UNCASVILLE, Conn. – Even if there are large, shiny trophies involved, early-season college basketball games at the mid-major level are not exactly the life or death struggles they become in March, where it’s winner take all and loser go home (or to the CIT if you’re lucky).
But Sunday’s 77-71 loss to Buffalo in the finals of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic at Mohegan Sun Arena stung a little more than the usual November fare for Vermont, and not just because they are a proud, successful program who is used to winning.
Unfortunately, after the Catamounts (2-3) raced to an early lead with hot shooting (its biggest eight at 21-13), John Becker and his team saw the Ghosts of Mistakes Past haunt them all the way to the end. And they know going forward, they will need to exorcise them if they want to unseat Albany and hold off fellow contenders Stony Brook and upstart New Hampshire in America East.
“It was a tough loss. We just weren’t tough enough to win this game,” Becker said.
Buffalo (3-2) is coming off a 23-10 MAC title winning season, but it’s a different squad since losing coach Bobby Hurley to Arizona State, with its top two players (Justin Moss and Shannon Evans) departing with him. Still, the Bulls had plenty of size and strength for Vermont to deal with, a test Becker would have liked to see his slightly undersized team pass.
First and foremost among the demons is the turnover bug. While Mike Lonergan was successful in pushing tempo, Becker has gone back to the style of Lonergan’s predecessor, Tom Brennan. All were successful, Becker has won at least 20 games in all four seasons at the helm, the first three seasons (including a 39-9 regular season America East record, the title in 2012 and a 15-1 regular season in 2013-14) never ranking higher than 293rd nationally in adjusted tempo.
That changed a bit last season with the addition of electric Canadian point guard Trae Bell-Haynes and the graduation of Brian Voelkel, the underrated Sandro Carissimo and four other seniors that was crucial in Vermont’s success. Even with the almost complete overhaul of personnel, Becker and the Catamounts were still 20-14, 12-4 in America East. They were playing faster, up to 157th in adjusted tempo, but two numbers stand out in a negative way: 251st in turnover rate (20.2%) and 304th in offensive rebounding (26.7%), which is how you can shoot the ball really well (51.9 eFG%, 64th), and still post the worst efficiency since Becker took over the job (189th).
Some of that can be attributed to growing pains with a young team, and there are many schemes that don’t bother attacking the offensive glass to keep opponents from getting out in transition. But the turnover number was circled by Becker. Sunday, Vermont had seven in the first half but still held the lead, only to see Buffalo take over the game as the turnover number climbed, seven more in the first eight minutes of the second half, 16 for the game (23.2% rate). It was the same thing that had hurt them in the season opener against Eastern Michigan.
“We want to play through our bigs,” Becker said. “We turned the ball over on the first three possessions of the second half and we had trouble from there. Those are things that have usually ended our season. Luckily, this obviously doesn’t end our season (ironically, that was not the issue in last year’s AE Tourney loss to Stony Brook, in which they only tuned the ball over seven times), so we’ll have to go back and work on it.”
Becker faces a bit of a dilemma with talented sophomore point guard Bell-Haynes. In Vermont’s two wins, Bell-Haynes has 49 points, including 28 in a dominant performance against Niagara on Saturday. In those two games, he combined to have four turnovers. But he had six more against Buffalo after recording seven against Eastern Michigan. His turnover rate is at 29.6% through five games, an improvement on the 31.4% from his freshman season, but a number that everyone agrees needs to come down.
“Trae was trying to do a bit too much,” Becker said. “We want him to be aggressive, so we have to live with that a little, and hopefully he’ll be a little better at knowing when to kick the ball out and when to take it to the basket against a team like this.”
And therein lies the dilemma for Becker and Vermont. Bell-Haynes is quick enough to do damage in transition (he’s also a tremendous free throw shooter) and pushing tempo will help shooters like Ernie Duncan (currently 15-27 from behind the arc and 8-11 over the weekend) get open, as well as open lanes up for Hofstra transfer Darren Payen to get easy dunks, of which he had a few this weekend. Vermont is not big, 6’9” Ethan O’Day and 6’6” Kurt Steidl are very efficient offensively and Steidl’s 27.0% defensive rebounding rate last season was impressive, but they are listed at 201 and 181 pounds, respectively, so although experienced guard Dre Wills should return soon and possibly help calm things down offensively, putting together a balanced lineup for Becker could be a difficult chore as well.
For now, it’s early. After a difficult task Wednesday at Florida, Vermont still has nine more non-conference tests, including some intriguing games like Yale, Harvard, Siena, and Northeastern. If past experience is any guide, Vermont will solve its issues and be among the teams sitting near the top of the America East standings come late winter.
However, this group of pieces may be tougher than usual to complete the jigsaw puzzle.
“You’re playing against bigger, stronger athletes. It takes some getting used to, and it’s something that early in the year, we have a lot of new guys who are trying to figure out where they’re going to be and where their opportunities are going to come from,” Becker said. “In our ball-screen motion, I trust our guys to make decisions, and unfortunately early in the year, we have to clean that up, maybe watch some more tape and figure it out.”