If Youâ€™re Going to Be Snowed in You Might as Well Watch the Cats
What. A. Game. Stony Brook threw everything they had against Vermont, but in the end it was the Cats who prevailed, pushing their conference record to 6-0 and a two-game cushion in the America East standings. Credit to Stony Brook, who after officially announcing their departure from the AE to join the CAA couldâ€™ve easily packed it in and moved on instead fought tooth and nail to the bitter end. Oddly enough, through the first ten minutes of the opening half it looked like Stony Brook who would be dishing out punishment rather than receiving it this time. The Seawolves pushed their lead up to nine, outpacing the Cats 20-11 with just under ten minutes left in the half. Vermontâ€™s offense was in disarray, as the Seawolves easily outmatched the Cats intensity straight from the jump. But just as Jon Rothstein was about to fire up an upset alert tweet, the Cats woke up. Vermont closed out the first half on a 23-11 run, taking a 34-31 lead into the break.
Vermont kept the hot shooting rolling into the second half began, ripping off a quick 16 points in the first five minutes. Again, Stony Brook couldâ€™ve easily accepted their fate, rolled over and moved on to the next one, but whereâ€™s the fun in that? Even though Vermont held a lead for the majority of the second half, the Seawolves would not go gentle into that dark night, cutting the deficit to just six with around 6:30 remaining in the game. However, as weâ€™ve seen so many times before when Vermont takes on a high-major, sheer talent is the overriding factor. And luckily for Vermont, they have one of the most talented guards in the AE with Ben Shungu. The Vermont captain went full mamba mode, scoring nine of the final 11 points for Vermont and locking up the Cats eighth straight win.
If this was any other game the leading story would be highlighting the performances of Vermontâ€™s two-star players, Shungu and Ryan Davis who have each scored 20+ in back-to-back games, but this game was all about the surprise emergence of one particular Catamount â€“ Eric Beckett. Heading into Wednesday nightâ€™s clash with Stony Brook, no one in their right mind would have ever expected that the kid with just seven total minutes of action this year would ultimately be the difference maker. Coach Becker noted after the game that Beckett had been working his ass off in practice and with Kam Gibson slipping further down the bench it seemed like the perfect time to inject some fresh legs into the rotation. But practice is different from a game (thank you Allen Iverson) and I doubt even Coach Becker couldâ€™ve predicted what would happen next. Beckett took full advantage of his opportunity, scoring a career-high 13-points that included some huge momentum shifting threes. It sounds strange to say, but without Beckettâ€™s career performance thereâ€™s a good chance that Vermont wouldnâ€™t have beat Stony Brook. Even if this game was just a one-off anomaly for Beckett, heâ€™ll always have this moment in time. On to Maineâ€¦
Projected Line-Ups: Vermont
Ben Shungu â€“ Guard
Justin Mazzulla â€“ Guard
Finn Sullivan â€“ Guard
Isaiah Powell â€“ Forward
Ryan Davis â€“ Forward
Eric Beckett certainly stole the show Wednesday night. Watching his post-game presser with Brian McLaughlin and seeing the pure excitement and joy through his smile was quintessential for why college basketball is so amazing. Beckett played a total of 14 minutes against Stony Brook and while we shouldnâ€™t assume another career outing against Maine this weekend, Beckett could once again see plenty of floor time against the Black Bears. Starting this weekend, the Cats play a total of four games within the span of a week and then follow that stretch with another four games within a week starting on February 9th. Keeping legs fresh and players well-rested will be crucial for the Cats during these stretch of games. With the lowly 4-14 Black Bears next on the docket, Vermont has an excellent opportunity to give players such as Shungu, Davis and Powell an extra breather before next Wednesdayâ€™s clash with Albany.
Believe it or not, there was once a point in this season where the depth of the Catamounts was a concern. Now, itâ€™s arguably one of their biggest strengths. Aaron Deloney, Nick Fiorillo and most recently Eric Beckett have all set new career-highs in points off the bench this season, while Shungu, Davis and Sullivan have also eclipsed their own personal best as well. Will we witness another Catamount set a career-high against Maine this weekend? Vermontâ€™s second unit is expected to get plenty of floor time against the Black Bears and with the way the Cats have seemingly been scoring at will at times it should come as no surprise to see someone like Robin Duncan, Bailey Patella or even Georges Lefebvre have a breakout performance.
What to Watch For: Vermont
Saturdayâ€™s matinee against Maine doesnâ€™t quite have the same juice as Wednesday nights clash with Stony Brook, but there are still a few storylines to keep your eyes on. As previously alluded to, Vermontâ€™s second unit should see a lot of action. But how will Coach Becker ration out minutes? Will he stick with his typical rotation and keep playing his starters until theyâ€™ve essentially secured the win, or will he go deep into the bench early on like Wednesdayâ€™s contest which saw Beckett check into the game mid-way through the first half? Regardless, Vermont still needs to be locked in from the jump. Early on against Stony Brook the Cats looked lethargic and almost timid at times on offense. Even if the Cats sleep-walk through the opening ten minutes again against Maine theyâ€™ll likely still pull it together, but they wonâ€™t have this luxury forever. Even though I hate watching the Cats take their foot of the gas, itâ€™s much better to play with a lead and coast rather than finding yourself in a scenario where you need to score on every possession.
