Who Has the Edge for that Fifth and Final Spot?
When the season ended the presumptive notion was the Catamounts could be in for a major roster overhaul and that Vermonts America East reign could be coming to an end. The NCAA granted a one-time exception to allow all college athletes another year of eligibility due to the shorten season, but at the time it was unclear who, if any of the Vermont seniors would decide to run it back once more in Burlington. When news broke that every senior Catamount (excluding Stef Smith) would be returning, Catamount fans were able to let out a collective sigh of relief.
Ben Shungu, Justin Mazzulla, Bailey Patella and Tomas Murphy have all opted to return and the additions of two more upperclassmen, Kam Gibson and Finn Sullivan should only further indicate that Vermont is in win-now mode, pushing all their chips to the middle of the table for one final run. Come next year this roster will look completely different, but for now this senior-laden team will aim to continue being a perennial mid-major powerhouse with hopes of a Cinderella-esque NCAA Tournament run.
Some might argue that last year was a disappointment (lost to Hartford in America East semi-finals), but the optimistic in me prefers the term “outlier” instead. Vermont should return more motivated than ever as they look to re-capture their America East crown and return to NCAA Tournament once more. The Cats are once again considered favorites to win the America East, as they return four of their five starters from a season ago. Stef Smith has made the leap to St. Johns and even though he had an up and down year, Smith was an integral part of the Cats identity and replacing his 29.8 minutes and 13.6 points from a season ago will be no small feat.
Ryan Davis and Ben Shungu are guaranteed locks to start once more, while Isaiah Powell and Justin Mazzulla should also be tentatively penciled into to return as well. That leaves one final open spot, ideally suited at the wing but considering how basketball has transition into an almost positionless sport, that fifth and final spot is wide open. Who has the best chance of earning that nod from John Becker?
Robin Duncan | Guard
The last of Duncan brothers appears to be the most logical choice for replacing Smith in the Cats starting five. The 6’5” Duncan has a number of redeeming qualities that coaches adore, with previous starting experience and a high basketball IQ leading the way. Duncan is best suited as a distributing guard who initiates the offense and even with Shungu and Mazzulla in the mix, Duncan could still slide in thanks his length and interchangeability on defense.
Nonetheless, Duncan is not without his flaws. His offensive limitations make him a poor man’s Ben Simmons at best and despite being a key player for the Cats in years past, his statline continues to drop year over year which includes a career worst 1.8 points a game just a season ago. Despite his limitations, Duncan still has the inside track to start in large due to his previous experience, but should the coaching staff grow weary of his poor shooting, Duncan could soon find himself coming off the pine once again.
Tomas Murphy | Forward
Much like the aforementioned Duncan, Murphy is another player who has a wealth of experience, along with a prestigious basketball pedigree. The redshirt senior made the jump to Vermont from Northeastern just a season ago and even though he was hampered from injuries during an already shortened season, Murphy managed to be fairly effective. It’s still to be determined just how healthy Murphy actually is, but if he has the medical green light it’ll be tough to keep him off the floor regardless of if he’s a starter or not. Averaging a career low 9.5 minutes a contest just a season ago, Murphy still managed to put up 6.6 points and 2.2 rebounds a game. If Murphy can stay healthy (and that’s a big IF), keeping that type of production off the floor will be tough to say no to.
But is Murphy better suited to come off the bench in a sixth-man role? If Murphy started he’d effectively take over for Powell at the four, pushing him over to wing and out of position. While Murphy can step out beyond the perimeter, his game is best suited underneath with his back to the basket, similar to Davis. Powell might be slightly undersized (6’6”) but he’s a bruiser in the post. Even though the addition of Murphy to the starting five would give the Cats more size, shifting Powell to wing could actually have a negative impact on how effective Vermont is on the glass. If Murphy is healthy and playing at the top of his game then he should start, but if those setbacks continue to linger expect a limited role for Murphy yet again.
