Game Preview: Vermont vs NJIT

Cats Have a Chance to Make History Against NJIT

Another one bites the dust. Vermont once again came out red-hot, scorching the nets and dropping a 50-burger in the first half alone against UMBC. The Cats would ease off the gas a bit in the second half, but still managed to comfortably cruise to a 15-point victory over the Retrievers. That’s now three consecutive wins over top ranked America East conference foes (SBU first, UNH third, and UMBC fifth). What’s even more impressive is the outlandish margin of victory – 20.6 points. That’s not a typo. Vermont has manhandled three of the top five America East favorites (UVM picked second) by an average of 20.6 points a game. It’s early, but this team is giving off major 2016-17 vibes.

As you may recall, Vermont went undefeated in conference play during the 2016-17 season. The Cats took care of business at home, knocking off Albany to win the America East tournament that year and rode a 21-game win streak in the NCAA Tournament before ultimately succumbing to Purdue. Now it is still incredibly early and the Cats have a ton of work to do before we start comparing this year’s team to that of 2016-17, but there is one favorable stat that should have Catamount fans feeling absolutely giddy. With their latest win over UMBC, Vermont has now scored 80+ points in three consecutive games for the first time since, you guessed it, 2016-17.

All three of the Cats conference wins have been incredible team performances. This entire unit is gelling perfectly. That’s not to say there haven’t been any key individual success – there has. Finn Sullivan has been unconscious from three, dropping a career 19 points against SBU then broke his own record just one game later with 20 points against UMBC. Ryan Davis continues his case for back-to-back AE PoY averaging 19 points and 7.3 boards over the last three. And then there’s Isaiah Powell. He might not be the most valuable player, but he certainly is the most important player. After a fairly quiet outing against UNH, Powell has flirted with a triple-double in back-to-back games, averaging 10 points, 9 assists and 8.5 rebounds. The evolution of Powell’s game not just this year, but throughout his entire career has been nothing short of remarkable.

Honestly, I could go on and on raving about the strides this team has taken, but better to look forwards than backwards. On to NJIT….

Projected Line-Ups: Vermont

Ben Shungu – Guard

Justin Mazzulla – Guard

Finn Sullivan – Guard

Isaiah Powell – Forward

Ryan Davis – Forward

Set it in stone. Not only is this starting unit fully locked in, but I’d wager that even the bench rotation is as close to certain as can be. Aaron Deloney had another solid outing off the bench and has now scored 10+ points in 3 of the last 4. Likewise, Robin Duncan has provided steady veteran leadership and key playmaking ability off the bench. At this point it would be shocking to see either Deloney or Duncan fall out of that sixth and seventh spot in Coach Becker’s rotation. A tip of the cap to both Deloney and Duncan who have been tremendous off the bench, however, Vermont typically opts for an eight-man rotation in most games and that last spot is anything but locked up.

Up to this point in the season those minutes have been allotted to forward Nick Fioirillo. I like Fiorillo – great kid, ton of potential and can be a major mismatch due to his ability to spread and space the floor. But removing my green and gold tinted glasses for a moment and it’s clear that Fiorillo is in a slump. The problem is that Vermont is incredibly thin up front and Fiorillo is essentially the only viable option. Georges Lefebvre is seemingly the only other possibility, though as we’ve previously covered on multiple occasions, the coaching staff doesn’t believe that he’s ready. Luckily for Vermont, Davis and Powell are two of the best in America East at their positions and only need to be spelled for quick breathers. So, while even though the eighth man in the rotation might only see around 10-12 minutes a contest, the overwhelming sense from Catamount country is a yearning to see what Lefebvre or others can offer.

What to Watch For: Vermont

Believe it or not, the Cats have a very realistic shot at breaking a record that has never occurred throughout Coach Becker’s highly successful tenure as Head Coach. With their most recent 86-69 drubbing over UMBC, Vermont has now scored 80+ points in three consecutive games for the first time since the 2016-17 campaign. It might be a surprise to hear that outside of that magical 2016-17 run, no other Coach Becker led team has scored 80+ in three straight games. While scoring 80+ is typically an outlier for the majority of NCAA division one teams, when considering the type of talent that has come through Burlington in recent years you’d think that this would’ve happen more than once during Coach Becker’s time at the helm. Nonetheless, this years team now is on the precipice of greatness. During their three-game offensive explosion, Vermont is averaging 88.6 points with a 20.6 average margin of victory. NJIT is currently riding a two-game losing streak in which they’ve surrendered an average of 73.5 points and lost by an average of 18 points. While it’s never safe to assume anything in sports, there is a very good chance that the Cats break the program record for consecutive 80+ games against NJIT come Wednesday night.

