by Bill Murphy

Regardless of how many games they win OR how well they play, it all comes down to three days in March for John Becker’s University of Vermont Mens Basketball team. Circle the dates of March 1st, 6th and 11th because those are the dates, this team is expected to play in Patrick Gym, in an attempt to earn their way to the NCAA basketball tournament.

How good they are, can be argued today, tomorrow and every day, as long time Catamount fans, compare them to teams of years gone by. There have been individual players in the past, who definitely have stood bigger, taller, better, choose your own adjective, BUT, we are speaking about the team as a whole here.One category, they definitely are in discussion for in the all time ranks, is the deepest team in UVM history.

The truth is, whether they advance to play on March 11th or not, this is a fun team to watch. ALMOST every day, they get down to it defensively, they are sometimes unselfish to a fault and they play well with or without the lead. Their coaches and administration have put them in position, through their very challenging mid major schedule, to understand what it takes to compete at a very high level. THUS, if they are successful on March 11th and advance to the NCAA Tournament,they will know kind of what to expect.

New Hampshire was picked second in the America East pre-season poll and has already defeated number three pick Albany in the Great Danes building .On Monday, after Vermont defeated UNH 71-59 in Durham, Wildcat coach Bill Herrion said of UVM, “They are a really really good basketball team. As good a team at our level…., they have depth, they have a lot of good players, they are older, they are veterans and have experience. I told our guys, they have big time winning blood in their system, because they have been there done that. They’ve played in championship games, they’ve been on the big stage. Last year,they kind of had Stony Brook beat in that Championship game and at the end, Stony Brook made plays. So they look like a team on a mission.”

NCAA basketball teams win and lose games every day. It would be nice to see these Cats, go unbeaten in their march through America East, both in season and in the post season, BUT, whether they do or not, it always will come down to the next game.This collection of players deserves to have an opportunity to compete in the NCAA Tournament and their experience gained in recent years playing in other post season tournaments can only help.

IF this UVM team is good enough to win out, (which historically is not at all common) they would finish 29-5 and possibly receive a 14th seed. Their last loss would have come at the hands of nationally ranked Butler 81-69, in the Bulldogs own building and one could call that a competitive game. IF the NCAA Tournament began today, Butler would be most likely be a four seed, BUT, possibly a third, which shows one and all, the dreams of a Syracuse type win, could come true, BUT, a loss in the Conference Tournament is equally as big a possibility.

Nothing is certain in the ranks of NCAA basketball. One thing is certain though, win or lose, this UVM team is worth watching on a regular basis and attending their games will reward you as much as it will reward them.

A few tidbits about UVM, before we move on to leave Red Sox fans something to think about:

We were surprised when Trae Bell-Haynes told us that he NEVER takes any warm-up shots at halftime. “I did in high school, but, have never done that in college and now it’s part of my routine and it works for me,”he told us in Binghamton.  I had noticed him stretching his legs at halftime that night and asked him post game IF he had troubles getting loose? Stretching his legs regularly during the break has obviously become more important to him than taking shots.

Many fans may have figured out themselves that this dynamo guard just seems to turn things on whenever needed. He often will go much of the game without being the catalyst of the offense and then all of a sudden, just attack with whatever element is needed. We asked him if he takes pride coming to a point in the game where he knows it’s time to turn things up and take his team for a ride? Following an awkward one-quarter smile, Bell-Haynes told us downplaying his knack to make the difference, “No, it’s not like that at all..,, it’s where the game takes me. We’ve had a couple of games where it has gotten tight, but it’s not really a mindset, it’s whatever I can do to help.”

In response to another question about how he views playing with this group of Catamounts and the dynamics of their overall skills, Bell-Haynes offered,”Every game I have to play some role for the team. I think today I had a bit more opportunity to score with the way they guarded Ernie (Duncan) and Kurt (Steidl). So I just do whatever my team needs me to do, whatever it may be.”

Steidl reached the 1,000 point mark recently and the experience had a little strangeness to it. You see Steidl came out of the Harvard game needing 7 points to reach the honor. He ran into Ethan O’Day, who was at the Harvard game and was the last Cat to reach the mark. Steidl told me, “Ethan told me, I know how you are going to get your 1,000th point.  You are going to get it on a free throw in Maine, just like I did.” Sure enough that is exactly how it happened.

CATAMOUNT HONOR ROLE-  UVM has five scorers within 2.7 points per game at the top of their scorers honor roll. Peyton Henson leads the parade at 11.8, followed by Bell-Haynes 11.6, Anthony Lamb tallies 10.1, Ernie Duncan is at 9.2 and  Steidl averages 9.1.

