Welcome Back Coach Tibbs!
The Cats pushed their conference record to 7-0 with a 81-68 win over Maine. Saturdayâ€™s game extended the 80+ point scoring record to seven and also marked the third consecutive 20+ point game for the future 2x AE PoY Ryan Davis. The records and accolades are all in good fun, yet the game itself felt rather mundane and uneventful. Sure, Maine played a helluva game and even led by as much as seven at one point, but even in those moments when the Black Bears held a lead or closed the gap on Vermont, the game was never in doubt. God, our we that spoiled as Vermont fans that a 13-point conference victory is so routine that it feels almost apathetic?
With that being said, Maine still deserves credit for rising up to the challenge. If I told you before the game that Vermont would shoot just 3-12 (25%) from the perimeter, while Maine would knock down 14-26 (54%) you think I was high as a kite â€“ or at least more high than usual. But lo and behold thatâ€™s how the game played out. Yes Maine, who has connected with an AE conference worst 104 three-point shots made a season-high 14. Whatâ€™s wild is that even with those 14 makes on 54% shooting, the Black Bears are still shooting just 29% from deep on the year. Yet this is to be expected in a way. As the unequivocal leader in the America East, Vermont might as well be walking around with a huge target on their back. From Albany to UMass-Lowell, every team plays with a little extra pep in their step when Vermont is fixated on the other end of the court.
While the game itself was rather ho-hum, Vermont still played effective and even when trailing at times still had total control. Again, Maine gave it everything they had but just couldnâ€™t find a way to defend Vermont without fouling. The Black Bears ultimately finished with 20 fouls against them â€“ all but ensuring their demise. Thereâ€™s a stark difference between Vermontâ€™s 18-22 from the charity stripe and Maineâ€™s 2-4. Vermontâ€™s next opponent, Albany leads the America East in fouls (375) but expecting another completely lopsided affair is illogical. However, look for Vermont to attack Albanyâ€™s weak spot by pushing the tempo and driving the lane. Logic and reason would suggest that Albany will foul more times than not, but logic and reason wouldâ€™ve also predicted that Maine would shoot 3-12 from deep and most definitely not 14-26. On to Albanyâ€¦
Projected Line-Ups: Vermont
Ben Shungu – Guard
Justin Mazzulla – Guard
Finn Sullivan – Guard
Isaiah Powell â€“ Forward
Ryan Davis â€“ Forward
Against Maine, only Ben Shungu eclipsed the 30-minute mark for game time. Meanwhile the other four starters accounted for a 23.7-minute average. The aforementioned Davis was particularly efficient, garnering 21 points and 4 rebounds in just 23 minutes of action. However, as we saw against Maine and to an extent, Stony Brook, Coach Becker and Vermont could once again lean heavily on their bench to produce against Albany. The Cats second unit scored 28 against Stony Brook and then 21 in their most recent performance against Maine. Aaron Deloney has been a consistent force off the bench for the Cats, as the junior guard has averaged 7.7 points during conference play thus far. With Coach Becker likely keep minutes limited for his starters, Deloney could be in for another big day against Albany come Monday.
For most of the year, Coach Becker has opted to deploy a 8-9 man rotation, but lately that number has jumped up to 11-12. Why you ask? The obvious answer would be that Coach Becker recognizes that Vermont has eight games over the next two and half weeks and that by prioritizing rest and recovery to keep his team fresh is of the utmost importance. The other reason, which likely wonâ€™t come as a shock either, is that from top to bottom this team is playing exceptionally well. Coach Becker himself has noted that players such as Eric Beckett, who typically has seen very limited minutes, have been working their asses off and deserve a shot to see what they can do when it actually matters. Oh yeah, it also helps that Vermont is undefeated in conference play and is winning by an average margin of 18 points a game.
What to Watch For: Vermont
Although the Vermont-Albany rivalry isnâ€™t quite what it once was, there are still plenty of interesting storylines to keep an eye on. Hamlet Tibbs makes his awaited return to Burlington, Davis tries to go 20+ points for the fourth consecutive game (a career-best) and Vermont looks to start 8-0 in conference play for the third time in six years. But we start with the recurring theme for the Cats during their upcoming stretch run â€“ depth and rotation. Not to overlook Albany, but Vermont is the heavy favorite and should easily secure their 10th straight win. Based off Vermontâ€™s previous two games (SBU & Maine), the inclination would be that Coach Becker wonâ€™t play his starters more than 30 minutes. Even with Maine keeping it closer than expected, Coach Becker didnâ€™t waver from this strategy and the assumption is that this trend will continue yet again. Look for Deloney, Robin Duncan and Nick Fiorillo to play big minutes and provide key rest for the Cats starting unit.