On a more individual note, there are two Cats that should have everyone’s attention. Isaiah Powell and Finn Sullivan. I touched on both earlier but honestly these two deserve so much more recognition than I could ever provide. Sullivan has suddenly asserted himself as arguably the best pure shooter on the team. His ability to create plays and knock down threes with ease has unlocked this offense. No longer are teams able to send two/three guys at Davis in the post or clog the middle when Shungu drives to the basket. As if the offensive firepower wasn’t enough, Sullivan is making highlight-reel plays on both ends of the floor. His chase down on UMBC to prevent a bucket when the Retrievers stole the ball and had a clear path to the hoop was a thing of beauty. But if you really want to look at someone who epitomizes Vermont basketball, look no further than Isaiah Powell. The growth and strides Powell has taken is truly remarkable. Just a few years ago Powell was seemingly stuck in Coach Becker’s doghouse and there was a growing sense that his career at Vermont would wind up being rather insignificant. Well, Powell has certainly shifted the narrative. Suddenly, the senior forward looks like a carbon copy of NBA All-Pro Draymond Green and should this type of production continue, there’s a real chance Powell could earn a spot on the AE First-Team All-Conference squad.

Projected Line-Ups: NJIT

Antwuan Butler – Guard

Dylan O’Hearn – Guard

James Lee – Guard

Soloman Diakite – Forward

Miles Coleman – Forward

One of the reasons for the Highlanders early season success has been the dependability of their starters. And while their early season prosperity has taken a tumble in recent weeks, O’Hearn and Coleman in particular have been intricate for all year for NJIT. In fact, Coleman (2nd) and O’Hearn (3rd) trail only UVM’s Ryan Davis for top scorers in the America East. However, last time I checked basketball is played with five players and not just two, and sadly for the Highlanders there hasn’t been much cause for celebration outside the likes of Coleman and O’Hearn. If NJIT were to somehow pull the upset against Vermont (or keep it under 20), it’ll take an unheralded performance from a rather nonexistent and apathetic cast.

It’s a longshot, but the Cats have seen zeros turn to heroes firsthand before. Even in Vermont’s last game against UMBC, Szymon Wojcik who coming into the contest was averaging under 5 points a game went off for a career-high 22 points. Granted, Wojcik’s performance was overshadowed by the fact that UMBC lost in a blowout, but more often than not when the 4th, 5th or even 6th option has a career game it typically spells trouble for the opposing team. If there is player capable of such feat for NJIT, look no further than senior guard, Antwuan Butler. Butler has been very solid, albeit unspectacular for the Highlanders this year. His 7.2 PPG would indicate that he’s likely the 4th or 5th option for NJIT offensively, so he fits the bill there. Why Butler though? The senior guard is second on the team in 3PT% (37.5%) and is third in 3PT attempts (40). Again, not insinuating that this is a real possibility, but if Butler gets hot from deep he could very well eclipse that 20+ point mark.

What to Watch For: NJIT

As previously noted, the likes of Coleman and O’Hearn will be the focal point for NJIT offensively. The duo is currently averaging 31.5 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists a game. Isolating and slowing down Coleman and O’Hearn won’t be an easy task for the Cats, but if anything the Highlanders have a much tougher assignment on their hands of trying to slow down the Cats entire offense. One interesting note to add in is that fact that NJIT has not had a single game all year where Coleman and O’Hearn each reached the 20-point mark in the same contest. Although it’s often rare to see two players on the same team both eclipse the 20-point threshold in a specific game, you’d think it would’ve occurred at least once this year as Coleman and O’Hearn represent two of the top three scorers out of the America East.

As sad as it sounds, the storyline to watch here is essentially whether NJIT can keep it close with Vermont. Credit to the Highlanders, as they did pull off the gigantic upset over Vermont just a season ago at Patrick Gym, hitting a game winner at the buzzer in double-OT. However, a lot has changed since then and unfortunately for NJIT they now have to take on the challenge of trying to compete with Vermont team that has a chance to break a program scoring record – sending thoughts and prayers to all the NJIT faithful. The reality of it is that this should not be a close game. But as we’ve seen time and time again you don’t win purely based on merit. UMBC tried to match the Cats with an up-tempo pace and look where that got them. Slow down the tempo and you might be able to slow down the Cats, or at the very least keep them from making history.

Predictions:

Final Score: Vermont 83 – NJIT 65

I’m all in on Vermont breaking their consecutive 80+ point scoring record. I’m also shining the spotlight on Ben Shungu to have big game against the Highlanders. Shungu exploded for 29 points against UNH in their conference opener but followed up with two “quiet” games of 13 points against SBU and UMBC. Sullivan, Powell and even Davis have gotten the bulk of praise and rightfully so, but if there’s anything I’ve learned watching Shungu’s career unfold it’s that you should never count out number 24. I predict Shungu will light it from beyond the arc and finish with 5 steals defensively.

Tip-Off: Wednesday, January 19th, 7:00pm (ESPN+)

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