Vermont’s Conference Schedule Begins with a Twin-State Match-Up
Yeeeeesh what a whirlwind it’s been since the Cats last played – feels like that game against Colgate took place a year ago. Terrible dad jokes aside, come Thursday night it will have been just over a fortnight (that’s two-weeks for anyone under the age of 18 reading) since the Cats last suited up. By now you’ve likely figured out that Vermont’s conference tip-off game against Albany did not come to fruition. That game was scheduled for last Sunday, but was unfortunately postponed. Ideally Vermont and Albany will be able to find a date to reschedule that game. But if one postponement wasn’t enough, Vermont’s Saturday contest against reigning America East champs, Hartford has now been postponed as well. By the time this article gets posted there’s a 50-50 chance that yet another game could meet a similar fate. If we truly do live in a simulation, I am begging whoever is in charge to please, please, please just let us have one normal year.
Quick refresher to recap the Colgate game and then we’ll jump into the game preview against New Hampshire. Welcome to the show Mr. Aaron Deloney! The narcissist in me would start by pointing out that I’ve been calling for more minutes for Deloney for weeks if not months now but I’m not that type of guy. No, instead let’s all take a moment to appreciate Deloney pouring in a new career-high (18 points) and leading the Cats to a big win to close out their non-conference schedule. The junior guard finished 5-8 from the field which included shooting 3-4 from deep and another 5-6 from the charity stripe. His 18 points in 18 minutes of floor time was an incredible feat of player efficiency and is hopefully just the type of game he needed to assert himself back into the rotation on a consistent basis. Robin Duncan missed this one due to injury but should be back soon and Kam Gibson played sparing but once again did not impact the game whatsoever. Hats off to Deloney for capitalizing on his moment. Great lesson for every player out there who might be stuck on the pine. Keep working and wait for you moment – it will come.
Projected Line-Ups: Vermont
Ben Shungu – Guard
Finn Sullivan – Guard
Justin Mazzulla – Guard
Isaiah Powell – Forward
Ryan Davis – Forward
No changes here. Seems pretty clear by now that Mazzulla and Sullivan are essentially locked in with the starting five. Still curious to watch how the rotation with sort itself out through America East conference play. Obviously we can’t forget about Deloney who just caught fire against Colgate, but is one game enough of an indicator for Coach Becker to adjust his line-up? And what of incumbents Duncan and Gibson? It’s tough to envision a scenario where either falls completely out of the rotation but stranger things have happened. Deloney clearly took advantage of his moment – could the likes of Bailey Patella or even Evan Guillory manifest a similar path?
With the season two premiere of Covid already resulting in cancelations and postponements, it seems all but inevitable that the bench of Vermont will be tested throughout conference play. Whether it comes against New Hampshire or not, some of the younger Cats should finally get a chance to showcase what they can offer. There’s also the possibility of someone like Gibson capitalizing on these contests against inferior opponents. We’ve seen Gibson catch fire previously, though it’s his inability to consistently produce from game-to-game that has seen him looking on from the bench most recently. Three-point shooting will always be a need for the Cats and if Gibson can find his groove, he’ll likely also secure his spot back in the rotation.
What to Watch for: Vermont
With all the talk so far rooted around Deloney and the Vermont bench you’re probably thinking I got my eyes set on the second unit against the Wildcats. While the inner workings of the Cats rotation are intriguing to watch unfold, my sights are set on how the starters perform against their first conference foe of the year. Vermont has been downright dominant over the years, especially when it comes to America East play. However, the tide appears to shifting. Make no mistake, the Cats are still at the top of the mountain, but the gap between them and the likes of New Hampshire, UMBC, Stony Brook, Hartford and even UML has gotten significantly shorter recently. Vermont is a senior-laden team led by Ben Shungu and Ryan Davis. These guys have racked up a lot of wins in the green and gold and most certainly will not be conceding their America East stranglehold any time soon.
Look for Vermont to set the tone from the opening tip. The Cats swept the series
last season two season ago and have not lost to New Hampshire since 2015. What’s even more concerning for the Wildcats is that the majority of these games haven’t even been close – 10 of the last 13 have been decided by double-digits. Realistically Vermont should be able to find a similar outcome in this contest, but again that gap is shrinking, and Bill Herrion and New Hampshire would love nothing more to finally get that monkey cat off their back. My pick is still with the Cats though. Look for Shungu to find his shooting touch as the Cats pick up their first conference win of the year.
Projected Line-Ups: New Hampshire
Nick Johnson – Guard
Blondeau Tchoukuiegno – Guard
Jayden Martinez – Forward
Nick Guadarrama – Forward
Tayler Mattos – Center
The first thing that stands out about this Wildcats team is their size. UNH is likely just one of handful of schools that still deploys a tradition center in their frontcourt. Tayler Mattos without a doubt fills every inch of his 6’11” frame. Mix in 6’7” Jayden Martinez and 6’5”, 250lb “Thicccc” Nick Guadarrama and this Wildcat team is built to absolutely control the glass. Martinez is already off to a fantastic start, averaging 17.6 points and 7.7 rebounds a game. If he keeps up the production he’ll certainly be on the shortlist for America East PoY.
Along with Martinez, the Wildcat player to watch out for is rising sophomore Blondeau Tchoukuiegno. BT (I’m not writing out his last name anymore) has been a revelation for the Wildcats this year, as he’s currently their second leading scorer (11 ppg) and their outright leader in assists (4.4). Add in his 4 rebounds and 1.1 steals a game and BT is quickly becoming one of the best all-around players in the America East. Side note – I can’t wait to hear how the announcers try to pronounce his name. Elsewhere you’ll find this is a fairly deep UNH team. 8 of the 11 players to see action this year for the Wildcats are averaging over 5 points a game. It still might not be enough to topple Vermont, but at the very least they know that they can go deep into their bench if need be.
What to Watch for: New Hampshire
I don’t believe in moral victories. Hitting a last second shot to beat the cover is one thing, but just keeping it close with Vermont will not save face for the Wildcats. Vermont has absolutely owned New Hampshire for years now, winning the last 13 – typically by a wide margin. As always, the road to the NCAA Tournament goes through Burlington and if Bill Herrion and the Wildcats want to be considered legit contenders, the first step is finding a way to snare the Catamounts. “Good luck” – every other AE coach.
In order to pull off the monumental upset the Wildcats will need a big-time performance – cue Jayden Martinez’s music. What makes Martinez so special is his incredible knack for consistently finding the back of the basket. Martinez has shot a staggering 53.2% from the field on the year, which also includes his insane 51.2% clip from deep. What makes those numbers so ridiculous is the fact that Martinez is leading the team in field goal attempts (111) and 3PT attempts (43) and still manages to play at this unheard-of efficiency level. Martinez and the Wildcats haven’t played too many teams as capable and tenacious as Vermont on the defensive front though so this should be quite the test for AE PoY hopeful.
Final Score: Vermont 77 – New Hampshire 70
Around this time a year ago Vermont saw their non-conference schedule fall to pieces before their eyes thanks to the on-going Covid crisis. Well, here we are now about to begin conference play and the Cats have already seen three of their games either canceled or postponed. The reason I bring these games up is that the last time Vermont began their conference schedule against a supposedly inferior team after dealing with Covid cancelations did not end well for the Cats. Nonetheless I’m still picking Vermont to notch their first conference win of the season Thursday night. Been hearing whispers that the CDC is recommending that Patrick Gym host the NCAA Tournament this year.
Tip-Off: Thursday, January 6th, 7:00 PM (ESPN U)