Vermont’s non-conference slate has (so far) been exceedingly tumultuous. John Becker’s squad was picked by many to finish atop the America East Conference, but despite the squad’s overall seniority — per Ken Pomeroy, the team is the nation’s fifth most experienced — the Catamounts look confused.
Currently in the midst of a northeast road trip, the team is 1-4, and against Wagner last night, the squad took the entirety of the first half to shake off what appeared to be rust and finally execute their gameplan, taking the lead at one point before ultimately losing by seven.
What follows are five observations from the game.
What happens to Wagner’s offense when Kenneth Ortiz is sidelined? In spite of the senior’s defensive prowess — no other Seahawk has a higher steal rate than the guard — Ortiz also commits a very high numbers of fouls (nearly five per 40 minutes). Wagner’s offense is dynamic when Ortiz runs the point — his presence shifts Jay Harris off the ball and allows Marcus Burton to float around the perimeter, getting open when Ortiz’s drives draw defenders from the junior (who is converting 44% of his threes). When Ortiz goes to the bench, though, Wagner’s offense visibly becomes stilted: Harris hasn’t consistently shown he can create offense for himself, and often curls around down screens (or comes off cross screens) for a clear look (per Hoop-Math.com, 50% of his twos and 86% of his threes are assisted). Both Burton and Latif Rivers function more as jump shooters, and aren’t capable of breaking down a defender and then dumping off a pass. Ortiz is the ideal point guard for Bashir Mason — his assist rate hovers around 30% — and while his head is constantly swiveling for an open teammate, he also has the athleticism to make a play when the shot clock is under ten seconds. At one point versus Vermont, Ortiz split two defenders, spun to get the Catamount on his hip, and made a layup with his left hand.
Vermont’s best offense is their frontcourt. Sandro Carissimo and Candon Rusin use more than 23% of the squad’s attempts, but both are in an offensive quagmire, and the rest of the team simply cannot make a bucket from beyond the arc. The team’s three-point percentage was low last year (32%), but has sunk to 26% this season, and the team looks hesitant to unfurl from deep.
Luke Apfeld and Clancy Rugg are the only Catamounts with an offensive rating over 100, and keyed Vermont’s second half surge in Staten Island. Using either picks or dribble drives, Carissimo was able to find Apfeld for a short corner jumper (he hit at least two) and Rugg illuminated what could be a crucial hole in Wagner’s defense, grabbing six offensive rebounds and either connecting on putbacks or drawing fouls. More than one half of Vermont’s points came from within the paint.
Wagner’s defensive identity. Wagner’s uniqueness in 2013 was fueled by how often they forced teams into committing a turnover. During the first half, Wagner continued to harass and generally make Vermont look unsure on offense. However, Vermont’s offense soon began to flow: the squad made 61% of their twos in the second half, grabbed countless offensive boards (sometimes three in one possession), and appeared more comfortable running their sets. The Seahawks struggled to force Vermont’s primary ballhandlers to give up the ball, and as a result, couldn’t get out as often in transition (Wagner scored only four fast-break points, as compared to ten in the first 20 minutes) and allowed Vermont some breathing room. While Wagner again looks like the cream of the NEC, are they defensively vulnerable? Not only is the squad causing a turnover on just 14% of their defensive possessions, they aren’t attacking the glass, allowing teams to generate additional chances. Just as concerning is their foul rate, which woefully ranks last in DI. Wagner’s bigs are particularly hack-friendly, and the propensity to pick up pointless fouls could portend defensive disaster for a team whose defensive efficiency rate ranked second in the NEC last season.
Vermont needs to get healthy soon. Becker traveled with ten Catamounts, but only nine saw minutes, yielding a very thin bench (which only scored 11 points) and the squad looked visibly gassed at times. Ethan O’Day, a 6’9″ forward who made 52% of his twos during his freshman season, is out up to six weeks with a hand injury, and both Ryan Pierson and Brendan Kilpatrick will be out for some time. While it would appear, barring any setbacks, that the Catamounts could have a full squad in time for conference play, the schedule will not yield any breaks before AE play. After the game, Becker told John Templon that he purposely scheduled a tough out of conference slate — “I scheduled tough with the thought that we’d have all of our guys and still it was going to be difficult” — and the upcoming games are daunting for both the team’s record and confidence: tilts against Duke, Quinnipiac, San Francisco, and Harvard.
Is Wagner pushing the pace? The Seahawks have joined the 70-plus possession ranks, using 71 or so possessions per game through the first five games. Mason’s squad was in transition on both makes and misses, forcing Vermont on their heels and utilizing the Seahawks’ athleticism to create easy scoring opportunities (14 points). However, the added trips could be attributed to the increase in possessions felt across the nation (the average, per Pomeroy, is 69.5, a jump from 65.9 in 2013). As teams continue to feel out the new foul rules, and gain ease with which they run their offensive sets, it will be interesting to see if Wagner’s pace slackens or whether Mason intends for it to be sustainable.
If it is the latter, Wagner’s speed could be useful to generate easy two-point field goals. The team doesn’t have a frontcourt player who can demand the ball and then score on the block — both Mario Moody and Naofall Folahan are best when set up along the backline or trailing the break. It is clear that the bulk of the team’s offense is tied to their perimeter shooting; when those attempts aren’t falling, Wagner’s offense stalls, so the new pace could be a reflection of Mason’s desire to manufacture easy twos.