Vermont and Hartford Set to Clash in the America East Semi-Finals
Well, well, well. Here we are. Seems like just yesterday these two teams were gearing up for an America East finals match up before the sudden change of events effectively ended the season. Gone are the likes of Anthony Lamb and Malik Ellison, but the animosity between these two programs hasn’t changed a bit. Ryan Davis and Stef Smith are still around, as are Traci Carter and the new and improved Austin Williams so star power won’t be lacking come Saturday.
Due to the ever-changing wild and wonky schedule that was the America East this year, these two teams didn’t have a chance to meet in the regular season. You’ll have to go all the way back to early February of last year for the last time these teams squared off. Vermont came away with the dub after Ryan Davis hit a wide-open game-winning lay-up to seal victory, 69-68. Could we be in for some similar late-game heroics this time around?
While Vermont has dominated the all-time conference match up (18-2 in the last 20), this Hartford team will be no easy out. Make no mistake about it, the Cats have their eyes set on punching their ticket to the big dance, but they’ll need to stay focused on the task at hand before looking ahead. Can Vermont make the America East finals six years in row, or will Hartford be able to recapture some of that Cinderella magic from a season ago?
Starting Line Up Predictions – Vermont Catamounts
Stef Smith – Guard
Ben Shungu – Guard
Justin Mazzula – Guard
Isaiah Powell – Forward
Ryan Davis – Forward
Expect a lot of minutes for these five guys. John Becker already appeared to shorten his bench rotation in the UMBC series which seems like a good indication of who will be on the court in this one. The core subs off the bench in no particular order are likely Bailey Patella, Tomas Murphy and Robin Duncan. Along with the starters, Coach Becker has shown the most trust in those three to help carry the load.
There is a chance Aaron Deloney or Nick Fiorillo make a cameo appearance if the Cats get into foul trouble or need a shot in the arm on offense. Even so, their combined floor time isn’t likely to be more than 10-15 minutes. Murphy is the real wildcard off the bench for the Cats. He’s looked excellent at times but has also had trouble by overcommitting and fouling at times. If he can keep a relative clean sheet on Saturday, the big man from Northeastern could be the difference maker. Rhody gang.
What to Watch For – Vermont Catamounts
Take a drink every time the announcers bring up how these two teams were supposed to clash in the finals before the game was ultimately canceled. My line for that being mentioned is an over/under of 5.5 times. Depending on your beverage of choice, that could make for a very fun viewing experience. Since these two teams weren’t able to meet in the regular season the over of that storyline being mentioned seems like a lock.
Without relevant game tape to review between these two programs it does make this match up even more intriguing. Hartford was inconsistent at times this year, but they are currently riding a three-game win streak in which they’ve beaten their opponents by an average of 12.3 points. Granted those wins came against Albany, Binghamton and NJIT, but if the Hawks have legitimately found their groove, they’ll be a tough challenge for the Cats.
On the Vermont side of things, John Becker will likely stick to an 8-9 man rotation at most. Why is that important? Well Vermont is excellent at pushing the tempo and playing in transition, but how much of an emphasis will be put on that facet of the game if Coach Becker condenses his line up? A few Hartford players looked gassed in the latter-half of last week’s match up against Albany, so it should come as no surprise if the Cats come out with an all-gas-no-brakes approach here.
Keys to the Game – Vermont Catamounts
Don’t Let Carter Steal the Game – Easier said than done. Hartford’s super-senior guard has been very hit-or-miss offensively, but absolutely lights out on the defensive end of the court. Carter led the AE in steals per game (2.6) and came away with a pair against Albany to help propel the Hawks to a win. There’s always so much talk about shutting down an opposing team’s best shooter, yet neutralizing a team’s best defender cannot be overlooked.
Make a Strong Second-Half Push – It would be great if the Cats could play with a Brian Voelkel-esque motor all game, though if the rotation is set at 8 there’s no way these guys can keep up that pace of play. The time to seriously push the tempo should come in the second-half – after seeing how the Hawks are playing and the coaching staff has made their adjustments. As mentioned, Hartford looked fatigued late against Albany and considering Vermont’s athletic talent they can really catch the Hawks gasping for air.
