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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 24 Vermont Catamounts

John Becker and Anthony Lamb have Vermont in a good spot yet again.

NCAA Basketball: Vermont at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 Record: 27-8 (15-1 America East), First Round NIT
Key Returning Players: Anthony Lamb (F, Jr.), Ernie Duncan (G, RS Sr.), Everett Duncan (G/F, RS Jr.), Stef Smith (G, So.), Ra Kpedi (F, So.), Samuel Dingba (F, Sr.), Ben Shungu (G, RS So.)
Key Losses: Trae Bell-Haynes, Payton Henson, Drew Urquhart, Cam Ward
Key Newcomers: Robin Duncan (No. 487 247 Composite), Isaiah Moll (NR), Ryan Davis (NR)

As expected, Vermont dominated the America East in 2017-18. The Catamounts opened the regular season with a near win at Rupp Arena, and really never looked back. They racked up quality non-con wins against Harvard, Northern Kentucky, and Bradley, and then rolled to a regular season conference championship. Vermont had the league’s most efficient offense and defense, even though Anthony Lamb missed all but the final conference game due to injury.

The Catamounts had a chance to lock up a second consecutive NCAA bid when they hosted the league’s second place team for the America East Tournament title. That team was UMBC, which pulled off a now-overshadowed-but-still-impressive upset when Jairus Lyles drilled a game-winning three to send Vermont to the NIT.

It didn’t end where the Catamounts hoped, but it was still a successful 27-win campaign. John Becker has now won at least 20 games in each of his seven seasons in Burlington, and has finished with a top-76 KenPom team three times, including last year.

Key Non-Conference Games

Vermont may have a couple of blue blood headliners early, but there’s no shortage of quality mid-majors either:

Nov. 12 at Kansas
Nov. 16 at Louisville
Dec. 3 at George Mason
Dec. 8 vs. Harvard
Dec. 16 vs. Northeastern

Three Things to Watch

Who replaces Trae Bell-Haynes?

The simple, and likely correct, answer is no one. Bell-Haynes won back-to-back America East POY awards, started 132 games over his four-year career and was the catalyst behind a ruthlessly efficient Catamount offenses the past two seasons.

If nothing else, sophomore Stef Smith looks the part: he’s got a similar build and went to the same Toronto-area high school as Bell-Haynes. More importantly, while his role diminished during league play, he did show flashes against good competition last year, such as Marquette (20 points, three assists) and Bradley (14 points, three assists). He’ll likely get first crack at the point guard spot, with freshman Robin Duncan — the third Duncan brother on the roster — also in the mix.

Can Anthony Lamb reach another level?

The Catamounts were able to run up a 15-1 league record largely without Lamb, who missed all but the regular season finale with a foot fracture. This limited his season to just 18 games (14.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 49.7% eFG), and didn’t let him fully build on a breakout freshman season.

That said, the star power was there early in the year. He looked at home among Kentucky’s NBA talent (15 points, seven rebounds) and dominated Northeastern (32 points, 15-15 FT, three rebounds) and St. Bonaventure (27 points, 13-14 FT, eight rebounds) shortly before his injury. When healthy, Lamb is an efficient low-post force that should ensure Vermont does not suffer extended offensive droughts.

If he can improve as a rim protector (5.7 Blk% as a freshman) and stay consistent as a three-point shooter (Fr.: 41.0% on 61 3PA), the Catamounts have an elite player who could help weather the loss of Bell-Haynes and three other key players.

Can the defense stay afloat?

The Catamounts did a lot right last year, including posting the America East’s top defense. Maintaining that will be difficult, as they lose their best perimeter defender in Bell-Haynes, and a pair of sturdy front court defenders in Drew Urquhart and Payton Henson. The senior duo helped limit opponents to under 50 percent on two-point field goals, all without Lamb’s shot-blocking presence for the majority of America East play.

The offense should continue to hum along with Lamb, Ernie Duncan and Everett Duncan, but Becker may be harder pressed to produce another top-100 KenPom defense, especially with a seemingly undersized and inexperienced roster.

X Factor

Everett Duncan

Everett is not as established as his older brother Ernie, who landed on the America East All-Conference Second Team and All-Defensive Team last season. But the middle Duncan brother had a fine year in his own right (6.3 PPG, 47.2% on 108 3PA) in his first season as a regular part of the rotation.

Lamb and the eldest Duncan are known commodities; Everett has the size and three-point stroke to be another difference maker on the perimeter. If he takes another step forward, it’ll be tough for many teams in the America East to outshoot the Catamounts.