at best. This is a team battling regression and transition, as they try to find their identity. Add in the fact that now they have a laundry list of injuries to deal with and the Danes are reeling.
Much like how John Becker has to decide whether to push his starters or provide rest when possible, Albany’s Will Brown has a similar dilemma. Albany is in danger of falling to 0-4 and last place in the America East table. Will he rush back the likes of Healy and Lulka and risk a greater injury or will he stick with who’s available and in turn risk dropping even further in the conference standings?
Keys to the Game – Albany Great Danes
Get out in one piece. In the words of Herm Edwards, “you play to win the game” and while that statement certainly echoes through every player and coach, the risk versus reward in this game does not favor Albany. Beating Vermont would be a huge win for Albany, but if Healy or Lulka or whoever else suffers a setback and is done for the year it certainly won’t be worth it. Ballin, but at what cost?
Play small and fast. This is a bold strategy that could easily backfire due to the depth Vermont has in their own backcourt, but Albany might not have any other choice. The Danes don’t have the talent or depth to bang with the likes of Davis in the post, so their best option should be to try to keep him off the floor at all costs. Vermont is not nearly as effective without Davis, so while it is a risk to go small, it might be their only choice.
Nothing to lose mentality. Vermont has beaten Albany nine straight times and 16 out of the past 20. Even though the Danes are considered one of Vermont’s biggest conference foes, the Catamounts have owned this rivalry as of late. The Danes are reeling, banged-up and could be headed for their worst finish in recent memory. Playing with the mentality that they have nothing to lose could be the only way to finally flip the switch.
Game 1 – Vermont 82 – Albany 67
Game 2 – Vermont 75 – Albany 66
I’m tempted to split the series since that seems to be how the Cats season has gone so far. Nonetheless it’s time to buck that trend and finally get a weekend sweep. Albany is reeling and all those injuries are only going to make matters worse for the Danes. Throughout Vermont’s nine game win streak against the Danes, only once was the final outcome decided by a one possession score (a 56-53 win back in 2017). Knock on wood, but after this weekend that streak should be up to 11 straight.
Saturday 6pm ESPN3
Sunday 4pm ESPN+