Close Out on Threes – Despite being only a middle of the pack team in terms of 3pt percentage (32%), Hartford loves to let it fly from beyond the arc. Binghamton was the only America East team who took more threes in a game (26 to 24). This is how Hartford plays and it wouldn’t be a shock to see them attempt even 30+ from deep. Vermont needs to close out on these shooters, but also needs to emphasize boxing out to ensure Hartford is one and done offensively.
Starting Line Up Predictions – Hartford Hawks
Traci Carter- Guard
Austin Williams – Guard
D.J. Mitchell – Guard
Hunter Marks – Forward
Miroslav Stafl – Forward
These five accounted for 79 of the 83 points Hartford scored against Albany just a week ago. Williams was the only starter who played under 27 minutes, though that was likely due to foul trouble. Carter and Mitchell each played the full 40 minutes, with Marks also logging 36 minutes on the floor.
Coach Gallagher really tightened up his rotation, as P.J. Henry and Michael Dunne were the only two other players to see any time on the court. Coach Gal will likely deploy a similar strategy against Vermont on Saturday, sticking to a strict rotation of only seven or possible eight guys. Coach Gal is also well aware of the level of fatigue his guys went through against Albany, so finding a balance of rest for his core five will be a tricky scenario.
What to Watch For – Hartford Hawks
Again, since these two teams haven’t played each other in over a year there isn’t a great starting point, but what can Hartford do to finally knock off Vermont? The Cats have won the last four games against Hartford and while the last victory over Vermont did snap their conference record win streak, it was only a one-point victory. Coach Gal has done wonders for this Hartford program, but he’s yet to get the monkey off his back that is Vermont.
The Hawks led the America East in steals per game (7), while also touting the best steals-to-turnover ratio in the conference (.60). This team loves to poke and swipe at the ball and is sneaky good at keeping possession. Meanwhile, Vermont actually committed the third least turnovers in the America East this season. If Hartford is going to pull off the upset the turnover battle is going to play a huge role.
However, the Hawks have been pretty pedestrian on the other end of the floor. As mentioned, they love to shoot the three-ball but a 32% rate isn’t anything special and likely won’t be enough to beat Vermont. Coach Gal will need to find a way to create space for his shooters outside. Could this mean we’ll see a lot more catch and shoot or even step back threes from Hartford? How deep is too deep? Expect both teams to let it fly from deep on Saturday.
Keys to the Game – Hartford Hawks
It’s a Trap! – Vermont does a good job at limiting turnovers and even though Hartford leads the conference in steals, forcing Vermont into careless mistakes won’t be easy. The Hawks would be wise to install a gameplan around forcing Vermont to hedge towards the corner where they can spring a trap. Even with Carter swiping away the Hawks will need all the extra hands they can get to irritate the Catamounts.
Prepare to Shoot it…. From the Parking Lot – Hartford loves to shoot threes that much has already been established. Nonetheless, John Becker and the Cats will have a gameplan to limit the number of open looks from deep the Hawks get. If Vermont’s perimeter defense holds up, Hartford might have to start firing from Dame range. Maybe they’ll even make one or two, but John Becker’s defense is forcing Hartford to jack up 30 footers it’s probably going to end well for Vermont.
Don’t be Consumed by the Past – And now we circle back to the main storyline. Not to say that Vermont wasn’t upset that last year’s AE championship was canceled, but it was clear that game meant a lot to Hartford. The Hawks were in excellent form and to add more fuel to the fire had barely lost to Vermont in their last match up, along with seeing Anthony Lamb win AE PoY over Malik Ellison. It was devastating from a program to have come so close only to see everything they worked so hard taken away in an instant. We’ll never know if Hartford could’ve upset Vermont last year, but these are two different teams and being consumed by what could’ve been will only distract from what’s happening now.
Vermont 77 – Hartford 71
There’s no doubt that both these teams will be absolutely fired up for this game. Vermont is coming off a two-week bye and while that extra rest has backfired on the Catamounts before, in this case it should actually help them. For a team like Vermont that has been the gold standard for the America East, they know when to turn it on. Once the playoffs begin it’s a different game. This is March.
With that being said, Hartford is still dangerous. I expect the Cats to come out victorious in this one, but Coach Gal and the Hawks will make them earn it. Full disclosure – if Coach Gal channels his inner Gallagher and smashes watermelons to fire up his team I cannot in good conscious pick Vermont. Never bet against a man with a mallet and a watermelon.
Saturday 4pm ESPN+