Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Nine Teams, Nine Days: Vermont

Last year: 24-9 (13-3 America East), lost in America East quarterfinals to Albany, lost in CBI quarterfinals to Oregon State.

Head coach: Mike Lonergan, fifth season, 78-49 record (44-20 AE).

Departing players: Jordan Clarke, Jordan Dean, Greg Hughes, Colin McIntosh, Ryan Shields, Mike Trimboli.

Arriving players: Luke Apfeld, Brendan Bald, Ben Crenca, Simeon Marsalis.

Expected starting lineup (position, name, year, 2008-09 stats):
G Nick Vier, senior, 6.6 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 2.9 APG
G Maurice Joseph, senior, 8.1 RPG, 2.4 RPG, 0.8 APG
G Garvey Young, sophomore, 6.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.2 APG
F Evan Fjeld, junior, 4.6 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 0.6 BPG
F Marqus Blakely, senior, 16.1 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 2.7 BPG

Player to watch: Marqus Blakely. The two-time America East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year has spent past seasons sharing the spotlight with teammates, most notably departed sidekick Mike Trimboli. This year, the show is his alone. There are other players in Burlington capable of making an impact on games -- Maurice Joseph is a multifaceted scorer, and Garvey Young's shutdown defense can take away an opponent's biggest strength -- but only Blakely can bring the Catamounts to the promised land. To be fair, no one could expect Blakely to do everything by himself -- when teams double and triple-team the 6-foot-5 forward, his supporting cast must make defenses pay -- but if this year's team succeeds where previous versions failed, it will be because of the man in the middle.

Biggest strength: Efficient scoring. Vermont had several strengths last year, but this one was both the most significant and one of the more likely ones to remain intact. Vermont ranked in the top 50 nationally in both effective field goal percentage (36th, at 53.2) and FTA/FGA (13th, at 45.3). Trimboli, in particular, had a lot to do with both of these figures, but there are several reasons why both figures should remain strong in 2009-10. Each of the projected Vermont starters is at least an average offensive player. With the exception of Vier, each of those players is used to taking at least a reasonable percentage of the team's shots. On the free throw front, several Vermont starters draw more than their fair share of free throws, and other than Blakely, Vermont is in fact a very good free throw shooting team -- if that sounds strange, check the numbers. Expect the Catamounts to score plenty of points.

Biggest weakness: Defensive rebounding. How does a team with Blakely have defensive rebounding as its biggest weakness? Keep in mind that Vermont, as one of the best teams in the conference, has relatively few weaknesses. In this case the answer is relatively simple. Other than Blakely, the Catamounts have no proven above-average defensive rebounders. Colin McIntosh was a quality glass-cleaner, but he's gone. While Ben Crenca may get the job done on the boards, he's a freshman and therefore an unknown; Vermont's best known rebounder not wearing number 23 is Evan Fjeld, whose performance on the defensive glass was average at best last year. No America East team with Blakely as its centerpiece will ever be a particularly poor rebounding team at either end, but the Catamounts were surprisingly subpar at recovering opponents' missed shots in 2008-09, and another year of unimpressive performance in that category is likely.

Guards: Maurice Joseph spent a a year off per NCAA regulations after transferring to Vermont from Michigan State and began the 2008-09 season in the Catamounts' starting lineup. As it turned out, while some parts of Joseph's game were as advertised -- the 6-foot-4 off-guard has a smooth stroke from 3 and is an outstanding free throw shooter -- he left head coach Mike Lonergan wanting more. With Vermont's offensive firepower, the focus was understandably on the defensive end, and Joseph's sometimes lackadaisical defense resulted in the then-junior coming off the bench for all but two games after New Years' Day. With Trimboli gone, Joseph has become the starter by default. Nobody questions whether Joseph will wind up scoring in double figures this season -- only whether he'll give all those points back at the other end.

Garvey Young's raw offensive numbers might not resemble those of a budding star, but the 6-foot-4 wing's game is more than the sum of its parts. Young was reasonably efficient as a freshman due to his ability to get to the free throw line, where he converted nearly 80 percent of his attempts, and has enough of a jumpshot to make sure teams guard him. Throw in excellent defense, and it's easy to see why Young made the All-Rookie team despite scoring just six points per game. If Young can find even a bit more range on his jump shot, small but noticeable bumps in playing time and usage rate will expose the sophomore to the rest of the conference as one of Vermont's next impact players.

Nick Vier's offensive game has continuously evolved over his three years at Vermont. An inefficient turnover machine as a freshman, Vier's ball-handling and decision-making have improved to adequate, albeit not extraordinary, levels. His perimeter shooting, once subpar, is now a strength, as Vier hit more than 41 percent of his threes last year. The senior point guard will be asked to provide more offense this year, potentially lowering his efficiency somewhat as a result of taking more shots, but the 6-foot-1 guard should be still be a reasonably proficient offensive player. Defensively, Vier holds an edge over his competition for the starting point guard job, due in large part to his experience and height.

