Annnnnd We’re Back
It’s been nearly a month (Jan. 17th) since we last saw the Cats step foot on the hardwood. Now fresh off yet another program pause, Vermont is set to return to court to take on longtime conference rival, Stony Brook. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re well aware of just how wild and unorthodox this season has been, not just for the Catamounts, but for college basketball as a whole. A lot has happened since the Cats went on their brief hiatus, so let’s start with a quick recap.
Funny enough, even with all this chaos, the America East has largely remained the same. UMBC, Vermont, Hartford and to an extent UNH are all vying for that top spot, with UMBC holding a one-game lead over Vermont. The Catamounts and Retrievers are set to meet next week in what will likely determine who walks away with the America East crown. However, the biggest news of note out of the America East is the new playoff format and regardless of how this regular season finishes, the Cats will need to regain their groove if they hope to make the dance this year.
Speaking of groove, the Cats had definitely found their footing before being forced to go on a pause yet again. Vermont had won five straight and was blowing the roof off their opponents. As much as we’d all love to see Vermont cruise past Stony Brook with ease, picking up exactly where they left off is much easier said than done. The Cats stumbled out of the gate to begin the year, so it shouldn’t be a shock to see some cobwebs out there this weekend as they try to regain their composure. Hell, even I’m a little rusty.
Starting Line-Up Predictions – Vermont Catamounts
Stef Smith – Guard
Ben Shungu – Guard
Justin Mazzulla – Guard/Wing
Isaiah Powell – Forward
Ryan Davis – Forward
This has been John Becker’s preferred starting line-up and barring any unforeseen injuries this will be the unit that takes the court first. Smith had missing the second contest in their last match-up against Maine, but that seemed more as precautionary move rather than anything serious. Expect the senior captain to be a full-go for this one.
Powell and Davis are both having tremendous years and along with Tomas Murphy should be able to carve up Stony Brooks frontcourt. Murphy has battled through injuries all season, but hopefully the big man is fully healthy or as close to 100% as he can get now. In the Cats first series against UMass-Lowell John Becker played his starters extensively throughout both games. Expect Coach Becker to lean on his starters more in this match-up to help them get back into the swing of things. However, with UMBC looming Coach Becker has to walk a fine line. Should he allocate more minutes to his starters to get them back into a rhythm or should he rely on his bench in order to preserve energy as the Cats have a quick turnaround before taking on UMBC?
What to Watch For – Vermont Catamounts
As was just touched on, the two biggest components to watch for will be how the Cats look in terms of energy and rhythm, along with how Coach Becker ultimately decides to utilize his line-ups. Even with a one game at a time mentality, those are two key factors that have to be accounted for when looking at the big picture.
In terms of this game itself, Stef Smith will be a key player to watch for. The senior guard has had an up-and-down season thus far and most recently missed the Cats last game (albeit that was 3+ weeks ago). Call me an optimist, but I believe that this time-off will actually benefit Smith. No matter what profession you’re in, we all go through slumps or get burnt out from time to time. Basketball is no exception, as even most recently NBA star Kyrie Irving took a few days off to take care of himself mentally and has now looked completely refreshed. “Take care of y’alls chickens, take care y’alls mentals” – Marshawn Lynch.
Now, I’m not expecting Smith to go drop 30+ like Kyrie, but I do imagine we’ll see a version of Smith closer to that of last year than the inconsistent version we’ve seen so far. Keep a close eye on number zero, as we could be in store for a vintage Smith performance this weekend.
Keys to the Game – Vermont Catamounts
Get the Train Rolling Again – Before their latest pause in action, the Cats had won five straight games and were averaging a 29.8 point differential over their last four. Hard to imagine them picking up exactly where they left off but finding that rhythm again will be key as the Cats head into the home stretch. More importantly, they’ll need to be able to carry this momentum against UMBC and into the America East playoffs.
Rest vs Rust – Will the Cats look well rested or rusty come Saturday afternoon? Likely a bit of both. This falls on John Becker and the rest of the coaching staff to not only have his team prepared, but also to keep close tabs pace of play and not settling for contested looks. Look for Coach Becker to run set plays to feed Davis down low or get Smith an open look from deep as a way to re-establish the Cats offense.
