Which Cats are Headed for the Honor Roll?
Crazy to think that we’ve already surpassed the half-way mark of America East conference season. Seems like only yesterday the Cats were an out-of-sync-hot-mess team losing to the likes of UMass-Lowell. Yet here we are a month later watching those same Cats mercilessly crushing opponents left and right. All is right in the world again.
Since we’ve hit the half-way mark, it’s only fitting to reflect on how this Vermont team has looked thus far. It wasn’t pretty early on, but the Cats appear to be fully back on track and potentially headed for a fifth straight America East title. Even in this abbreviated season that is no small feat.
The primary basis of these grades is how the player has performed overall this year, along with how they’ve performed within the role that’s been assigned to them. With that being said, I am also adding a slight curve to these grades based solely on the fact that the world is falling apart at the seams and how these young men are even able to play basketball and be a full-time student is an incredible achievement in and of itself.
Mid-Season Grades – Vermont Catamounts
#0 Stef Smith – Guard
Smith looked like a bonafide star in the making just a season ago, but the senior captain hasn’t quite been able to recapture that magic thus far. He’s had his moments and is still a huge component of Vermont’s gameplan, but he hasn’t been able to reach that next level that so many Catamount fans were hoping for. It’s seemingly been back and forth for Smith who has flashed at times like a 27 point outing against NJIT, only to follow up with a 2-15 shooting performance in the next series against Albany.
The good news for Smith and all of Vermont is the senior captain seems to have regained his rhythm. His bread-and-butter three-point shot is still a work in progress, but there have been noticeable improvements in other facets of his game. Through the first five games of the season Smith was averaging 3 turnovers a game, yet in his last four games he has taken much better care of the ball and is only averaging 0.75 a contest.
Smith is a proven playmaker and one of the best, if not the best guards in the America East. We’ve seen him struggle at times, but there is no reason to pull the plug just yet. There is plenty of room for improvement, yet the Cats will need Smith at his best as they head into this next stretch of games. I have no reservations that Smith will be able to find his footing soon enough. Trust the process and let Stef cook.
Best Trait – Rebounding/Leadership
Needs Improvement – Shooting
Season Stats – 9 Games, 28.4 MPG, 12.6 PPG, 3.0 RPB, 1.6 APG, 2.0 TPG
Mid-Season Grade – B-
#1 Aaron Deloney – Guard
Deloney is actually very similar to Smith in that he too has struggled initially coming out of the gates. The sophomore guard was sensational at times last season and looked like he could be in for a much larger role this year, but the early returns have not been great for the west coast native. However, Deloney is incredibly talented and again, like Smith, shouldn’t not be dismissed at the first sign of regression.
There are a number of factors working against Deloney, with the most prominent being the emergence of George Washington transfer, Justin Mazzulla. In an already guard-heavy team Deloney has to fight for every minute he earns, which isn’t a bad thing (hungry dogs run faster), but when floor time is scarce, it can create a sense of trepidation in that he feels pressured to make a play rather than let the flow of the game come to him. Overall, Deloney’s current statline is almost identical to that of his freshman campaign – shooting still needs to be improved, but again, the hope is that this will come as the year progresses.
Like the overwhelming majority of Catamounts who struggled early on, Deloney has started to regain his composure in the recent weeks. After averaging just 0.8 points a game through the first six games, Deloney is at a more respectable 3 points – still not great by any means, but is hopefully a sign of things to come. Deloney’s role as back-up point guard/7th-8th man off the bench will likely remain the same for the rest of the year, as he continues to progress and develop as a complete player. The future is incredibly bright for this young man, but right now it’s just about staying patient.
Best Trait – Passing
Needs Improvement – Shooting
Season Stats – 10 Games, 12.2 MPG, 1.7 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.1 TPG
Mid-Season Grade – C+
#4 Georges Lefebvre – Forward
Vermont’s only freshmen might technically get an incomplete just based on the fact that he’s barely seen the floor so far. Most of Lefebvre’s very limited time has come during mop up duty, but when the young forward has made his way onto the court he’s looked capable of becoming a future stud for the Cats. Again, it’s such a small sample size that it’s almost impossible to give a fair assessment of Lefebvre, but Catamount fans have to be happy with the glimpses they’ve seen so far.
Before the season began there was a slim outside chance that Lefebvre could work his way into the backend of the rotation, but with Powell having a career year and Fiorillo lighting it up from deep, there’s no need to throw Lefebvre in if the coaching staff doesn’t feel he’s ready. The Candian big man figures to play a significant role in the Cats long term plans, but this year is geared more for development, along with growing accustomed to life as a division one college athlete.
