The University of Vermont men’s basketball team has piled up five consecutive 20-victory seasons while the Middlebury College men have gone 147-26 with six straight NCAA tournament appearances since 2008. Both programs are expected to extend that high level of success this winter.
UVM, the preseason favorite to win the America East conference crown, is 1-1 after opening the 2013-14 season with a loss to perennial Atlantic-10 Conference contender St. Joseph’s but following with a victory over Siena. Middlebury is ranked in the top 20 of most Division III preseason national polls and begins its campaign Friday against Alvernia in the Franklin and Marshall tournament.
Vermont returns all five starters from last year’s 21-12 team that fell one game short of earning back-to-back Division I NCAA tournament berths.
“We have a great opportunity this season but we’ve talked about how nothing is guaranteed,” said Vermont coach John Becker. “Still, it’s going to be exciting to see what this senior class can do and where they can take us.”
Middlebury reached the Elite 8 in last year’s NCAA tournament in a 25-4 season. The Panthers lost some key players to graduation but a solid returning core and a crop of promising freshmen have coach Jeff Brown optimistic.
“We have been at such a high level that it becomes a difficult thing to sustain,” Brown said. “But we’re hoping it’s going to be a reloading type of situation as opposed to rebuilding.”
University of Vermont
Now in his third season as head man at UVM, Becker has never had a roster as deep and experienced as this Catamount group.
“I’ve never been part of a team that had six seniors who play significantly,” he said. “The down side is that next year we’re in trouble. But this senior class is a really tight-knit group that understands it’s about the process. Win or lose, we just want to get better and be playing our best basketball in March.”
That wasn’t the case last season. With a spot in the NCAA field within its grasp, Vermont lost at home in the conference tournament finals to an Albany team it swept during the regular season. The memory of that 53-49 defeat still stings.
“We got close last year…and one of the worst feelings in the world is losing at home in front of our fans,” said senior forward Luke Apfeld. “Down the stretch against Albany we made some mistakes. Mentally we broke down and we didn’t execute. That’s something we can’t let happen.”
The Catamount linchpin will once again be Brian Voelkel, the 6-6 senior forward who was a first team all-conference pick last year despite averaging only six points. He has a chance to leave as UVM’s career leader in games played, rebounds and assists.
Apfeld (10.7 points, 4.4 rebounds) and former Burlington High School standout Clancy Rugg (11.4 points. 5.7 rebounds) fill out the frontcourt while guards Sandro Carissimo (10 points) and Candon Rusin of Twin Valley High School (7.5 points) complete the all-senior starting five.
Sophomore Ethan O’Day, who started 30 games as a freshman, is first off the bench, but will be out for a month with a broken thumb suffered against St. Joseph’s. Next in line is 6-7 Pepperdine transfer Hector Harold, senior guard Josh Elbaum, and 6-10 Northeastern transfer Ryan Pierson, currently sidelined with a broken leg suffered over the summer. Forward Kurt Steidl and guard Dre Wills are the freshmen most likely to earn playing time.
“I hope we can go 10 deep but we have a minimum of nine players we can go to without any problem,” Becker said.
Vermont ranked 28th nationally last year in scoring defense, allowing 59.7 points a game. The Catamounts need to maintain that level while juicing an offense that struggled to average 63.5 points a game.
“We want to play a little bit faster, spread the court and get out in transition a little more,” Becker said. “Once we get in the half court, we have to play with a better pace and be more of an attacking offense.
“If we’re more dynamic offensively, it will put more pressure on our defense. That’s where our depth will hopefully help out.”
Because of the senior make-up of this team, Becker compiled a challenging non-conference schedule that includes games at Duke, Providence, Harvard and a tournament in San Francisco.
“That was done purposely,” Becker said. “These guys have been in every situation and we’re going to put them in some more this year.”
The Panthers will tackle a schedule that Brown believes is the most difficult in his 16 years as head of the program. Middlebury is playing in two tournaments this season, part of 15 road games. Included will be showdowns with Alvernia and St. Mary’s (Md.) both of which were NCAA tournament teams last year.
That is on top of competing in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, one of the toughest Division III leagues in the nation. Amherst is the defending national champion and a popular preseason pick for No. 1 while Williams is ranked third.
“It does provide a stronger resume if you’re up for consideration for the NCAA tournament,” Brown said of the schedule. “I go into the season knowing it might take a little time for us to grow our product.”
Middlebury graduated three seniors who teamed to score more than 3,000 points from the team that lost to North Central (Ill.) in the final eight of last year’s NCAA tournament. Two were four-year starters and the other started for two years.
But Joey Kizel, a two-time all-conference player, is back as the foundation of this Panther lineup. Brown, who was a standout guard at the University of Vermont, believes the 6-0 senior is the best backcourt player he’s coached at Middlebury.
“We have a clear central piece in Joey – everything starts with him,” said Brown, who will play Kizel both at the point and shooting guard positions. “He is a high IQ player who can initiate the offense and also create his own shot from almost anywhere. He makes great decisions and makes the players around him better.”
The frontcourt must replace steady forward Peter Lynch. Jack Roberts was a starter last season, Hunter Merryman averaged 16 minutes off the bench and swingman Dylan Sinnickson is back after missing all of last year after fracturing his arm just before the start of the season.
“We’re still trying to figure out that piece of the puzzle,” Brown said. “I don’t think we have a go-to guy. It’s probably going to be more by committee this season.”
The lead dog in Middlebury’s freshman class is 6-3 guard Matt St. Amour, the two-time Vermont high school player of the year at Mississquoi Valley Union. He finished with 2,064 points to rank behind only Henry Dalrymple of St. Johnsbury Academy and Matt Johnson of Bellows Free Academy-St. Albans in the state’s career scoring list. St. Amour averaged 30.7 points, 11.9 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 3.4 steals as a senior.
“I love the way he can score and the range on his shot,” Brown said. “His knack of getting open against all the crazy defenses he saw in Vermont high school ball will serve him well with our group. He is a very smart player who knows how to create offense for the team and we certainly anticipate he is going to have a significant role this year.”
After using primarily an eight-man rotation in recent seasons, Brown believes the Panthers could expand that number this winter. If so, freshmen guards Jake Brown (the coach’s nephew) and Brian Jones will have to mature quickly.
“I expect a lot of competition and I think comfortably we’re going to play 10 or 11 guys this season,” Brown said. “We may try to accelerate the pace of the game to capitalize on our depth. We’re open-minded as to what our true identity is going to be, but excited about trying to figure out the dimensions of this group.”