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Former Rice basketball star Shungu primed for leadership role with men's Catamounts

A photo of a basketball player shooting a ball in a crowded gym.
Ryan Manley
University of Vermont, Courtesy
South Burlington native and UVM grad student Ben Shungu will be the "lead dog" for the Catamounts this year, according to independent sports correspondent Andy Gardiner.

The UVM women's basketball team opened it season with a successful rout of Merrimack, and the UVM men’s basketball team begins their 2021 season Thursday, Nov. 11. Both squads face a challenging year because of the difficulties posed last year — and some continuing into the new season — from the pandemic.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with independent sports correspondent Andy Gardiner to preview the men’s and women’s basketball season at UVM. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Andy Gardiner: The first of two exhibitions was their annual matchup against St. Michael's at the end of October. It was the first time that fans had been inside Patrick Gymnasium in almost 600 days, because all of last season — which was reduced to only 15 conference games — was played with empty gyms.

Against St. Michael's, it was like old times. There was a crowd of just under 2,500, the pep band was there in all its glory, the dance team, the cheer squad. The players were just so happy to have that atmosphere again.

Mitch Wertlieb: Let's talk a little bit about UVM’s prospects for this season. Challenges posed by the pandemic are spilling over into this upcoming season for John Becker, entering his 11th season as the Catamounts’ head coach.

What are some of the challenges facing Coach Becker?

This is going to be a unique season, because the NCAA — recognizing just how unique and disruptive last year was — granted every athlete, essentially, a free year of eligibility. So last year did not count at all. If a player wanted to come back, whether they were a senior or graduate student, whatever, they had that option,.

In Vermont's case, there was an overwhelming number of players who chose to return. All-conference guard Stef Smith, a senior, was the only one who chose to leave. He went on to St. John's, in the Big East, for a chance to really further his career and perhaps earn a spot on the Canadian national team.

Now, they have lost Tomas Murphy, a graduate student, to an injury. He's out for the season, and has left the program. But Coach Becker has 15 returning players, and almost all of them have a lot of experience.

Leading that is Ben Shungu, who is his sixth season, actually, he had a redshirt year and he's back as a graduate student. The former Rice Memorial star is going to be the lead dog this year. And Coach Becker is looking to him to really become a leader, both on the court and off the court, and be the centerpiece for this team. Shungu is one of seven returning players who averaged at least 11 minutes a game last year.

The second pillar will be forward Ryan Davis, who just had a breakout season last year. He doubled his scoring average to more than 18 points a game and earned the Conference Player of the Year, making him the fifth consecutive Catamount to earn that honor.

The third leg of this stool will be small forward Isaiah Powell, who was really developed in his three years at Vermont. He's kind of a mini version of Anthony Lamb, Vermont's sensational player of a few years ago, in that he plays bigger than size, at 6'6". A tenacious rebounder, and underrated scorer. So, that's a great starting point for the Cats.

It's so strange to me to hear you say “Anthony Lamb, a former player.” It only seems like yesterday that he was dominating the court for UVM.

What do you think the team's identity is going to be like? Are they going to be a team based on speed, or moving the ball around a lot, or three-pointers? Are they going to be looking to score most of their points in the paint? What's it going to look like?

Coach Becker thinks that fans will see a very similar style of play that they've become accustomed to. Vermont's going to want to play an up-tempo pace. They're going to have speed on the perimeter. And the one thing that they've got this year, that was perhaps lacking in previous seasons, is, on the perimeter, they are big and physical. And they're going to be able to play some really hard defense against three-point shooters, and perimeter games.

Coach Becker has always hung his hat on defense, and he thinks this group has its chance to be a really, really good defensive team.

Offensively, they're going to look to move the ball, and spread the scoring around, make the extra pass. The chemistry issue is something that Becker is going to keep an eye on, because with 15 players, there's only one basketball. And as he’s said, not everyone's going to be able to play as much as they'd like. And Becker said the starting lineup may not reflect the most talented players, but the ones who work best and complement that “iron three” the most.

Who do they open the season against?

Northern Iowa, regular NCAA participants. They're one of the good programs in the Missouri Valley Conference. That's going to be a really good test. They've got games at Maryland and Providence, in addition to Northern Iowa, plus a tournament that they're going to play in. But they only have four non-conference home games, so they're going to have to be road warriors.

Andy, it's been a while since we talked about St. Michael's College basketball in Division II, I imagine they're dealing with a lot of the same problems posed by COVID that UVM is. How does their season look so far?

Well, it's a little bit of a different wrinkle for the Purple Knights, because their entire season was canceled last year. The Northeast 10 decided not to play. So, they have not had a game since February 2020.

In the exhibition against Vermont, they showed some promising things, even though it was a lopsided loss.

Eric Eaton is in his third year as coach. The top returning player, who missed the Vermont exhibition with an injury, Kasai Brown, who was the 2019-20 Northeast 10 Rookie of the Year, who averaged 16 points and six rebounds a game. He's going to be key for them.

Another central figure will be senior forward Jason Heter, who is the first three-year captain in the program's 100 years of basketball. And a player who looked very strong against Vermont was 6'10" transfer Patrick Gardner. He had 19 points and nine rebounds against the Catamounts. So, he's going to be an inside presence for the Knights this year.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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