Point guard Trae Bell-Haynes was the American East Conference’s player of the year last season. Forward Anthony Lamb was the league’s rookie of the year and the early choice to be the top player this season. Ernie Duncan and Payton Henson both made one of the all-conference teams.
They make up what Vermont calls its “Core Four,” a four-headed reason Coach John Becker said his team will not be overwhelmed by the idea of playing at Kentucky on Sunday.
“Obviously, Purdue was a huge team …,” Becker said of Vermont’s competitive 80-70 loss against Purdue in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. “I think we’ll settle in (against UK) and it’ll be a good college basketball game.”
As for any awe about playing in Rupp Arena, Becker pointed out that one of his earlier Vermont teams played at Duke in 2014. Duke, which was led by Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood that season, won by one point.
“So our program has fared pretty decently in these kind of games,” he said. “We’ve also got handled by 20 points by some of these historic programs. I think our guys have been through a lot.”
Becker, who was the American East’s coach of the year last season, led Vermont to a 29-6 record. That marked the ninth straight season the Catamounts won 20 or more games.
The Core Four sparked the big season. “Those four guys are pretty good,” Becker said, “and could play at most places. They’re proven and they’re really good.”
Vermont has been picked to win the America East by Athlon, USA Today and Street & Smith.
Bell-Haynes is “kind of the heartbeat of our team,” Becker said. “He’s a competitor and a winner. That’s all he’s done since he’s gotten there.”
Bell-Haynes is from Toronto, Canada. He did not have a scholarship offer coming out of high school.
When asked how a conference player of the year could be so overlooked with the suffocating analysis associated with recruiting, Becker laughed. “That’s one of those things, man,” he said. “I don’t know. Recruiting is not an exact science. We got really lucky with him. You can’t measure a kid’s heart. That’s for sure.”
Lamb, whom Becker described as an undersized power forward (6-6, 227), scored 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds against Purdue, often matched up against star Caleb Swanigan (a first-round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft).
Becker acknowledged the obvious: Sunday’s game features the story line of UK youth against Vermont experience.
“We’re a huge underdog,” the Vermont coach said. “But we’ve got a pretty experienced team that’s used to winning. So we’ll see what happens.”
Vermont at Kentucky
When: 3:30 p.m.
Records: Vermont 0-0, Kentucky 1-0
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Series: First meeting