Vermont State Hoops and America East

by Bill Murphy

It was supposed to be Burlington’s turn this time. Talk was Rice was the underdog heading into the early January collision at Rice Thursday night. BUT! Remember you have to throw out the records and everything else when it’s a Rivalry Game. Didn’t you know that?

Then there are those pundits who say, IS Rice and Burlington still a rivalry? Doesn’t a team have to win some games to really make it a rivalry? Yankee fans use to rub it in Red Sox fans faces prior to 2004. The Red Sox are not our rivals. When do they ever win?

Rice coach Paul Pecor will have none of the talk about their being no rivalry with the Seahorses. The Red Sox and the Yankees, they have a great number of the same players year after year, so those winning years meant more, the Rice coach believes. When Rice and Burlington meet, Pecor points out, “the personnel on our teams teams are always changing. Burlington is a very good team. It doesn’t matter at all what happened a couple of years ago.” These were his words, DESPITE THE FACT, Rice has won thirteen of the last fourteen games in the rivalry.

We spoke to Pecor both before and after the initial 2016 showdown with Burlington Thursday. About an hour after the game, he was still in excited mode telling us in record speed, “This was such an emotional night. It was draining, BUT, it was certainly nice to win,” which Rice did 58-55. He went on to say, “this was a big win for us. Ben (Shungu) went off. He had 35. Every team had been doubling him lately and other players have found a way to step it up. The confidence of winning in New York helped us and this team plays incredibly hard.”

Hard enough to keep the string going against Burlington and the rest of Vermont. The two Burlington based programs have owned Vermont Division I Boys Basketball in the 2000’s. Between the two schools, they have combined for 19 of the 32 D-1 title appearances in that period of time. The Seahorses have been there ten times and Rice nine, BUT, Rice has captured seven titles and Burlington four in that span.

Another compelling bit of history is that since the 1999 title won by Mount Saint Joseph, Southern Vermont has all but disappeared. During that sixteen year period, there has been only two title appearances by Southern schools, a close to unbelievable number.

Should the North even respect the South and their competitive level any longer? Again, Pecor points to the personnel turnover and predicts this year could go against the numbers. “I thought from what I have seen, that Rutland would be in the mix this year and I think Mount Anthony will be too. Mount Anthony is a big surprise. I didn’t see them coming, BUT, they got a 6-7 transfer, who is a really good player.”

The South has had better involvement in the D-1 Final Four lately, after a stretch of having little participation and only those two representatives in the last sixteen title games. The South has advanced two teams to the Final Four in five of the last seven years, (following a stretch of eight straight years of the South placing less than two entries), BUT, despite the success of reaching the Final Four, they were basically missing in action in semi-final games. The point totals during those six, two representative years in semi-final action were North 119 South 75 (2009), North 110-85 (2010), North 126 South 99 (2012- closer than usual because Brattleboro lost an overtime game), North 110 South 79 (2013) and North 117 South 69 (2015). Since 1999, the only two South teams to play in a final were Brattleboro (2002) and Rutland (2011).

What makes one think that Rutland and Mount Anthony can do better this winter? “I think there is definitely better balance,” Pecor says of the top four teams and results have shown this. Rice’s only loss was at Rutland, when they saw a fifteen point lead evaporate and fell 66-65. Burlington is 3-0 with Southern powers to date, winning in extra time 84-81 at Mount Anthony in a classic, while they defeated Rutland twice (66-58 at home and 53-44 on the road).

Pecor was upbeat after defeating Burlington Thursday night, BUT, he was cautious, but confident about his 6-1 team. “There are a lot of games left,” he pointed out and their are two dates that ought to fill the gym so get there early. They host Mount Anthony on Saturday the 16th at 2:30 and then in the season finale, travel cross town to Burlington on February 12th.
After that everyone will find out IF a Southern representative can reach the Final Four this time around.

WILL THERE BE BALANCE IN AMERICA EAST- It was exciting and interesting to follow play on the opening night of the America East Mens Basketball season Wednesday. Sitting courtside in Bangor, Maine during the first half of the Catamounts 90-72 victory, it was strange to see the young Black Bears speed up the pace and challenge John Beckers team, at one stage grabbing an eight point lead and then the two teams traded surges before settling for a 40-40 tie at the break. Some people have said the disparity of talent is narrowing in the league and it made one wonder,

My computer told me that in three other America East gymnasiums the same thing was happening. There was no clear favorite in the Hartford and UMass-Lowell match-up, BUT most everyone expected Stony Brook and Albany to run away and hide from Binghamton and the University of Maryland- Baltimore County respectively. HOWEVER, when all four games were at halftime, no one had more than a three point lead. IT WAS AMAZING!

By the time, the night had concluded, Vermont, Stony Brook and Albany had all separated from the opposition, BUT, in each case, the eventual loser made one more run at stealing the opener. The question remains, IS THE LEAGUE CLOSER FROM TOP TO BOTTOM?

We contend that it is not. The pre-season poll says it will be Stony Brook, Albany, Vermont and New Hampshire in that order, followed by Binghamton, Hartford, UMBC, UMass Lowell and Maine. The thought here is that the first four, do line up at this moment in that order, BUT, the separation between first and fourth is very narrow. The strong feeling here IS, that they are the only four good enough to win three in a row in March and move on to the NCAA Tournament. So America East has FOUR HAVES and FIVE HAVE NOTS.

Will there be more upsets this year. Possibly, BUT, if any team sneaks into the Top Four, it will be shocking.

HOW BIG IS THE ALBANY MATCH-UP SATURDAY?- It is a BIG game, BUT, the question is how big. Will Catamount fans pack Patrick Gymnasium for thenoon tip-off?

This UVM squad has proven they are worthy of top of the heap consideration, BUT, these games usually come down to a half dozen plays, which are made or not made by each team. Last season UVM prevailed when Albany came to Burlington the first time around, BUT, Albany pulled off the three peat for the NCAA AE Tournament bid. So we said this is a BIG game, BUT, we ask again, how BIG?

Coach John Becker is certainly looking forward to it, BUT, he knows, it is just that early step in what should be a league grind all winter. He told us after the opening night win over Maine in Bangor, “we’re excited to test ourselves out against the champs.They got us twice last year and we are going to be excited and ready to go.”

Defense will likely be the key Saturday. Vermont showed in the big Harvard win that they could clamp down on a frontcourt efficient team, now the guards will be tested more seriously against the Great Danes. Talking about the teams overall defense following the Harvard win, Ethan O’Day told us, “that’s somewhere where we’ve struggled this year, being consistent on the defensive end.” He also noted in our conversation, that counting the Sienna game, the Cats had had back to back strong defensive efforts.

O’Day knotted his 1,000th point in the Maine win and it was down the stretch of the contest. When we asked O’Day IF he was able to keep track and know when it happened, because no Catamount appeared to react to the moment? O’Day said “I was wondering how close I was, BUT, I knew right away when it happened. I heard AJ on the call. I am glad to get it out of the way now so I can just focus on them (Albany).

In a chaotic first half in Maine, in which the hosts had that eight point lead, Trae Bell-Haynes put on the burners to assure the Black Bears didn’t spoil the opening night show. Bell-Haynes finished one point short of his career high (28), BUT, it was the 17 first half points that saved the day. Bell-Haynes, always one to downplay his significance publicly in any situation said “it was just the way the game went. I just try to do what I needed to do at the time.”

Albany is the focus now and for success in that one it all comes back to the defense. We will let Becker be the one to set the tone headed into Saturday. The parting shot from his lips after the Harvard win was “it is the right time of year to start playing better defense.” Saturday at noon time will be the next right time.

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