The University of Vermont men’s basketball team will find itself in an unusual role when it tangles Thursday night in Milwaukee in the opening round of the NCAA tournament: underdog.
The 13th-seeded Catamounts have won a program-best 29 games this season and carry a 21-game winning streak, the longest active mark in Division I. They haven’t lost since before Christmas, becoming the first America East school to go 16-0 in conference and then sweeping three league playoff games to earn their first NCAA bid since 2012.
All that is unlikely to impress No. 4 Purdue, a 25-7 program that won the brutally tough Big Ten Conference regular season title by two games and is led by the league’s player of the year, sophomore Caleb Swanigan. Not to mention the Boilermakers pounded UVM 107-79 at the beginning of last season.
“I don’t think we’ll be intimidated,” said junior guard Trae Bell-Haynes, the America East player of the year. It’s not like we’re going against a one or a two seed, it’s not Duke or [North Carolina]. We’re pretty confident in our own abilities.”
This is not the same Vermont group that surrendered 60 points in the first half a year ago at Purdue and saw the Boilermakers bury a school-record 18 3-point shots.
“We’re a very different team and we’re guarding differently than we did then,” said coach John Becker. “We’re a much better defensive team and we have much more depth in the front court, which will be important."
Make that critical. Purdue features arguably the most talented inside tandem in the country in the 6-9, 250-pound Swanigan and 7-2, 290-pound junior Isaac Haas. Together they average 31 points and 18 rebounds a game.
“I don’t think anyone has [the inside strength] that they do and they throw them the ball every possession,” Becker said.
UVM now has junior transfer 6-8 Payton Henson and 6-6 freshman Anthony Lamb, who have given the Catamounts the post presence they lacked a year ago. This pair has become the foundation of a front court group that can bring Drew Urquhart, Darren Payen, Josh Herlihy and Nate Rohrer off the bench.
“I can’t wait,” said Lamb, the unanimous conference pick for rookie of the year and the first freshman to be named most outstanding player in the league tournament. “If ever there was an opportunity prove yourself to the world, this is the one I get right here.”
Thursday’s showdown will also be the first game in months in which Vermont will play without the pressure of lofty expectations. Picked by the coaches in preseason to win the conference, the Catamounts cleared the hurdles of going undefeated in the conference, of doggedly extending the winning streak, and finally vanquishing arch-nemesis Albany to claim the NCAA bid last Saturday at sold out Patrick Gymnasium.
“It just feels like a weight has been lifted off our shoulders,” Becker said before the team headed to Milwaukee on Monday night. “Now we’re regrouping. We still want to have a focus and an intensity — we’re planning on winning these games so we can’t let up. But there is a lot less pressure on us now.”
Vermont has delivered perhaps the most historic regular season in program history. But make no mistake — if the Cats had lost to Albany for the fourth time in the finals and the third time at Patrick, the season would have had an asterisk attached.
And last Saturday that was a real possibility. Bell-Haynes and Lamb combined to shoot 4-for-23 from the field while the team shot a season-worst 33 percent. The Catamounts trailed by nine points with nine minutes to play before standing tall at the end.
“We had feeling about this group, that we were going to find a way,” Becker said. “We take a lot of gratification in knowing we were tough enough to do it.”
Purdue not only has monstrous size in the lane, it shoots 41 percent from 3-point distance. Had the Boilermakers not stumbled in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals to a Michigan team on a mission, they likely would have been a No. 3 seed.
Vermont will counter with its depth — nine different players led the team in scoring this season and seven in rebounding — and a defense ranked 11th nationally in scoring defense at 61.6 points per game.
The Cats also carry the knowledge that whatever the outcome, they will be remembered as a team that met every challenge.
“To put a season like this together doesn’t happen very often,” Becker said. “To deliver with those expectations at this level is extremely difficult. To their credit, our players did. This is a connected group and I’m as proud as I’ve ever been.”