Who’s Ready for Tip-Off?
Annnnnnd we’re back. After dismantling the likes St. Mikes and Saint Anslem in their two preseason contests, Vermont finally gets to play a game that will count as they head to Cedar Falls to take on the Panthers of Northern Iowa. While nobody in their right mind will ever confuse the likes of NIU with the Duke’s or Kentucky’s of the world, make no mistake about it this is a very good and highly talented mid-major opponent. This game should serve as a good indicator for both teams as to what we can possibly except from them for the year ahead.
Sadly, Vegas has yet to announce what the potential spread for this game would be but considering how evenly matched these two teams are I’d wager it to be around a 2.5-point favorite in Northern Iowa’s favor. Essentially a coin-toss at this point. NIU won the Missouri Valley Conference back in 2020, but failed to make it to the big dance. Their last appearance came in 2016 as an 11 seed, losing to Texas A&M in the second round. Similarly, UVM has finished first in the America East five years running but has only two NCAA appearances during that timeframe. Would not be a shock if both these teams were dancing again come March. Fun fact before jumping into the game preview – Head coach of the Toronto Raptors, Nick Nurse, used to play for the Panthers.
Projected Line-Ups: Vermont
Ben Shungu – Guard
Finn Sullivan – Guard
Kam Gibson – Guard
Isaiah Powell – Forward
Ryan Davis – Forward
Shungu, Powell and Davis should all be considered locks to start every game this year so long as their healthy. As for Sullivan and Gibson their spots in the starting five are anything but set in stone. Sullivan is best served as an initiator on offense who can effectively distribute the ball. His length is also a huge benefit on defense. In the two preseason contests earlier Sullivan looked comfortable in this type of role and could have very well already earned the starting nod in the eyes of John Becker. As for Gibson, he looked like he still might need some time to adjust to intricates of Vermont’s offense but his perimeter shooting will be relied on heavily. If he starts off cold be on the lookout for Aaron Deloney who has already been in great form based on the earlier exhibition games.
Nonetheless, this game should feature a heavy dose of Davis. The reigning AE PoY dominated in his limited preseason minutes and should be the centerpiece of Vermont’s offense in every game this year. Since John Becker and his staff are likely still tinkering with the rotation expect to see at least 12 different Catamounts make an appearance in this one.
What to Watch For: Vermont
Get Ryan Davis the ball. Simple. While there’s no doubt that Davis will get plenty of touches on offense and numerous double-teams from NIU defenders, the Cats offense will be predicated on number 35. If NIU tries to double Davis early and often look for plenty of kickouts to the wings and swing passes to take advantage of NIU over-pursuing. The Panthers are somewhat thin up front and don’t possess elite size (no one over 6’9”) so attacking the paint will be significant part of the Cats game plan.
However, the Cats can’t stand idly by in hopes that Davis will be able to beat his man every time. They need be ready for those kickout passes and knock down their shots when they get them. Aaron Deloney has been hot to through their two preseason games and it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see him drop double-digits coming off the bench in this one.
Projected Line-Ups: Northern Iowa
Bowen Born – Guard
Trae Berhow – Guard
Nate Heise – Guard
Noah Carter – Forward
Austin Phyfe – Forward
Hand up, I don’t think I watched a single minute of a Northern Iowa game last year. My line-up predictions for the Panthers is solely based on what little research I’ve been able to dig up so please forgive me if I end up 0-5 on these predictions. With that being said I feel fairly confident that these five names will kick things off for the Panthers, although don’t surprised if uber-talented guard, AJ Green makes an appearance. Green was off to a fantastic start last year, leading the Panthers in scoring in every game he played, but a season-ending injury limited him to only three games. If Green is fully healthy and ready to go he’ll be a nightmare for the Catamounts whether he starts or comes off the bench.
As the rest of the Panthers, they utilize a very balanced attack and heavy guard rotation. Outside of Carter and Phyfe no other NIU forward averaged more 11.5 minutes a game, while six different guards (Green included) combined to average 28.3 minutes a contest. Despite the guard-centric approach, it was actually Phyfe who led the Panthers in scoring most nights. However, if the biggest x-factor for the Panthers in this game (besides Green) could be Carter, who finished the year on a strong note and appears ready to take on an even bigger role for the upcoming season.
What to Watch For: Northern Iowa
Expect both the Panthers and the Catamounts to play the majority of minutes with a small-ball mindset attack. NIU gets a slight edge in the backcourt, but UVM’s Davis could have a day in lieu of the Panthers lack of depth up front. Trying to stop Davis will be no easy task, but NIU might try to dictate the pace of the game by deploying a four-guard unit in hopes of wearing down Davis. Outside of Davis the Catamounts are thin up front and ideally isolating their gameplan by driving Davis to the point of fatigue or foul trouble could be their best bet.
The defensive side of the ball is where the Panthers will need to make their mark. NIU struggled tremendously from beyond the arc a season ago, as none of their core rotational players shot better than 35% from deep. As a team the Panthers only managed a paltry 32.5% from the perimeter. If the Panthers find themselves in a hole early it could an absolute disaster for NIU.
Final Score: Vermont 73 – Northern Iowa 68
Is this a homer pick? Absolutely. These are two very good mid-major teams who might both very well find themselves dancing in the NCAA Tournament by the end of the year. Vermont gets the slight edge here, but honestly this contest could go either way. For now I’m predicting a 25+ point performance from Ryan Davis and a late three from Bailey Patella to seal the Cats first win of the season.
Tipoff: Thursday, November 11th 6:00 PM (EST) (ESPN+)