Dare I Say America East Conference Championship Preview?
Well, it might not be as impressive as the Undertaker’s once 21-0 record at Wrestlemania, but Vermont’s record of 14 straight victories against New Hampshire is quite the accomplishment. Verbal meme – “how it started (Trae Bell-Haynes 21 points in 2015), how it’s going (Ben Shungu 29 points in 2022)”. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Cats took game one of the conference series against New Hampshire to begin the year. My condolences to anyone who wasn’t able to watch this game because even though the final score shows up in the record book as a 14-point win for the Cats, by no means is it indicative of how the game actually played out. For the majority of the contest it was real slugfest between these two conference foes. Vermont nursed a small lead throughout, with the Wildcats closing the gap whenever Vermont seemly tried to put the game out of reach. It wasn’t until the closing minutes that Vermont finally pulled away and iced the game. Overall it was arguably one of, if not the best team performance for Vermont, but it was the play of one Cat in particular that really put Vermont over the top. Enter Ben Shungu.
Without a doubt this was the Ben Shungu show. The senior captain finished with a new career high in points (29) and was incredibly efficient on both ends of the floor. I’m tempted to say this was Shungu’s best performance as a Cat, but considering the magnitude of other great games against the likes Maryland or Florida State, this pales slightly in comparison. Top five? No doubt. Elsewhere, Ryan Davis hit his season marks with 19 points and 7 rebounds and the offense as a whole had their best performance of the season, shooting 63% from the field and 53% from deep. Where has this been all year?!?!?!
On to Stony Brook…
Projected Line-Ups: Vermont
Ben Shungu – Guard
Finn Sullivan – Guard
Justin Mazzulla – Guard
Isaiah Powell – Guard
Ryan Davis – Forward
Again, no changes of note here. At one point during the New Hampshire game the camera did catch Coach Becker giving Sullivan an earful, but to say that Sullivan is a risk of losing his spot in the starting five or even a minutes reduction would be grasping for straws at best. That’s just good coaching. It’s Sullivan’s job to perform on the court and Becker’s job to make sure that his players know how to play with his system. Simple as that. Coach Becker’s tactic appeared to work as the Cats buckled down when it mattered most and cruised to a nice victory of UNH. Very curious how the team and Sullivan in particular responds this week against Stony Brook. As for my prediction, I see Sullivan bouncing back and having one his best games of the year. Hungry dogs eat first.
Beyond the starting five, Vermont’s second unit had a very solid game against the Wildcats. Both Robin Duncan and Aaron Deloney hit some big-time shots and were incredibly productive in their limited floor time. Those two should see plenty of time against the Seawolves come Wednesday night. Nonetheless it isn’t all daisy and sunshine for Vermont. Nick Fiorillo, Bailey Patella and Kam Gibson have a combined 93 points, 59 rebounds and 21 assists on the year. Meanwhile, Ben Shungu has 189 points, 57 rebounds and 36 assists by himself and he’s not even the team’s leading scorer! Granted, Gibson and Patella have missed some time recently but it’s clear as day that Vermont needs help in the backend of their rotation. At this point I am the epitome of a broken record, but give Lefebvre a few minutes and at least see what he can do.
What to Watch For: Vermont
Continuing off the last section, my biggest question mark is where/how Vermont responds should their depth need to be tested. On the surface it seems like we can expect Coach Becker to deploy a seven-man rotation with Deloney and Duncan coming off the bench. This worked well against New Hampshire, but if you’re expecting Vermont to shoot over 60% from the field and 50% from deep in back-to-back games then you will be sadly disappointed my friend. Fiorillo will likely factor into the game as well off the bench, but again his production has pretty lackluster lately. If nothing else, he at least spells Davis or Powell for a quick breather. If Vermont finds themselves in foul trouble or struggles to find their shot, who do they turn to? If Gibson and Patella are still out they pretty much just leaves freshman Evan Guillory as the only other option who has at least played sparely so far. Vermont’s depth, which at one point was once consider a luxury and strength has quickly turned into a huge question mark.
