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At NCAA Basketball Tournament, UVM's Ben Shungu Looks For Upset

Brian Jenkins/UVM Athletics
UVM basketball player Ben Shungu will play a critical role for 13th seed Vermont on Thursday when the Catamounts begin the NCAA tournament.

When Ben Shungu weighed his options for playing college basketball three years ago coming out of Rice Memorial High School, his choices were limited.

“I had a decent amount of looks from Division II,” the two-time Burlington Free Press player of the year said. “But in Division I, it was more just interest. I never really had any offers.”

What he did have was an invitation to join the University of Vermont program as a non-scholarship walk-on.

“Coach (John) Becker told me I’d have to work hard and gain his trust,” Shungu said. “But I knew all along I wanted to come to UVM.”

Three years later the 6-2 sophomore guard has done far more than earn his coach’s trust. Shungu has grown from a complementary player into a starting guard. He will play a critical role for 13th seed Vermont on Thursday when the Catamounts begin the NCAA tournament with a showdown against No. 4 Florida State in Hartford, Conn.

UVM is 27-6, the regular season and conference tournament champions of America East. The Cats are riding a six-game winning streak, a burst fueled in part by the improved offense of guard Stef Smith, but keyed just as much by Shungu’s insertion into the starting five.

It was after an ugly 65-56 loss at the University of Maryland Baltimore County that Becker and the Vermont coaching staff agreed the team needed a shake-up. In came Shungu. The Cats have not lost since.

“I’ve changed starting lineups this year more than I ever have in my career, trying to find the right combination,” Becker said. “It never felt right this year and now it does. Benny is a big reason, along with Stef, why we’ve taken another step. We’re a different team now and are playing our best basketball.”

Ask Shungu about his ascent and he downplays the journey.

“My role coming off the bench was to provide a spark, provide energy, play good defense and look to give my teammates opportunities,” he said. “It’s been great to start but I still see that as my role.”

Shungu averaged 21 points as a senior at Rice and led the Green Knights to three Division I state titles. But he was an average shooter and there were questions whether his game would play at an established mid-major program like Vermont’s.

“I promised him an opportunity and that’s really all Benny wanted,” Becker said. “If he produced and if he was worthy of a scholarship, then I could give him one at some point. He’s proven to be not just a scholarship player but a really good basketball player.”

Associate coach Kyle Cieplicki is a Rice graduate who was a three-time captain at Vermont. He identified with Shungu on a number of levels.

“Being a kid who had grown up in Vermont and had promise and potential, I saw a lot of similarities between my path and Ben’s path,” Cieplicki said. “He was someone we thought would really benefit from a year or two playing against kids in our program and really having some time to develop to the point where he could be a rotation player.

“Now, in year three, everything has worked out perfectly for him. But none of this would have happened if it weren’t for his hard work and his patience and being such a good teammate. He has really seized his opportunity.”

Shungu sat out as a redshirt in 2016-17 when UVM went 28-7 and undefeated in the conference. Last season — still as a walk-on — he averaged six minutes and one point in 22 games as the Cats were upset in the America East tournament finals by UMBC.

“Coming from Vermont, the level of basketball wasn’t too high so I needed to get used to the level and speed of college basketball,” Shungu said. “I thought I might play more as a sophomore but I still put in the work. Coach Becker emphasized what I could do defensively. I’m pretty athletic and I could really change the game on the defensive end.”

Shungu remains the team’s best on-ball defender and earned his scholarship last summer. But where Shungu has shown the most growth is offensively. His numbers are modest (4 points and 3 rebounds a game) but he’s shooting 50% from both the field and 3-point distance.

“I told Benny I didn’t want him to look at himself as a non-shooter,” Becker said. “You could see he was very hesitant to shoot early in the year. He couldn’t figure out where he belonged offensively. He has the green light and my trust to shoot and be aggressive offensively whenever he gets the ball.”

That confidence paid huge dividends in the championship game against UMBC. Vermont held a tenuous half-time lead, in part because player of the year Anthony Lamb and Smith had combined to score 26 of the team’s 28 points. In the second half, Shungu delivered nine points at key junctures as the Catamounts pulled away to a 17-point victory.

“Coming out of high school my shooting wasn’t great but I put in the time and the work to get better,” Shungu said. “Coach has always told me to have an aggressive mind set and take the open shot.”

Anthony Lamb came in as a freshman with Shungu. The unanimous America East player of the year applauds the strides Shungu has made.

“The skill has always been there but his confidence and understanding of the game have grown,” Lamb said. “Now he’s seeing where he can capitalize and how his defense can translate into offense. Once he gets himself under control he’s one of the best players on the court, no matter what court we step on.”

Shungu will be in the middle of the action Thursday against FSU and his athleticism will be critical to Vermont’s upset hopes.

“I just really love his whole approach,” Becker said. “He’s never asked for one thing and nothing has ever been given to him and I really like people like that. He’s taken this opportunity and made the most of it.”

Andy Gardiner is a former sports writer for USA Today and the Burlington Free Press, who lives in Burlington.
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