The Vermont Catamounts are a heavy favorite among mid-major fans. Well, at least among the staff here.
But why wouldn’t you want Vermont to win?
The Catamounts are the No. 13 underdog against No. 4 Purdue and stole the show in the America East, winning the Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Coach of the Year awards. They’re also riding a 21-game win streak.
There are six primary players that have carried Vermont and will be key in the NCAA Tournament: Payton Henson, Anthony Lamb, Trae Bell-Haynes, Ernie Duncan, Kurt Steidl and Dre Wills.
Henson was the top scorer of the title game with 17 points. He’s a redshirt junior and is quite a presence on the court at 6’8 and 215 pounds.
Lamb is Vermont’s standout. The freshman averaged 12.6 points per game, and is a versatile player that can hit three’s, drive the lane and eat up the post. He’s going to have a very successful AE career.
Bell-Haynes was the AE Player of the Year. While some people feel that the honor should have gone elsewhere if the team wasn’t on such a historic run, he’s definitely a big part of the league’s most efficient offense.
Duncan and Steidl are three-point shooters that can change the game in a shot or two. In fact, it was a three from Steidl that got the Catamounts going in the second half of the title game as Albany threatened to end the historic winning streak.
Wills has been called an “unorthodox player” from time to time, which might just be the best way to describe him. To quote Albany coach Will Brown, “he’s a 5-11 center who can dribble.” Though he might contest he’s 6-2, Wills is huge for an effective Vermont defense that held opponents to just 0.93 points per possession in AE play.
How the Cats can win
Vermont’s solid defense must show up. The Catamounts finished 11th in the nation in scoring defense, and considering they’re just below the likes of Princeton, Virginia and Gonzaga, that’s pretty damned good. They were able to defend without fouling in league play, allowing opponents to post a free throw rate of just 25.5 percent. That’ll need to continue against Purdue.
They also need to avoid a slow offensive start. Vermont almost lost the AE title game due to its inability to make shots. The Catamounts need Steidl and Duncan to hit three’s while Lamb and Henson get feeds in the post. Both players shot over 50 percent on two-point field goal attempts in AE play, finishing within the top-20 in the conference. These high percentage looks will need to feed the Vermont offense.
How the Cats can lose
It’s as simple as not making shots. If Vermont falls behind Purdue late as it did against Albany, I don’t think they’ll be able to squeeze back in front for the final minutes. The Boilermakers top scorer, Caleb Swanigan, averages 18.5 points to Lamb’s 12.6 and will be a load to handle.
It’s also worth remembering that Purdue is in the Big Ten and used to playing high pressure games like this. Can the Catamounts play their best when it matters most and continue the winning streak?