Now, even though Lefebvre’s minutes are almost non-existent, he’s done well to play within himself in that limited time. He did pick up two fouls in five minutes against Binghamton, which even in landslide victory John Becker likely wasn’t too happy about, but other than that there hasn’t been any silly mistakes. I could be getting a little ahead of myself, but would like to see Lefebvre be a bit more aggressive when he has the ball. Granted, Coach Becker is just looking to kill the clock, so it might end up doing Lefebvre more harm than good for his playing time. Regardless, Lefebvre typically enters once Vermont has built a massive lead, so you bet your ass Catamount fans are always happy when number four checks in.
Best Trait – Composure?
Needs Improvement – Body of Work?
Season Stats – 5 Games, 2.6 MPG, 0.8 PPG, 0.6 RPG, 0 APG, 0 TPG
*Mid-Season Grade – Pass
*As someone who was not a student-athlete and preferred to spend my free time crushing PBRs and rippin heaters, pass/fail classes were my bread and butter. Lefebvre gets a pass – just go easy on those extra-curricular activities young fella.
#5 Duncan Demuth – Forward
With the emergence of Fiorillo as the back-up stretch-four, Demuth hasn’t quite been able to improve upon his role from a year ago. Before the season started, John Becker noted that what they’ve seen from Demuth is reminiscent of his high school days, but that they still aren’t sure how to best utilize his skillset within their offense. There are a number of players who would complain and sulk at the first sign of a reduced role, but not Demuth. The junior forward has faced plenty of adversity, yet he’s taken it all in stride and kept an upbeat positive attitude.
Mid-way through the season and Demuth’s statline is almost identical to that of last year. Obviously there’s still plenty of room for improvement, though it’s a tad unfair to openly criticize any player who operates in such a sparse role. Again, with Fiorillo exceeding expectations and Powell having a career year, Demuth’s playing time was going to take a hit. It does appear that Demuth’s confidence within himself has returned, but he does still need to play with more composure when he gets on the floor. Three fouls in five minutes against Albany, along with two fouls and two turnovers in 12 minutes against Maine is not doing Demuth any favors for more court time.
However, there is an opportunity ahead for Demuth to become a bigger part of the rotation. After a hot start, Fiorillo appears to have hit a bit of a wall and while he’s still the far superior scorer, Demuth is the better defender and in John Becker’s philosophy that trait earns you more playing time. Now, Demuth is far from a perfectly polished defender, but he’s shown he can handle his defensive assignments. The most pressing element of Demuth’s game right now should be to clean up those silly mistakes and play more within the game. He’s arguably one of the more athletic forwards in the America East, but too often gets ahead of himself when trying to make a play. Slow down and let the game come to you.
Best Trait – Reliable Depth
Needs Improvement – Composure
Season Stats – 10 Games, 8.5 MPG, 1.1 PPG, 0.6 RPG, 0.1 APG, 0.4 TPG
Mid-Season Grade – C
#12 Bailey Patella – Wing/Forward
Bailey Patella likely won’t ever be mistaken for Vermont’s best player, but in terms of who their most important player is, Patella’s name sits perched atop that list. The senior captain continues to play his sixthman-esque role to perfection, as he injects a shot of energy every time he enters the game. Patella’s statline isn’t going to jump off the page and wow you, but his contributions go well beyond what data and analytics show us.
His minutes and statline from a year ago are essentially identical, as Patella continues to operate out of the same spark-plug role that suits his strengths best. He has bumped up his scoring from 3.7 to 5.2, along with his assists ratio going from 0.5 to 1.2 a game. Likewise, Patella currently leads the team in steals with 1.1 a game. Patella might find himself in contention for America East Sixthman of the Year or possibly even a spot on an AE All-Conference team by the end of the year, though the committee would have to recognize his entire body of work and not just his statline.
Even if Patella isn’t formally acknowledged by America East committee he is still adored by his teammates and endless Catamount fans across the country. Patella is one of those guys that is loved and adored when he’s on your team, but utterly despised when you have to go against him because of the intensity he brings. There isn’t too much more the coaching staff could be asking from Patella, so the biggest challenge for the senior forward is to keep bringing that juice and energy on every possession. When Patella brings that heat he can swing the momentum in the Cats favor instantaneously.
Best Trait – Exuberance
Needs Improvement – Free-Throw Shooting
Season Stats – 10 Games, 16.6 MPG, 5.2 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.2 APG, 0.6 TPG
Mid-Season Grade – A-
#14 Isaiah Powell – Forward
Outside of possibly Ryan Davis, Isaiah Powell has taken the biggest leap this year in terms of player development. What’s so incredible is that Powell has essentially been an enigma up until this year, as Catamount fans weren’t quite sure what to expect from the third-year big man. He’s taken huge strides all across the board and plays with a gritty hard-hat-lunch-pail mentality. Again, much like Patella, Powell might not be considered one of the top two or three best players on the team, but his overall importance cannot be understated.
