Can the University of Vermont extend its streak of 20-win seasons? How will St. Michael’s respond to the loss of its entire starting lineup? And does Middlebury have enough firepower to jump back into its conference upper echelon?
Answers will begin to appear Friday when the 2015-16 men’s college basketball season begins. The final picture won’t become clear until March, but November will be an important month for area programs.
The Catamounts are riding a wave of seven consecutive seasons that have produced at least 20 victories and have led to seven post-season appearances. The last four have come under the guidance of John Becker, who, if he is going to continue that level of success this winter, will achieve it with a different breed of Catamount.
UVM, which opens at Eastern Michigan on Friday, is loaded in the backcourt but has holes in the frontcourt. Even with the return of senior all-conference forward Ethan O’Day and the addition of Hofstra junior transfer Darren Payen, Vermont lacks numbers and muscle inside.
“Ethan O’Day has proven himself, but we’re a little bit thinner up front than we expected to be,” Becker said. “Drew Urquhart and Darren Payen are talented players but they’re a little bit unproven at this point.”
UVM looks to boost offense
O’Day (6-9), Payen (6-8) and Urquhart (6-8) have size but not bulk – all three weigh less than 220 pounds. The graduation of Hector Hill and the transfer of Zach McRoberts left the Cats without a true power forward. McRoberts, the younger brother of NBA player Josh McRoberts, returned home to Indiana and won’t play basketball this year at Indiana University.
“With how thin we are at the big man position, rebounding is obviously going to be a big issue for us,” said O’Day, who averaged 12.4 points and 4.6 rebounds last season while shooting 58% from the field. “And we really have to concentrate on staying out of foul trouble, which is something I need to be better at.”
Payen has shown a silky shooting touch around the basket while averaging 15 points in a pair of exhibition victories, hitting 12 of 15 shots. Urquhart averaged 10 points and seven rebounds in those two wins.
“The big things for us is rebounding – we’re not where we need to be yet,” Becker said. “I think we’ll be a good defensive team again and if we can end possessions with a defensive rebound and limit teams to one shot, it will go a long way in us attaining our goals.”
Becker said Vermont might play a version of “small ball” this season, using three guards and shifting sharpshooting 6-6 junior swingman Kurt Steidl to the power forward position.
“Kurt has actually looked pretty good (at power forward) so we’ll give it a look,” Becker said. “But how do we guard if we go that way, and I worry how it will affect our rebounding.”
What Becker is not worried about is Vermont’s backcourt. Junior Dre Wills (9.3 points per game and sophomore Trae Bell-Haynes (8.8 ppg) return as starters, as does sophomore Cam Ward, who shot just under 40 percent from 3-point range last season while earning the America East’s Sixth Man award.
Joining that trio is redshirt freshman Ernie Duncan, who played in only four games last season before going down with back issues. Duncan was a three-time most valuable player at Evansville (Ind.) Harrison High School, the alma mater of NBA players Calbert Cheaney and Walter McCarty.
A deadly perimeter shooter and a deft passer, Duncan hit 5-of-11 3-point shots and had 17 points in the preseason win over St. Michael’s.
“He will have a big role on this team – I feel like he’s one of the best passer’s I’ve ever coached,” Becker said. “We had to proceed with kid gloves with him to be sure he was really healthy but I don’t look at him as an injured athlete any more. We can really start to coach him a lot harder now.”
Ball security was an issue for Vermont last season as 20 percent of its possessions ended in turnovers.
“We have to clean that up,” Becker said. “But we’re really deep at the guard position with quality players.”
UVM finished second in the regular season in America East at 12-4 and then lost to Stony Brook, 79-77, in the conference semifinals after sweeping the Seawolves in the regular season. The Catamounts then won two games in the College Basketball Invitational before losing in the semifinals at Louisiana-Monroe.
The coaches picked Vermont third in this year’s preseason poll behind Stony Brook (which returns two-time player of the year Jameel Warney) and three-time defending tournament champion Albany. They will again be UVM’s biggest hurdles to clear.
