You’ve heard of the blue bloods, the lottery picks, and the hall-of-fame coaches in men’s college basketball. And most recently, you’ve probably been alerted to the FBI Investigation that has rocked the sport.
From November to late February, there is no shortage of commentary in college hoops, yet the storylines are usually recycled and don’t provide diehard fans, or even casual observers, with much added value. This means that when March Madness rolls around and it’s time to fill out brackets, we are practically ignorant of half the teams in the Big Dance. In particular, we don’t have any knowledge on giant-killers like Middle Tennessee State in 2016, Mercer in 2014, or Lehigh in 2012. Today, that changes, as I introduce the world to the mighty Vermont Catamounts of the America East Conference; Vermont has reeled off a whopping 35 conference wins in a row, dating back to 2016.
The criteria of giant-killers
Before I delve into the Catamounts, let me establish some ground rules for what constitutes a giant-killer. Here are three criteria: experience, good outside shooting, and a track record of competing against high-major opposition.
While these stipulations are relatively arbitrary, they have proven to be important factors in recent upsets in the NCAA Tournament. Experience matters, as the pressure of the moment is often why smaller schools falter down the stretch against the Goliaths of the sport. Good outside shooting is necessary because the three-pointer is the great equalizer. Mid-majors generally don’t have the same athletes that the Dukes and Arizonas of the world have, so they must rely on beating those teams in a separate category. By specializing in outside shooting, upstart teams give themselves a fighting chance, even if they make fewer field goals and lose the battle on the inside. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a team that has proven itself capable of running with the big boys is a prime candidate to send a top seed home early.
According to KenPom.com, Vermont ranks 30th in the country in experience at 2.23 years per player. That puts the Catamounts ahead of programs touted for their veteran leadership such as Purdue (49th) and Seton Hall (61st). A high level of experience indicates poise and maturity, which are absolutely crucial components to pulling off a Cinderella story on the nation’s biggest stage.
Of course, experience measured by years is insufficient, or otherwise UT-Arlington, the most experienced team in the country, would be a shoo-in for a national championship. It is also necessary to have potent scorers, preferably all-conference type players, to be on your squad. The Catamounts have that in the form of senior guard Trae Bell-Haynes, the 2017 America East Conference Player of the Year and All-American Honorable Mention. Decorated, experienced guards have shown a penchant for showing out in March, whether it be Sindarius Thornwell in 2017, CJ McCollum in 2012, or Kemba Walker in 2011. That fact is true for mid-major and high-major programs alike.
The Catamounts can really shoot the ball. I mean, really shoot the ball. Their three-point field goal percentage is 40.7 percent on the year, an elite rate that several players on the team contribute to. Six players who see regular playing time shoot 36 percent or better from the three-point line, so good luck trying to cut off the offense by just limiting Bell-Haynes.
Bell-Haynes himself is only shooting 32 percent from downtown on 2.1 attempts per game, while the Catamounts’ leading scorer, sophomore guard Anthony Lamb, is shooting 36 percent on 2.8 attempts per game. While Lamb has been out with a foot injury, senior forward Drew Urquhart has stepped into the starting lineup, averaging nearly 13 points per game as the Catamounts wait on Lamb to heal up. Vermont’s two best outside shooters, brothers Ernie and Everett Duncan, shoot 41 and 49 percent from three-point range on 5 and 3.3 attempts per game, respectively. While the Catamounts rely on Bell-Haynes and Lamb to run the show, the Duncans have zeroed in on their roles as slashers and distributors, while the rest of the team knocks down outside shots. This can be a winning formula in March.
Track record of competing against high-major competition
Perhaps the biggest reason to buy the Catamounts is their ability to put a scare into big-time teams. This season, for example, Vermont fell by just four points, 73-69, to then-No. 5 Kentucky, in Rupp Arena. In last year’s NCAA Tournament, the Catamounts trailed by a point at halftime against Purdue and were within five points with under four minutes remaining.
And if we look at all-time history, who can forget when TJ Sorrentine stunned 4-seed Syracuse from the parking lot?
While Vermont is certainly no Butler or Gonzaga, the Catamounts have built a formidable threat to any Power 5 team looking to waltz into the second weekend. However, the Catamounts have played well enough to ensure at least a 13 seed, if not higher, so it is unlikely that they will be sneaking up on anyone. But if any team is foolish enough to overlook Vermont, they will be in for a rude surprise, going home early as the hot-shooting Catamounts traverse to the next round.
Image Credits: Vermont Sports Information