America East Championship Game Preview: Vermont vs UMBC

Another Year, Another America East Title Game Against UMBC

Here. We. Go.

After back-to-back 30+ point wins in the quarter and semifinals, number one seed Vermont (27-5) is set to host number two seed UMBC (18-13) for the America East conference championship this Saturday. This is the third time these two programs will meet for the AE title, as they previously locked horns in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. They’ve split the title game series thus far, meaning Saturday’s contest holds an even greater weight between these two conference rivals.

Let’s rewind the tape though and look at that first meeting back in the 2017-18 season. As briefly noted in the AE Semifinal Game Recap, there are some incredibly abnormal similarities between that year and this year. The conference seeding (#1 UVM vs #2 UMBC), average margin of victory (22 points in a UVM sweep over UMBC), how UMBC finished the year (10-3 in their last 13) and Vermont’s lone conference loss (1 point loss to Hartford). Seriously, is there a glitch in the matrix?

As you may recall (or possibly repressed with the help of Jack Daniels), UMBC shocked Vermont back in the 2017-18 title game, as Jarius Lyles knocked down a step-back game-winning three at the buzzer, stunning all of Vermont and sending the Retrievers to the big dance. Those simulation-breaking stats combined Lyles shot certainly give UMBC fans hope and Catamount fans a sense of anxiety. While it’s a freaky coincidence, don’t look too much into it. In fact, not a single player on UMBC at the time is still with the team today – including the head coach. 

Unless Jarius Lyles and Ryan Odom walk through those doors on Saturday morning this game is going to look completely different.

Vermont Catamounts

Record: 27-5 (17-1 AE Conference)

Last Game: 74-42 win against Binghamton

Projected Starters: Ben Shungu (guard), Justin Mazzulla (Guard), Finn Sullivan (Guard), Isaiah Powell (Forward), Ryan Davis (Forward)

What to Watch For: Just win, baby. Sure, another 30+ point win would be the ideal scenario as it could possibly even elevate Vermont to a better seed in the NCAA Tournament, but first and foremost the Cats need to secure the victory on Saturday. Simply put, the Cats just need to stay within themselves and play to their strengths. Amazingly, for a team that set a new program record for conference wins in a season (17), they somehow look even better now, as both the offense and defense have been lights out. Let’s keep this training rolling.

What is Vermont’s greatest strength? Is it the fact that they have arguably the two best players in the conference (Davis and Shungu) or the best coach (Becker) or is it even the insane depth aka the Green Goblins (Deloney, Duncan, Fiorillo and Gibson)? Realistically, all three of those aspects will factor into Saturday’s game. Davis and Shungu will be their usual selves, leading the way by example. Coach Becker and his staff will install the perfect game plan and the Green Goblins will mercifully wear down and attack the Retrievers while, allowing the starting unit to stay well-rested throughout the game.

Like every other team the Cat’s have squared off against in the conference tournament thus far, Vermont swept the regular season series against UMBC. The Retrievers finished second in the AE table, yet Vermont won those two by a 22-point average margin of victory. AE PoY, Ryan Davis had his way earlier in the year, as he averaged 19.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in those contests. Expect the Retrievers to double if not triple Davis every time he touches the ball in the post, but with a team like Vermont it’s essentially pick your poison. Davis has developed into an excellent passer and his unselfishness only makes it that much tougher to defend as he’ll gladly kick it out to the open man rather than try to force a shot. 

Vamanos Cats! 

UMBC Retrievers

Record: 18-13 (11-7 AE Conference)

Last Game: 80-60 win against Hartford

Projected Starters: Darnell Rogers (Guard), Keondre Kennedy (Guard), L.J. Owens (Guard), Nate Johnson (Forward), Yaw Obeng-Mensah (Forward)

What to Watch For: Good news, UMBC just dismantled Hartford by 20 points in the AE semifinals. Bad news, they’re walking straight into the slaughterhouse against a team that has beaten them by an average of 22 points earlier this year. Even though UMBC is still regarded as one of the better teams in the America East, this was a transition year for them as head coach Ryan Odom departed, along with their two best players (Brandon Horvath and R.J. Eytle-Rock). If you told a Retrievers fan that the team would finish second in the conference and reach the AE title game I’m sure they’d be ecstatic. Coach Ferry has done a solid job in his inaugural year at the helm, but this team isn’t quite ready to take on the buzzsaw that is Vermont.

UMBC are outmatched in arguably every which way, but don’t expect the Retrievers to go down without a fight. Vermont has 86 points in both affairs earlier this year, so the last thing the Retrievers want to do is find themselves in a shooting contest. Although it’s not really their M.O. UMBC may try to replicate what other teams have tried against Vermont and play with a physical and at times reckless degree of style. The hope would be that this would hinder Vermont’s transition offense, while also forcing them to win via the charity stripe. It’s a bold strategy that often has limited success, but they can’t afford to let guys like Davis and Shungu attack the basket with ease on every possession.

Likewise, another strategy they might implore is trying to beat Vermont mentally. It’s not the greatest plan, if a plan at all, but if they can hang around and use those incredibly eerie stats to their favor it might help lead to some mental mistakes by Vermont. As guys like Davis, Shungu and Isaiah Powell can attest, UMBC had been a thorn in Vermont’s side for a few years. Time has shifted that narrative as of late, but these are the little things that UMBC will need to prey on in order to find that competitive advantage. Good luck.

Predictions

Moneyline: Vermont (TBD)

Spread: Vermont (TBD)

Over/Under: (TBD)

Final Score: Vermont 79 – UMBC 61

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