Time to Reignite the Rivalry
I don’t think I’m overreacting at all when I say this Vermont team is the greatest three-point shooting team of all team. Definitely not.
Good lord, what a performance Wednesday night. The Cats hit 19 (!) three-pointers against Stony Brook, breaking a program record and tying the America East conference record for most in a single game. Vermont put a whoopin on the proclaimed *ahem* America East favorites, beating them by 33 and once again put the entire AE on notice. You want a shot at the title you gotta go through Vermont first.
Finn Sullivan (who I predicted would have a big night, NBD) led the Cats with 19 points, though Vermont’s historic shooting night was a complete team effort. Five players (Sullivan, Davis, Shungu, Mazzulla and Deloney) reached the double-figure scoring mark and three others had at least seven points. As a whole, Vermont finished 35-56 from the field (62.5%) and 19-30 (63%) from deep. As if the lights-out shooting wasn’t enough, unsung-hero and ultimate warrior Isaiah Powell strung together one the best overall performances of his career. Powell came within an arms-length away from his first career triple-double (7 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists) – a feat which hasn’t been accomplished at Vermont in over eight years.
However, it wasn’t all sunshine and smiles. As an avid, albeit terrible gambler, it’s my duty to throw my hard-earned money away on the dumbest possible bets. The odds of Vermont reaching the 100-point mark were 1000-1. The chances of Vermont getting 100 points in a game were somewhere between 0.00000001% and 0.00000002%. Not gonna happen. Yet, somehow, someway the Cats had a legit shot at breaking that triple-digit mark in the closing minutes. Sitting at 98 points with the ball and the shot clock turned off, Robin Duncan had a chance to make history. But in what was arguably the most incredibly selfish act of all time, Duncan forgo the true integrity of the game and instead opted to dribble out the clock. Appalling. Sportsmanship be damned.
On to UMBC….
Projected Line-Up: Vermont
Ben Shungu – Guard
Justin Mazzulla – Guard
Finn Sullivan – Guard
Isaiah Powell – Forward
Ryan Davis – Forward
Before the Cats last contest against Stony Brook, I openly questioned how dependable Vermont’s depth would be. Sure, Deloney and Duncan each chalked up solid games against UNH just a game before, but up to that point in the season Coach Becker wasn’t getting consistent production from his second unit. While I’m not 100% ready to put this issue to rest, these back-to-back conference games (three if you include Colgate) have been a godsend to a team that couldn’t buy a bucket in the early onset of the season. Deloney in particular has been a huge bright spot. Over the last three, Deloney has averaged 11.3 points – trailing only Davis and Shungu over that same timeframe. Deloney also is tied with Shungu for the most steals defensively during those three games. Vermont’s electric guard is making a sneaky push for AE Sixthman of the Year.
On paper both New Hampshire and Stony Brook boast more talented rosters than UMBC and yet both lost by double-digits to Vermont. That does not bode well for the Retrievers chances. Even with Ryan Odom leaving UMBC this past offseason the Vermont-UMBC rivalry is one of the best in America East. As dominate as Vermont has been over the years, the one thorn in their side has seemingly always been UMBC. If this was any other AE team I could see Vermont easing off the gas and playing with a more contempt nature, but the chance to absolutely annihilate UMBC is an opportunity they haven’t had in years. Vermont’s last three halves of play have seen them drop 46, 53 and 45. Weatherman says to expect heavy showers in Baltimore this weekend.
What to Watch For: Vermont
The biggest storyline has to be can Vermont keep their hot shooting streak intact, right? Keep in mind that this is the same team that two months ago was shooting under 30% from three as a unit and struggling to find any sort of rhythm and consistency offensively. Yet through their first two games of conference play, the Cats have shot 27-45 from deep (60%), are averaging 90 points a game and obliterated two of the “best” AE teams by an average of 23.5 points. Sheeeeesh. Now don’t get me wrong I’d be happy as a clam to watch Vermont continue their outright domination over the AE, but for the sake of argument let’s play a little devil’s advocate.
