Game Preview: Vermont vs Maine

Cats Look to Push Win Streak to Five

One week after absolutely dismantling Binghamton, the Catamounts return to Burlington this weekend, as they host the surprisingly some-what competent Maine Black Bears. Much like Binghamton, Maine has been a perennial bottom-dweller in the America East in recent years, but they’ve shown signs of life, as they narrowly edged out both UNH and NJIT in their last two series. 

Like most America East teams, Maine has not had much success against Vermont. In fact, the Catamounts have won the last 20(!) games between these two programs, as you’d have to go all the way back to 2013 to see the last Black Bear victory over Vermont. Maine did almost secure an upset over Vermont just a season ago, but a Ben Shungu lay-up with 4 seconds remaining helped seal a 59-57 win for the Cats.

Catamount fans are hopeful that those two blowout wins over Binghamton a week ago are a sign of things to come. The Black Bears aren’t going to wow anyone with their offense, but their defense has looked mighty stingy thus far. Maine is likely better than their 2-4 record lets on, as it’s hard to envision the Cats scoring so easily in bunches as they did against the Bearcats. Be cautious not to poke these bears.

Starting Line-Up Predictions – Vermont Catamounts

Stef Smith – Guard

Ben Shungu – Guard

Justin Mazzulla – Guard/Wing

Isaiah Powell – Forward

Ryan Davis – Forward

Again, no line-up changes to note, as this appears to be John Becker’s preferred starting unit. Shungu has been in excellent form lately, as along with his routinely outstanding defense has been making impact plays all over the court. Smith looks to have regained his form which is also great news, as the Cats will need his perimeter shooting in this one.

I mentioned last week that there was a slim chance that Tomas Murphy could be slotted into the starting line-up over Powell when he returns to 100%, but with Powell seemingly getting better every week there’s no possible way Coach Becker should consider pulling Powell now. He has done everything the coaching staff has asked of him and his grittiness on the floor is unmatched. Likewise, even though he’s still limited, Murphy provides a tremendous boost offensively off the bench.

What to Watch for – Vermont Catamounts

As briefly mentioned, Maine boasts a very stout defense, as 4 of their 6 conference games (wins included) have been decided by 4 or less points. The Black Bears defense is led by forward Stephane Ingo who is averaging 3 blocks a game and is coming off a 6 block performance in their upset win over NJIT last Sunday. Attacking the basket with Ingo lurking in the wings will be no easy task.

Ingo’s presence in the post creates a huge challenge for the Cats as their offense is geared around feeding Ryan Davis in the paint and letting him cook. Likewise, Vermont’s trio of guards – Smith, Shungu and Mazzulla all like to attack and drive to the basket. Coach Becker will need to gameplan around Ingo to ensure that he can’t sit in the post and have a block party all day. 

In turn, this could lead to much more perimeter and even mid-range shots from the Cats. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see a heavy dose of Nick Fiorillo and Duncan Demuth in this one to help stretch the floor and force Maine’s big men to step out beyond the arc. We’ve seen the Cats throw out different looks defensively to confuse their opponents, now it might be time to show some new looks offensively to counter what Maine tries to do from a defensive standpoint.

Keys to the Game – Vermont Catamounts

Play Up-Tempo – Maine is the definition of slow and methodical. Their season high for points is 62 in a game that they lost by 16. They can’t hang with the Cats offensively which is why Vermont needs to be pushing the pace constantly. We saw the Cats play faster against Binghamton and I’d say that worked out quite well. Again, a faster pace of play should also help keep Ingo from wrecking the game defensively.

Show New Looks – Just mentioned how important it will be to counter Maine’s halfcourt defense with different looks and schemes on offense. This will be just as important on the other end of the court, as it will force Maine into committing mistakes and turnovers. The Black Bears are second only to UMass-Lowell in the conference with 15.4 turnovers a game. Much like the Binghamton series, Vermont should be able to force this inexperienced Maine team into committing dumb and foolish mistakes.

Stay Focused on this Series – In the weeks ahead Vermont has to take on the gauntlet of Hartford, Stony Brook, UNH and UMBC. Let’s say they blowout Maine in game one like they did Binghamton. There’s no doubt the Cats would be feeling pretty good, but they can’t start looking ahead at their future opponents. In some ways game two could be considered a trap game, as Hartford and Vermont are currently neck-and-neck in the conference standings (5-3) and there was a lot of chatter this offseason about what would’ve happened had that America East Championship game between these two schools actually taken place. Complete the series against the Black Bears before looking ahead to the Hawks.

