NCAA Tournament Opening Round Game Preview: Vermont vs Arkansas

Calling My Shot. Vermont Will Beat Arkansas

The ball is tipped… and there you are…

Making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2019 and fourth time under John Becker, the 13th seeded Vermont Catamounts prepare to take on 4th seeded Arkansas Razorbacks in Buffalo, NY this Thursday. Vermont’s previous two trips to the NCAA Tournament have both seen them enter as a 13-seed but sadly fall short in the first round to Purdue (2017) and Florida State (2019). Arkansas meanwhile is making their second trip to the NCAA Tournament since head coach Eric Musselman took control of the reins back in 2019. The Razorbacks were a 3-seed just a season ago, making it all the way to the Elite Eight before falling to eventual national champion, Baylor.

Vermont has been red-hot as of late, averaging 84.6 ppg while surrendering just 48 ppg defensively over their last three. On the other end of the spectrum Arkansas has struggled over their last three game window. The Razorbacks are averaging 72.3 ppg, while allowing 75.6 ppg defensively, managing just a 1-2 record during that small end of the year stretch. Both teams appear to be surging in completely opposite directions at the moment with Vermont hitting their stride and Arkansas slumping. Records and stats are fugazi come tournament time, but will that end of season momentum prove to be a difference maker?

Vermont Catamounts

Record: 28-5 (17-1 AE Conference)

Last Game: 82-43 win against UMBC

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

What to Watch For: After plowing through the America East all season the Catamounts finally take on a real opponent, the Arkansas Razorbacks. Despite being the underdogs, Vermont matches up quite well (relatively speaking) and has a legit shot at becoming America’s darling Cinderella team yet again. Spoiler alert, it won’t be easy. While the Razorbacks may have finished fourth in the SEC, this is a team that has already picked up wins over #1 Auburn, #12 Kentucky and #16 Tennessee throughout the year. Are the Cats ready for the challenge?

First and foremost, this is not Vermont’s game to lose. Sure, they’re already becoming a trendy upset pick by many (thank you Jay Bilas), but the Catamounts still need to play lights out and catch a few lucky breaks in order to cook the hogs. Two of Vermont’s best assets this year have been their outstanding depth and stout defense capabilities. Against Arkansas, both will be tested. The Razorbacks might not be the most athletic or best perimeter shooting team, but they love to attack the basket. Should Vermont’s frontcourt of Davis and Powell find themselves on the wrong end of a few whistles early on, guys like Nick Fiorillo and even Mazzulla will be called upon to step up.

However, much like Vermont, the Razorbacks bread and butter is their play on the defensive side of the ball. Arkansas was arguably the best defensive team in the SEC this year, leading in nearly every defensive statistical category and excluding their most recent game against Texas A&M, had held every SEC opponent under 80 points. The one weak link – albeit still strong, would be their perimeter defense, as it’s the one category that the Razorbacks aren’t ranked in the top 100 for. Now while Vermont shouldn’t fall in love with the three from the opening tip, expect them to take plenty of looks from deep. The Razorbacks likely won’t double Davis in the post and ideally this will lead to the big man establishing a rhythm, ultimately forcing the defense to collapse and creating better chances along the perimeter for Vermont.

Arkansas Razorbacks

Record: 25-8 (13-5 SEC Conference)

Last Game: 82-64 loss against Texas A&M

Projected Starters: JD Notae (Guard), Stanley Umude (Guard), Au’Diese Toney (Guard), Trey Wade (Forward), Jaylin Williams (Forward)

What to Watch For: Much like Vermont, the Razorbacks can beat you in a variety of ways. Fifth year senior Notae is going to do the bulk of the damage, as he can attack you in every which way (18.4 ppg, 3.7 apg, 2.2 spg). Then you have the rising sophomore forward Williams, who averaged nearly a double-double (10.5 ppg, 9.6 rpg) throughout the year and is someone you can expect to see play at the next level. Finally, the other two guards of Umude and Toney are no slouches either, as both averaged over 11 ppg on the year. Where’s the weak spot?

The last remaining starter, forward Trey Wade, typically gives way to guard Davonte Davis early on, as Davis and guard Chris Lykes play the majority of bench minutes for the Razorbacks. Each averaged over 8 ppg off the bench. Finding the weak spot won’t be easy, but if there’s one particular aspect that the Razorbacks don’t excel at, look no further than their three-point shooting. As a team, Arkansas manages just 30.7% from beyond the arc and 316th in the entire nation – just 0.1% better than our old conference friends, UMass-Lowell. No one on Arkansas is even averaging 38% from deep. If Vermont can build a lead, especially in the second-half, it’ll force Arkansas to play out of their comfort zone and ideally force ill-advised shots.

As for my prediction? I ride or die with the Cats. Much like many of the other times Vermont has squared off against a team from one of the Power Five conferences, expect the Cat’s to keep it relatively close in the first-half. What’s been Vermont’s achilles heel is that they can never seem to play with their opponent for the full forty minutes – but this time is different. Calling my shot, Finn Sullivan hits three of his four 3PT field goals in the second-half and Big Shot Benny makes two huge shots under the two-minute mark to help seal the Vermont victory. This is March. Expect the unexpected.

Predictions

Moneyline: Arkansas (-210)

Spread: Arkansas (-5)

Over/Under: 139.5

Final Score: Vermont 77 – Arkansas 71

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