The Cats are 15-5 and outscore the opposition 73.8-64.7. They shoot almost 50 % from the floor (48.6) on the season and outshoot the opposition in every department except free throws (71.1-72.5), BUT, that is an area to possibly worry about. Ernie Duncan is the teams best three point shooter (41.9) and five other teammates have made at least nine treys, BUT, no one else is shooting higher than 36.6, except Josh Hearlihy (37.5).

A few more UVM gems: Three players shoot 80% or more from the foul line, Duncan 83.3, Steidl 82.1 and Darren Payen 80.6 and one more Payton Henson 79.1 can join the club if he makes his next two free throws. The top three rebounders for Becker’s team determined by minutes played are Drew Urquhart (one every 4.1 ), Lamb (one every 4.2) and Henson (one every 4.4). Bell-Haynes is by far the teams best play maker with 72 assists with Duncan second at 39, Cam Ward 30, Steidl 28, and Dre Wills 26 contributing strongly. Both  Bell-Haynes and Duncan enjoy a healthy impressive 2-1 ratio (72-36 and 39-19 respectively) in turnovers to assists and in the small BUT huge stat of the week, Nate Rohrer has a ratio of 9-1 in the same department on the season. He has exactly 9 assists and one turnover.

RED SOX GLASSES- Often in this space we refer to peoples drinking glasses as being full, half full or half empty. There are so many Red Sox fans I run into who think, the division and the American League World Series berth are already sewed up with Red Sox stitching, that I worry about the fallout of a miss the play-offs season.There is no question that John Farrell would loose his job in that case, BUT, I wonder about the reaction of Sox Nation as a whole IF this team does not cut it.

From a fans perspective, I agree the glass is half full, BUT, so many fans have cups that are running over, they cannot understand when I say, there are plenty of concerns about the 2017 Sox. Let me count a few ways.

1) Can Rick Porcello come even close to duplicating the season he had?

2) I think David Price did better than people gave him credit forin 2016. He wasn’t vintage David Price, BUT, a mark of 17-9/3.99 and leading the league in innings pitched is wonderful for 95% of the pitchers in the game. HOWEVER, most fans dismissed his year. I do ask though, IF he duplicates or surpasses those figures, can he win a play-off game as a starter?

3) In case you don’t know, NO Red Sox starting pitcher has ever started and won a play-off game.

4) Chris Sale is a really really good pitcher, BUT, can he escape the challenges faced by both Porcello and Sale during their first year in a Red Sox uniform?

5) The team has of yet, figured out what to do with the catching position. Sandy Leon hit over .300 last year and is very good behind the plate, BUT, he hit below the Mendoza line the last month of the season, so how much will he contribute offensively and will Christian Vazquez ever hit? One of the most surprising items of the off-season is that the Red Sox refused to use Blake Swihart in deals,so what plan do they have for him. He has been told he is a catcher again. It doesn’t look like he will open 2017 on the major league roster because even if he happens to beat Vazquez out,  the latter is out of options and they would not give him away.

6) Do you think Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley, Jr. can repeat their 2017 seasons? Do you really think their combined numbers will be that high again? Especially with no David Ortiz to give protection in the line-up.

7) Who will play third base? Will Pablo Sandoval be the answer? IF you think so, I have some land in Florida for you to buy. We are excited about Pablo’s possibility, BUT, we wouldn’t buy that land in Florida.

8) Can Dustin Pedroia still continue to produce year after year? I wonder IF he is following Tom Brady’s diet?

9) What numbers come out of the IB/DH slots? Last year they were pretty darn good. Can Mitch Moreland and Hanley Ramirez without Ortiz’ influence to keep him pointed in the right direction, come even close to those numbers?

We felt nine reasons for a baseball nine might be enough for fans to stop spilling their optimism out of their cups. The purpose of this little piece isn’t to make anyone think the Sox won’t have a good season, BUT, instead to let you see, it won’t be automatic.

In closing, I remembered there are actually ten regulars on an American League baseball team with the designated hitter, SO……

10) There is no replacing David Ortiz by any stretch of the imagination.  Big Papi will be missed on the field, in the clubhouse and in the community. I cannot imagine WHO could put Pablo and Hanley in their place, if they think eating OR shortcuts are more fun than sacrifice towards the good of the team.

The early forecast here is for the Red Sox to win the American League East and contend for all the other honors. This should be a good season. BUT…. my glass is only half full with a diamond full of concerns.