Play Team Defense – This is a completely different Stony Brook than what the Cats have seen in recent years. They don’t have a true go-to threat, but that doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous. Five Seawolves are averaging over 9 points a game and all five of those players are also averaging at least 3.8 rebounds and 1 assists a game. They play unselfish and work well off each other’s strengths. Shungu is a phenomenal defender, but he’ll need help from his constituents in this one to limit Stony Brook as a whole.
Starting Line-Up Predictions – Stony Brook Seawolves
Juan Felix Rodriguez – Guard
Tykei Greene – Guard
Jaden Sayles – Wing/Forward
Frankie Policelli – Forward
Mo Gueye – Forward
Even with Stony Brook operating out of a balanced attack offensively, these five have been Geno Fords most prominent playmakers. Guard Omar Habwe has been solid for the Seawolves as well when he’s been on the court, but no other member of Stony Brook is averaging more than 3.2 points a game for them.
The Seawolves don’t have great depth, as Geno Ford has stuck with an 8-9 man rotation as of late. Unless either of these games gets out of hand in either direction expect that trend to continue once again. If Stony Brook gets in the foul trouble early on it could be a disaster for the Seawolves chances in this one.
What to Watch for – Stony Brook Seawolves
After a turmoil filled offseason, the bar was set fairly low for Stony Brook. However, Geno Ford has done quite well considering he’s essentially playing with a brand-new roster. Stony Brook sits at 6-6 in conference play, good enough for fifth in the America East standings. In some respects, Stony Brook could be considered a sleeper come AE playoff time, as they even stole a win against Hartford a few weeks ago.
Unfortunately, the Seawolves have also begun to fade as they are now 2-6 in their last eight games and are quickly losing all of their momentum from earlier in the year. Stealing a win against the Catamounts would be a huge boost for Geno Ford and his Seawolves, as they’ll look to catch Vermont sleepwalking. Similar to Vermont looking at the big picture, Stony Brook will likely have the same mindset. Homecourt won’t be a factor come playoff time but building momentum will be.
Keys to the Game – Stony Brook Seawolves
Push the Tempo – This might seem like a strange key to the game, as Vermont plays well in transition and at a faster pace, but by altering the pace of play, Stony Brook has a chance to capitalize on any rust Vermont might have from their time off. Stony Brook shouldn’t be pushing the tempo the entire game, but the last thing they want is for the Cats to get into any sort of rhythm.
Experiment with Different Looks – Tinkering with different line-ups and schemes might have some merit in this contest, but this strategy is again more in-line with preparing for the future. This is often overlooked on a game-to-game aspect, though it’s something coaches do as they look ahead. How will player “X” look against player “Y”? What if we plug player “X” here and run this set? Teams might run something like that in practice, but seeing how it unfolds in a game is completely different. Stony Brook is not going to win the AE regular season title and while experimenting with different line-ups and looks might cost them the game, it has a chance of paying off later down the road.
Who Will Step Up? – Stony Brook as some solid players, but none of them have yet to fully assert themselves as “the guy” for them. Rodriguez and Policelli have had their moments, though neither should be considered a true number one option. If the Seawolves find themselves in a dogfight late in the game with Vermont who will step up and be the hero? Again, come playoff time this well be an even bigger concern if Stony Brook doesn’t have someone they can rely on for a bucket when they need it the most.
Game 1 – Vermont 73 – Stony Brook 64
Game 2 – Vermont 70 – Stony Brook 66
I’m tempted to make this a series split due to Vermont possibly needing some time to get back into the swing of things. I think both games will be close throughout, but with Vermont edging out the Seawolves late in both contests. Vermont might look a bit off at times, yet Stony Brook is the team that should be more concerned with their play of late. Hard to have much confidence in a team that is 2-6 in their last eight games and has no consistently reliable threat offensively.
Game 1 – Saturday 2pm ESPN+
Game 2 – Sunday 2pm ESPN+