It’s clear that Powell spent a lot of time this offseason working to clean up the mechanics in his shot. While he won’t get mistaken for Klay Thompson anytime soon, he’s adjusted his form to a much cleaner release with more arc, rather than his previous essentially line drive-esque shot. His mid-range game has become almost automatic, as his shooting percentage sits at 53.3%, along with an even more impressive 45.5% from deep. If Powell continues to shoot this well throughout the rest of the season he should no doubt find himself in contention for an America East All-Conference team selection.
Powell has also taken great strides in his rebounding and passing, as both have improved well over last year’s campaign. However, the biggest year-over-year change is that the coaching staff seems to now have the utmost confidence and trust in Powell. Coach Becker was quick to pull at the leash in recent years, but Powell did well to listen and adjust accordingly. Coach Becker’s patience with Powell, along with Powell’s own patience within the system appear to finally be paying off in a huge way.
Best Trait – Shot Selection
Needs Improvement – Interior Scoring
Season Stats – 10 Games, 24.6 MPG, 8.4 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.3 TPG
Mid-Season Grade – A
#15 Nick Fiorillo – Forward
Powell’s breakout year has definitely been a pleasant surprise for the Cats, but even with the strides he’s made, it pales in comparison to what Vermont has been able to find in yet another walk-on stud, Nick Fiorillo. A few pundits predicted that Fiorillo could potentially work his way into the rotation this year, though even fewer could’ve predicted that he would be one of, if not the best three-point shooters on the team. How so many other programs let this kid slip past them is beyond me. It should come as no surprise to see Vermont offer this young man a scholarship by this time next year.
Fiorillo spent last year as a redshirt walk-on freshman, so you’ll have to forgive me for not expecting much from the young man from Maine. Turns out the kid can shoot. Like, really shoot. I’m now all in on the Fiorillo hype train, but at the same time I’m well aware that he’s still a big work in progress. While the shooting is great and provides a great spark off the bench, Fiorillo still needs to work on other aspects of his game – namely defense. He fouled out against NJIT in just eight minutes (how is that possible?) and came dangerously close to repeating that against Maine with 4 fouls in another eight minutes.
Watching Fiorillo play it’s easy to draw comparisons to that of Duncan Robinson. Vermont would be thrilled if Fiorillo can continue to develop into that type of role/player for them. Fiorillo could potentially be at Vermont for another 3-4 years, so there’s plenty of time to iron out the wrinkles of his game. His defensive liabilities are likely the only thing holding him back from playing 12+ minutes a night, but Vermont’s coaching staff has proven time and again that they can maximize a player’s development so I have no doubt that Fiorillo will be a staple of the Cats gameplan in the years to come.
Best Trait – Shooting
Needs Improvement – Defense/Fouling
Season Stats – 10 Games, 7.4 MPG, 4.1 PPG, 0.7 RPG, 0.3 APG, 0.8 TPG
Mid-Season Grade – B+
#20 Eric Beckett – Guard/Wing
Similar to freshman Georges Lefebvre, I’m not quite sure how to grade Beckett’s campaign thus far. The sophomore guard has played sparingly at best, but he’s looked capable of handling a bigger workload if needed. The only problem is that there’s five phenomenal guards listed ahead of him, so fitting him into the rotation is easier said than done. I like Beckett and believe that he could be an excellent complimentary player for the Cats in the years to come, but his role this year is likely to remain as reserve player rather than full-time contributor.
Again, when Beckett has managed to get on the floor he handles himself well. My favorite saber metric about Beckett is that the Cats are 6-1 in games that he’s played in, so naturally it’s a good sign to see Canadian native take to the court. However, much like the case with Lefebvre, it’s unreasonable to fully dissect his stats, as there just isn’t enough of a body of work to go off of.
Expect a much bigger jump for Beckett in year three, as Smith and Shungu will likely bid farewell to Vermont, leaving a plethora of minutes available for Beckett. For now, the best thing Beckett can do is just continue to progress and develop his game while learning from some of the best guards in the America East. Likewise, Beckett has already taken great strides in improving his overall physique and conditioning, so don’t be shocked if he comes back even bigger and stronger in year three.
Best Trait – Versatility?
Needs Improvement – Body of Work?
Season Stats – 7 Games, 6.6 MPG, 2.1 PPG, 0.7 RPG 0 APG, 0.6 TPG
Mid-Season Grade – Pass
#21 Justin Mazzulla – Guard/Wing
Another pleasant surprise/great addition has been the play of former George Washington guard, Justin Mazzulla. The hard-nosed guard had already proven himself as a capable playmaker during his time at George Washington, so his early season successes thus far shouldn’t come as a total shock. Nonetheless, Mazzulla still had to essentially sit out an entire year before suiting up for the Cats, so there was a shroud of mystery as to whether he would be able fit in with John Becker’s philosophy.
Mid-way through the year and Mazzulla has without a doubt silenced any doubters of him. He’s putting up very similar numbers to his last full year at George Washington, where started all 33 games for the Colonials and made noticeable contributions in nearly every facet of the game. The jack-of-all-trades Mazzulla is currently 4th on the team in scoring, 5th in rebounding, 6th in assists and 3rd in steals. His shot selection is also top-notch, as he is one of five Catamounts to be averaging over a 50% shooting percentage.
Even in this brief amount of time, Mazzulla appears to be Vermont’s best transfer since Payton Henson arrived via Tulane back in 2015. Mazzulla is part of the Cats three-head guard attack along with Smith and Shungu, so he’ll often defer to them to initiate the offense, yet Mazulla has played his role perfectly thus far. However, if we’re going to nit-pick, Mazzulla has been somewhat inconsistent with his scoring. He has three games with 10+ points, along with four games under 5 points. Again, sometimes his number gets called, sometimes it doesn’t, but if Smith and Shungu find themselves struggling it could come down to Mazzulla to help lead the charge.
Best Trait – Versatility
Needs Improvement – Mid-Range/Three-Point Shooting
Season Stats – 10 Games, 28 MPG, 8.6 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.6 TPG
Mid-Season Grade – A-
#24 Ben Shungu – Guard
Seemingly lost in the commotion of others around him enjoying career years (Davis, Fiorillo, Powell), Ben Shungu has quietly strung together another fantastic campaign. The senior guard and Vermont native is currently averaging a career-high in points, assists and steals per game. With Smith struggling to find his rhythm, it’s been Shungu who has picked up the majority of slack at the other guard position. Mazzulla has also done well in his own right, but Shungu has become one of the best all-around players in the America East this year.
Shungu has primarily been known for his lock-down defensive capabilities to the point where some labeled him one-dimensional, yet the senior captain has made excellent strides in elevating his offensive acumen. Shungu has done incredibly well to become a complete two-way player, as the reigning America East Defensive Player of the Year finds himself once again in contention for the prestigious award. It should also come as no surprise to see Shungu in the mix for an All-Conference selection team by the end of the season.
It’s amazing to see how far Shungu has come, from walk-on to now potentially repeating as AE DPoY and a spot on an All-Conference team. Now, if we’re going to split hairs, the one facet that still seems to allude Shungu is his consistency from deep. He has shown that he isn’t afraid to rip it from beyond the arc, as he’s second on the team in attempts, though his 27.6% from three is his lowest total in all four years. If Shungu can consistently connect around 40% he’d be regarded as one of the best guards in all of the America East.
Best Trait – Defense
Needs Improvement – Three-Point Shooting
Season Stats – 10 Games, 28.4 MPG, 10.3 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 3.7 APG, 2.0 TPG
Mid-Season Grade – A
#25 Kevin Garrison & #30 Deng Adiang
Grouping together Garrison and Adiang as neither has had any real opportunity to get on the floor. As walk-ons this was to be expected and along with the restrictive guidelines due to Covid there isn’t much of a chance we’ll see either take to the floor outside of the final minute or two of a landslide victory. I’m sure they’re both supporting the team in the best way they can and Vermont is lucky to have them. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to see these Vermont natives take to the court next year.
Mid-Season Grade – Incomplete
#35 Ryan Davis – Forward
What a start for junior forward Ryan Davis. After missing Vermont’s first series of the year against UMass-Lowell, Davis has played in and damn near dominated every game since. The big man was named America East Sixthman of the Year just a season ago, so naturally the bar was going to be set pretty high for Davis as he entered year three. Davis is only eight games in, yet he has without a doubt met, if not exceeded all expectations that were set for him.
Davis is having a career year across the board and despite playing just five additional minutes per game from his sophomore campaign, he’s more than doubled his scoring average. Going into the season it was Smith who was supposed to become the focal point of the offense with Anthony Lamb gone. While Smith is a phenomenal player in his own right, the Cats offense is much better served with Davis as their centerpiece and Smith operating as a complimentary 1B option.