While this likely wonâ€™t be a significant factor to the game itself, I did want to highlight the return of Hamlet Tibbs to Catamount Country. For those who might be unaware, Tibbs spent the previous seven seasons in Vermont as assistant coach under John Becker. During his time in Burlington the Cats compiled a 166-61 overall record and astonishing 92-18 conference record. Tibbs was best known for his recruitment prowess, having strong ties to the Albany City Rocks AAU program, helping Vermont land some phenomenal mid-major players. But more than anything else, Tibbs was known as a true players coach. Adored by the players around him, Tibbs was an integral part of Vermontâ€™s dominance over the years and while Vermont is still chugging along, many of the players responsible for Vermontâ€™s supremacy over the AE were brought in through Tibbs. Expect a lot of hugs and a warm reception for the former assistant coach.
Projected Line-Ups: Albany
Chuck Champion â€“ Guard
Jamel Horton â€“ Guard
Matt Cerruti â€“ Guard
Trey Hutcheson â€“ Forward
Jarvis Doles â€“ Forward
With Dwayne Killings taking over for the incumbent Will Brown, expectations were set fairly low for the first-year head coach. Yet, the Great Danes current sit at 5-3 in conference play and are just half a game behind Stony Brook for second place in the America East. Weâ€™re almost at the half-way mark of the conference slate and while Albany could potentially drop in the standings, Great Dane fans have to be excited with the early returns so far. However, Coach Killings has yet to face Vermont and even with former UVM assistant coach Hamlet Tibbs by his side, the Great Danes are huge underdogs. While Albany isnâ€™t completely devoid of talent, there is a stark difference when comparing these two squads.
The Great Danes enter Monday nights clash with the worst shooting percentage in all of the America East. Their .405 field goal percentage is a major concern. Forward Deâ€™Vondre Perry leads the team with 12.8 PPG, but is just 12th overall in scoring for the America East. Perry is a solid player but by no means is he a difference maker. However senior guard Jamel Horton could be a potential challenge. Horton ranks second on the team in PPG with 11.4, but his 4 assists a game are a team high and second overall out of the AE. Horton alone wonâ€™t be able to knock off Vermont, but the distributing play-making guard is making a strong case for an AE All-Conference selection and should be a focus for Vermont defensively.
What to Watch For: Albany
The return of Hamlet Tibbs is certainly a storyline to watch for of these teams. While Tibbs wasnâ€™t responsible for bringing in this current batch of Albany players, they surely know how much this game means to him and will do everything in their power to get him a win. For Albany to somehow pull off the upset, the Great Dane would have to play an absolute perfect game â€“ highly improbable, but not impossible. Stranger things have happened, but one thing is for sure, Albany cannot shoot 40% from the field and expect to win, or even stay with striking distance of Vermont. The Great Danes also average a paltry 62.1 PPG and while Vermont has seemingly transformed into a high-octane offense, Coach Becker jokingly stressed that this team is and always will be a defensive-mind team first and foremost.
When a new coaching regime takes over thereâ€™s typically quite a bit of turnover. Continuity might not seem like significant factor for a teams overall success, but take talent out the equation and look at how Vermont and Albany compare. Vermont has been one of, if not the best team in America East at keeping their team intact over the years. Even when losing players to graduation, Vermont is always retooling and never rebuilding. Meanwhile, Albany has been stuck on the other end of the spectrum, as theyâ€™ve tried to patch their roster holes almost exclusively with JUCO transfers. In theory this strategy works as you fill the void with an experienced player who can step in right away. In theory, communism also works. The problem with this stop-gap solution is that more often than not itâ€™s extremely difficult to plug and play a team of guys who have no prior experience playing with each other. Coach Killings was faced with a tough challenge but to his credit heâ€™s done well so far. If he can get his team to buy in and gel as a unit, it would not be a shock to see Albany finish in the top four out of the America East.
Final Score: Vermont 83 â€“ Albany 67
I was a big fan of Albanyâ€™s decision to bring in Dwayne Killings as their next head coach. The Great Danes have been anything but great in recent years and while my personal preference would be that Vermont sweeps the America East every year, I do hope that Coach Killings can reestablish Albany to a degree and reignite the rivalry. Keep in mind though that you do have to first learn how to walk before you can run. Coach Killings may very well be the man who can turn around Albanyâ€™s misfortunes, but heâ€™s got a long road ahead of him. The Great Danes will put up a fight but in the end this dog is more bark than bite. Look for Davis to extend his 20+ point streak to four as Vermont stays undefeated in conference play.
Tip-Off: Monday, January 31st, 7:00pm (ESPN3)