Five things to know about Kentucky’s Sunday opponent at Rupp Arena, the Vermont Catamounts:
1. Vermont is out of the America East Conference
The league is made up of Albany, Binghamton, Maryland-Baltimore County, UMass Lowell, New Hampshire, Stony Brook, Maine, Hartford and Vermont. You may remember Stony Brook as the team that Kentucky beat 85-57 in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament in Des Moines.
Before that, Albany won the league tournament three straight years, reaching the NCAA Tournament from 2013 through 2015. The Great Danes lost 73-61 to No. 2 seed Duke in 2013. They lost to No. 1 seed Florida 67-55 in 2014. They lost 59-50 to No. 3 seed Oklahoma 59-50 in 2015.
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Vermont is the last America East team to win an NCAA Tournament game. The 2012 Catamounts knocked off Lamar 71-59 in a First Four game in Dayton. Vermont them lost to No. 1 seed North Carolina 71-59 in the first round of the Big Dance.
2. Vermont has a culture of winning
As my colleague Jerry Tipton wrote, Vermont is used to winning. The Catamounts have won 20-or-more games each of the last nine seasons. Last year’s team set a school record with 29 wins compared to six losses. In fact, Vermont carried a 21-game winning streak, the nation’s longest, into the NCAA Tournament before losing to No. 4 seed Purdue 80-70.
Vermont went a perfect 16-0 in the America East, winning 12 of the 16 by double digits. The Catamounts beat Maine 86-41 and New Hampshire 74-41 in the conference tournament before edging Albany 56-53 in the final. The win snapped Albany’s three-year run as tourney champ.
Vermont is no stranger to tough non-conference road games. It lost 68-50 at eventual Final Four team South Carolina last season. It lost by one point, 91-90, at No. 6 Duke in 2014 when Jabari Parker scored 26 points for the Blue Devils.
A win over No. 5 Kentucky would be Vermont’s first victory over a ranked team since Nov. 13, 2006 when the Catamounts beat No. 14 Boston College 77-63.
3. Vermont’s 2017-18 team is led by a Core Four
Senior guard Trae Bell-Haynes is the reigning America East Conference Player of the Year after averaging 12.8 points and 3.9 assists a year ago. The 6-foot-2 Toronto native was an honorable mention on the AP All-America team last season. Bell-Haynes scored 15 points in Vermont’s NCAA Tourney loss to Purdue.
Sophomore Anthony Lamb was the American East Freshmen of the Year last season. The 6-6 sophomore from Rochester, N.Y. led the Catamounts in scoring at 12.8 points per game. He also averaged 5.5 rebounds per game. Lamb was second on the team in field goal percentage at 51 percent and can shoot from the perimeter. He drained six three-pointers in a win over New Hampshire.
Payton Henson is a 6-8 senior forward who averaged 11.5 points and 5.3 rebounds last season. A native of Siloam Springs, Arkansas, Henson started his college career at Tulane before transferring to Vermont. He payed in 64 games with the Green Wave before transferring and sitting out the 2015-16 season. Henson scored 17 points in the America East Tournament title game last season.
Ernie Duncan is a 6-3 junior guard who averaged 8.7 points per game last season. Duncan is the program’s career leader in three-point percentage. The Evansville, Indiana native shot 39.9 percent from three-point range last season. He twice scored 23 points in a game last season.
4. John Becker has never won fewer than 20 games in a season
Becker took over as Vermont’s head coach in 2011-12. His first team went 24-12 and, as previously mentioned, beat Lamar in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament. After that, Becker’s teams have gone 21-12, 22-11, 20-14, 23-14 and 29-6 last season. That’s a 139-69 record for his six seasons.
The 49-year-old from Connecticut played college basketball at Catholic University. He was the head coach for two seasons at Galludet, a private school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C., before becoming an assistant at Catholic. He became an assistant at Vermont in 2006 and was promoted to head coach after Mike Lonergan left for George Washington.
Lonergan had succeeded the popular Tom Brennan, who wet 264-276 as Vermont coach from 1986-87 season through 2004-05. Brennan’s last three teams reached the NCAA Tournament, including the 2004-05 team which upset No. 4 seed Syracuse 70-67 in overtime in the NCAA Tournament.
Brennan, who went on to do broadcast work for ESPN, cried after the game, and no wonder. It was Vermont’s first ever NCAA Tournament win.
Vermont will re-name its court “Tom Brennan Court” on Dec. 11 for a game against Siena.
5. Vermont plays at a methodical pace
Opponents averaged just 62.1 points per game last season against Vermont. That ranked the Catamounts 11th nationally in points allowed per game. Vermont averaged 73.5 points themselves, which ranked 170th last season.
Becker runs a patient offense for a team that relies on defense and rebounding to win. Ken Pomeroy’s numbers ranked Vermont No. 62 in offensive efficiency and No. 73 in defensive efficiency last season. It will be a challenge for a young Kentucky team to keep its patience against the experienced Catamounts.
One more thing: ESPN ranks Vermont 74th out of 351 Division I teams for 2017-18.
Vermont at Kentucky
When: Sunday, 3:30 p.m.
Where: Rupp Arena in Lexington
TV: ESPN with Doug Sherman and Jimmy Dykes
Radio: UK Network with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt