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The Other Top 25 Preseason Rankings: No. 18 Vermont Catamounts

Vermont has dominated the America East lately and that should continue.

NCAA Basketball: Vermont at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

2019-20 Record: 26-7 (14-2 America East)

Key Returners: Stef Smith, Ryan Davis, Ben Shungu, Robin Duncan, Duncan Demuth, Bailey Patella, Aaron Deloney

Key Losses: Anthony Lamb, Everett Duncan, Daniel Giddens

Key Newcomers: Bernie Andre (Northern Arizona), Justin Mazzulla (George Washington), Tomas Murphy (Northeastern)

Not many programs can say they’ve won their conference four years in a row, but Vermont has spent an entire presidential term atop the America East.

In fact, the only time in the past three tournaments that Vermont did not make the dance, it was when UMBC went on its miracle run and knocked off Virginia to become the first-ever 16 seed to beat a 1 seed. Vermont is 59-5 in the league since 2017 with three of those losses to UMBC.

This season, the Catamounts return three starters and the 2019-20 America East Sixth Man of the Year. There’s little doubt that they are favored to win the league again.

Key non-conference games

The Catamounts have only announced four non-conference games to this point with a Dec. 1 clash against St. Bonaventure at Mohegan Sun the highlight. Vermont won a thriller in Olean to open last season.

Nov. 30 Buffalo (Mohegan Sun)
Dec. 1 Saint Bonaventure (Mohegan Sun)
Dec. 2 Iona (Mohegan Sun)
Dec. 6 vs Siena

3 things to watch:

Who will take over Anthony Lamb’s leadership role?

Anthony Lamb was a generational player in the America East. He was top 20 in 15 conference KenPom categories a year ago, ranking 47th nationally in %Poss and 50th in %Shots, meaning he had the ball a lot and made a lot of the decisions.

He is gone and handed his role over to two-year starter and 2020 All-America East first team player, Stef Smith.

“[I learned to] always be competitive on a consistent basis,” Smith told Mid-Major Madness about his time as Lamb’s teammate.

Smith might bring more to the plate than Lamb, though. He led the league in effective field goal, true shooting, and three-point percentages, and was second in offensive rating. He scored in single digits only seven times last season and showed out against big opponents. Smith had 17 points on 7-13 shooting in the Catamounts’ upset victory over St. John’s, and in a close loss to Cincinnati, he scored 18 more.

Depth

Vermont used its bench more than anyone else in the America East, ranking 83rd in the country in bench participation. The next-closest team in the league was bottom-feeder Maine, at 118.

The Catamounts bring back three starters and America East Sixth Man of the Year Ryan Davis. That is a solid two guards and two forwards. But behind them, they bring back most of their reserves from a year ago.

Robin Duncan is the last of the trio of Duncan brothers, and has been solid off the bench for the Cats. He scored in double-digits six times last season.

Bailey Patella appeared in all 33 games last season, scoring 10 against UMass Lowell.

Aaron Deloney scored in double digits three times last season, including 17 against UMass Lowell. That game won him America East Rookie of the Week honors.

Duncan Demuth could not quite crack the rotation last year, but the Oklahoma State transfer is looking more and more like the kid recruited to Stillwater.

To add on to what they have, John Becker’s staff brought in a former Atlantic 10 starter in George Washington’s Justin Mazzulla.

Mazzula started 45 games in a little over two seasons for the Colonials, scoring in double digits in 11 of 14 GW games from from Dec. 2018 to Jan. 2019.

Northern Arizona’s Bernie Andre was also added to the squad. He ranked nationally in defensive rebounding percentage a year ago and shot 57 percent from two-point range.

Lastly, 2017-18 CAA All-Rookie team member Tomas Murphy joins the Catamounts. He started four of the five games he played for Northeastern a year ago and scored 18 against UMass on 9-12 shooting.

Defensive stronghold

The Catamounts ranked fifth in two-point field goal percentage defense last year and the only teams above them were from major conferences: Memphis, Virginia, Kansas, and Michigan State.

And Vermont isn’t letting up. For the first month and a half of practice, the team has pretty much only practiced defense. Perimeter defense, to be exact, where the Catamounts weren’t quite as strong. Vermont gave up 32.2 percent from three, which was still a respectable 117th in the nation.

The stellar play from two-point range starts with Ben Shungu who won the 2020 America East Defensive Player of the Year award. But Becker told Mid-Major Madness that senior Bailey Patella might be the most destructive defender on the team. In only 509 minutes and no starts, Patella had 13 blocked shots and 27 steals.

The transfers will also help. Mazulla moved to Burlington from an amazing defensive head coach in Jamion Christian at George Washington, while Andre ranked seventh in the Big Sky in defensive rebound percentage.

X-Factor

Ryan Davis

The reigning Sixth Man of the Year will more than likely have a bigger role than in recent years, but that will not change the way he plays.

Davis led the America East in OR% and ORtg, and was second in the league in turnover rate and two-point field goal percentage. Becker told Mid-Major Madness that he’s only improved over the offseason.

Davis scored in double digits in half of his America East games, showing that he is ready to take that step to an all-league player.