With John Becker at the Helm, Vermont Hasn’t Missed a Beat

Posted by Ray Curren (@currenrr) on February 8th, 2017

Five years ago, John Becker led Vermont to the NCAA Tournament in his first season as a Division I coach, upsetting Stony Brook in the America East championship game to complete a remarkable personal run that included coaching tennis at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hearing impaired. Although he had never played tennis beyond a casual level, he enjoyed more success in that sport than he did as the Division III school’s basketball coach, where he went 6-44 from 1997-99. After losing that job, Becker stayed in the Washington, D.C., area to get a master’s in information systems at George Washington, and five years later, he left a comfortable job in the Beltway to become the new Director of Basketball Operations for Mike Lonergan at Vermont. When Lonergan left for George Washington in 2011, Becker became his successor, and 10 months later he was in the NCAA Tournament beating Lamar in the First Four before losing to North Carolina. But that was 2012, and the “lucky to be here” phase of his career arc in Burlington is now long gone. Although Vermont has won at least 20 games in all six of his seasons on the sideline, the Catamounts have not returned to the NCAA Tournament since that initial run. And for one of the best mid-major fan bases in college basketball — a group that fills the wooden bleachers of Patrick Gym in snow, sleet and whatever the Flavor of the Month is at Ben and Jerry’s — that’s a decent-sized drought.

With John Becker at the helm, Vermont hasn’t missed a beat. (AP)

Luckily, the wait may soon be over. Vermont (21-5, 11-0 America East), a team that has won 13 straight games dating back to a pre-Christmas loss to Butler, is clearly the best team in the America East. While Stony Brook’s breakthrough last season was a feel-good story, you might also remember that the Catamounts blew a 15-point second-half lead in last year’s America East Tournament final. Most everyone returned from last year’s CBI semifinalist squad, and Becker also brought in Tulane transfer Peyton Henson and freshman Anthony Lamb, a classic mid-major steal who just finds a way to produce at both ends of the floor. Picked by America East coaches to win the conference crown this season, Vermont was going to be good. And for better or worse, they knew it. “It’s fairly obvious if you’re around us and have been around us since the beginning of last season, this group has been motivated and focused on getting back to the NCAA Tournament,” Becker said. “We don’t sit around and talk about it, but the way they carry themselves and the way they go about their business certainly indicates that they’re motivated to end this year the right way, with a championship.”

Still, until Lamb broke in at fourth place over the weekend, Vermont had crushed 10 America East competitors without a single player on the conference all-KenPom team. Rather, it’s been death by committee, with any of a number of Vermont players proving capable of picking up the flag (which is on the shoulder of their alternate pewter uniforms, by the way) and leading the charge to another victory. While Lamb led the way with 24 points last Saturday against Hartford, senior Darren Payen (who began his college career at Hofstra) came off the bench to score 19 points in just 18 minutes. “They’re sort of the juggernaut of our league,” Hartford head coach John Gallagher said afterward. “They really have it going right now. They have senior leadership; they have upperclassmen; they make tough shots; they get to the foul line; they have great poise to them. This is the least amount of plays that Vermont has probably ever run. And when you don’t run a lot of plays, that means you have really good players and you have depth, so they have seniors and a good mix of guys.” Payen surely envisioned being on the floor more when he made the move from the CAA to the America East, but he hasn’t played more than 21 minutes in any game this season. He and the other Catamounts know, however, that winning teams are also usually competitive squads in practice, helping make each other better with internal competition every day.

Players like senior Darren Payen is a major reason for Vermont’s current undefeated season. (Burlington Free Press)

“It was a lot tougher for me in the beginning of the season,” Payen said. “There’s a lot of talent on this team, especially with our bigs. The minutes have been kind of spread out unevenly in non-conference and in conference, so I’m just trying to understand that sometimes it’s going to be my game, sometimes it’s going to be Anthony’s [Lamb] or Drew’s [Urquhart] game; you never know who is going to show up and play the best out of all the bigs. So I just try to keep a positive attitude on a day-to-day basis and know when it’s my turn to produce.” Junior point guard Trae Bell-Haynes entered college as a turnover-prone whirlwind, but his miscue rate is down to 18.6 percent this season (14.4% in conference play). Sharpshooter Ernie Duncan missed most of last season with an injury, but he has been especially effective in an offense with so many options. Senior Kurt Steidl plays much bigger than his 6’6”, 190-pound frame in the middle of the paint, and Becker can go with veterans like defensive specialist Dre Wills and Cam Ward (in addition to Payen) if he feels like someone is having a tough day. (Vermont would likely be even deeper if it had Josh Speidel playing. Speidel, who would be a sophomore, survived a horrific auto accident in February 2015, and has been a source of inspiration for the Catamounts just with his presence.)

Vermont leads the America East in both offensive and defensive efficiency this season, but it’s been on the defensive end where it has been truly suffocating, allowing opponents just 44.9% eFG. “That’s kind of been who we are,” Becker said. “We do a good job controlling the paint.” Vermont is one of only six remaining unbeaten conference teams and has a decent chance to run the table with five games remaining and 76 KenPom spots between the Catamounts and their nearest competitor, Albany. Of course, in mid-major land, even an undefeated season means very little if they can’t cash in come March, but as likely regular season champs, they will have all their games at Patrick Gym. If Vermont can get past its recent demons and reach the NCAA Tournament, it is likely to receive a seed somewhere near the No. 13 line, where you might remember what happened when the Catamounts were last in that slot: T.J. Sorrentine, Taylor Coppenrath and one of the most memorable first-round NCAA upsets in recent memory. But past failures mean Vermont will leave nothing to chance. And even the guy whose improbable rise rivals any coach currently in Division I basketball knows this might be a chance to do something special. “A lot of guys are banged up, but most everyone is this time of year and hopefully our depth can help us a little bit,” Becker said. “This will be interesting to see how we do through this stretch. There’s still a lot of season left in America East play as well. I don’t think we’re taking anything for granted. We still need to keep getting better.”

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