“Those are big, physical teams and we have to continue to get better at that type of play,” Becker said. “We’re young but experienced and that’s a good place to be.”
The challenge facing third-year coach Josh Meyer is daunting. He must re-cast a team that graduated all five-starters– including three 1,000-point career scorers – from an 18-11 team reached the semifinals of the Northeast-10 Conference tournament.
“Things evolve and play themselves out as the season progresses,” Meyer said. “When you have a team where you lose six seniors, that dynamic is a little more prevalent.”
A year ago the Purple Knights defeated UVM in their annual preseason matchup. Last weekend the Catamounts rolled to a 29-point victory, a game that revealed one certainty: junior Matt Bonds will be SMC’s go-to guy.
Bonds, a 6-5, 228-pound co-captain, shredded Vermont inside, powering to 26 points while grabbing nine rebounds in 30 minutes. He ranked seventh nationally last year in offensive rebounds and 29th in total rebounds.
St. Michael’s other leader will be senior guard and co-captain Greg Grippo, who averaged 17 minutes a game last year.
“They are two talented athletes with the most experience on our team,” Meyer said. “I think they are ready to step into new and larger roles.”
The Panthers went 17-7 a year ago, which pushed their record to 181-42 over the last eight seasons. But a 4-6 league record in the rugged New England Small College Athletic Conference left Middlebury tied for eighth and out of the league tournament for the first time in eight years.
Gone from that team are leading scorers Dylan Sinnickson (now a graduate walk-on player at UVM) and Hunter Merryman. But coach Jeff Brown has strength in the backcourt.
Junior point guard Jake Brown started all 24 games in 2015-16 and was second in the conference with a 6.2 assist average. Former Missisquoi Valley Union star Matt. St. Amour returns as the shooting guard after averaging 12.5 points and shooting 82 percent from the foul line as a junior.
Middlebury has only eight home games in a schedule that includes nine schools that advanced to last year’s NCAA Division III tournament.
“We will have a successful season if we will be able to create pace on offense and if we can improve our team defensive,” said Brown, now in his 19th season. “As always, you can’t take a game off during NESCAC play ore you will get beat.
After enduring a 5-24 winter with only two victories in 16 America East games, Vermont coach Lori Gear McBride called it the most disheartening season she had ever been a part of. In an effort to put the Catamounts back on path to being one of New England’s elite programs, McBride brought in three new assistants and looked north for a higher level of talent.
Four of UVM’s six new players are Canadians, the result of renewed recruiting efforts by Gear and assistant coach Courtney Pilypaitis. The top five career scorers for Vermont are Canadians, the most recent being Pilypaitis, who led the Catamounts to their last NCAA appearance in 2010.
“The class you see now didn’t just happen – it was a three-year process,” McBride said. “We’ve had such great success with Canadians and it has been such a great tradition here. We worked really hard to re-establish those connections.
The Canadian likely to make the most immediate impact is point guard Hayley Robertson. She had nine points, seven rebounds and three assists in a 58-56 exhibition win over St. Michael’s.
Vermont’s No. 1 offensive threat is sophomore Sydney Smith, who led the team with a 13.2 scoring average while earning a spot on the conference All-Rookie team.
The Catamounts committed just fewer than 20 turnovers a game last season, a number Robertson should reduce. But scoring is still a challenge, as illustrated in the St. Michael’s exhibition, where UVM lost a 20-point lead in the final quarter before pulling out a two-point win.
That fourth-quarter surge should give SMC a confidence boost as it looks to improve last year’s 12-15 record that featured an 8-6 Northeast-10 record and an appearance in the conference tournament for the first time in three years. Coach Shannon Kynoch has four starters back, led by senior guard Makenzie Burud, who had 18 points and 12 rebounds against Vermont.
Sophomore guard Leah Spencer and 6-2 freshman forward Samantha Delaney will be two additional keys for the Purple Knights.