It’s Cats vs Dogs for the America East Regular Season Crown
This is the big one that’s been circled on everyone’s calendars. Vermont takes their seven-game win streak down to Baltimore to take on UMBC in a battle for first place in the America East. While there are still a small handful of games to play after this series, whoever emerges victorious will have a clear path to the America East regular season title. Should Vermont capture the AE crown yet again it will be their fifth straight and 12th all-time – both of which are America East records. On the flip side of the coin, UMBC is looking for their first AE title since 2008. The Retrievers have gone through a string of mediocracy since then, but the arrival of Ryan Odom (2016) has completely rejuvenated this program.
Even with all the success Vermont has had over the years, Ryan Odom and UMBC continue to be a thorn in the Catamounts side. Vermont has found solace and redemption at times, including knocking off the Retrievers in last year’s semi-final match up, along with the conference championship two years ago. Nonetheless, not matter how well the Cats are playing, UMBC always seems to find a way to agitate and disrupt John Becker’s game plan.
Heading into this pivotal series, both teams sit tied for first in the America East with identical 9-3 conference records. Hartford and UNH are tied for third place with 8-6 records respectively and while there is an outside chance for either to win the America East it becomes all but impossible should either Vermont or UMBC manage a sweep. We’ll delve into tie-breaker scenarios later on, but even if Vermont and UMBC split the series, the likelihood of one of these programs winning the America East is still quite prominent.
Starting Line-Up Predictions – Vermont Catamounts
Stef Smith – Guard
Ben Shungu – Guard
Justin Mazzulla – Guard
Isaiah Powell – Forward
Ryan Davis – Forward
No surprises here. I highlighted Stef Smith as a key player to watch in the Cats last series against Stony Brook and boy oh boy did Smith deliver. The senior captain averaged 18.5 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.5 steals over the weekend, helping guide Vermont to a 2-0 sweep over the Seawolves. Smith earned America East Player of the Week honors – surprisingly this was the first time in Smith’s career that he’s earned this recognition, though hopefully it won’t be the last. Smith averaged 17 ppg against UMBC a year ago, as John Becker will once again be looking to lean on Smith through this tough slate of games ahead.
While Smith, Shungu and Mazzulla will look to lead the Cats backcourt, the biggest match up in this series will be the frontcourt battle between Ryan Davis and Brandon Horvath. The two big men have had tremendous years thus far and along with UML’s Obadiah Noel are considered the frontrunners for America East Player of the Year. Whoever wins this match up will take a commanding lead in the AE PoY race. Another sneaky good match up to keep close eyes on will be Isaiah Powell taking on Daniel Akin. These two are the definition of “glue guys”, as they provide a great deal of support and stability to their respective teams. The outcome of these two battling it out could ultimately swing the game in either direction.
What to Watch for – Vermont Catamounts
All across the board there are great match ups to be had. The frontcourt battle will be highly contested, as it wouldn’t be a shock to see both Davis and Horvath each go for 20+. Similarly, will Vermont or UMBC look to double the opposing big when they get the ball in the post? Both rosters are filled with reliable shooters who can make opposing teams pay when they get an open look.
Two components to keep a close eye on from Vermont’s standpoint is how deep John Becker goes into his bench and if either coach will experiment with any new tactics. Against Stony Brook, John Becker kept it pretty tight, feeding heavy minutes to his core group of players. This strategy worked as Vermont was able to complete the sweep of Stony Brook and despite both games being fairly close, Vermont never trailed in the second half of either game. Will John Becker keep this same strategy, or will he look to spread out the minutes in order to keep his players at full strength on a short week?
Now, let’s forget all about the individual player match ups and examine how the chess match between John Becker and Ryan Odom might unfold (obviously you lead with the Queen’s Gambit). To say that John Becker has dominated the America East during his tenure at Vermont would be an understatement, yet if he does have a weakness, Ryan Odom and UMBC have been able to capitalize on it. Ryan Odom has shown he knows exactly how to counter Vermont’s attack, but will he show his hand now or wait until the playoffs to exploit Vermont’s weaknesses? Similarly, will John Becker look to counter every move Odom makes or wait until the playoffs for his own counter punch? Welcome to the ultimate game of cat and mouse.
Keys to the Game – Vermont Catamounts
Box Out – Vermont gave up 22 offensive rebounds to Stony Brooks last week, with plenty of other missed shots nearly find their way into a Seawolves hands. This has to be an extra point of emphasis this week, as UMBC has two of the top five rebounders in the conference (Horvath and Akin) and the Cats can’t afford to give up second chance shots to a team of UMBC’s caliber.
Move the Ball on Offense – It’s no coincidence that most teams tend to shoot better when the ball is continuously moving and the Cats fit that mold to a T. Quick snappy passes around the perimeter, drive and kicks and making the extra pass has been the Cats bread and butter. Letting Davis go to work in the post is great, but UMBC is too good to let the Cats win so easily. The likes of Patella, Mazzulla and Powell have proven to be reliable threats from deep and if they get open looks expect John Becker to give them the green light once again.
