Itâ€™s Revenge Week in Burlington
Ladies and gentlemen, the Vermont Catamounts have set a new program record. With their 83-57 drubbing over NJIT Wednesday night, Vermont has now scored 80+ points in four consecutive games for the first time in program history. Whatâ€™s even more impressive is that the Cats are 4-0 in those games and have won by an average margin of 22.5 points a game. If I didnâ€™t know any better, Iâ€™d wager to guess that the Cats mustâ€™ve stumbled across a bottle of Michaelâ€™s secret stuff. Sheeeeeesh!
The record-breaking scoring streak the Cats are on is nothing short of remarkable. Granted, just because you can light up a scoreboard doesnâ€™t always translate to wins or even good teams but when you factor in the margin of victory and stout defense Vermont has been playing as well itâ€™s hard not to walk away in pure awe of what this team has accomplished. In fact, with their latest victory over NJIT, Vermontâ€™s starting unit has moved into the top ten in the country for combined offensive and defensive efficiency. This is not a team opposing schools want to see come March.
Arguably even more impressive than the scoring record is the fact that this level of play really isnâ€™t anything new for Vermont. Since Coach Becker took the reins from Mike Lonergan the Cats have simply dominated the America East. The yearly accolades and awards have become the norm in Burlington. Conference titles, players of the year, all-conference teams, winning streaks and so much more have simply put Vermont in a league of their own. Hell, by the time Coach Becker either moves on or hangs it up I wouldnâ€™t be shocked if the AE Coach of the Year award is renamed after him.
Before jumping into Saturdayâ€™s marquee match-up with Hartford, letâ€™s quickly recap how Vermont demolished yet another conference foe â€“ NJIT. The Cats jumped out to a lead in the early stages of the game, nothing new there, but credit to the Highlanders as they managed to stay within themselves and keep pace with Vermont. However, as first-half began to progress it was clear that NJIT was simply outmatched. The Cats took a 45-29 lead into the break and kept their foot on the gas coming out the locker room to begin the second half. At one point the Cats lead ballooned all the way up to 37, at which point it was clear that the rout was one. Vermont would ultimately go on to win by 26, as Finn Sullivan and Nick Fiorillo paced the Cats with 18 points apiece.
Sullivan finished 6-6 from beyond the arc and has now scored 19, 20 and 18 in three straight games. The senior guard is 16-23 from deep over that stretch â€“ thatâ€™s an uncanny 70%. But the best story to come out the Catâ€™s victory over NJIT was watching Nick Fiorillo not only break out of his slump but go off for a career-high 18 points. Hand up, Iâ€™ll be the first to admit that I had lost faith in Fiorillo and advocated for the coaching staff to make a change. Give Fiorillo his flowers. Hopefully this was just the game Fiorillo needed to help get some that swagger back. If Fiorillo dropping a career-high in points means I have to eat crow, then I will gladly do so any day of the week. Now, on to Hartfordâ€¦
Projected Line-Ups: Vermont
Ben Shungu â€“ Guard
Justin Mazzulla â€“ Guard
Finn Sullivan â€“ Guard
Isaiah Powell â€“ Forward
Ryan Davis â€“ Forward
Again, no changes here. And why should there be? This unit is absolutely annihilating opponents. Not only are they without a doubt the best starting five in the America East, but as previously mentioned, this unit is now considered one of the most overall efficient groups in all of division one. This is truly a special group of young men and should their outlandish success continue, the comparisons to the 2016-17 and even the 2004-05 teams will only grow louder.
However, Vermontâ€™s success cannot just be attributed to their starters. The Catâ€™s supporting cast has been phenomenal in recent weeks and deserves just as much recognition for their contributions. Aaron Deloney, Robin Duncan and now Nick Fiorillo have been instrumental for the Cats during their historic run. Coach Beckerâ€™s ability to go eight deep with little to no drop-off in production is true testament to not just the level of talent at Vermont, but also that everyone on the roster from top to bottom has fully bought in.
Wednesdayâ€™s contest against NJIT saw Coach Becker and the Catâ€™s go eleven deep, with the second unit actually seeing more time on the floor than the starters. Coach Becker has shown an affinity towards his seniors and will typically feed them the most minutes. For someone like Ben Shungu, who has seemingly been around forever and epitomizes Vermont basketball, rewarding him with the majority of minutes has been Coach Beckerâ€™s primary objective. However, with Vermont blowing their opponents out of the water, does it really make sense to keep Shungu out there? Against NJIT Shungu played just 20 minutes â€“ a season low, yet the Cats won by 26. For Shungu, this season is his swan song at Vermont and while we all want to soak it in as much as possible, Coach Becker has a tough decision to make. Keep Shungu on the floor or opt for rest rather than risk a possible injury or burnout. Saturdayâ€™s contest against Hartford is a revenge game for the Cats and I suspect that even if the scoreboard looks lopsided that Coach Becker will keep his starters out a bit longer, quieting any doubt about the makeup of this team.
