The Vermont Catamounts Are On Pace For A Record Setting Season

Despite once being a home to Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino, Mike Jarvis, Mike Brey, Jay Wright, and Tom Brennan, the America East Conference is constantly overlooked when it comes to men’s basketball. Some of that has to do with a roll that has changed multiple times before settling most recently into the current iteration.

Of the ten teams that started America East play in the 1979/80 season, only three teams remain. Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine have been with the conference for all of the ups and downs, helping to make the northeast based conference one of the better “low-major” conferences from year to year.

Of the three original stalwarts, only Vermont has been successful on a regular basis, starting with the tenure of Tom Brennan, moving into the Mike Lonergan era, and finally moving into the John Becker era of 2011 until now. The Catamounts have been to the NCAA tournament five times during that span (2003, 2004, 2005, 2010, 2012) and look to be heading towards another berth this season.

It’s perfectly reasonable if you do not know much about the Catamounts of Vermont. Many Americna couldn’t even point to the state on a blank map if given the chance, much less spout off the history of this program. Here is a cliffs notes version for the uninitiated. Vermont was always just short of NCAA berths until finally breaking through in the final years under Brennan. He took them to the 03, 04, and 05 tournaments before retiring after 20 years with the program. The Catamounts have been to a couple Big Dances in 2010 and 2012, but could not maintain the success of the end of Brennan’s tenure.

Current head coach John Becker has been good as head coach, but finally seems to have all the pieces in place for Vermont to get some love on the national stage. They are currently sitting at 14-5 on the season and a perfect 4-0 in conference play. The only other team without a blemish in conference play is defending conference champs Stony Brook at 3-0, though they are struggling as a whole with an 8-8 record on the year.

Expecting to have a good team this season, the Catamounts scheduled a tough non-conference slate with trips to Providence, South Carolina, and Butler while hosting Houston, Harvard, Yale, and Northeastern among others. They rolled through with a 10-5 non-conference record, none of the five losses bad for the resume. Wins over both Harvard and Yale will look good when the selection committee takes a look at the program.

ESPN is already giving Vermont some love, ranking them as a #12 seed in the most current Bracketology. They would travel cross-country to face #5 seed Xavier with a chance to cause some damage in the Big Dance.

Only four games into America East play, Vermont has already staked claim that they are the class of the field. They have a ridiculous +17.3 scoring margin in league play, nine points better than any other team in the conference. The Catamounts have an overall scoring margin of +8.9, 1.3 points per game better than any other team.

They recently took care of UMBC in a battle for first place in the conference.

Vermont still has to play Stony Brook, but they have to feel confident at this point in the season.

Efficiency on both sides of the ball is one of the biggest reasons for such a successful start to the season. They have the best shooting percentage in the league, they are second in field goal percentage allowed, second in the league in defensive rebounds, and lead the league in blocked shots.

Offensively, it is a group effort. The highest scorer on the team, Trae Bell-Haynes, is only #17 in the conference in scoring at 11.0 ppg. Payton Henson is scoring 12.5 points per game, but has not played in 75% of the team’s games, making him ineligible to be on the scoring list at this time. Even if he were added, he would only rank #15 in the conference. The Catamounts have nine different players with at least 5.5 points scored per game.

The most intriguing player on the team may be senior forward Darren Payen. He has played in 18 of the team’s 19 games and averages only 9.8 minutes per game, but still finds a way to score 6.9 points per game and 2.1 rebounds per game. Those are very impressive splits if looked at with him getting 25-30 minutes per game. It is quite impressive for a group of 10 players to all get at least 9.8 minute per game even with all five starters getting 20+ minutes per game.

Needless to say, the ability to run wave after wave of solid to great players on the court and lose very little production is devastating to other teams in the conference. Backups like Payen (71.4%), Drew Urquhart (62.0%), and Dre Willis (58.8%) shoot at such a high rate that Vermont is almost more productive when the second group takes the floor. Very few teams in the nation can make a claim like that.

The Catamounts are not one of those teams that benefit from getting extra shots due to forced turnovers or great rebounding. Nineteen games into the season, they have only taken six more shots than their opponents. The biggest difference comes from the fact that they hit 48.3% of their shots as a team and get to the free throw line three more times per game. They do all the little things that turn into a point here and a point there. Next thing you know, they have a 12-15 point lead and are cruising to a win.

While they haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2012, Vermont is no stranger to the postseason. They have been to a postseason tournament in every season under Becker. That includes two trips to the NIT, three trips to the CBI, and the previously mentioned trip to the Big Dance in 2012. Trips to the CBI in both 2015 and 2016 ended in a loss in the semifinals, just missing out on the three-game championship series.

The biggest question marks concerning Vermont’s ability to make some noise in March are the lack of height and questionable accuracy from behind the arc. Vermont has multiple players in the 6-6 to 6-8 range, including four players at 6-8, but do not have that seven footer that can stop penetration due to intimidation alone. Even so, they are solid as a team with help defense, allowing others to come in and block shots.

I am much more worried about whether they can hit three pointers when needed. They are currently ranked #148 in the nation in three-point accuracy, but drop to #253 in the nation with 6.5 made shots from behind the arc per game. The Catamounts will have to hit a few shots from distance to pull off an upset or two. Time will tell if they can answer the bell.

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