Bigger. Faster. Longer. Deeper.
Those were the adjectives coach John Becker offered when asked to compare the 2016-17 edition of the Vermont men’s basketball team to the one that went 23-8 last year, the program’s eighth consecutive 20-plus victory season.
“We have a long way to go but we know we’ve got a pretty good team,” Becker said. “We’re not trying to hide from that or downplay it. It’s on us to make sure we don’t miss any opportunity.”
The Catamounts open the season Saturday at Quinnipiac with arguably their strongest, most balanced roster since the famed 2004-05 team of Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine that upset Syracuse in the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament.
UVM was the coaches’ preseason pick to win the America East conference and Becker’s biggest challenge could be finding enough playing time for the wealth of talent on his bench.
“We have 12 guys who can play and I think we have 10 guys who could probably start for us,” he said. “It’s not easy to accumulate the kind of talent we have right now.”
The only significant loss from last season’s team that won nine of its last 11 games and reached the semifinals of the College Basketball Invitational was forward Ethan O’Day (11.5 points per game, 6.3 rebounds). Eight players return that averaged at least 13 minutes a game a year ago and Becker has brought in major reinforcements.
Payton Henson and Josh Hearlihy, a pair of 6-8 transfers from Tulane, are eligible after sitting out last winter per NCAA rules. Anthony Lamb, a 6-6, 227-pound freshman, has made an immediate impact and could be Vermont’s most skilled first-year player in a decade.
“The thing that sticks out to me is just the maturity of this group,” Becker said. “We have 11 upperclassmen which really highlights just how young we’ve been the last couple of years.
“The other thing that stands out is the quality of our depth. There are a lot of things we can do. We can play big, we can play small.”
UVM’s backcourt is in experienced hands with preseason all-conference selection junior Trae Bell-Haynes (12.2 ppg, 126 assists), sophomore Ernie Duncan (11.5 ppg, 44 percent shooting from 3-point range), junior Cam Ward (9.1 ppg) and senior Dre Wills (7.8 ppg).
Senior Kurt Steidl (11.2 ppg, 5.3 rebounds) had to play power forward much of last season because of the Catamount’s lack of size. He will be able to spend more time at his natural position of small forward this year, which will maximize his deadly perimeter shooting. He, Duncan, Ward and Bell-Haynes combined to hit 231 3-pointers last winter.
“We are able to do a lot of different things with our depth,” Steidl said. “We have guys now who are 6-8 to play [power forward] instead of me at 6-6 and that’s really going to help us defensively and in rebounding.”
Henson, Hearlihy, junior Drew Urquhart (who has added 30 pounds from last year) and senior Darren Payen are all 6-8. Junior Nate Rohrer is 6-7 and plays bigger.
“We have a lot of guys with size who are mobile and can move,” Becker said. “The court looks a lot smaller than it has in the past.”
Lamb has turned heads in Vermont’s two exhibition games. The first year forward from Rochester, N.Y., had 25 points in 23 minutes in a win over the University of Quebec, and added 18 points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes in a 29-point victory against St. Michael’s.
“Like any freshman, he’s going through a learning curve right now but he’s a talented, extremely hard-working, intelligent player,” Becker said of Lamb, who was one of four finalists for New York state’s Mr. Basketball honor last year. “His learning curve will be pretty quick, I expect.”
Vermont struggled matching up with bigger teams last season, especially league champion Stony Brook and perennial nemesis Albany. The Catamounts gave up an average of 70.6, an increase of 10 per game from Becker’s previous four years.
“First and foremost we have to become a better defensive team,” Becker said. “It’s no secret that the bread and butter of this program throughout my tenure has been defense and rebounding.
“We had kind of an unbalanced lineup last season with injuries and departures that made it a little bit harder to guard like we like to. I thought the mindset wasn’t what it had been defensively. I think there has been improvement there.”
Vermont was last picked as the America East preseason favorite in 2013-14 when Steidl and Wills were freshmen. The Cats went 15-1 in the league that winter but were upset by Albany in the conference tournament to fall short of an NCAA berth.
“It’s nice to know people pick you to win, but that has happened before and we didn’t win the tournament,” Wills said. “Everybody has to be ready and we’ve got to get the job done on the court.”
In the St. Michael’s exhibition, 10 Catamounts played at least 11 minutes and none more than 22. Managing those numbers will be tricky.
“The ability for guys to accept their roles is going to be a challenge,” Becker said. “Everyone’s minutes are potentially going to come down. I don’t really have many concerns right now because this group is mature and is all about winning.”
Indeed, this group has gone 65-40 the last three years, appearing in the National Invitational Tournament once the CBI twice. But the gold standard – an NCAA tournament bid – has eluded them.
“It’s weird to say we’re trying to raise the level because they’ve won more post-season basketball games than any group of kids in our conference’s history,” Becker said. “These guys have accomplished a lot, and now it’s time. We’re ripe and now we get to see where we’re at. Let’s enjoy this.”