I get that Stony Brook has very talented roster and they should be better than what their record indicates, but this does not look like a team that can win 20+ games in a season – maybe not even 15. They routinely gave up wide-open looks to Vermont all game and what do ya know the Cats made them pay for it. Vermont became the sixth team to drop 80+ on the Seawolves this year – for context Vermont hasn’t allowed even one single team this year to score 70 on them. Geno Ford should be straight up embarrassed. Should dysfunction and disappointment continue to shroud Stony Brook I would not shocked to see Geno Ford get the boot at the end of the year.
Apologies for that quick side tangent on Stony Brook’s putrid defense – back to Vermont. I believe the Cats will crush UMBC this weekend, but another 20+ route should not be the expectation. We’ve seen both the Jekyll and Hyde of Vermont’s three-point shooting. From a 4-25 outing against UNCG to a 19-30 performance against Stony Brook. Which team is going to show up against UMBC? I don’t expect the Cats to shoot 4-25 on a given night, nor do I expect them to go 19-30. Water will always find its level.
Projected Line-Up: UMBC
L.J. Owens – Guard
Keondre Kennedy – Guard
Jacob Boonyasith – Guard
Nathan Johnson – Forward
Yaw Obeng-Mensah – Forward
It’s been quite some time since UMBC sent out the same starting unit and my money is on that streak continuing here. Although the Retrievers typically more four-out I think they opt for a bit more length. My bold prediction for UMBC is that they come out and dare the Cats to shoot the three. If Vermont comes out and it’s just a game of pop-and-shot for them then Coach Ferry will burn a timeout and regroup. But, if Vermont was colder than a polar bear’s toenail (no points opening two minutes against SBU), then the Retrievers would likely have a greater chance at securing the boards and ultimately slowing down the pace in their favor.
When Ryan Odom left for Utah State he opted to bring two of his favorite Retrievers along with him, R.J. Eytle-Rock and Brandon Horvath. The cupboards might not be completely bare, but there is certainly a noticeable absence of talent in the halls of UMBC. Guards Keondre Kennedy and Darnell Rodgers can still put up points in bunches for the Retrievers, though the supporting cast around them is rather apathetic. Unfortunately for UMBC, upsetting Vermont will require an extraordinary performance from a mediocre team. Don’t hold your breath.
What to Watch For: UMBC
Between 2011 and 2018 Vermont won 16 straight against the Retrievers. Then, UMBC’s Jarius Lyles hit a game-winning three against the Cats in the 2018 America East Championship game and everything change. Since Lyles incredible shot, the series has been split right down the middle at 5-5 a piece. No other team in America East could even come close to knocking off Vermont and at one point UMBC had taken them down in three-straight games. Ryan Odom received plenty of recognition and rightfully so, but now that he’s gone, will UMBC continue to be Vermont’s kryptonite, or will they revert back to the team that lost 16 straight to the Cats?
Surprisingly, Vermont actually has a winning record against UMBC in Baltimore (3-2) during their 10 game series split. What’s even more surprising is that in those three wins, Vermont won by an average of nearly 20 points (19.6). This does not bode well for the Retrievers. Vermont has been scorching the back the net, while UMBC is hanging on to what little relevance they have left by a thread. The Retrievers cannot get into a shootout with Vermont. The only hope UMBC has is to take the air out of the ball and slow the game down. Their defense needs to play lights out and suffocate Vermont, while hoping that their offense does just enough to keep them in it. Easier said than done.
Final Score: Vermont 80 – UMBC 64
The Retrievers are in the process of transition. Ryan Odom’s departure was a bittersweet setback but has now left UMBC searching for a new identity. Despite only playing two conference games thus far, Vermont has already cemented their status as America East favorites. However, the bid for the number two spot is wide open. New Hampshire, Stony Brook and NJIT appear to be in that second tier currently. After an offseason filled with change and turnover, do the Retrievers still have enough to compete for a top seed? Saturday’s game against the Cats should serve as a measuring stick for UMBC. Unfortunately for the Retrievers I don’t see them upsetting Vermont or even finishing as a top three seed this year. Look for the Cats to win their third straight conference game and once again eclipse the double-digit scoring gap.
Tip-Off: Saturday, January 15th, 1:00pm (ESPN3)