A couple of days ago, Valerie Fox from The Vermont Hockey Blog reached out to me and offered to answer a few questions regarding the Catamount basketball team. I thought it foolish to decline such an offer, so with apologies to Andy (who usually does these), here we go!
RCT: A lot of KU fans likely haven’t heard about Vermont since their surprise win in the 2005 NCAA Tournament (which I had correct in my bracket, btw). To get caught up, the Catamounts have had 10-straight 20 win seasons and are coming off an NIT bid (after getting knocked off by UMBC in the conference tourney). What are expectations this year?
VF: I think the expectation has to be to win America East. Most people going into the season had UVM as either #1 or #2; the top of AE isn’t as clear-cut as it’s been in years past UVM had been the unanimous #1 two years in a row; this year Hartford siphoned some votes away after UVM lost two-time AE POTY Trae Bell-Haynes along with Drew Urquhart and Payton Henson to graduation, but that same Hartford team opened their season with an ugly home loss to Central Connecticut State.
I think some of the vets are going to remember that UMBC game (which, if you’ll remember, was won on a Jairus Lyles buzzer beater after UVM failed to put UMBC away up 9 in the second half) and work to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Stylistically, what you should expect from UVM is a mid-major version of your modern basketball team on offense. The Catamounts’ offense relies on ball movement, and most of the shots you’ll see us take are layups or threes.
RCT: Tell me some more about Vermont stylistically. Are they four guards? Inside-out? Full court man?
VF: This season will probably be a bit more inside out, utilizing the size and strength of Anthony Lamb in the post and the shooting ability of the Duncan brothers and Stef Smith. And even Lamb can take jumpers or threes if he needs to.
UVM also tends to play at a fairly low pace; according to KenPom we were 339th of 351 in the nation in adjusted tempo. It’s about creating good shots. However sometimes this can be a detriment, and it was their undoing in the championship game last year - they made one or two too many passes, which led to rushed, contested shots. (It was also their undoing in the loss to Hartford a few weeks prior that had been UVM’s only conference loss in the last two years.)
You mention full court man, and full court pressure is actually something UVM’s struggled against; in one of our preseason games St. Michael’s (a Division II school located one town over from Burlington) spent the entire first half suffocating us with high pressure and managed to keep the game close going into halftime. Of course, they weren’t able to keep it up and UVM blew them out of the water, but it’s worth mentioning that that is a weakness.
RCT: Head coach John Becker (I assume not this John Becker) is set to begin his eighth season in Burlington, and as we just discussed has had incredible success. Any worries about him moving on to someplace... bigger?
VF: Not too overly concerned, honestly. Becker has made it clear that he loves being at UVM and he wants to be here as long as the program continues to push forward. With the UVM Board of Trustees recently green-lighting a new gym to replace Patrick Gym (a place that I love dearly but is clearly not the standard of gym a program like UVM should have), I think they’re headed in the direction Becker wants. Of course money does talk and all, so we’ll see.
RCT: Who are some standout players that KU fans should know about before the game tips?
VF: The two key veterans in UVM’s starting lineup will be senior guard Ernie Duncan and junior forward Anthony Lamb. Lamb is the preseason favorite for America East Player of the Year and probably would’ve won it last year if he hadn’t broken his foot and missed half the season. He’s 6’6”, built like a tank, and can score at all three levels, though he does most of his work down low.
As for Duncan, he is a three-point assassin who Becker also trusts with ball-handling duties. When his shot is falling, he is one of the best shooters in mid-major basketball.
I’d also keep an eye on Ra Kpedi, who will probably start at center. He was originally supposed to redshirt last year, but after a series of injuries in the frontcourt he had to de-redshirt and showed some promise and has come out of camp looking more physically imposing and looked great in preseason.
One wild card that could be interesting is Ernie’s younger brother Robin, who is a freshman (they also have a third brother on the team in junior Everett, who will start at the 3 for UVM assuming no injuries between now and the game). Obviously as a freshman he’s quite inexperienced, but he’s got some impressive ball handles and is a smart defender.
RCT: How do you think Vermont will try to handle Udoka Azubuike and Dedric Lawson?
VF: Best way to do it in my opinion would be to force the ball out of their hands - smother the ball handlers and prevent them from getting passes off to them. Obviously this is easier said than done, and despite how strong some of our frontcourt players are, we know we don’t have the size to be able to take on Azubuike one-on-one.
Not only that, but with the exception of Lamb our front court is particularly young - Kpedi is a sophomore, while Ryan Davis and Isaiah Moll are both freshmen - and for many of them this will only be their second competitive collegiate game (we opened the season Friday night against Boston University).
Lawson’s a bit trickier because he can shoot the 3 too as opposed to being a purely low-block player - I wouldn’t be shocked to see Becker put a guy like Everett Duncan on him; although Everett is smaller he’s probably the best perimeter defender in the rotation as of right now.
RCT: How did that opener against Boston go?
VF: We defeated Boston University 78-72 on the road. Stef Smith led the Cats with 22 points, while Lamb had a monster stat line of 19 points, 14 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 3 steals and was absolutely clutch down the stretch (despite actually being fairly sluggish for much of the game).
UVM came out a bit sluggish but really turned it on in the second half when Smith and freshman Isaiah Moll caught fire. Fun, close game, and really underscores why a lot of UVM fans miss that rivalry (BU was in America East until 2013 and the teams met in the 2003 and 2010 AE title games, both won by UVM), and I think missing a rivalry is something KU fans can relate to haha.
RCT: According to my research, Vermont is just 2-27 all-time vs ranked opponents, a number that includes 0-3 vs #1 ranked teams. How likely is an upset, and what would have to happen for Vermont to pull off the win in Allen Fieldhouse?
VF: UVM would have to play a perfect game. Stay out of foul trouble, play solid D, hit your shots, and take care of the basketball. I think getting up early would be a huge boost to take the crowd out of the game. This program and this coach have proven that they can ride with anyone on their day. Obviously a win is very unlikely, especially with such a young team, but I think the Cats can at least make it competitive.
Also, those of you KU fans with long memories may remember one of those three UVM losses to #1 ranked teams - it was actually UVM vs KU at Allen Fieldhouse back in 2004/05, in a game the Jayhawks won 68-61.
RCT: What’s your perception of Kansas in regards to the adidas scandal and the recent FBI investigation into college basketball?
VF: The scandal doesn’t really affect *my* personal perception; as long as the power conferences have as much money and as many resources as they have, there’s probably going to be at least some shady stuff going on and it just so happened that there wound up being an absolute avalanche (and let’s be real I am on the side of players being paid anyway). And even regardless of that, you’ve got a Hall of Fame coach in Bill Self.
...It still is fun to fantasize about an all-mid-major Final Four because all the power schools got busted, though...
RCT: Recruiting shenanigans aside, assuming we’re in different regions, can I count on your support come March?
VF: Potentially, haha. I feel like I always put KU in my Final Four.
RCT: Give us a prediction! How do you see the game going?
VF: I’m just hoping for a competitive game. Throughout the last few years I’ve grown to see that this program fears no one. I do think Kansas will win comfortably as we just don’t have a ton of experience outside of the elder Duncan brothers and Lamb, but I’ve learned to never doubt this team or this coach.
RCT: Thanks, Valerie! It was definitely a pleasure corresponding with you; I hope you won’t be a stranger!
Y’all be sure to follow Valerie on Twitter, @VFoxOnSports