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The Big Preview: Vermont a tough test for Virginia

NCAA Basketball: Columbia at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past four seasons, the Virginia Cavaliers have won 89 games. The Vermont Catamounts have won 83. Of course, playing in the America East Conference isn’t quite the same as the ACC. The best team Vermont has beaten (by KenPom ranking) is #77 Yale a year ago, while Virginia has many wins better than that.

Right now, Vermont is ranked 74th in KenPom’s rankings. They are coming off a road win over 94th ranked St John’s.

The Catamounts are led by America East Player of the Year Anthony Lamb. There was some thought that Lamb would enter the NBA Draft last year, but he did not. He’s a classic NBA “tweener”—too small to play inside and not quick enough to play on the perimeter. But that’s an NBA issue, and not something for Tony Bennett to worry about.

What Tony is worried about is having to stop Lamb. Braxton Key may be the best defender Lamb has seen in his career. Lamb is not used to having a guy as big and strong as Key who can also keep up on the outside.

This was the game winning shot over St John’s on Saturday. Lamb is bigger and stronger than St John’s Mustapha Heron, but he’s able to win that battle with his quickness. Lamb won’t have that size advantage over Key, but he’s still quicker. The Pack Line makes it awfully tough for perimeter players to get inside. Lamb may hit a few of those pull-ups, but if that’s the best shot he can get, Tony will be OK with it.

We may see Vermont go small with Lamb at Center. In that case, Mamadi Diakite may get some chances to guard Lamb. In that case, Lamb likely has to guard Mamadi as well, which is a size mismatch for Mamadi. Lamb is a very good defensive player and is very athletic. Here’s a big open-court block he had on Saturday, which led to an open dunk for Vermont.

Lamb has made 34% of his threes from downtown, but he’s just 3/25 this year. Is it just a cold streak, or is the new, longer distance causing him problems? It’s not just Lamb either, the entire team is shooting poorly. They are shooting just 20.8%, ranked 346th in the nation.

However, that’s still ahead of Virginia (20.0%, 348th). Against Columbia, Virginia knocked down 5/15 (33%), so that’s better. But the young perimeter trio of Morsell, Kody Stattmann and Tomas Woldetensae were still just 1/7 (14%). One of those three is going to have to start knocking down shots. Vermont is allowing just 19% shooting from downtown this year, so this may not be the game they get going. It’d sure be nice though.

On the wings with Lamb are brothers Everett and Robin Duncan. Everett is the bigger threat and is the second leading scorer. Their older brother, Ernie, was the second leading scorer last year. At times, there were three Duncan brothers in the starting lineup last year.

That’s Everett with the baseline three. He’s 4/19 (21%) this year, but made 36% last year. Nearly 70% of his shots last year were treys and that’s continued this year. PG Stef Smith also made 36% last year, but is just 5/19 this year.

Ryan Davis is the only real big man for Vermont (other than Lamb, who plays more on the perimeter), and he’s a beast at 6’8” 250. Diakite will get the first crack on Davis, but Jay Huff is also going to get some time down low. Huff has been much more physical this year, but that will be tested against Davis. On the other end though, Davis simply cannot guard Huff on the perimeter.

Vermont is very good. They’ll have the best player on the court, and this will be the first time this year Virginia has experienced that. They play a similar style to Virginia, but without the height or depth of the Hoos. Considering how poorly both teams have shot the basketball, this game could very well be decided by one team beginning to knock down those shots. If that team is Vermont, Virginia could be in trouble.