Binghamton Bearcats: Legit Contenders or Fool’s Gold?
Annnnnd we’re back! Quick disclaimer – in hindsight I probably shouldn’t have tried to reconstruct the layout of the site during the middle of the season. My apologies for that and thank you all for the on-going support! We’ll dive into the game recap against UMass-Lowell in a moment, but first a quick appreciation post for Aaron Deloney and his performance against Albany. Set a new career-high in points with 24 off the bench – and 23 of those 24 points coming in the first half alone! The quick-twitch guard was perfect from the field, though he did miss one single free-throw so we’ll have to downgrade him to a 99.9/100 grade for that contest.
Moving on to Vermont’s latest win over UMass-Lowell. Despite the Riverhawks sitting just ahead of Maine for dead last in the America East, they fought tooth and nail with Vermont right down to the final whistle. In fact, Vermont’s 11-point victory over the Riverhawks was the smallest margin of victory for the Cats thus far during conference play. The game was seemingly out of hand in the second half as Vermont had built 21-point cushion, but credit to UML who came storming back late, cutting the lead down to four with just under two minutes left in regulation. But with a minute left in the game, it was Vermont’s big three of Ben Shungu, Ryan Davis and Isaiah Powell who took over. Those three scored the final six points in regulation and along with two key blocks from Davis, helped to ensure that there would be no upset in Lowell on a Saturday afternoon.
Both teams displayed an array of resiliency down the stretch. For UML to be down 21 in the second half and still somehow cut the lead to four with two minutes left was unreal to watch. This is not a team anyone in the America East should want to see in the first round of the conference tournament. As for Vermont, nearly blowing a 21-point lead is certainly disheartening, but the unwavering austereness to stay composed and within themselves was arguably even more impressive. A year ago, I don’t believe the Cats would’ve won this game. Yet the veteran leadership and composure of this squad held strong, buckling down when they needed to most and ultimately secured Vermont’s 10th straight conference victory and the 12th consecutive win overall. Now, it’s on to Binghamton…
Projected Line-Ups: Vermont
Ben Shungu – Guard
Justin Mazzulla – Guard
Finn Sullivan – Guard
Isaiah Powell – Forward
Ryan Davis – Forward
Again, this unit is all but set in stone. Aaron Deloney and Robin Duncan have been spectacular off the bench and while that may lead some to believe that either of those two could potentially leapfrog their way into the starting five, their roles are best served as bringing the energy with the second unit. However, Vermont’s starting five – which had previously been ranked within the top ten in the nation for offensive and defensive efficiency has taken a dip. The Cats are still undefeated in conference play and have beaten every team by at least 10+ points so any potential cause for concern isn’t necessarily justified.
With that being said though, there is one player who has seemingly been out of form recently – Finn Sullivan. Early on in conference play Sullivan produced three straight games of 19, 20 and 18 points while shooting a blistering 19-29 (66%) from deep. Sullivan’s hot shooting was essentially what pushed the Cats starting unit into being one of the most efficient units in the entire country. But since those three games? 6-23 (26%) from beyond the arc and just 23 total points in 6 games. Vermont has still been winning very convincingly and Sullivan’s impact on the game goes well beyond that of just scoring so again it’s not a major red flag – maybe just burgundy. The west coast (best coast) native has already become a fan favorite in Burlington, as his tenacity and swagger have helped elevate this team tremendously. Perhaps his three-game hot shooting stretch was more of an anomaly than anything else, but here’s hoping Sullivan can recapture that magic again.
What to Watch For: Vermont
Vermont returns home to Burlington to host Binghamton Wednesday night. Their next three games however will all be on the road so securing a nice home win over the surprisingly upstart second-place Bearcats will be crucial before they hit the road once again. Although Binghamton trails only Vermont in the America East standings, the Cat’s hold a 3.5 lead over their southern New York rivals. Ryan Davis (17.7) and Ben Shungu (15.7) are the top two scorers out the America East, but attacking the rim will be easier said than done for the Cats, as Binghamton’s Christian Hinckson (1.0) and Ogheneyole Akuwovo (0.8) are both in the top five for blocks per game out of the AE. And while Binghamton does an excellent job at defending the paint, their perimeter defense could be even better, as they’ve surrendered just a 31.7% clip from deep thus far.
