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UVM men's basketball looking to upset in opening round of NCAA Tournament

A basketball player wearing a green jersey jumps up holding a basketball. Two other basketball players in white jerseys are jumping at his right and left. They are playing in a large arena.
Paul Sancya
Associated Press
Vermont guard Aaron Deloney drives between Marquette guard Chase Ross, left, and Sean Jones, right, in the second half of a first-round college basketball game in the 2023 NCAA Tournament in Columbus, Ohio. The Catamounts are returning to this year's NCAA tournament as the 13th seed, facing Duke, the fourth seed, in their first game on Friday in Brooklyn.

The University of Vermont men's basketball team is preparing to go dancing on the big stage of the NCAA division one basketball tournament.

It will be the 10th time in school history they've been there, and the third time in as many years at the Catamounts will do so as champions of the America East Conference, which gains the team an automatic bid to the tournament.

UVM women's team has also found success on the hard court recently, but they fell just shy of making the women's NCAA tournament this year, losing in the America East Conference title game to Maine.

The Catamount men have a record of 28-6 this year, and they're coming in hot riding a 10-game winning streak as they take on the Duke University Blue Devils in the opening round in Brooklyn Friday night.

Duke is the fourth seed in the Southern Regional bracket; UVM is seeded 13th. UVM head coach John Becker is the winningest coach in program history. He has been on the Catamounts staff for 18 years, first as an assistant coach before he was named head coach in 2011.

Vermont Public's Mitch Wertlieb caught up with coach John Becker ahead of UVM's first round match up against Duke on Friday. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: First, what was the team's reaction — and your reaction — on getting seeded 13th And then facing a national powerhouse like Duke?

John Becker: Yeah, to play someone like Duke in New York City at Barclays Center, I mean, Friday night game on CBS. You know, it's a great opportunity for us. And we're really excited.

Mitch Wertlieb: I'm wondering how you approach prepping for a team that you're not really familiar with playing previously, that's not in your division? Not a lot of time to prepare for Duke.

John Becker: Yeah, I mean, it's difficult. I mean, they're a really good program, one of the best teams in the country, and so our staffs done a great job of pouring through film over the last couple of days and getting a scouting report together that we've been working on for the last couple of days in practice. So, you know, with the technology today, it's pretty easy to, to get film on on teams and to be able to build the scouting report just like any other game. So we know that one of the best teams in the country, we're gonna have to play great to have a chance on Friday night.

A closeup photo of a man wearing a white shirt surrounded by other people
Michael Dwyer
Associated Press
Vermont head coach John Becker talks to his team during a timeout in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against UMass Lowell in the final of the America East Conference Tournament in 2023 in Burlington.

Mitch Wertlieb: For those who may not have followed UVM super closely this season, what are the strengths of this particular team this year relative to past groups that you've had?

John Becker: I think it might be my best defensive team. You know, we've been really, really good on that side of the ball all year. And so we've relied on that from game to game, and we do a lot of stuff that — a lot of winning stuff, let's say. You know, we don't turn the ball over; we rebound the ball; we're very good defensively; to get to the free throw line. You know, we try not to beat ourselves and we've done a really good job of that this year.

More from Vermont Public: St. Michael's College men's basketball ends NCAA run in first Sweet Sixteen battle in decades

Mitch Wertlieb: In the past, you've had squads that have had one or two standout players — I'm thinking of guys like Anthony Lamb, for example — but there seems to be a lot of balance to this year's Catamount squad. How does that change your approach as a coach, if at all, to taking on a team like Duke?

John Becker: I like to have them balanced, and it makes us harder to prepare for because we have a lot of guys that can score and we play a lot of guys; we play up to nine guys. So I think balance and and depth make us a little bit harder to scout. But we do have some really, really elite players: Shamir Bogues, and Aaron Deloney; he's had a great year. And so, we depend on our best players. But we do have a lot of balance this year, which I think makes us a little bit harder to prepare for.

Men's basketball players wearing white jerseys with green accents celebrate on a basketabll court in front of stands full of fans
Michael Dwyer
Associated Press
Vermont celebrates after defeating UMass Lowell during the 2023 NCAA college basketball game in the final of the America East Conference Tournament in Burlington.

Mitch Wertlieb: I know that your focus is on the tournament, of course. But I want to mention though, you were awarded a league record seventh America East Coach of the Year honor earlier this month. What does that mean to you?

John Becker: Yeah I mean, it's a great honor to be recognized by your peers. You know, I have a great staff and it's really more of a coaching staff award to me. And it's nice to be recognized by your peers, for sure. And it's a great honor.

Mitch Wertlieb: You know, I mentioned this is the third year in a row that the Catamounts have won the America East title, so much success in recent years. But this game against Duke, you're playing on the biggest stage in the country, one of the biggest sports tournaments in the country. How do you deal with the natural nerves and the stomach butterflies that may come for the players with this nationally televised game?

John Becker: Yeah, you know, it's interesting. To get here, we have to win our conference tournament, which is three games, to get the one bid from our conference. And so last week going through that, to win that tournament, where it's it's win or go home, is the most stress you can experience in college basketball, as far as having to win one big league conference tournament.

So we feel like a lot of pressure's come off us going up against Duke. It's the first time in a couple months that we weren't expected to win. And so I think it's a nice change for our program so we can be loose and confident and go in there and give it our best shot. So some of that weight's been lifted, and we're really excited to just show the world what we got against the most storied program in college basketball.

A basketball player in a white jersey jumps and shoots toward the basketball hoop as a basketball player wearing a green jersey jumps to attempt a block. They are playing in a large arena.
Paul Sancya
Associated Press
Marquette forward Oso Ighodaro (13) shoots on Vermont guard Robin Duncan (55) in the first half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament Friday, March 17, 2023, in Columbus, Ohio.

Mitch Wertlieb: And given this matchup and the potential here for a David versus Goliath outcome, a lot of fans are naturally going to be thinking of that 2005 Catamounts team that came in against Syracuse as a 13 seed against the four seed — the big upset there. Tom Brennan was head coach then.

As head coach now, though, almost 20 years after that famous victory, do you like those comparisons cropping up? Like, do you embrace it and use it as a motivational tool for your team? Or is it kind of an unwelcome distraction given that, you know, this team has its own identity and its own path to take?

John Becker: Yeah, I think it's probably a little bit of both, you know. We're really proud of of what that team did, and 20 years later, they have a lot to do with kind of jumpstarting our program onto a national stage. And I'm friends with a lot of those guys. I have a staff member that was on that team, and coach Brennan's a dear friend, so really understanding the importance of that, of that win. But yeah, it's 20 years later, and a lot of players have come and gone and we do have our own identity, but we're hoping that we can do what they did and have a huge upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And you know, every year we get here, that's the goal — to try to advance. and we're going to try again Friday night.

Mitch Wertlieb: Coach, one more thing before I let you go here. A pretty famous college hoops fan — who also happens to be a former president and picks and shares his brackets each year publicly — has picked UVM to upset Duke in round one. What do you think about former President Obama picking your squad over Duke in round one?

John Becker: I saw that. I think that's pretty awesome. You know, hopefully he's right.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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