The University of Vermont’s epic 2016-17 men’s basketball season is now securely in the record books. As the team prepares for this year’s opening game Sunday at eight-time national champion Kentucky, the Catamounts face one over-arching question: what the heck do they do for an encore?
UVM’s 29-6 season (its ninth consecutive year with at least 20 victories) that ended in a 10-point loss to Purdue in the opening round of last year’s NCAA tournament encompassed a raft of superlatives.
Vermont set school and America East Conference records for victories and was the first team to go 16-0 in league play. UVM’s 21-game winning streak was the longest in the nation in Division I and the Catamounts swept every post-season America East award.
“The bar has been set pretty high,” said coach John Becker, now 139-69 in his seven years at the helm. “We have a lot to live up to and a lot to do before we can reach our potential, but I don’t sense any complacency.”
Vermont returns four starters, including player of the year Trae Bell-Haynes, rookie of the year Anthony Lamb, and third-team all conference picks Payton Henson and Ernie Duncan. Seniors Drew Urquhart and Cam Ward are seasoned veterans off the bench.
But the Catamounts graduated Dre Wills, the league’s defensive player of the year, Darren Payen, the conference’s sixth man of the year, and starting forward Kurt Steidl, an under-appreciated two-way player who was the team’s glue.
“We had a really clean season last year — all of the pieces fit together really, really well,” Becker said. “It was unbelievable how focused our guys were. They never blinked, they never wavered. There was a trust factor and an experience factor there that made it real easy for me. This year will be a process of identifying new roles, finding rotations building chemistry.”
Lamb will be the player opponents focus on after a rookie year in which he averaged 12.8 points and 5.5 rebounds in only 22 minutes a game. He plays bigger than his 6-6, 227-pound frame and has both the power to finish inside and the shooting touch to sting defenses from the perimeter (41 percent 3-point shooting average).
“I’ve challenged him with consistency,” Becker said. “He hit a freshman wall midway through last year and fought through it. He can really shoot but he’s a monster in the paint so finding an inside-outside balance for his game is important.”
Lamb focused on his conditioning in what Becker termed “an awesome off-season” and believes he’s better prepared to handle the demands of a college season.
“I need to have the strength to play more minutes and be able to match my athleticism with players I go against,” Lamb said. “I realize now how long the season is and how you have to look after yourself.”
The player who has shone brightest during UVM’s 3-0 exhibition schedule is Henson, the senior transfer from Tulane. He will be central to the inside game. With Steidl’s departure, Duncan becomes the go-to perimeter shooter, while Bell-Haynes runs the offense and becomes the primary on-ball defender.
A year ago, Becker’s first nine players were established. This season, that number is perhaps seven, if you include hard-working forward Samuel Dingba, now eligible after transferring from Quinnipiac. Six other promising newcomers will fight for the remaining minutes.
Redshirt sophomore Everett Duncan, Ernie’s younger brother, was the fifth starter in preseason, although that spot may rotate. Redshirt freshman and former Rice standout Ben Shungu, and true freshman Seth Smith, who attended the same Ontario high school as Bell-Haynes, have both impressed and will be in the backcourt rotation.
True freshmen Skyler Nash, Bailey Patella and Ra Kpedi are front court options although one or more of them may wind up taking a redshirt season.
“We lost three big pieces and have seven new pieces,” Bell-Haynes said. “We old guys realize the quicker we get them integrated, the better we’ll be. But I think we’re in a pretty good place as a team.”
So does Becker, although he worries that the Catamounts will be unable to match last year’s defensive prowess that limited opponents to 62 points a game.
“On a scale of 10, I’d say we’re maybe an eight,” he said of the team’s development after UVM’s 102-53 dusting of St. Michael’s in its final exhibition game. “We’re much better at this point than we were last year. Offensively, we’re doing a lot of good things and defensively we’ve shown some progress.”
Blending Vermont’s “core four” with what could be the most talented group of newcomers in school history will take time, something the schedule will not provide. UVM has only 11 home games this season and beyond Kentucky faces road tests at Marquette, Richmond and Bradley, along with matchups against Bucknell, Yale, and Harvard teams all holding NCAA aspirations. Eight opponents played in the post-season last year, five in the NCAA tournament.
“I think this is the hardest schedule we’ve ever played and it might not be close,” Becker said. “But this schedule will put us in position to find out what we’re made of and find out how good we can be.”
Vermont was the unanimous pick for champion in the AE coaches’ preseason poll and Lamb and Bell-Haynes were tabbed for all-league honors. But Albany returns the heart of a team that came close to upsetting UVM in last year’s conference finals and that 16-0 mark will give everyone in the conference added motivation.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had team with a bigger target on its back,” Becker said. In-league, out-of-league, we’re going to get everyone’s best shot. We’re a team that’s going to have everyone’s attention.
“With an older, more experienced of core guys I want to take the reins off a little bit — I hope we play faster. We have so many offensive guys that if this team can find its defensive identity I think the ceiling will be higher for this team.”
University of Vermont Women
The University of Vermont women hope to end a stretch of seven consecutive 20-loss seasons behind 6-3 sophomore forward Hanna Crymble. She led all America East freshmen in both scoring (11.4 ) and rebounding (6.4) last year and will have inside help this winter from 6-2 junior Cassidy Derda, the former South Burlington and Rice standout who played her first two seasons at St. Francis (NY).
Freshman guard Kianna Funderburk should upgrade UVM’s ball security and transition game while fellow frosh Josie Larkins will give a boost to the 3-point attack. The return of senior guard Sydney Smith will help as she led the team in scoring with a 12.1-point average before going down after 20 games with a torn knee ligament. That continued a streak of hard luck for the Catamounts in terms of losing key players to injury.
“We’ve been snake bitten for the last seven seasons with injuries,” said head coach Chris Day, now in his second year. “Our schedule is set up really nice and if we can get healthy we feel that Year Two can be a special year for us, particularly in conference play.”
Vermont finished seventh in league play at 6-10 a year ago and were placed in that spot again in the coaches’ preseason poll. But with the exception of unanimous league favorite New Hampshire, the remaining conference opponents are within reach.
St. Michael's College Men
The St. Michael’s men finished 5-21 and 4-17 in Northeast 10 Conference play in 2016-17 and that was with all-everything forward Matt Bonds in the lineup. When he graduated, he took with him team-best averages of 21.7 points and 12.4 rebounds, and his 19 double-doubles ranked third in all of Division II.
Junior guard Levi Holmes III will have to carry the load for the Purple Knights. He averaged 15.2 points last winter and scored 20 in the exhibition game against UVM.
SMC will have a local look as former Essex standout sophomore Eli DiGrande has been joined by freshman Walker Storey from Champlain Valley Union. Stephen Laffin, son of St. Michael’s Hall of Fame member Fran Laffin, is a sophomore guard.
Middlebury College Men
After powering to a 27-4 record and reaching the NCAA Division III Elite Eight last March, the Middlebury College men will face life without guard Matt St. Amour for the first time in four years. The former Missisquoi Valley Union star graduated after rising to become the third career scorer for the Panthers with 1,700 points. Point guard Jake Brown, nephew of head coach Jeff Brown, also graduated, leaving senior guard Jack Daly as Middlebury’s go-to player this winter.