Vermont looking to set a new standard for America East supremacy
No team in America East history has ever finished a regular season with a 16–0 conference record. Two teams, Northeastern in 1983–94 and Delaware in 1991–92, pulled off 14–0 records (back when the conference was named the ECACN and the NAC, respectively), but it’s been 25 years since that most recent undefeated season.
The Vermont Catamounts have a chance to change that this year and set a new bar for America East dominance. Just three more games stand between them and a perfect 16–0 conference season, and the odds are in their favor—kenpom.com gives them an 83%, 79% and 87% chance, respectively, of prevailing in each of those games.
The Catamounts are a balanced team with real depth; their top three scorers are separated by just three-tenths of a point, with no one averaging more than 11.3 points per game. Freshman forward Anthony Lamb has the team’s highest usage rate, taking 31% of its shots when he’s on the floor. Lamb, who was a two-star recruit from Rochester, N.Y., has emerged as one of the league’s most valuable players. And he played arguably his best game of the season in a recent win over New Hampshire, scoring 26 points and adding 13 rebounds on 9 of 16 shooting.
Lamb is joined by juniors Trae Bell-Haynes and Payton Henson as Vermont’s top offensive options, while sophomore Ernie Duncan is the team’s biggest three-point threat. The Catamounts’ rotation frequently goes 10 or 11 deep, with 10 players averaging at least 10 minutes per game. They’re easily the conference’s most efficient team defensively and are on top offensively as well; nationally, they’re No. 51 in RPI and No. 65 on kenpom.com.
Vermont is not a team that looks to beat you from the outside; it shoots at a decent clip (35.9%) from the perimeter, but gets less than a quarter of its total points from there. The Catamounts do most of their damage from two-point range, with Lamb and Henson working inside the paint and Bell-Haynes, a 6' 2″ guard, often opting to drive to the rim. They’re not a notably tall team—four players are 6' 8″, but no one tops that—which could pose some challenges in a potential NCAA tournament first-round matchup. Several America East teams rank near the bottom of the country in average height, and none are in the top 100, so going up against a big team in the tourney would be pretty unfamiliar territory. A team facing Vermont would want to neutralize the Catamounts’ strength in the paint and force them to beat it from the outside, where they’re capable but more unproven.
Winners of 15 straight overall, Vermont holds the nation’s second-longest active winning streak, behind only Gonzaga’s 26. The Catamounts have won their 13 America East matchups by an average of 13.8 points, with just one having been decided by fewer than six points. If it finishes out the regular season strong and takes the conference tournament crown, Vermont could be one of the America East’s strongest NCAA tournament teams in years. SI.com’s Michael Beller currently has it slated as a No. 12 seed in his latest bracket watch, which would the highest seed for an America East team since Boston University was a No. 12 seed back in 1997, when it was called the North Atlantic Conference. How’s that for a time hop?
Game of the Week: UT Arlington at Georgia State, Saturday at 2:15 p.m. on ESPN3
There’s a log jam at the top of the Sun Belt Conference right now, with UT Arlington sitting atop the conference by a half game at 9–3 in league play and three teams (Arkansas State, Georgia State and Georgia Southern) right on its heels at 9–4. The Mavericks will get a chance to keep their hold onto first place when they meet the Panthers on Saturday, but they’ll be on the road for both that and their next game against Georgia Southern. After an 11-game win streak earlier in the season, UT Arlington hit a small bump when it dropped back-to-back games earlier in conference play, but it has rebounded to win seven of its last eight. The Mavericks control their own destiny, but their first regular-season crown since 2012 is far from a sure thing.
Player to Watch: Eastern Washington senior forward Jacob Wiley
Wiley has had quite the journey over the course of his college basketball career, which has culminated in what’s been an excellent senior year with the Eagles. Wiley started his college career at Montana in 2012, where he played in 20 games as a freshman for a team that went to the NCAA tournament. After that season, however, he left the basketball team in favor of the track and field program, but would later return to hoops at NAIA school Lewis-Clark State. Wiley spent two seasons there and was named a first team NAIA All-American before becoming a graduate transfer at Eastern Washington, his fifth year of eligibility.
Got all that? Here’s what else you should know: The 6' 7″ big man is making the most of his final season, averaging 20.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and even 2.3 assists per game. He’s shooting 64.4% from the floor, including a true shooting percentage of 68.8%, which ranks 10th in the country per kenpom.com. In the last month, he’s posted six 30-point games, including a 30-point, 12-rebound effort in a win over Sacramento State and a 45-point, 17-rebound performance in a wild triple-overtime victory over Portland State. His play has helped the Eagles stay in the hunt in the Big Sky Conference, where they’re currently third.
Stat of the Week: 12.1
That’s the average possession length (both offense and defense), in seconds, of the MEAC’s Savannah State, which is the shortest in the country, according to kenpom.com. The Tigers also lead the nation in adjusted tempo, with a mark (81.4) that, if it holds over these next few weeks, would be the highest by a college basketball team since VMI in 2009–10. For comparison to Savannah State’s rapid pace, the longest average possession length in the country belongs to Virginia, at 21.1 seconds per possession.