Ideally the Cats will dominate from the opening tip and have the game squared away by halftime. I wouldnâ€™t go as far to say that Saturdayâ€™s game against Maine is a â€œtrap gameâ€, but under no circumstance should the Black Bears be overlooked just because of their record. The Cats have a quick two-day turnaround before welcoming back longtime assistant Hamlet Tibbs and Albany on Monday. While the Vermont â€“ Albany rivalry has lost some of its muster in recent years, it will no doubt be an incredibly emotional return for Tibbs which could potentially help swing the game in Albanyâ€™s favor. The real challenge for the Cats will be to block out the noise and focus on the game at hand â€“ Maine. Even for how dominant Vermont has been, they still need to keep a one-step-at-a-time approach to these games. Donâ€™t start thinking ahead to Albany or NJIT, UML and even Binghamton for that matter. Focus on Maine and donâ€™t worry about who comes next.
Projected Line-Ups: Maine
Maks Klanjscek â€“ Guard
Adefolalrin Adetogun â€“ Guard
ashonte Wright-Mcleish â€“ Guard
Vukasin Masic â€“ Guard
tephane Ingo â€“ Forward
First off, thoughts and prayers to my guy Brian McLaughlin who has the preposterous task of trying to pronounce all these guys names. And if you think Maineâ€™s starting five is hard enough, just wait until you see their bench. Speaking of, the Black Bears love to go deep into their bench despite the fact that seemingly no one on their team has been able to offer any sort of positive production. There is absolutely no rhyme or reason to this rotation, as 13 different Black Bears have played over ten games this season, with 9 of those 13 currently averaging over 10 minutes a game. If this game gets out of hand in a hurry and Coach Becker empties his bench, we could possibly see close to 30 (!) total players log action come Saturday.
For as bad as Maine has been this year (and pretty much every year) there are still some slivers of hope. Stephane Ingo is force defensively and ranks second in the America East for blocks with 1.8 a game despite only managing to play in just six games thus far. However, the real player to keep an eye on is freshman guard, Sam Ihekwoaba. Since the start of conference play Ihekwoaba is averaging 12.5 points, 4 rebounds and 2.3 assists a game. Not mind-blowing numbers by any means, but still pretty remarkable for a freshman in Maine of all places. Ihekwoaba is on the shortlist for AE Rookie of the Year and should be a top priority for Vermontâ€™s defense to key in on.
What to Watch For: Maine
During the offseason, Maine got a huge commit (literally) from the 7â€™1â€ Chris Efretuei. The initial reaction sent shockwaves through the America East. How in the hell did Maine suddenly land a 7â€™1â€ behemoth from the transfer portal? Granted, Efretuei wasnâ€™t exactly killing it for his previous school, UL-Monroe, but itâ€™s still incredibly rare to see someone of Efretueiâ€™s stature elect to jump ship to Maine. Well, the Black Bears are just past the halfway mark of the season and itâ€™s become pretty evident why Efretuei is playing in Orono and not Lexington or Chapel Hill. Efretuei has played in all but two of Maineâ€™s 18 games thus far and the results have not been pretty. Averaging a paltry 3.8 points and 3.1 rebounds in 11.8 minutes a game is a major disappointment. Lately itâ€™s been even worse â€“ since the start of conference play those numbers have dropped all the way down to 1 point and 1.8 rebounds in just 7.3 minutes a game. Yuck. I donâ€™t expect Efretuei to have much, let alone any impact on Saturdayâ€™s game but for the sake of keeping things interesting it will be fun to see a 7â€™1â€ colossus running around.
Whatâ€™s funny and ironic in an almost sadistic sense is that if this were the 1930â€™s Maine would be serious contenders for the national championship. Of the 16 players on Maineâ€™s roster, eight of them are 6â€™7â€ or taller and five of those eight measure in at 6â€™9â€ or taller. Not sure if Maine Head Coach Richard Barron has been watching too many Matthew McConaughey commercials (sometimes you gotta go back to actually move forward), but constructing a team solely based on height is not how the game of basketball is played these days. Donâ€™t get me wrong, height and length are still fundamental aspects that coaches look for in recruits, but nowadays even if youâ€™re built like the Sears Tower you still need to show that youâ€™re a capable shooter, distributer and can even dribble when needed. Maine has a plethora of height but what they lack is actual basketball players. I hope that one day Maine can at least be somewhat relevant again, though in all likelihood that could be a while.
Final Score: Vermont 82 â€“ Maine 57
Doctor Strange saw over 14 million different possibilities, with only one outcome resulting in the Avengers defeating Thanos. Luckily, we donâ€™t need the Time Stone to know that the chances of Maine upsetting Vermont are just as improbable. Ok, maybe Maine has slightly better odds than one in 14 million, but the expectations that Saturdayâ€™s game will be a lopsided affair are completely justified. I have no doubt that if Vermont wanted to, they could break the 100-point barrier and blowout the Black Bears by a 30+ margin. However, Vermont has a jam-packed schedule ahead of them and keeping legs fresh will be of the utmost importance. Look for the Cats second unit to see a lot of floor time. Calling my shot â€“ Robin Duncan becomes to next Catamount to set a career-high in points.
Tip-Off: Saturday, January 29th, 2:00pm (ESPN3)