Starting Line-Up Predictions – Maine Black Bears

LeChuan DuHart – Guard

Taylor Schildroth – Guard

Ja’Shonte Wright-Mcleish – Guard/Wing

Vilgot Larrson – Forward

Stephane Ingo – Forward

Do not quote me on this line-up. Richard Barron has been experimenting with his starting unit all season and outside of LeChuan DuHart and Stephane Ingo, no one is a lock to start for the Black Bears. Likewise, they don’t have great depth. DuHart (12.7 ppg) and Ingo (11.4 ppg) are the only players to average over ten points a game, while Larrson (6.4 ppg) and guard Adefolalrin Adetogun (5 ppg) round out Maine’s next leading scorers.

Despite a lack of offense and overall talent (sorry, not sorry), Maine does like to go deep into their bench. They currently have ten players who average over ten minutes a game, compared to Vermont’s eight. Again, Coach Barron has shown an affinity for a trial and error approach, meaning his line-ups and even gameplan could look completely different in game one to game two.

*I’ve said it before, but these names are going to be the death of me. God bless whoever is calling the game in this one.

What to Watch for – Maine Black Bears

Maine is 2-2 in their last four games and while their offense is still in work in progress, their defense has been what’s kept them in all those contests. Even in Saturday’s nine point loss to NJIT, Maine played well but couldn’t produce when it mattered most, as scoring just 22 points in a half will rarely lead to victory. Sunday’s game falls an exception, as each team only scored 18 points in the first-half and NCAA rules state that someone has to win.

If Maine is going to have any shot of upsetting Vermont and ending their 20 game losing streak to the Catamounts, it will have to come on the heels of their resilient defense. In their last four games the Black Bears opposing points-per-game average sits at 55.5. Meanwhile, Vermont’s lowest scoring output on the year was 62 (UML & Albany) and are currently averaging 74 ppg over their last four. Something’s gotta give (shoutout Jack Nicholson) and the Black Bears better hope it’s not their defense.

The last thing Maine wants is to find themselves in a hole early or even wind-up in a shootout with the Cats. DuHart and Ingo are the only semi-reliable weapons for the Black Bears offensively and if either one of them can’t find the touch this weekend it’s going to be a loooooong afternoon for Coach Barron and the Black Bears. We’ll find out soon enough if Maine’s defense can rise to the challenge.

Keys to the Game – Maine Black Bears

Stop Ryan Davis – Vermont’s star forward has been on a tear as of late and it’s abundantly clear that the Cats offense depends on Davis in order to be successful. Containing and limiting Davis’ touches will be key for Maine as they try to slow down Vermont’s up-tempo attack. Ingo needs to be attached to Davis’ hip all afternoon.

Foul if Necessary – Vermont will likely try to play with a much faster pace all game to limit Maine from establishing their half-court defense. If the Cats start going on a run, the best solution might be to just foul Vermont in order to slow the game down. This strategy won’t be able to work on every fast-break, but fouling here and there will help to disrupt the Cats flow and rhythm when they start to gain momentum.

Wait for an Open Look – The Black Bears offensive woes will likely continue to be present in this one, but they’ve shown that they can win without having to score 70+ every game. Nonetheless, when the Black Bears are on offense they still need to work the ball around and wait until they have a solid look. The longer they can hold the ball the better. Maine does not want to be in a position where they have to start jacking up three’s, thus allowing Vermont to race down the floor in transition.

Final Predictions 

Game 1 – Vermont 69 – Maine 58

Game 2 – Vermont 71 – Maine 54

Even with Maine playing well as of late, it’s hard to envision them stealing a win at Patrick Gym after the Cats dominant performance over Binghamton last week. If Maine can completely eliminate Ryan Davis from these games then maybe they’ll have a shot, but I just don’t see them having enough firepower to keep up with the Catamounts. 

The Black Bears defense will definitely give Vermont problems at times. Previously mentioned how the last thing Maine wants is to get into a shootout with Vermont, but at the same time the last thing the Cats want is to end up in a highly-contested affair, as they’re 0-2 on the year in games decided by one possession. Here’s hoping Vermont can send these bears back into hibernation.

Game Times

Saturday 2pm ESPN3

Sunday 1pm ESPN3

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