It’s Rematch Time for the Top Two America East Teams
Stop me if youâ€™ve heard this before â€“ the Vermont Catamounts are 5-0 to begin conference play. With Saturday nightâ€™s victory over Hartford, Vermont has now started 5-0 in conference play for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Vermontâ€™s domination over the America East is nothing new but with news breaking that Stony Brook would be leaving the AE, the Cats are suddenly at the forefront of conference realignment talks. Special thanks to Matt Moore over at Vermont Sports History, Stats & Information for breaking down the logistics and realistic possibilities of a Vermont move. Unfortunately, it sounds like a move to the ACC is out of the question. Count your blessings Duke.
Make that seven straight victories and counting for Vermont, but despite picking up 10-point win over Hartford, the Catâ€™s latest victory was quite the nail biter. The first half unfolded like weâ€™ve seen so many times before with Vermont taking a 17-point lead into the break. Just when it appeared that another rout was on in Burlington, the Hawks came storming back and even took the lead late in second half. Nonetheless, Vermont buckled down when it mattered most, closing the game on a 13-4 run to secure their fifth conference win in as many tries. The 82-72 win also extended a program recording 80+ point scoring streak to five, as this offense is showing no signs of slowly down.
Vermontâ€™s big three of Ryan Davis, Ben Shungu and Isaiah Powell were instrumental throughout Saturdayâ€™s triumph over Hartford. Shungu led all scorers with 24 points on the night, while Davis (21) and Powell (16) helped round out the majority of Vermontâ€™s offensive production. With just under two and half minutes left in regulation and the Catâ€™s nursing a three-point lead, Vermontâ€™s senior caption took over. Shungu would go on to score nine of the final eleven Catamount points, including an emphatic breakaway dunk to ice the game in the closing seconds.
Next up on the docket for Vermont is rematch with the Seawolves down in Long Island. The Cats put on show the last time these two conference foes squared up, clowning them to the tune of a 33-point landslide victory. Vermont will be favored once again but expecting another 30+ point drubbing would ludicrous. Since their embarrassing lose to Vermont, the Seawolves have won three straight and sit only a game behind the Catâ€™s in conference play with a 4-1 record. A Catamount victory would likely ensure a sixth-straight regular season conference title is on the horizon for Vermont, but chaos and anarchy are the lifeblood of college basketball and an upset from Stony Brook would certainly bring that to the America East. On to Stony Brookâ€¦.again.
Project Line-Ups: Vermont
Ben Shungu â€“ Guard
Justin Mazzulla â€“ Guard
Finn Sullivan â€“ Guard
Isaiah Powell â€“ Forward
Ryan Davis â€“ Forward
In 2014, the America East All-Conference First Team consisted of three Catamounts â€“ Brian Voelkel, Sandro Carissimo and Clancy Rugg. Weâ€™re just five games into the 2021-22 season and itâ€™s looking like Vermont could match that first team program record with their latest big three of Ben Shungu, Ryan Davis and Isaiah Powell. Against Hartford, those three account for 61 of teamâ€™s 82 points and an astonishing 34 out of the 37 second half points. These three have been incredible all season for Vermont, as their contributions have Vermont on pace for a truly historic year. Whatâ€™s even more astounding is that there could possibly be a fourth Catamount player to make the first team ballot in Finn Sullivan. Although Sullivan had a â€œdown gameâ€ in their last contest against Hartford (5 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists), heâ€™s been on an absolute tear as of late and is likely hovering between the second or third all-conference teams if the season ended today. The likelihood of Shungu, Davis, Powell and Sullivan earning first team honors seems pretty far-fetched, but then again so does five straight AE PoY awards, five straight conference titles, five straight 80+ point games, four straight CoY awards â€“ should I keep going?
Wednesdayâ€™s rematch with Stony Brook is actually quite difficult to predict. Yes, the Cats put a shellacking on the Seawolves in their first game, crushing them by 33, but at the risk of sounding like a terrible clichÃ© this is different Stony Brook team. Since getting tossed around like a ragdoll against Vermont, Stony Brook has ripped off three straight wins and sits only one game back of Vermont in the America East standings. Spoiler alert I still like Vermont to pick up the win, but round two will be a much tighter battle. Everything was going right for Vermont in the first contest as four players eclipse the double-digit scoring mark, while three others scored at least 7 points. Vermontâ€™s starting unit has been a force all season and is arguably one of the best in the country in terms of overall efficiency, though balance and production from their supporting cast has also played a huge component in their success. Aaron Deloney, Robin Duncan and Nick Fiorillo have all had their moments and in order for the Cats to stay the course on their momentous run those three and rest of the Vermont bench will need to be the difference.
What to Watch For: Vermont
When these two teams met for first time a few weeks ago Vermont registered a season-high 21 assists. They followed that up with 19 and 20 against the likes of UMBC and NJIT. But in their most recent contest against Hartford that number dropped down to 13. Now granted the Cats scored 16 more points against Stony Brook than they did against Hartford, but this is a number Iâ€™d love to see takeoff straight to the moon. Itâ€™s hard to nitpick when Vermont has already gotten off to a 5-0 conference start which includes setting a program record for consecutive 80+ point games, so youâ€™ll have to forgive me as I try to find possible flaws. Even though Vermont has two of the best shot creators in the conference with Davis and Shungu, the Cats are a much better team when they donâ€™t have to rely on them to play hero-ball. It might be just out of the realm of possibilities but toppling their season-high of 21 assists in the rematch with Stony Brook should be one of Vermontâ€™s objectives come Wednesday night.