Stay Composed – There’s no denying that this series with UMBC will be a grind it out slugfest. These are arguably the top two defenses in the America East, as UMBC boast a conference best 38.4% opposing field-goal percentage, with Vermont trailing ever-so-slightly at 39.2%. The offense will get stagnant. Players will get frustrated. “Goosfraba.” Stay composed and trust that the coaching staff’s game plan will work. Keep a short memory.
Starting Line-Up Predictions – UMBC Retrievers
R.J. Eytle-Rock – Guard
L.J. Owens – Guard
Keondre Kennedy – Guard
Brandon Horvath – Forward
Daniel Akin – Forward
The combination of Eytle-Rock and Horvath is very similar to Vermont’s own duo of Smith and Davis. These two are threats to score every time the ball is in their hands, yet despite being the focal points of the Retrievers offense, UMBC (like Vermont) can go deep and beat you with anyone on their roster. Outside of their top two scorers (Eytle-Rock and Horvath), UMBC has five other players averaging at least 5 points a game – the same number as Vermont.
Now, it’s impossible for me to talk about UMBC’s roster without mentioning the most electric player in all of college basketball – Darnell Rogers. The sensational 5’2” guard has been inconsistent at times this year, but appears to have found his form in recent weeks, leading the Retrievers in scoring in their recent wins over NJIT and Stony Brook. If Rogers is once again in top form, Vermont may try to counter with their own undersized lightning quick guard, Aaron Deloney. Davis vs Horvath. Smith vs Eytle-Rock. Deloney vs Rogers. Sheeeeeesh!
What to Watch for – UMBC Retrievers
These teams are so identical and evenly matched that you could essentially copy and paste what to watch for from Vermont’s standpoint with UMBC. The coach’s game within a game will be fascinating to watch unfold, but what in particular will be a key emphasis for the Retrievers? Two facets to watch for will be how UMBC tries to slow down the Cats on offense and what type of coaching adjustments will be made?
Vermont leads the America East in points per game (74.6), field-goal percentage (46%), 3PT percentage (35%) and assists per game (15.1). Vermont has shown they can beat teams in any given number of ways, so slowing down their attack will be now small task. While there’s no denying UMBC has one of the better defenses, they’ve yet to face a team with the type of firepower Vermont has.
The cat and mouse coaching battle was already touched on, but these are two of the better mid-major coaches who are seemingly always being linked to bigger and better opportunities every year (hello Boston College). Until the day comes when John Becker and Ryan Odom receive an offer they can’t refuse and head towards greener pastures this on-going match up is must-watch-tv. What makes this year’s contest even more intriguing is the lack of prep between games. In less than 24 hours these team will square off once again, giving John Becker and Ryan Odom little time to plan and adjust accordingly. Likewise, there’s going to be the assumption that these two are headed for another collision course come AE playoff time. Keep your cards close to your vest.
Keys to the Game – UMBC Retrievers
Don’t let Ryan Davis Beat You – Easier said than done, but if UMBC is going to any chance at winning it starts by putting the clamps on Davis. The current AE PoY favorite, Davis leads the America East in field-goal percentage (59%) and is second in scoring (18.9). He’s one of the most efficient scorers not just in the America East, but the entire country! Double and even triple team if you have to and force the ball into anyone else’s hands.
Crash the Boards – The Retrievers have two excellent rebounders in Horvath and Akin, along with some great rebounding guards. Ryan Odom has done well to identify Vermont’s kryptonite in recent years, so you best believe he took note of Vermont giving up 22 offense boards to Stony Brook just a week ago. Some of those rebounds could be attributed to bad bounces or Vermont trying to get out in transition, but either way expect Ryan Odom and UMBC to take advantage if Vermont is caught simply going through the motions.
Win the One-on-One Battles – If there’s one facet that Vermont and UMBC find themselves on other ends of the spectrum it’s passing. While the Cats lead the America East in assists, UMBC finds themselves in the bottom four of that category. That’s definitely an area of improvement for Ryan Odom to work through, but his Retrievers have mange well when forced into more iso situations. These one-on-one battles will be crucial when UMBC has the ball, as if Vermont can beat them straight up it’ll spell trouble for the Retrievers.
Game 1 – Vermont 68 – UMBC 71
Game 2 – Vermont 81 – UMBC 69
Tough call here. UMBC is a very good team, but I’d still give Vermont the overall edge. However, I do predict Ryan Odom to come out with an excellent game plan and find a way to knock off Vermont late in the game. Should that happen (fingers crossed it doesn’t) I’d expect John Becker to use that loss as motivation and win game two with ease. In this scenario both teams would be 10-3 and in a deadlock for first place.
Vermont still has games against UNH and Hartford, while UMBC will be hosting UMass-Lowell the following week to close out the season. With the top two teams receiving a first-round bye and homecourt not relevant it might not make too much of a difference. Regardless, the standard is the standard in Catamount country and there’s no denying how special it would be to win a record 5th straight conference title.
*Game 1 – Thursday 7pm ESPNU
Game 2 – Friday 5pm ESPN3