What to Watch For: Vermont
There are a few storylines to keep an eye on come Saturday night. First, will the red-hot shooting and scoring streak continue to roll on? Hartford has surrender at least 80 points against four opponents and 75+ points to eight different teams thus far. This bodes well for Vermontâ€™s chances at extending the scoring record, as the Hawks rank dead last in defensive efficiency in all of the America East. Second, and as I alluded to earlier, how will the rotation shake out? Vermont is 4-0 in conference play and are winning by an average margin of 22.5 points. If this is the case yet again, there really isnâ€™t a need to play the starters more than 25+ minutes. The problem (albeit a very good problem) is that with such a senior-laden team the goal should be to give those guys the lionâ€™s share of minutes and reward them for all the blood, sweat and tears they poured into this program over the years. But at the end of the day, as long as the Cats keep winning and blowing out their opponents itâ€™s hard to envision any situation where players complain about their floor time. However, there is one major underlying factor that we canâ€™t forget about â€“ revenge.
As you may recall, the last time these two teams met was last yearâ€™s America East conference semi-final game. The Hawks stunned Vermont in Burlington that day before going on to capture their first ever AE conference championship. That game happened less than a year ago, yet these two programs have gone in seemly polar opposite directions since then. Following the loss the Hartford, many pundits were ready to declare Vermontâ€™s dynasty as a relic of the past, while Hartford was hastily handed the crown. After the season ended it was announced that despite making the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history, Hartford would be leaving the America East and dropping down the division three level. That move wonâ€™t go into effect till 2025, yet the pain still lingers. The devasting news is likely a contributing factor in the Hawks lousy play so far this year, as they boast just a measly 3-10 record on the year. Vermont on the other hand might not have done such a complete 180, but this yearâ€™s team is head and shoulders above that of their predecessor â€“ already surpassing last years win total despite having 13 more games left on their docket.
Expect a fully locked in Vermont team come Saturday night. Before Ryan Odom left it was UMBC who found a way to be Vermontâ€™s kryptonite. Coach Becker and Vermont do not want to leave even a sliver of doubt for Hartford to feel like that can topple the Cats. Look for Vermont to keep their foot on the gas late into the second half regardless of the score and ultimately tighten up their stranglehold on the America East.
Projected Line-Ups: Hartford
Traci Carter â€“ Guard
Austin Williams â€“ Guard
Moses Flowers â€“ Guard
D.J. Mitchell â€“ Guard
Hunter Marks â€“ Forward
How in the world does Traci Carter still have eligibility?! This now Carterâ€™s sixth season as the super-super-senior has somehow found the perfect loophole to keep his collegiate career alive. His career has spanned so long that the last time he didnâ€™t play Aaron Hernandez wasnâ€™t even in jail (to be fair Hernandez isnâ€™t in jail now but for, ahem, different reasons). Regardless, old man Carter is still around and his veteran leadership and presence should not be understated. Elsewhere, Williams (3rd) and Flowers (10th) both rank in the top ten for PPG out of the America East. Forward Hunter Marks is close behind at 12th, but outside of those three there starts to become a noticeable drop-off.
Depth is real cause of concern for the Hawks â€“ especially in the frontcourt. Outside of Marks, only Jared Kimbrough and to an extent Thomas Webley are viable options. To make matter worse, neither Kimbrough or Webley have played more than ten games and combined they only account for 6.4 points and 4.5 rebounds a game. Keep in mind that Marks also is not a traditional forward. His length is a great asset but heâ€™s also about as lanky as they come. Will Hartford have any way to slow down the likes of Davis and Powell underneath? My guess is they try to double Davis and dare Vermont to keep shooting from deep. Good luck.
What to Watch For: Hartford
I feel for Hartford. I really do. As much as I hate watching Vermont lose, itâ€™s always awesome to see a school reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. To finally reach that pinnacle level of success only for the school president announce a drop to the division three level just weeks later should be a hate crime. Itâ€™s already clear that the offseason turmoil has affected this team as theyâ€™ve managed just three wins on the year. Despite all this, there still might be hope for the Hawks just yet. After a 29-day hiatus between games, Hartford came out of the gates rested and ready go, knocking off a strong New Hampshire team by 12. Did the ball just happen to bounce their way that game or is this the start of a new slate for the Hawks?
Hartford is littered with talent (not to the extent of UVM) and while Wednesdayâ€™s victory over New Hampshire certainly helps, there are still numerous holes aboard this sinking ship. Teams tend to play with a bit more incentive against Vermont and rightfully so as the chance to take down the top dog should be more than enough motivation. Yet, this game likely means more to Vermont than Hartford. And motivation alone will not be enough for the Hawks to pull off the upset. It might sound like a hyperbole, but itâ€™ll take a perfect full 40-minute team performance in order for Hartford to escape with a win. Donâ€™t hold your breath.
Final Score: Vermont 84 â€“ Hartford 61
An unstoppable force meets a movable object. The Hawks picked up a huge win against New Hampshire on Wednesday night, but Iâ€™m not ready to anoint them as true contenders out of the America East just yet. If David can somehow beat Goliath, then sure the Hawks will immediately garner massive respect from around the league but Iâ€™m going straight chalk here. Thereâ€™s nothing sweeter than watching your enemies fall from grace and as weâ€™ll see Saturday night, revenge is a dish best served with an onslaught of three-pointers.
Tip-Off: Saturday, January 22nd, 7:00pm (ESPN3)