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The Morning Dish – Saturday, January 14, 2017

January 14, 2017 Columns No Comments

Two decades ago, Vermont was, for the most part, one of the also-rans in the America East Conference. The Catamounts had a little success here and there, but had never finished higher than third place. They had great players, like the late Kevin Roberson and scoring machine Eddie Benton, but never enough to vault into serious contention. Some thought that Tom Brennan’s seat was heating up in the late 90s given his lengthy tenure and the Catamounts rarely being in the mix for a title; it was never true.

Nowadays, Vermont is one of the signature programs of the conference, and has been a consistent winner. It’s gotten to the point that the names and faces may change, but the Catamounts being a contender doesn’t.

It started about a decade and a half ago, when T.J. Sorrentine and Taylor Coppenrath led the way as the Catamounts won three straight conference titles. Then they beat Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament to send Brennan off into retirement in style. They picked up where they left off with a new cast under Mike Lonergan, and with John Becker now running the show the winning continues. Only once since the 2001-02 season have the Catamounts had a losing season, and that was in Lonergan’s first year at the helm with a mostly new roster. Only twice in that span have they won less than 20 games, which is all the more remarkable considering that they had only once won more than 16 games before that time.

With that in mind, on Friday night the Catamounts hosted an upstart in UMBC. In Ryan Odom’s first season at the helm, the Retrievers had a nice 9-4 non-conference mark, and while it was against a weak schedule, those wins help the team gain confidence and may set the stage to them playing a bit over their heads. In fact, that had been happening, as they entered the game 3-0 in America East play just like Vermont.

Vermont was in control for much of the second half, leading by double digits at times. But UMBC battled back, even getting within 68-66 late. That was when Trae Bell-Haynes, the current star, helped the Catamounts seal the game, as UMBC got no closer. Bell-Haynes hit a runner in the lane to snap the run and then made six free throws to finish with a team-high 20 points.

This Vermont team is quite balanced, as no one averages more than 12.5 points per game. Bell-Haynes is second in scoring and leads the team in assists while posting a 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio. It’s also an experienced team, as they have 10 juniors and seniors, four of whom have redshirted along the way.

Burlington, Vermont has always been a tough place for visiting teams to play. Even in the 90s when you couldn’t bank on the Catamounts to win 16 games the way you can bank on them to win 20, Patrick Gymnasium was packed and a tough place for a visiting team to play. It’s even tougher now, and UMBC, who Odom hopes to turn into a contender as he begins his run there, found that out on Friday night.


Side Dishes

On a light night of action, the result that stood out was Detroit going to Oakland and picking up a 93-88 win, getting their first Horizon League win of the season and handing Oakland their first loss. Jaleel Hogan had the game of the night with 39 points and 11 rebounds for the Titans. Manhattan‘s Zane Waterman wasn’t far off, though, going for 35 points in his team’s 76-73 win over visiting Rider.

The NCAA is always looking to improve the selection process for the NCAA Tournament, and to that end, two key officials will meet with well-known analytics experts next week in at headquarters in Indianapolis. An article on NCAA.com that was posted on Friday notes that NCAA senior VP of basketball Dan Gavitt and selection committee member Jim Schaus, who is Ohio State’s athletic director, will meet with Jeff Sagarin (Sagarin ratings), Kevin Pauga (KPI), Ken Pomeroy (KenPom) and Ben Almar (ESPN BPI ratings) to talk about this. The hope is to come up with a consensus, or aggregate, metric that could come into play as early as next season. Will it help? It should, but we – and I include all of us in the media here – should never see any one metric, including any new one that might come out of this meeting, as a be-all, end-all, or a conversation-ender, on this subject.

North Carolina will head into their showdown with Florida State on Saturday down a big man, as Tony Bradley has been ruled out with a concussion. The freshman normally gives them a nice boost off the bench with their other big bodies, and while he is getting better he won’t be able to go on Saturday. He was injured on Wednesday night when he was fouled and appeared to smack the back of his head on the court.

Another head coach will be out of action for a while, as East Carolina head coach Jeff Lebo will have hip surgery on Monday and miss an unspecified amount of time. The seventh-year head coach, who is the winningest in the school’s Division I history, said he has dealt with the pain for a couple of years and put off surgery as long as he could before it got to be too much to deal with. Michael Perry, who was previously the head coach at Georgia State, will take over following Sunday’s game against Cincinnati, where the Pirates will try to snap a four-game losing streak.

An incident that took place before Arizona State‘s game at rival Arizona on Thursday night is being investigated. Sun Devil guard Torian Graham, the team’s leading scorer, is shown on video to have extended his middle finger toward Arizona fans while heading to the locker room after pregame warmups. Graham apologized for his actions and said he was responding to racial slurs in a tweet he has since deleted, then released a statement through the school on Friday that didn’t mention his claim of a racial slur. Arizona is investigating the incident, and in a statement the school released later on Friday, they said they are continuing to investigate but have yet to find evidence to support the accusation.


Tonight’s Menu

As usual, we have a packed slate with a number of good matchups to watch, and a number of eyes will also be on the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, MA, where high-profile high school games are on tap.

  • The ACC has several good ones on tap, and they start early. Virginia visits Clemson and Duke goes to Louisville at noon, then North Carolina hosts Florida State and Notre Dame goes to Virginia Tech at 2 p.m.
  • In the Big 12, Kansas hosts Oklahoma State (2 p.m.), while struggling Texas hosts West Virginia (4 p.m.), Baylor heads to Kansas State (4:30 p.m.)
  • Big East play is highlighted by Villanova at St. John’s, Seton Hall at Providence (both at noon) and Butler hosting Xavier (2 p.m.)
  • A Conference USA game to watch is 3-1 Louisiana Tech visiting 4-1 Old Dominion at 6 p.m.
  • The Missouri Valley has a showdown between its two 5-0 teams as Wichita State goes to Illinois State at 8 p.m.
  • Mountain West play is highlighted by New Mexico at Colorado State (2 p.m.), Nevada at Wyoming (6 p.m.), Boise State at Fresno State (7 p.m.) and Utah State at San Diego State (10 p.m.)
  • Pac-12 play is highlighted by Utah hosting UCLA (6 p.m.) and arch rivals meeting in Eugene as Oregon State visits Oregon (10:30 p.m.)
  • In SEC play, Florida hosts Georgia (noon) and Auburn heads to Kentucky (4 p.m.)
  • The best game of the day might well be the first of two much anticipated West Coast Conference showdowns with Saint Mary’s hosting Gonzaga at 10 p.m.
  • A non-conference matchup of note has UConn visiting Georgetown in an old Big East battle at noon.


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