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Get to know the Vermont Catamounts

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The America East champs are back.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Purdue vs Vermont Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

While Vermont was surely happy for its conference brothers at UMBC when the Retrievers became famous about this time last year, they also had to wonder if it could have been them. After all, the Catamounts had rolled through the America East at 17-1 until the Retrievers, well, we don’t need an excuse to relive what they did last March, do we?

But with great disappointment comes great motivation, especially for Anthony Lamb, who played in that America East final but was not close to healthy for nearly the entire season leading up to it. He was fine Saturday morning as Vermont (despite being swept by UMBC in the regular season) left no doubt this year, suffocating the Retrievers 66-49 to return to the NCAA Tournament.

The Catamounts have been the dominant team in America East for a decade or more, and before there was UMBC there was 2004-05 Vermont, which upset Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament, led by local legends like Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine. Can players like Lamb and Ernie Duncan carry on the tradition?

Who is their coach?

John Becker began his coaching career in 1994 at Gallaudet, a school for the hearing impaired in Washington. Coaching tennis. He was also an assistant basketball coach and rose to head coach, where he proceeded to go 4-44 in two seasons. For most, that would be the end of a coaching career, and for a while, it was. Becker went into IT work, but eventually the bug came back, and he spent a couple seasons as an assistant at Division III Catholic. In 2006, his friend (and a former Catholic coach) Mike Lonergan took him on to be Director of Basketball Operations at Vermont, a spot normally reserved for coaches just starting out. Two years later, though, he was a full-time assistant, and then when Lonergan left in 2011 to go to George Washington, Becker had completed his improbable rise to a Division I head coach.

Since, he’s been nothing short of brilliant, compiling a conference record of 107-21 in eight seasons in Burlington. Despite a couple of home postseason setbacks and another where he led Stony Brook by 17 in the second half of an America East final, this will be Becker’s third NCAA Tournament appearance. Should Vermont pull an upset, it’s likely the 50-year-old’s name will pop up in openings around the country. Heck, maybe even if they lose.

I don’t really watch mid-majors. Is there a player from Vermont I should know?

Why yes, you should know junior Anthony Lamb, one of the best players in the country. He had some offers coming out of high school, but at 6’6 without much of an outside shot (at the time), he was not as highly sought after as he should have been. But Vermont knew that and has been rewarded for it.

Lamb is incredibly strong and quick for his size and can score in the post or running at defenders 1-on-1. He has added an outside game this season, hitting 47 three-pointers, making him virtually unstoppable when he’s on. He averaged 21.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, putting 34 on Yale, 37 on Harvard and 42 on St. Bonaventure in non-conference play (all Vermont wins). Oh, and he had 28-and-9 in the conference title game Saturday.

The rest of the roster

For only the fifth time in Division I history, three brothers are on the same roster, and all contribute to the cause. Fifth-year senior Ernie Duncan brings experience and a great shooting touch, having hit 295 three-pointers in his career at a 41.4 percent clip. Freshman Robin and sophomore Everett are a little taller, and there are times when all three will be on the floor together.

Two-time America East Player of the Year Trae Bell-Haynes graduated, but his replacement Stef Smith came from the same school in Ontario, and the sophomore played extremely well down the stretch. He hit eight three-pointers in the America East semifinals against Binghamton. While we know what Lamb will bring, Smith may hold the key to Vermont pulling an upset.

Required reading

Alex Abrami, Burlington Free Press | America East championship: Vermont books NCAA Tournament berth, topples UMBC

Alex Abrami, Burlington Free Press | Athena grad Anthony Lamb starring as D-I freshman

Augie Benjamin, The Vermont Cynic | Profile on John Becker, UVM men’s basketball coach

Can they win?

Vermont is projected to be a No. 13 seed next week, so yes, yes it can. The Catamounts will obviously need a lot of things to go their way. Like most mid-majors, they will enter undersized and will need Lamb to play big and do so while staying out of foul trouble. Vermont is second nationally in defensive rebounding and 22nd in fewest fouls, so if those things aren’t going their way, you’ll probably know they’re in trouble.

At the other end, Lamb will (rightfully so) get all the attention, but it will likely be his partners who will make the difference. If the Duncans and Smith are hitting shots, Vermont will at least be in the game until crunch time. The time where players like T.J. Sorrentine become NCAA Tournament legends.