What’s Better Than a Mid-Major Clash to Enter the Weekend?
Quick recap before jumping into Friday’s match-up against Yale. As you’re likely aware of by now the Cats went into Cedar Falls and dominated Northern Iowa, never trailing the entire game despite the fact that they were without arguably the best forward in the America East, Ryan Davis. The Cats followed up their win against UNI with a trip over to Maryland to take on the 21st ranked Terps. Davis was able to return for this contest but looked out of sorts, providing very little impact on either end of the floor. Ben Shungu poured in a career-high 27 points, helping Vermont almost secure the upset. Alas the Cats struggled in the closing minutes as Maryland pulled away for the win (still covered though). Finally, Vermont returned back to Burlington for their home-opener against everyone’s favorite – a division three opponent. WPI (some school from Worcester) served as essentially one final tune-up game for the Cats as they beat them by 33. Davis looked like his old self, scoring a career-high 28 points* (career-highs should not count against D3 schools). My condolences to WPI, but at least they got to escape the depths of Worcester for a night.
Back to Friday’s contest – Vermont returns to action as they will be hosting Ivy league rival Yale at Patrick Gym early Friday evening at 4pm. Yale comes into this match-up boasting a 3-1 record on the year thus far which includes blow-out wins over the likes of UMass and Siena. However, they did find themselves on the other end of spectrum, losing by almost 40 to Seton Hall last Sunday. Despite the setback, Yale is a formable opponent. The Bulldogs are projected to win the Ivy league this year, as they are stacked from top to bottom. Yale Guard Azar Swain is a true potential PoY in the Ivy league and is currently averaging 16.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists a game.
Swain will most likely square up with Vermont’s prodigal son, Ben Shungu. This will without a doubt be the biggest game within a game match-up that everyone should have their eyes fixed on. Shungu in his own right should also be in the running for PoY consideration, as he is currently boasting averages of 15.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists a game. Add on his 1.8 steals a game and you best believe that Swain will have his hands full all evening trying to contain Shungu on both ends of the floor.
Starting Line-Up Predictions: Vermont
Ben Shungu – Guard
Robin Duncan – Guard
Kam Gibson – Guard
Isaiah Powell – Forward
Ryan Davis – Forward
Lock it in. This has been the first five for every game thus far (minus Davis for the UNI contest) so don’t expect any major changes from Coach Becker in this one. What will be interesting to watch is how much Coach Becker dips into his bench. Early indications have shown the Cats trying to utilize a more up-tempo run-and-gun approach which means he’ll need to keep bodies fresh to maximize player efficiency and stamina. The Bulldogs also play with an all gas no brakes mentality, as nine different players are currently averaging over 10 minutes a game. Hammer the over in this one.
I’m shining the player spotlight on Isaiah Powell. Already averaging a career best in points (13.3) rebounds (8.3) and assists (3) thus far, Powell could be in for a monster game against Yale. The Bulldogs are relatively small upfront and do not rebound the ball effectively. Their leading rebounder is a guard (Jalen Gabbidon, 6.3 per game) and their top rebounding forward (Isaiah Kelly) only averages 5 boards a game. If the Bulldogs are struggling to find the back of the net, Powell should have an absolute field day on the glass.
What to Watch For: Vermont
As previously mentioned, the most intriguing aspect of these two out of conference foes is who will win the one-on-one battle between Swain and Shungu. I’m leaning towards Shungu getting a slight edge over Swain, as he’ll be feeding off the energy of Patrick Gym all night. While Shungu is off a stellar start to begin the year, his uptick turnovers could spell trouble for the Cats. Vermont has been very good about limiting their mistakes, only averaging 8.7 turnovers a game, but Shungu is responsible for 3.3 of those. Granted, Shungu has become a huge focal point on offense and operates with the ball in his hands through the majority of the game but if he can’t clean up these mistakes soon Coach Becker is going to have to make some tough decisions in regards to how much Shungu plays on-ball.
Elsewhere Vermont’s up-tempo attack has been a joy to watch, as the Cats are pushing the ball and attacking off every missed shot. NIU and Maryland had to resort to a full court pressure just to try to slow down Vermont’s attack. Ideally we’ll see the Cats come blazing out of the gate once more against Yale. When Vermont has to slow down and play a half-court offense their movement becomes stagnant and tend to lean on whoever is hot to play hero-ball and bail them out. This has worked at times in the past with Davis and before him #3, but it’s not the type of system that can reliably work for a full 40 minutes of a game.
Starting Line-Up Predictions: Yale
Azar Swain – Guard
August Mahoney – Guard
Matthue Cotton – Guard
Jalen Gabbidon – Guard
Isaiah Kelly – Forward
If you thought the Cats loved to play with a small-ball approach just wait until you see Yale’s starting line-up. The Bulldogs starting F/C, Isaiah Kelly, is listed at only 6’7”, while the rest of the unit is 6’5” and under. Jalen Gabbidon, while listed as a guard, is more of tweener at 6’5” and will likely play in some sort of stretch-four role. Elsewhere, the Bulldogs do have some decent size off the bench, but their mindset to this point has been to play small and fast whenever possible. This is the modern-day approach of basketball. While height is still an important factor, the game has shifted to an almost position-less style that predicates speed and perimeter shooting as the key components for success.
Case in point, the Bulldogs top four scorers and minutes per game players are all guards. Three of which are all currently averaging over 12 points a game lead by Swain’s 16.5. Vermont also boasts a deep bench at the guard position, along with a stifling perimeter defense. If Swain is locked up with Shungu all game the Bulldogs will need to find scoring elsewhere. Matthue Cotton could very be the Bulldogs x-factor in this contest. Cotton currently leads the team in three-point attempts and is shooting a respectable 34.6% from deep. Cotton is also second on the team in scoring with 13.3 points per game – if he gets hot early it could spell trouble for the Cats in this one.
What to Watch For: Yale
The Bulldogs attack will be centered directly around Swain. The senior guard poured in a season-high 23 points on Tuesday (albeit against a lowly Siena team) and will look to build of that performance against the likes of Vermont. Swain is a high-volume shooter who excels as a pick-and-pop scorer, meaning Vermont will have to utilize a strong rotational switch around the perimeter in order to slow Swain down. However, when opposing teams have been able to contain Swain, Yale’s offense has struggled dramatically. Even forcing Swain to play off-ball has effectively halted the Bulldogs attack.
Regardless, even if Swain is able to hit his season averages he’ll still need all the help he can get from his fellow Bulldog teammates. Cotton and Gabbidon might be Yale’s best bailout options should Swain find himself in trouble. As previously mentioned, Cotton provides plenty of offensive pop from the perimeter and could be in-line for some open looks should Vermont try to double Swain. Gabbidon on the other hand is more of slasher and will occasionally opt for the mid-range jumper. His best asset by far is his defensive versatility, as he shared Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year honors back in 2020. Yale has been on both the giving and receiving end of massive blowouts. Which Bulldog team will show up in this one?
Final Score: Vermont 75 – Yale 68
Due to their recent blowout wins over the likes UMass and Siena, Yale might actually wind up as the outright favorite in this one, but don’t fall victim to the smoke and mirror show out of New Haven. Vermont went into UNI and knock off the Panthers with relatively ease and then followed up with a close lose to Maryland just two days later. Yale is a good team who might very well end up in the NCAA Tournament, but the Cats are the better team. Nonetheless, the better team doesn’t always win. Vermont still needs to come out focused and play discipled in order to secure a victory. Still waiting on Vegas to drop a line, but my advice is take the Cats moneyline and hammer the over.
Tipoff: Friday, November 19th, 4pm (ESPN+)