Kam Gibson | Guard
The first new face to make the list. Gibson is set to join Vermont for the upcoming season after spending the last three years at Western Carolina. The 6’3” guard has enough size to play interchangeably at either the guard or wing positions and his three-point shooting capabilities make him an ideal fit. Gibson also has plenty of previous starting experience from his time at Western Carolina, but again just like Duncan and Murphy, Gibson has seemingly regressed throughout his collegiate career. Sometimes all a player needs is a change of scenery to reignite oneself.
Even if we overlook the receding statline for now, Gibson still has his work cut out for him. The previous experience certainly helps his case, but Gibson will first have to showcase that he can handle his assignments on both ends of the court. Coach Becker is a stickler on the defensive side and has no issue benching a player if they can’t handle what is being asked of them. If Gibson shows he can be a knockdown shooter who can also defend then expect to see the former Western Carolina star in the starting five, but if he’s nothing more than a three-point specialist then it’s likely we’ll be seeing Gibson averaging under 15 minutes a game and coming off the pine.
Bailey Patella | Wing
Unlike the names listed above him, Patella is the only player mentioned thus far who has improved his statline every year, including a career high in minutes (17.9), points (4.9), assists (1.3) and steals (1) from a season ago. Listed at 6’5”, Patella has the ideal size, length and athleticism to play out wide on the wing. Likewise, even though Patella has only ever started one game in during his collegiate career to this point, the senior captain has plenty of experience having played in 82 games with a 11.8 MGP career average.
Patella is a huge fan-favorite in Catamount country and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who says this young man does not deserve a chance to start, yet Patella will more than likely return to a similar role to that of last year. That’s not a knock on Patella, in fact, it’s more a testament to how well he’s been able to carve out a niche for himself. Known simply as the “energizer bunny”, Patella plays with an all-gas-no-brakes mentality that has seemingly worked better as the first one off the bench. It wouldn’t be a massive shock to see Patella enter the season as a starter, but considering how effective he’s been coming off the bench, Coach Becker will likely prefer to keep him in that role moving forward.
Sam Alamutu | Guard
Truth be told I’d be shocked if Alamutu entered the season as a starter for the Cats. Coach Becker typically tends to lean on his upperclassmen to handle the significant workload responsibilities and even for as talented as Alamutu is, he still has to earn every minute. The 6’5” Alamutu has already drawn rave reviews but keep in mind that we’re only in August – not a game, practice. Depending how you classify the extra year of eligibility among players, there are 12 upperclassmen ahead of Alamutu who have actual game experience and the trust of Coach Becker and his staff.
Now hypothetically let’s say Alamutu is as good as advertised. At what point does Alamutu crack the starting line-up? Five games in? Ten? Hell maybe it’ll only take one game for the Vermont coaching staff to realize they need to have Alamutu on the floor as soon as possible. Again, this is all hypothetical and considering how top-heavy the Vermont roster is constructed there’s a chance we hardly see Alamutu at all in the first-half on the season. The future looks incredibly bright for Alamutu and Vermont, but for now expect the freshman guard to find his footing coming off the bench.
Finn Sullivan | Guard
A late addition this years Vermont squad (or at least by media standards), the 6’4” Sullivan is another candidate to earn that final starting nod from Coach Becker. I noted before in the write-up on Sullivan that he shares a few similarities to Bailey Patella – the length and athleticism is there, along with a knack for impacting the game in number of different facets. However, unlike Patella, Sullivan is more natural with the ball in his hands and has a slight edge over Patella with his shooting ability. With Smith in the line-up last year the Cats operated with a three-pronged guard attack which only bodes well for someone like Sullivan to crack the starting five.
Much like the majority of the other names listed here, Sullivan has plenty of previous game experience both as a starter and coming off the bench. The biggest obstacle standing in Sullivans way is actually the same for Vermont’s other transfer, Gibson, in that he’ll need to first earn the trust of Coach Becker and his staff before being handed a spot in the starting five. Having a third ball handler/distributer is never a bad thing and when you factor in Sullivans impact on the game elsewhere (shooting, defense, rebounding, hustle) it makes sense that his name would be in strong consideration for that final spot.