Despite Losing Four Starters Vermont Leads America East

February 15th, 2011
Before the season began it was tough to find anyone who picked the Vermont Catamounts to repeat as America East champions. Having to replace four starters, most notably the conference's best player in Marqus Blakely, would make nearly any team a tough sell. But Mike Lonergan's Catamounts have found a way to not only survive but thrive, and a win over Maine tomorrow night would clinch the regular season title and at the very least a berth in the NIT. Seven of Vermont's 14 players may be in their first year in the program but that hasn't stopped the Catamounts from winning 21 games (21-5, 12-2) to date. In fact, some of the newcomers have been key contributors in their run.

"Our goal was 17 wins and to sneak into the top three in the league," remarked Coach Lonergan. "We thought we'd be better in February than in November, and we were not really afraid of the other teams [in the preseason]."

The key to Vermont's current nine-game win streak has been defense, as opponents have scored an average of 51.8 points per game and none have lost by fewer than eight points. The move of freshman Sandro Carissimo into the starting lineup at point guard has been the catalyst for the run according to Lonergan, allowing Joey Accaoui (11.9 ppg) to do some damage off the bench.

"We decided to give Sandro a shot at point guard, and he's been really good defensively," said Coach Lonergan, who has won 124 games in five-plus seasons in Burlington. "Joey's taken a more active role in scoring [this season]."

Also key in Vermont's defensive play has been sophomore guard Brendan Bald. After playing just 9.9 minutes per game in 2009-10, Bald is up to 27.7 minutes per contest and has raised his scoring nearly nine points from a season ago and Coach Lonergan cited him as their best defender. As a team Vermont leads America East in both effective and field goal percentage defense while ranking second in three-point percentage defense.

"We're solid defensively," said Lonergan. "Bald is a great defender and [Evan] Fjeld is very good, but we try to play position defense."

Vermont won't be the kind of team that pressures opponents into making mistakes but they do a good job of challenging shots and forcing opponents to make tough looks.

The play of forwards Fjeld and freshman Brian Voelkel has also set the Catamounts apart from the competition. Fjeld is the one returning starter so it was expected that he rise to the occasion, and he has, averaging 15.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.

"He's more of a focal point offensively [this year]," said Lonergan of Fjeld's improvement. "He was great in the non-conference portion of our schedule, and he's gotten better at passing out of double teams [in conference play]."

That last statement is key because while Fjeld isn't the passer that Blakely was, his improvement in that area stands to make those around him that much better.

As for Voelkel, who played his scholastic basketball at Iona Prep in New Rochelle, NY, he's been the best freshman in America East. Voelkel leads Vermont in rebounds (9.9), assists (4.7) and steals (1.7) per game, and while averaging a shade less than seven points per game he goes into tomorrow's game at Maine having scored 31 in the last two outings.

"I don't think so," said Lonergan when asked if there's been a better rookie in the conference than Voelkel. "He should be a candidate for Player of the Year as well as 1st or 2nd team all-conference."

There's also the case of Fjeld's mustache, a facial accessory that gained enough publicity to almost take on a life of its own. Fjeld grew the mustache to promote prostate cancer awareness for Movember, and having lost his mother just days before the Catamounts' win in last year's America East championship game the sentiment behind the mustache makes it even better. He was supposed to shave it at the end of November due to team rules on facial hair but the mustache remains. Why? Superstition, of course.

The coaches in the preseason picked Vermont to finish fifth in America East, behind the likes of Boston University and Maine. So maybe it's fitting that the Catamounts' final regular season conference games are matchups with these two teams, providing one more opportunity to show off their growth to the league's best. And with the higher seed hosting the championship game of the conference tournament, college basketball fans may once again get to observe what happens when Burlington is overtaken by March Madness.