Despite the preseason hype, Stony Brook does not look like a team ready to truly compete for an America East title this year. Granted, it’s still early and as we saw last year with UMass-Lowell catapulting their way into the conference championship game the only certainty in life is uncertainty itself. Regardless, Vermont has had Stony Brooks number for years now. The Cats are 10-1 in their last 11 head-to-head matchups with the Seawolves. Keep in mind the majority of these Seawolf teams were often neck and neck with Vermont throughout conference play and by no means an automatic dub. The Seawolves were actually projected to finish first in the America East this year over Vermont. You best believe that Coach Becker and Vermont have that clipped and hanging on a bulletin board in the locker room. Expect the Cats to play with a little extra motivation in this one, as they’re out to prove that the America East still runs through Burlington.
Projected Line-Ups: Stony Brook
Tykei Greene – Guard
Anthony Roberts – Guard
Elijah Olaniyi – Guard
Jaden Sayles – Forward
Frankie Policelli – Forward
Coach Geno Ford has tinkered with his line-up all year so by no means is this line-up set in stone. Hell, arguably their best player, Elijah Olaniyi, has only played four games thus far. For now I have Olaniyi in with the ones and the expectation is that he’ll suit up for Wednesday nights game, but his availability is far from 100%. If Olaniyi has a setback and is forced to miss yet another game, look for junior guard Anthony Roberts to help fill the void. While the majority of people would agree that Stony Brook has underperformed to this point, Roberts has been one of their few bright spots. Roberts currently leads the team in scoring with 14.4 points a game – a huge improvement over his 5.3 PPG average just a season ago.
The Seawolves also possess some more than capable scorers off the bench. Jahlil Jenkins, who has spent time this year both starting and coming in with the second unit is second on the team in scoring with 14.2 PPG and first overall in floor time with a 32.6 MPG average. Elsewhere, guards Juan Felix-Rodriguez and Tyler Stephenson-Moore have provide solid production for the Seawolves off the bench. However, the frontcourt of Stony Brook is without a doubt their weakest link. Expect plenty of double-teams on the likes of Ryan Davis in the post in this one.
What to Watch For: Stony Brook
Stony Brook has a roster talented enough to win the America East. That’s a fact. However, thus far this team has not played up to their potential. One of the biggest issues is their defense. Time after time this season opposing teams have exploited the Seawolves, as their 268 defensive efficiency rating puts them in some pretty, pretty, pretty bad company. Only Maine (330) and Binghamton (284) fare worse out of the America East. For the Seawolves to have a chance against the Cats they’ll need to buckle down defensively. Considering Vermont is coming off their most productive offensive showing all season, slowing down the Cats will be easier said than done.
It’s a bit too early to gauge how Stony Brook might finish in the America East. The Seawolves were the preseason favorite to walk away with the conference crown, but after a somewhat lackluster non-conference outing it’s tough to tell just how good the Seawolves are. On paper the team has plenty of talent and should rightfully be in the thick of true conference contender discussion, but a team of great players doesn’t always translate to a great team. Wednesday night will arguably be the biggest game of the season so for Coach Ford and the Seawolves. Until proven otherwise, the America East belongs to Vermont and with a 10-1 record over their last eleven, apparently so does Long Island. If the Seawolves can’t get up and play with a sense of purpose, then they’re likely going to be on the outside looking in once again this year.
Final Score: Vermont 79 – Stony Brook 65
I have Vermont securing another dub against Stony Brook by a pretty comfortable margin. Considering that Stony Brook has given up 80+ points in 5 of their 14 games thus far it would be shocking to see the Cats become the sixth team to eclipse that mark as well. For now, I have them falling one point shy. Stony Brook is a fairly decent team but this just seems like the type of game where Vermont jumps out to a big lead in the second-half then cruises to another double-digit win. Look for Finn Sullivan to have a big game across the board – 15 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals.
Tip-Off: Wednesday, January 12th, 7:00pm (ESPN+)