It’s not a popular topic of conversation around Patrick Gym, but Vermont’s four-point loss to Albany in the America East finals last year will continue to loom large in the Catamounts’ consciousness until they have a chance to get back on top.
Nine players — including the top three scorers and all five starters — from that 21-win team a season ago will suit up again in 2013-14 for third-year head coach John Becker. The loss to the Great Danes cast a giant shadow over the team’s offseason, but Becker and his team only think of it now in ways that will help them earn a championship this year.
“We really haven’t talked much about [the loss] since we’ve all gotten back, since we started practice basically, but I definitely see a sense of urgency with the guys, especially our six seniors,” Becker said. “We’ve put that behind us, but definitely in the way the guys are carrying themselves and working, I can see it’s not forgotten.”
So while most teams will work hard during the offseason to replace their lost talent, the Catamounts already have their identity. The cohesion and meshing are already there. The groundwork for a championship has been laid.
”I know whenever a team has that many seniors that have won that many games that that’s a proven veteran team,” Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell said. “They’re well-coached. They’re a winning culture and a winning program. They win as a team. It’s not just one player, and I think that’s what makes them so hard to play against. They’ve got a lot of good players that can beat you on any given night.”
On paper, the Catamounts’ individual numbers don’t jump out at you. Seniors Clancy Rugg (11.4 ppg), Luke Apfeld (10.7 ppg) and Sandro Carissimo (10 ppg) were the only players who averaged more than 10 points per game last season. Only senior Brian Voelkel (4.9 apg) and Carissimo (2.3 apg) averaged more than an assist per game, and as a team, the Catamounts shot at relatively ordinary percentages (43.7 percent from the field, 70.9 percent from the foul line, 32.2 percent from 3-point).
But it’s the intangibles that have the Catamounts atop the coaches’ preseason poll. Their roster is filled with grind-it-out players who hustle for all 40 minutes.
“I think without question, I don’t know how anybody doesn’t put Vermont No. 1,” Albany head coach Will Brown said.
Vermont has been in this position before — they were tabbed to finish first in the preseason poll last season as well, only to earn the one-seed in the conference tournament and fall to the fourth-seeded Great Danes in the finals.
“We were picked to win it last year, and I think the guys understand that it’s certainly an honor to be picked among your peers as the preseason favorite, but it really doesn’t mean anything,” Becker said. “I don’t know if we’re clearly the best team. I think Stony Brook and Albany and Hartford are pretty good, too.”
If it wants to live up to being the preseason favorite, Vermont will need to continue working on its offense this season. But the Catamounts’ established bread and butter are defense and rebounding.
Becker’s team held opponents to just 59.2 points per game last season, which was good for 28th in the nation. They also ranked second in the conference in both defensive rebounding and rebounding margin.
“Defense and rebounding continues to the core of what we do here,” Becker said. “And hopefully offensively we can be a little bit more dynamic and score the ball better this year. We were pretty bad last year offensively, and that’s something we have to get better at, and I think we will. But day in and day out, it’s defense and rebounding that we preach in practice and that will continue to carry us through the season.”
Perhaps the complete encapsulation of Vermont’s style of play can be seen in Voelkel. The 6-foot-6 forward, who started all 33 games last season, averaged just six points per contest, but was named to the America East all-conference first team for his significant contributions elsewhere.
Voelkel finished the year ranked second in the conference in rebounding (8.6 rpg), assists (4.9 apg) and assist/turnover ratio (2.2). In a Feb. 20 matchup against Maine, his 13-rebound, 10-assist performance marked the first time since the 1996-97 season that a Division I player took one or fewer shots and had double-digit assists and rebounds in a game.
“Brian isn’t necessarily a flashy player,” Becker said. “But he’s definitely at the heart of this team and such a large part of what we do here.”
But Voelkel isn’t the only player on Vermont’s roster who is always ready to get his hands dirty. While Rugg may end up being Vermont’s premier player offensively, he’s another all-around player who fills up the stat sheet game in and game out and whose hustle has earned him praise from across the America East.
Count New Hampshire head coach Bill Herrion as one of Rugg’s biggest fans. Herrion said he has followed Rugg since the former walk-on’s high school days, as he recruited Rugg’s teammate.
“I remember seeing Clancy when he was a young kid, and he was really, really skinny, really weak, when he was a high school kid,” Herrion said. “So he kind of flew under the radar screen from a recruiting standpoint, but then he went to Vermont as a walk-on, and now, four, five, six years later, I’ve seen how far this kid has come as a player. I just think he’s a really, really good basketball player.”
Voelkel and Rugg will lead Vermont into one of the most challenging non-conference schedules of any team in the America East. The 14-game slate kicks off against Saint Joseph’s and also features the likes of Providence, Duke, Illinois State and Harvard.
Becker hopes to use the challenging schedule leading up to conference play as a means to see “where [they] are as a team, and what [they] need to get better at.” If the Catamounts learned anything from last season, it’s that preseason rankings, the non-conference schedule and even America East play only matter if they’re playing their best basketball when it counts most.
“Everyone understands that it’s going to be a process, the non-conference schedule,” Becker said. “We can’t really get too high or too low and worry as much about the wins and losses but just get better as a team and really understand what we are and what we need to get better at, so that as we go into league play, we’re playing better. And hopefully by the end of league play, we’re playing our best basketball and poised to do what we weren’t able to do last year.”