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UMass Lowell and Vermont clash in battle of unbeatens in America East

Lowell’s litmus test is here.

Courtest, UMass Lowell Athletics

Vermont’s last conference loss came Jan. 11, 2023, when it fell at the hands of an upstart UMass Lowell team that has finally broke through after a decade of mediocrity.

The Catamounts have a stranglehold on the rest of the league, and the litmus test for any legit challenger is always whether they can beat John Becker’s team. On Thursday, Vermont returns to Lowell to face a scorching hot Riverhawks team looking to once again prove that they are worthy challengers.

“It’s exciting,” UMass Lowell head coach Pat Duquette said. “It’s taken a while, but I’m proud of the way we’ve built the program.”

Before last year, the Riverhawks had never finished above .500 in conference play, but following an 11-5, second-place campaign with 26 total wins, there was tangible hype heading into the season. The hype has so far been backed up, as UMass Lowell is now 14-4 and 5-0 in the America East.

“They have really good continuity,” Becker said of his next opponent. “They have a lot of guys that have been there for a bunch of years, and have won a lot, they expect to win and they understand how to win.”

After back-to-back 20-point wins on the road at Albany and Binghamton, Duquette thinks that the Riverhawks are playing excellent basketball.

“Guys have been consistent,” he said. “We’ve handled adversity well, and I think you have to do both of those things well to win on the road. We’re getting great contributions from lots of guys, so I think we’re in a good spot right now.”

UML has had six and five different double digit scorers respectively over the last two games, even though preseason first team All-America East big man Abdoul Karim Coulibaly did not crack that mark. He is still on a minutes restriction as he works back from an injury.

However, Vermont has seen challengers like this before. While they haven’t won the automatic bid every single year, teams have not been able to consistently get the best of the Catamounts.

“Every year, different guys step up,” Duquette says of his conference foe. “They fill that roster with new players that understand their system. They play the right way, they’re unselfish, they find the open man, they’re disciplined on defense. You’ve got to be really good to beat them.”

Vermont has no players with a usage rate above 24%, and Becker runs one of the deepest benches in the country.

“That’s always been the way that we play,” Becker said. “It’s a true motion offense in the sense that we’ll always start with an initial action to create an advantage, but we want that ball moving around and findin the open guy and everybody has the green light.”

The mark of a great program is the ability to bounce back, and Becker’s team did just that last year after the UML game.

“It was a come-to-jesus moment for us as a team,” the six-time America East Coach of the Year said. “We did a couple of tactical things, but most importantly, I think that the guys realized that we had to play a whole lot better, and they responded to that.”

This season though, Becker is hoping that there’s no need for a moment like that. Even as the Catamounts replaced four starters for the second straight year, Vermont is in a better place now than it was a year ago.

“It’s been a little bit smoother this year,” Becker said. “The transition has been much more seamless. The non-conference schedule is a lot friendlier this year than it was last year, I still think our best basketball is ahead of us.”

With Shamir Bogues now off of his minutes restriction, according to Becker, the Catamounts guard depth is going to provide a stiff task for Lowell’s star, Ayinde Hikim.

A 5-foot-11 guard from Washington, D.C., Hikim’s role has evolved this year into UMass Lowell’s offensive engine. He’s averaging 15.9 points and 5.3 assists per game, both numbers lead the team.

Vermont won’t have just one matchup for him, but Bogues will likely guard him plenty.

“Shamir has been arguably our best player,” Becker said. “The dynamic changes with him back in the lineup, and the rotations change. I think our ceiling goes up with him back.”

With each team entering on a winning streak, and undefeated in conference play, the stakes couldn’t be much higher at this time of the year.

Both coaches know that, both teams know that.

The two meet again on March 2nd in Burlington, but that is a long way away. The here and now is in Lowell, and if it lives up to the hype, Thursday’s game will be one to remember.