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Rhode Island trip wasn’t the way Vermont hoped to start road stretch

November 19, 2013 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. – This wasn’t how Vermont wanted or expected to start a long road stretch.  The Catamounts are at the beginning of a stretch where they play seven in a row and nine of ten away from Burlington, and there’s only one way to describe their two games in three nights in Rhode Island: bad.

Vermont certainly expected better than what they showed on both nights, even if they had come away 0-2.  This is a team that starts five seniors and brings another off the bench, and all of them won an America East championship on the road as sophomores.  There’s a reason they have been picked once again to win America East, and it’s not because Boston University has left for the Patriot League.  This is a team with good experience, and winning experience at that, to say nothing of having been on the road a lot.  They didn’t win conference championships with moral victories, and won’t take any despite Monday being better than Saturday night.

On Saturday night, Bryant blew out the Catamounts 87-64.  Simply put, it wasn’t pretty, as they never did enough to get back in the game after falling behind early, then Bryant blew it open in the second half.

“We were not very good in any phase of the game today,” head coach John Becker said after Saturday’s game.  “I’m obviously very disappointed with our effort.”

The effort was better on Monday, and Becker sounded a different tune.  But they were up against an even better team, one that got its starting point guard back (albeit in a reserve role on the evening), and offensive struggles didn’t help in their 70-49 loss at Providence that was never a ballgame after the first few minutes.

A big staple of the good Vermont teams, especially in recent years, is defense.  They haven’t been a team that’s going to put up 80-90 points a night, so they’ve had to play a slower-paced game and stop the other team to win, and they have often done that.  But thus far, that’s been a missing link for this team, as opponents are shooting 46 percent from the field against them.  They spent a lot of time on that in practice in between the two games because they weren’t good at that end on Saturday.

As if that’s not bad enough, the offense struggled, too.  They didn’t look like they had much of a game plan on Saturday night, and on Monday night they couldn’t buy a basket in the first half.  The upshot is that Becker thought the offense was run better on Monday night, but they just didn’t get the ball to go down.

“I thought our offense was good, we got to spots and we got good shots, we just didn’t make them,” said Becker.  “How many point-blank layups did we miss tonight?”

It hasn’t helped through all of this that the Catamounts are far from healthy.  Big man Ryan Pierson is out for about another month after suffering a broken ankle in the summer, forward Ethan O’Day is out for another month with a broken wrist, Brendan Kilpatrick is out longer after foot surgery and Harrison Taggart and Dre Wills are still day-to-day as well.  For that matter, Luke Apfeld, who has had three ACL injuries, is banged up but battled in both games, playing 25 minutes in each.

In fact, one can attribute some of the defensive struggles to the injuries as that has sapped a lot of Vermont’s depth.  They had nine healthy players available for both games, including walk-on Naasir Williams, who impressed at Bryant with ten points and two assists as a change-of-pace point guard.  Still, they feel like they can be better as currently constituted, and a couple of players come to mind in that respect as junior transfer Hector Harold hasn’t found his footing yet and senior Josh Elbaum needs to play better as he hasn’t earned the minutes to this point.

“It is what it is,” said Apfeld of the lack of depth.  “If you look at the box score, I think Providence only played seven guys.  We can’t use (injuries) as an excuse, we’ve got experience all across the board right now, and we really need to play better.”

They need to play better quickly, as this isn’t an easy road stretch.  Next up is Northeast Conference contender Wagner, then Duke, before three games in the Golden State Challenge in San Francisco that starts with Illinois State.  They end the stretch of nine in ten away from home at Ivy League favorite Harvard.  They didn’t start the stretch well, and now must work for it to end better.

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