Height, in this case, refers to Joey Accaoui, whose 5-foot-10 entry in Vermont's roster most likely exaggerates his true height. Accaoui's 40 percent figure from long range in 2008-09 wasn't his greatest asset; his primary value came from an A/TO ratio of 2.12, fueling the high-octane Catamount offense for 15 minutes a game. Accaoui's offensive skills, while substantial, fail to negate his defensive limitations. Of Vermont's options at the guard positions, all pose more problems for opposing shooters and ball-handlers than Accaoui, preventing him from assuming a greater role on the team.

Simeon Marsalis is the Kevin Bacon of America East rookies. Marsalis' Vermont teammate, Luke Apfeld, played on Marsalis' Brewster Academy team before arriving in Burlington, as did Albany freshman Derrek Tartt. Oh, and his father is none other than Wynton Marsalis, the world-famous trumpeter. Marsalis the Younger is a natural lead guard and brings all the tools expected of that position: playmaking ability, an effective jump shot, and assertive, intelligent decision-making. Vier should survive Accaoui's bid for the starting job at point guard, but Marsalis comes with plenty of hype; if the hype is deserved, the 6-foot-1 freshman's minutes should steadily increase.

Brendan Bald slots in behind Garvey Young as another skilled, athletic wing player. Of Vermont's reserves, Bald is the only natural fit at the wing when Young sits down -- Blakely can move to the wing but is better suited to stay in and around the paint at both ends of the floor -- so the 6-foot-4 freshman should see occasional minutes. With several shotmakers on the roster at the other backcourt positions, Bald's primary role will be to make hustle plays and play solid defense as a reserve. As long as he can those two things, Bald will see playing time.

Forwards: What can't Marqus Blakely do? Shoot from farther away than 12 feet. In three years, traces of Blakely's midrange and perimeter game have been virtually non-existent, and the free throw line's 15-foot distance from the hoop has regularly given Blakely trouble. In all other respects, the man is a terror on the basketball court. Ignore him for a second and he'll establish position, receive the ball and throw down a ferocious dunk. Double-team Blakely, even triple-team him, and the ball magically finds its way to the open man. Dare to venture near the hoop with the ball in tow, and Blakely will get his hands on it for either a steal or a block, creating transition opportunities frequently finished off at the other end by none other than himself. To adapt Dan Patrick's oft-referenced SportsCenter remarks, you can't stop Marqus Blakely. You can only hope to contain him.

Evan Fjeld spelled both Blakely and McIntosh off the bench last season. While Fjeld's defensive rebounding isn't exactly praiseworthy, his work on the offensive boards has been fairly impressive. Fjeld also provides extremely efficient scoring, albeit at a fairly low usage rate, and enough shotblocking to match what McIntosh offered last season. The junior forward's biggest issue is one he wasn't confronted with often as a reserve: foul trouble. Fjeld committed more than six fouls per 40 minutes last year, which isn't a major problem when playing only 15 minutes per game but becomes a much greater issue when playing time is doubled. The magnitude of Fjeld's improvement as a junior will be heavily dependent on whether he can stay on the court long enough to log starters' minutes.

Garrett Kissel played just 103 minutes last season, yet found a way to spread those minutes across 27 total games. It's tough to judge Kissel based on such a limited sample, especially when his minutes were largely confined to garbage time, but Lonergan's reluctance to grant Kissel more extended opportunities hints at what would have likely been ineffective play. Technically speaking, Kissel is the first forward off the bench, but most of the frontcourt minutes not eaten up by Blakely and Fjeld will evade Kissel, instead finding the Catamounts' freshman center.

Luke Apfeld tore his right ACL in June of 2008, prior to his senior year. After signing with Vermont, Apfeld tried to get back to the court quickly, perhaps too quickly. Three days after his return in January, Apfeld tore his left ACL. Ten months later, Apfeld was preparing for his freshman season as a Catamount when -- guess what -- he tore his right ACL. At one point Apfeld was expected to make an immediate and significant impact as a freshman. Now, while his season is finished before it began, the bigger question is when, or even if, Apfeld will be able to play again.

Centers: Ben Crenca, at 6-foot-10 and 260 pounds, is the largest player seen on Vermont's roster since the days of Chris Holm. Like the former Rhode Island transfer, Crenca fits the mold of a traditional center, combining defense, rebounding, and the ability to score with his back to the basket. Even if the offense doesn't arrive this season, as is typically the case for America East freshmen of Crenca's size, there are teams in America East whose starting big men don't provide the necessary rebounding and defense. In that context, Crenca's value is more apparent.

Pat Bergmann saw the least playing time of any Vermont scholarship player last year. The Catamounts split their frontcourt minutes almost entirely among just three players last year, so it shouldn't surprise anyone if Bergmann is left out of the loop once again. For what it's worth, Kissel was much more active than Bergmann in Vermont's exhibition win against Saint Michael's. Bergmann may well be the last player off the bench.

Outlook: The Catamounts have the best player in the league, and that counts for a lot. There will be several games in conference play where lesser opponents are rendered helpless by Blakely, as well as others in which a team's collective effort to stop Blakely allows his teammates to take advantage. As has been seen repeatedly in this league, however, one big gun isn't enough to win it all. The Catamounts' Number 23 is an outstanding player, but he is not Superman, and while he may be the biggest star in the America East galaxy, the last team remaining in this countdown has an array of talents whose collective brightness is greater than what Vermont can offer.

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