The University of Vermont men’s basketball team heads into the America East tournament as the top seed, after it clinched the conference’s regular-season championship on Feb. 16. This isn’t the first time the Catamounts have finished the year atop the AE, and it probably won’t be the last.

But Vermont was one of the least likely AE teams to win the conference this season, and understandably so.

Following its tournament championship and subsequent first-round exit in the NCAA tournament last year at the hands of top-seeded Syracuse, UVM found itself with a gaping hole to fill with the graduation of star Marqus Blakely.

Blakely’s accolades speak for themselves — two-time AE Player of the Year and 2010 AE Tournament Most Valuable Player, just to name a few. Last year, he was the only player in the NCAA to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals.

Needless to say, Blakely’s graduation in 2010 was a significant loss for the Catamounts. Excluding his freshman season, he averaged 33.4 minutes, 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per game in his UVM career.

The Catamounts entered the 2010 season missing not only Blakely, but other vital starters with the graduation of Garvey Young and Nick Vier and the transfer of Maurice Joseph. The team, left with only one returning starter in senior Evan Fjeld (pronounced “Fee-yeld”), was predicted to finish fifth in this year’s America East.

Head coach Mike Lonergan said he was understanding of the ranking.

“We did lose four starters and we had seven of our 14 players going into their first season playing for us,” he said. “That’s a lot of youth and inexperience.”

But Fjeld saw it differently.

“We felt disrespected,” he said. “Of course we understood that we lost a lot from last year’s championship team so no one expected to be picked first, but we felt as though we were one of the top-three teams in the conference. We wanted to prove that [our team was made up of] more than [just the stars from] last year.”

And that’s exactly what the Catamounts were able to accomplish this season. Proving the coaches poll wrong, UVM finished its season at 13-3 and is the top team heading into the tournament.

The majority of opponents who defeated the Catamounts this year include some of the premier teams and players in the country.

Vermont lost games to Kemba Walker and the 14th-ranked UConn Huskies, in addition to the BYU Cougars, who are currently ranked No. 7, largely due to the stellar play of senior guard Jimmer Fredette, who leads the nation with 27.3 points per game.

Three of the Catamounts’ other losses came against teams picked to win their respective conferences, with a loss to Fairfield University (MAAC) and two to Boston University (America East).

“It has been a great learning experience playing against some of the top teams and some of the best guards in the entire country,” Lonergan said.

But Vermont’s wins greatly outnumber its losses this season. Largely to thank for the team’s success is not only the performance of its veterans, but also its freshmen who have played like veterans, according to Lonergan.

“Our upperclassmen have all improved their games and understood their roles,” he said, also noting the performance of freshman Brian Voelkel, who has been named AE Rookie of the Week a conference-best six times.

From early this season, Voelkel understood that the holes left after the departure of much of last year’s team “definitely meant people were going to need to step up and fill the void. So I just tried to come in and work hard and do what I could to help out with some of the things that they were losing from last year.”

The senior trio of Fjeld, Joey Accaoui and Garrett Kissel has combined for 87 wins over its four years in Vermont, coincidentally trailing the senior class with which they were given the task of replacing by only three victories, according to a report from Vermont’s website.

Despite the success of Vermont as a team this season, it’s no secret that Evan Fjeld is the most important piece of its puzzle.

The offense depends on and runs through Fjeld. He is shooting 54.3 percent from the field and averaging 14.9 points per game, placing him sixth place overall in the AE. The rest of UVM has followed as it ranks second in scoring offense with 68.4 ppg.

After the program lost such a large part of last year’s team, Fjeld said he felt prepared to take his game to the next level.

“I had been working my whole career so that when I would be asked to take a leading role I would be ready,” he said. “I was very excited at the beginning of the year knowing that this would be the year that I would need to take the next step and a more active role.”

A discussion of Fjeld, though, is incomplete without a mention of what has now become an identifying aspect of not only himself but also of UVM as a team.

From Fjeld’s upper lip grows and lies a bushy mustache, and though countless fans of the Catamounts, Fjeld or simply just the mustache enjoy its presence, many do not fully understand its significance.

After losing his mother to breast cancer late last season, Fjeld began growing his mustache in her honor for Movember, a mustache-growing charity event held each November that raises funds and awareness for men’s health.

But the mustache has since garnered another purpose with the Catamounts’ accomplishments this season.

“A number of guys grew mustaches in November for Movember, but mine got most of the attention,” Fjeld said. “After the November we had as a team and I was having individually, there was no way I could get rid of it.”

Lonergan also saw a correlation between the mustache and the team’s success.

“Truthfully, if we weren’t winning so many games and if Evan wasn’t having such a monster season, I probably would have made him get rid of [it] or at least trim it down,” he said. “But I’m superstitious and Evan and I agreed that the ‘stache was part of our magical season.”

Fans can follow Fjeld’s mustache on Twitter, @FjeldsMustache.

Though the mustache is for a good cause and seemingly brings his team success, Fjeld is still a college student growing a mustache, so by no means is he exempt from ridicule.

“We joke around, but I think he gets it the most from the opposing fans,” Voelkel said. “[But] I’m a big fan of [it] and with the conference tournament coming up, we will definitely be using it as good luck.”

But the Catamounts don’t seem to be in need of such luck. After proving the coaches’ poll dead wrong this season, they have continued to find success when nobody else thought they could.

“We just said that our program is going to compete for a championship every year, no matter who graduates,” Lonergan said. “And we have proven that over the last 10 years.”

But history doesn’t bode well for UVM under current circumstances. Though in the last eight years the team has been crowned tournament champion four times, it has only done so once after ending the regular season atop the AE standings (2005).

And that’s exactly where the Catamounts stand in the books this year. They must now try to turn the tables on their past when they play the winner of the No. 8/No. 9 game in Hartford.