It seems almost redundant to nit-pick at Davis’ game, as he could very well likely be the next America East Player of the Year. If we compare a few of his numbers against UMBC’s Brandon Horvath who is also in contention for the award, we see that Davis is clearly the more efficient player. Horvath is currently edging out Davis in rebounding and assists, though his extra 7.5 minutes a game over Davis should be factored in. There is one facet of Davis that I’d like him to work on, though it might be considered out of his control. Just stay healthy. When Davis is on the floor the Cats are without a doubt the scariest team in the America East. Protect those knee’s big fella.
Best Trait – Three-Level Scoring
Needs Improvement – Health/Conditioning?
Season Stats – 8 Games, 25.6 MPG, 19.4 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.5 TPG
Mid-Season Grade – A+
#42 Tomas Murphy – Forward
Vermont’s other notable transfer, Tomas Murphy, hasn’t quite made the same type of instant impact as Mazzulla, but the former Northeastern Husky could be in for a big second-half swing. The big man has played in just six games for the Cats thus far as he continues to slowly return to form after dealing with nagging injuries that plagued him all of last year. When Murphy has been on the court the results have been outstanding. His basketball acumen and offensive gumption around the basket allow him to dismantle opposing teams second units.
Murphy is currently averaging a hair under ten minutes a game (9.8), yet his statline is very respectable. Unfortunately ESPN doesn’t track PER, though I’d have to believe that Murphy would be at the top for the Cats. Murphy’s basketball lineage is no joke and his knowledge of the game certainly has to be a factor in the development of some of the younger players on the team. Even if he’s limited or can’t play, Murphy can essentially coach up some of his teammates with what he sees on the floor.
If Murphy can stay healthy and bump his minutes to around 16-18 a game, while remaining incredibly efficient on the court, he could have an outside chance of winning the America East Sixthman of the Year award. The coaching staff might continue to have Murphy on a minutes restriction for at least the next series or two, but when he returns to full health watch out America East.
Best Trait – Offensive Acuity
Needs Improvement – Health/Conditioning
Season Stats – 6 Games, 7.8 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 0.3 APG, 1.2 TPG
Mid-Season Grade – B-
#55 Robin Duncan – Guard/Forward
Ever since he arrived in Burlington, Robin Duncan has been an integral part of Vermont’s rotation. He’s averaged over 20 minutes a game every year and is once again teetering above that 20 minute mark mid-way through the season. It’s clear that Duncan’s basketball IQ is through the roof, yet his production on the court so far has been uneven at times. By now we all know that Duncan is somewhat one-dimensional on offense, as he apparently missed out on the shooting gene that his brothers inherited. He excels in most other facets of the game, but is it enough?
Duncan’s statline this year is such a statistical anomaly. He’s currently averaging a career best in rebounds, assists, and steals, yet at the same time he’s also averaging his worst points per game and shooting percentages by quite a bit. As strange as it is to say about a player, the less Duncan shoots the better. Early on in the season Duncan tried to be more of a scoring threat, though the results weren’t great. He’s now gone back to focusing solely as a facilitator on offense and the outcome has been much more effective.
After working through a minor slump to begin the season, Duncan appears to have turned it around. In his last three games Duncan is averaging 8 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2 steals and 2.6 points. Those numbers might not jump off the page at you, but this type of production is exactly what the Cats need from their back-up point guard. When Duncan does look to attack the basket he typically will use his size and length as a mismatch to back his opponents down into the post. It’s a smart move by Duncan, but to be honest it was brutally tough to watch him miss point-blank shots under the rim time after time. However, I hope Duncan continues to work on his post dexterity, as that would be incredibly helpful in keeping defenses honest and not sagging off.
Best Trait – Passing
Needs Improvement – Interior Scoring
Season Stats – 10 Games, 2.0 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.0 TPG
Mid-Season Grade – B
Vermont Catamounts – Overall Team Grade
If you judge this team based on the level of success Vermont has had in recent years then it might be considered somewhat of a disappointment. The Cats didn’t look like their typical selfs to begin the year and already have their most conference losses (3) since the 2015-16 season (5). Yet, at the same time the fact that there is even a college basketball season happening is a huge win in and of itself. It was just announced that Vermont’s upcoming series against Hartford has been postponed and that the Cats are back on a pause.
These players and coaches deal with more than enough stress and anxiety in what would be a normal year, so to now add all these restrictions and pauses is just completely devastating for a program. Even with the slow start, John Becker has his team back in the thick of things as the Cats are riding a 5 game win streak and sit half a game back on UMBC for first in the America East. This is without a doubt the most challenging season to date. I applaud John Becker, the coaching staff, all of the players and the entire university for somehow finding a way to make this all work.
Mid-Season Grade – A-