Along with improving assists, thereâ€™s another â€œaâ€ word that should be imperative for the Cats â€“ aggression. The first time these two teams met the game was held in the lovely confines of Patrick Gym. This time the Cats wonâ€™t have a that homecourt advantage as they travel down to Long Island for round two. Vermont is a perfect 8-0 at home this year, but only 5-3 while on the road or neutral site. The FCU Arena isnâ€™t getting mistaken for Cameron Indoor anytime soon, but it can certainly get loud â€“ especially when a team like Vermont is in town. The Cats got a little taste of adversity against Hartford as they watched a 17-point lead evaporate and you best believe that if Vermont allows Stony Brook to hang around late the fans in attendance will be making an absolute ruckus. The key for another Vermont win is to stay aggressive and donâ€™t settle into complacency. As previously mentioned, draining the shot clock and letting Davis or Shungu go one-on-one with their man can work, but under no circumstances should that be the entire offensive game plan.
Project Line-Ups: Stony Brook
Jahlil Jenkins â€“ Guard
Tykei Greene â€“ Guard
Anthony Roberts â€“ Guard
Juan Felix Rodriguez â€“ Guard
Frankie Policelli â€“ Forward
Since their blowout loss to Vermont, Stony Brook has ripped off three straight wins over the likes UMBC, Binghamton and Albany. Not exactly a murdersâ€™ row of opponents but impressive nonetheless. The Seawolves sit just one game back of Vermont and hold a half-game lead over the surprisingly upstart Binghamton Bearcats out of the America East. With a 4-1 conference record, the Seawolves are showing signs of why they were picked to the AE this year. However, if Stony Brook is unable to knock off Vermont or even keep it close then the reality that this season is all for naught will become even more evident.
While the Seawolves have been playing up to their standard as of late, itâ€™s not all rainbows and sunshine in Long Island. Arguably the teams most important player, Elijah Olaniyi, missed the Seawolves last two games after succumbing to injury and reports are that Olaniyi could potentially be out for the rest of the season. This is Olaniyiâ€™s second stint with the Seawolves after spending a year with the Hurricanes down in South Beach. His return to Long Island was huge reason why Stony Brook were picked to win the AE this year and while his impact this year hasnâ€™t quite been at the level many pundits expected, his veteran presence will surely be missed. Luckily, junior guard Anthony Roberts has taken a significant step forward this year, currently leading the team with 14.9 points a game and 18 points during the Seawolves current three-game win streak. The Catamounts defense will no doubt key in on Roberts but look for the Seawolves to play through Roberts as much as they can come Wednesday night.
What to Watch For: Stony Brook
Normally when a teamâ€™s arguably best player has been potentially ruled out for the remainder of the season youâ€™d assume thatâ€™d be the most prominent storyline to focus on. That is not case out of Long Island. Along with the devastating news about Olaniyiâ€™s injury, it was also announced that Stony Brook would be leaving the America East at the conclusion of the year and join the Colonial Athletic Association conference. On the surface the move to the CAA seems more lateral than a jump up, and while my knowledge on the matter is scarce, I assume that money is the overriding factor for the decision to jump ship from the AE. The timing of the news is also quite strange. Typically conference realignment talk is postponed until the offseason and while nothing has been confirmed as of yet, NCAA rules generally prohibit teams that switch conferences from being eligible for the NCAA Tournament.
As if all this turmoil and distractions werenâ€™t enough, the Seawolves have their most important game of the year to play Wednesday night against Vermont. Will the Stony Brook coaching even review the film from the last time these two teams met? That game was such a one-sided affair that it wouldnâ€™t surprise me if the Seawolves just threw out the tape. Vermont was unstoppable in that first go-round, pushing the tempo and scoring seemingly everything at will. Stony Brook did manage to keep pace a bit in the first half, though ultimately itâ€™s almost impossible to stay with any team that knocks down 19 threeâ€™s in game. It could end up being all in vain but clogging the lanes and doubling Davis in post is arguably their best strategy. This will create a lot more open looks for Vermont along the perimeter, with the hope being that the Cats arenâ€™t able to emulate the same type of success they had previously. Itâ€™s a longshot, but what other realistic options do the Seawolves have. Vermontâ€™s supporting cast has been phenomenal, yet if Iâ€™m Stony Brook Iâ€™d rather take my chances there than let Davis and Shungu completely wreck the game.
Final Score: Vermont 84 â€“ Stony Brook 70
Vermont absolutely manhandled the America East preseason favorites when these two teams clashed just a few weeks. While Iâ€™d be pleasantly surprised to see the Cats dominate in such a similar fashion for the second go-round, waxing Stony Brook by 30+ points again seems rather inconceivable. Nonetheless, until someone can prove otherwise, this conference belongs to the Cats. I see this game unfolding in similar fashion to Saturdayâ€™s clash with Hartford. The Seawolves will test Vermont with a second-half push, but the Cats respond with a run of their own and ultimately bring their conference record to 6-0 and one step closer to yet another America East title.
Tip-Off: Wednesday, January 26th, 7:00pm (ESPN+)