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UVM men’s basketball team favored to win the America East conference championship

UVM men's basketball player Ryan Davis.
Ryan Manley/Courtesy
UVM Athletics
UVM men's basketball player Ryan Davis.

On the eve of the America East men’s basketball tournament, University of Vermont coach John Becker had one overarching wish.

"I’m hoping once we get to the playoffs we’ll see the best version of ourselves,” the 11-year Catamount leader said.

Consider the early return on that wish to be answered and then some.

Top seeded UVM hosts No. 6 Binghamton on Wednesday in the semifinal round after steamrolling the New Jersey Institute of Technology on Sunday, 98-59, in the opening quarterfinals. It was the latest installment in a season that has been sensational by even Vermont’s lofty standards. The Catamounts are 26-5 after going 17-1 in the conference, winning the regular season title by six games — the largest margin in league history.

UVM was the first team to capture its conference crown, and if not for a last-second overtime loss at Hartford in which two starters were out with injury and illness, it would be riding a 21-game winning streak. Becker was far from certain what the 2021-22 campaign would bring after slogging through last year’s pandemic-plagued season that reduced Vermont’s schedule to 15 games and ended in a semifinal upset loss to Hartford at Patrick Gymnasium.

Three coaches and two support staff left the program and all-conference guard Stef Smith used his final year of eligibility to transfer to St. John’s in the Big East Conference. But because of the pandemic, the NCAA granted players an extra year of eligibility and every other Catamount chose to return, led by now-graduate student Ben Shungu and fifth-year seniors Justin Mazzulla and Bailey Patella. In addition, reigning America East player of the year Ryan Davis would be back, along with veteran transfers Finn Sullivan from San Diego and Kam Gibson from Western Carolina.

6 March 2022: The University of Vermont Catamounts host the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders in the America East MenÕs Basketball Quarterfinal Playoff Game at Patrick Gymnasium in Burlington, Vermont. Mandatory Credit: Ed Wolfstein Photo
Ed Wolfstein/Ed Wolfstein Photo
Ed Wolfstein 802-864-8334
6 March 2022: The University of Vermont Catamounts host the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders in the America East MenÕs Basketball Quarterfinal Playoff Game at Patrick Gymnasium in Burlington, Vermont. Mandatory Credit: Ed Wolfstein Photo

UVM’s cupboard was far from bare.

"There was just a lot of change and uncertainty,” Becker said. “Some guys had off years last year and it was hard to figure out what that COVID year really was, but since we started practice it’s been an incredible ride. These guys have been really, really good day to day and game to game. The consistency with which we’ve played has been impressive.”

The twin linchpins for Vermont have been Davis, who repeated as the conference player of the year, and Shungu, who continued his compelling career arc from walk-on to all-star by earning first team all-conference and all-defense honors. But UVM has never had an ensemble cast like the one it puts around their dynamic duo.

The Catamounts have nine players averaging at least 13 minutes a game. Seven have led a game in scoring, six in rebounding and six in assists. Senior power forward Isaiah Powell has become the king of the triple single, impacting games with his scoring, rebounding and team-leading assists.

And junior Aaron Deloney shrugged off a disheartening sophomore season by winning the conference Sixth Man award for his play off the bench. Deloney arrived as a long-range assassin freshman recruit from Portland, Oregon. But last year he shot only 13% from behind the arc and averaged 1.6 points a game. After a slow start to this season, Deloney has been instant offense off the bench, averaging 10 points over his last 20 games while shooting 41% from 3-point distance and 50% from the field.

The consistency with which we’ve played has been impressive
Coach John Becker

Along with post man Nick Fiorillo and a rejuvenated Robin Duncan, Vermont’s second wave has been unmatched in the league.

“The bench has been incredible all season — they come in and there’s no let down,” Davis said. “There’s nothing better than seeing them getting playing time. It means [the starting lineup’s] job is done.”

“We’ve had two [low post men], one [power forward] and a whole lot of guards — we are not like a perfect roster at all,” Becker said. “But we’ve had some new energy and a group of people who have really worked their tails off and persevered.”

The hallmark of Becker’s teams at Vermont has been defense and that hasn’t changed — the Cats led the league and rank 18th nationally, allowing 61.5 points a game.

“They are an elite defensive team,” said New Hampshire coach Bill Herrion. “What sticks out is how physically strong they are. And their guards are so big they can guard anybody.”

What's different about this team is its offensive capabilities.

It’s about us now and if we play to our capabilities we’ll have a great chance
Coach John Becker

The Catamounts are shooting 49% from the field and averaging 75 points a game. They scored a school record 80-plus points in seven consecutive games in January.

"What’s been interesting is that we’ve always been about defense and rebounding — toughness has been the foundation of our program,” Becker said. “But we got to a point in January where we became an offensive team.”

NJIT coach Brian Kennedy said opposing teams have to pick their poison when facing Vermont.

"They can score in a variety of different ways and they can play in a bunch of different styles,” Kennedy said. “You can try to take away some things but they’re a very experienced team, great offensively and under-rated defensively.”

Vermont swept two games from Binghamton in February but the Bearcats were hamstrung by injuries on both occasions.

"They’re healthy this time and they’ll be a handful for sure,” Becker said. “Most of the guys in (our) program have played in championship games. They’ve hosted playoff games, they’ve won regular season titles and had the pressure and expectations. But this is the deal — you have to win your conference tournament to validate your season when you’re the top seed. There are no shortcuts. It’s about us now and if we play to our capabilities we’ll have a great chance.”

The top-seeded Catamounts will be solid favorites against the No. 6 Bearcats, who upset third-seed New Hampshire in the first round. Vermont swept two regular season games against Binghamton last month, but in each instance the Bearcats were hobbled by injury. That won’t be the case Wednesday.

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