Vermont and Yale have had the same problem the last couple of seasons. They have become too successful to fill a non-conference schedule without a whole lot of work.
So on Saturday afternoon, they were happy to see each other, even if for Yale, it meant a first home non-conference loss in nearly three years (Dec. 20, 2014 to Albany) as the experienced Catamounts continued to add to their resume with a 79-73 victory at Lee Amphitheater.
For Vermont, it was its fifth straight win, three of which have been by six points or fewer, including two (Bradley, Northern Kentucky) on their way to winning the Bahamas Showcase. Geography also works against the Catamounts, for whom Sunday began another five-game road trip. Their only home game in their first 10 was against NAIA school Maine-Fort Kent, and they have only two other non-conference games at Patrick Gym (Siena, Quinnipiac), which is a shame because they have one of the top mid-major crowds in the country. Which is, of course as Joseph Heller would tell us, a Catch-22 because it’s also the reason no opponent will play there voluntarily.
“I just had to find 15 teams that would play us,” Vermont coach John Becker said. “I had no choice, I wish I could say it was strategic. But this group is battle-tested in the sense that we’ve been in a close game every night. Besides the Kentucky game, where we had a couple of clean looks to tie it, we’ve been able to execute down the stretch. Our guys are poised and expect to win. That’s the nice thing with coaching a veteran team. They make the coaches look good.”
Vermont (5-1), of course, nearly won at Rupp Arena in its opener, but 2017-18 stands to be a culmination of everything Becker has done in Burlington. He has won 20 games in each of his six seasons in charge there, and the Catamounts finished 29-6 last season, a perfect 16-0 in America East play (19-0 if you count the tournament), losing a close game to Purdue in the NCAA Tournament.
They lost Kurt Steidl, Darren Payen, and Dre Wills to graduation, but have a four-year starter at point guard in Trae Bell-Haynes, brothers Ernie and Everett Duncan – who have been in the program for four and three years, respectively – as well as Tulane transfer Payton Henson, who had 19 points Sunday.
“We’re going to be well-tested,” Henson said. “We’re just trying to execute each gameplan every night out, and hopefully we’ll keep on winning.”
Of course, last but not least, there is sophomore Anthony Lamb, widely considered one of the best mid-major players in the country and favorite to win America East Player of the Year (actually won by Bell-Haynes last season). Lamb is only 6-foot-6, but plays much bigger. In the second half Sunday, Yale had no answer as he finished with 22 points and seven rebounds. Many of them came after a massive Miye Oni that gave Yale a 48-47 lead with 13:25 left. Let’s just say Vermont wasn’t too thrilled with being collectively posterized.
Miye Oni with the slam for #Yale!! #SCtop10 #IvyTop5 #IvyHoops @ESPNAssignDesk pic.twitter.com/dtWpzvGQkj
— Yale_Basketball (@Yale_Basketball) November 25, 2017
“I took it personally,” Lamb said. “Immediately, I was done with the crowd. We were just going to going and bust you at that point. You can have that dunk, but we’re going to get the win. After that, it was no fun and games, we were just going to go into the paint and brutalize people. We’ll just take the win and leave.”
Lamb did shoot 41% from three-point range last season, but only attempted 61. That type of improvement, in addition to more production from its bench (Drew Urquhart, another veteran, scored eight points on 3-3 shooting in 14 minutes), could push Vermont to its (and America East’s) first NCAA win since 2005, the famous upset of Syracuse.
It may be a tougher road to get to the NCAAs this time around, however. Albany has been to four of the last five America East finals, winning three (2013-15), is currently 6-0 and up to No. 82 in KenPom (Vermont is 68). Stony Brook and New Hampshire have solid squads, but if it’s anyone but those two squads, it will be a major surprise.
“This is a hard place to play and they’re a good team,” Becker said. “I challenged our big guys in the second half to control the paint and I think they did. We only had two offensive rebounds at halftime, and we were much better. Obviously, Lamb took over the game for a while and was much better.”
On the other side of Saturday’s result, this will be the first season since 1949-50 that Yale (3-4) will not play any other Connecticut opponents. But three years ago, they beat UConn at Gampel Pavilion so the Huskies were suddenly off-limits. Still, as recently as 2015-16, four in-state rivals remained, but Yale beat them all by an average of 22 points, then went on to beat Baylor in the NCAA Tournament, and so here we are.
Like Vermont, the Bulldogs’ tough non-conference slate is some by design, but mostly by necessity.
The challenge was made greater when sophomore Jordan Bruner was lost for the season and preseason Ivy League Player of the Year (for a second time) was injured. Mason is hoping to return for Ivy play, but sources close to the team say it will depend how far he progresses before then.
James Jones, now in his 19th season, has turned Yale into one of the top rebounding programs in the country, but other than freshman Paul Atkinson, he doesn’t have another big body to play, and it could result in a frustrating campaign, at least on that front. Yale managed seven offensive rebounds (21.9%) Saturday, but five were “team” rebounds, meaning they either went out of bounds off Vermont or were a loose-ball foul on the Catamounts.
“I mean, we don’t have any alternatives,” Jones said. “We have who we have, and we have to do a better job at rebounding. What they did is they packed the paint and they make it very difficult to get offensive rebounding opportunities. We’ll miss the length of Jordan, but we have to do a better job of getting position and chasing those balls. When we get our hands on them, we have to come down with them.”
Working for Jones and Yale might be that tough schedule. They dominated in wins over Division III Curry, South Carolina St., and Alcorn St. (someone had to fill the gap left by the Connecticut schools), and their losses have come to Creighton, Wisconsin, Albany, and now Vermont, all strong and large squads.
“I look at Vermont and Albany and they’re two senior-laden teams,” Jones said. “They both have seniors and graduate students in their frontcourt. I have freshmen playing against seniors. I would hope that when Paul Atkinson is a senior and some freshman comes in and tries to guard them, I expect similar results. We didn’t expect Paul to be our starting center, but you have the guys you have and those guys have to grow up. These types of games teach you something.”
They do, however, have sophomore Miye Oni, who brought at least one NBA scout to New Haven Saturday and finished with 26 points (5-12 three-point range), seven boards, and two dunks, including that massive one. (“He’s tremendous. He looks like an NBA player to me,” Becker said.) With Mason out, Oni has played a lot of point guard, a position he played plenty growing up and in high school. The bigger problem for Yale may be complementing him. Alex Copeland and Trey Phills have both struggled shooting, although freshman Azar Swain and former football player Noah Yates have hit some big shots.
Noah Yates doing a little bit of everything for #Yale! #IvyHoops pic.twitter.com/NF7NymHKX3
— Yale_Basketball (@Yale_Basketball) November 25, 2017
But finding the right combination with the team they have will take time.
“I feel like I have to be more of a leader, and so do the other guys,” Oni said. “Everyone just has a bigger role to play, and we just have to keep coming together as a team. I was a point guard until I grew over six feet in my junior year of high school. I have to get my turnovers down, but I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job of running the offense and keeping us in the offense. Every day I’m getting better at it. I can go to the wing when someone else runs the point, so that makes me a little harder to guard, too.”
Working for Yale is that Ivy League play doesn’t open until Jan. 12 and unless someone else steps up other than Princeton, Harvard, and Penn, the Bulldogs look to have a really good chance to return to the Ivy League Tournament in Philadelphia.
Until then, it’s making their way through a non-conference slate that still has trips to TCU, St. Bonaventure, Georgia Tech, and Iona, as well as games at Delaware and Kennesaw St. Combined, Vermont and Yale will play 29 non-conference games against Division I teams. Only six will be at home (including Saturday’s). Such is life for a mid-major power.