Even with the likes Hinckson and Akuwovo looming in the post Coach Becker and the Cats should continue to play aggressive and attack the rim. In turn this should force Binghamton to collapse into the paint defensively. Should Binghamton’s interior defense hold strong, it will at the very least create more open looks along the perimeter for Vermont. Opposing teams have doubled and even triple teamed Davis inside, but the big man has been excellent at staying patient, reading the defenders and kicking out to the open man. A huge component of the Cat’s offensive success can be attributed to Davis’ ability to pass out of the post when doubled, but in order to maintain this success and beat Binghamton, Vermont will need keep hitting from beyond the arc. A 31.7% clip likely won’t get the job done, but whether it’s Shungu, Davis, Deloney or whoever attacking the rim and forcing the collapse, Vermont should be able find the open man and hopefully finish north of 40% from deep.
Projected Line-Ups: Binghamton
Jacob Falko – Guard
Dan Petcash – Guard
John McGriff – Guard
Christian Hinckson – Guard
Taveion White – Forward
Binghamton has stuck with this starting five for their last three contests, but I’m not 100% convinced that this unit will take to the court first. The two names to keep in mind are guard Tyler Bertram and forward George Tinsley. Bertram and Tinsley have each started at various times both this season and throughout their career and considering how impactful they’ve been for the Bearcats it wouldn’t be a shock to see them announced with the starters come Wednesday night. Nonetheless, both play big minutes off the bench and may very well be better suited to influence the game with the second unit. You’ll also notice that the aforementioned Akuwovo is missing from the starters as well. The junior forward excels within the paint but is rather limited in other aspects of his game. He’ll still likely see more time on the floor than White, but his action will begin with the second unit.
It feels almost bizarre to say but the Bearcats have a relatively competent team that could indeed challenge for the America East this year. Junior guard Jacob Falko is pacing the team with a 13.6 scoring average and currently sits fourth in the America East with 3.3 assists a game. Add in his 4.5 RPG and 1.0 SPG and you’re looking at a very solid combo-guard. Now mix in the defensive aptitude of 6’6” junior guard (plays like a forward) Hinckson and lights-out perimeter shooting of Bertram and all of sudden the Bearcats are beginning to look the part. This is arguably the best Binghamton team in years, but is it enough to pull off the upset in Burlington?
What to Watch For: Binghamton
As it stands right now, the Bearcats are 7-4 in conference play – their most wins since the 09-10 season (8). This is also the first team to have a positive margin of victory since 08-09, which coincidently was the only time the Bearcats have ever made the NCAA Tournament. Now by no means does that imply that you should pencil the Bearcats into the Big Dance or even let alone beat Vermont come Wednesday night, but it certainly is a breath of fresh air to see what has routinely been one of the bottom dwellers of the AE finally turn it around. My pick is Vermont (spoiler alert), but should the Bearcats do the impossible and knock off Vermont or even keep it close then by all accounts it will be time to start taking Binghamton as a serious threat for the AE crown.
The pecking order in the America East goes Vermont and then everyone else, but credit to Binghamton for picking up key wins already over the likes of Stony Brook, Hartford and even Albany. While the AE is down this year (outside of Vermont of course) those are still very solid wins for a program that has had essentially no success for past 10+ years. However, the real test begins now. The Bearcats still have to face Vermont twice, UNH twice, UMBC (lost the first game) and Albany (1 game back of them). The foremost reason for their new-found success can essentially be attributed down to two key components – depth and players operating exactly how their role defines it. Look at someone like Hinckson for example. Owns the glass, hustles hard defensively and plays within himself. Solid on the offensive end but doesn’t force shots or demand the ball. From top to bottom every Binghamton player has a defined role and in order to have a chance against Vermont they’ll need stay within themselves and hit those marks. But will that be enough?
Final Score: Vermont 82 – Binghamton 70
Tony Kornheiser isn’t going to like my prediction, but I still need to see a bit more from the Bearcats before I’m ready to anoint them as true contenders. They certainly have the potential to keep it close and put a little scare into Vermont, yet outside of their blowout loss to UConn earlier in the year the Bearcats haven’t seen any team as talented and well-rounded as Vermont. I predict that Binghamton makes a run in the second half, but Shungu takes over when it matters most and keeps Vermont’s undefeated conference record intact.
Tip-Off: Wednesday, February 9th, 7:00pm (ESPN+)