No one knows better than Vermont how unfortunate it is to earn a higher seed in the postseason, but still have to play on somebody else’s turf.
Thanks to a restructuring of the America East Tournament, John Becker and the Catamounts (17-12, 12-4 AE) won’t have to worry about that this year.
Following the old style, all of the quarterfinal and semifinal games would be played at a host university’s gym, with those six games spread over two days. So when Vermont — 2013-14’s regular-season champion — played its semifinal matchup against No. 4 Albany last year and lost, 67-58, to the Great Danes on their home court, the news of the change was overdue.
This year, each individual matchup will be played at the higher seed’s court. The league’s head coaches voted for the change at the end of last season.
“That’s huge, especially for a young team,” Becker said. “We’re a lot more confident at home — we’re [11-3] at home this year — so I think it would be a huge advantage.”
So what that means is, Albany can’t upset the top seeds behind a home-court advantage, stealing the AE’s automatic bid to the Big Dance for the third year in a row. The Great Danes (21-8, 15-1 AE) would simply earn that privilege, since they’re actually the No. 1 seed this year.
But Vermont can’t hone its sight on the top dog just yet. The No. 2 Catamounts still have to grapple with No. 7 UMBC at home on Wednesday. And if they win that one, they’ve secured another home match by default for the semifinals.
Vermont’s sizable success this year came as a bit of a surprise. The team graduated four of its five starters, losing a Defensive Player of the Year and its two leading scorers. But as Becker said in the preseason, he loves change, and behind his only returning starter from last year’s dream team — junior forward Ethan O’Day — that change proved a good one.
“I think it’s a credit to the players,” Becker said. “We have a lot of freshmen and a lot of returning guys who hadn’t played a lot with experience, and the guys bought into what we were doing … We’ve really played great defense all year and that’s kept us in games.”
Defense is Becker’s bread and butter. The Catamounts ranked 14th nationally in points allowed last year, and rank 13th this year, allowing just 57.6 per contest. They hold opponents to shooting a mere 38.2 percent from the field, which leads the conference. They lead the league in blocked shots (5.1 bpg) and finish second in steals (6.5 spg), as well, and those are just the defensive stats one can measure.
On the other side of the court, Vermont is converting as well: The Catamounts average 65.8 points per game on 46.7 percent shooting from the field, which ranks 45th in the country and first in the AE.
For all that efficacy, Becker has relied on O’Day, the 6-foot-9, 201-pound beanstalk. O’Day leads the team in scoring, averaging 11.9 points per game — good for eighth in the conference — and is shooting 56.7 percent from the field this season. Named to the 2015 AE First-Team All-Conference and All-Defensive teams, O’Day is also a strong defensive presence and a potent rim protector who is averaging 4.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in 25.9 minutes per game.
“Ethan was our most experienced guy and he’s been kind of our go-to guy, and he’s had a really good year,” Becker said. “He’s really talented. Give him the opportunity and give him the ball more, and he’s taken advantage of his opportunities.”
Just 26 minutes per contest seems a bit modest for a player like O’Day, but that’s just Becker’s way. No player averages more than 27 minutes a game. With the team’s depth, no one needs to, and that keeps the defense relentless.
“We’ve been able to play a lot of guys, keep our defensive intensity up,” Becker said. “It also gives us flexibility. If we’re in foul trouble or a guy isn’t having a great night, other guys have played and can step in.”
While Vermont’s dominance surprised many outside of the program, sophomore guard Dre Wills surprised those inside. The 6-foot-1 guard was accorded Second-Team All-League and All-Defensive Team honors — fitting for a defensive menace, a matchup nightmare who stifles opponents’ leading scorers. Wills leads the team in rebounds and steals this year, averaging 4.7 and 2.0 per game, respectively. He’s also an efficient producer, averaging 9.3 points per game on a team-best 58.6 percent shooting clip from the floor.
“The guy played like six minutes a game last year for us and is, I think, a first-team all-league kid this year, and maybe defensive player of the year,” the fourth-year head coach said. “He’s had a great year.”
Vermont opens its postseason against seventh-seeded UMBC (4-25, 2-14 AE) Wednesday. Tip-off for the quarterfinals matchup is set for 7 p.m. at Patrick Gymnasium in Burlington, Vermont.