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The Inquisition: On All Things Vermont With Vermont Cubs Fan

We’ll talk about head coach John Becker, who’s the team MVP, whether their center is Big Man or Tall Man, and finally, a brief tour of Burlington restaurants.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round - Vermont v Arkansas
Vermont head coach John Becker is no stranger to the NCAA tournament.
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Within minutes of the NCAA and CBS announcing that Marquette men’s basketball would square off against Vermont in the first round of the 2023 NCAA tournament, the comments section on our Selection Sunday article jumped to life with a couple of Vermont fans stopping by to say hi and wish everyone good luck on Friday.

One of them, Vermont Cubs Fan, a self-identified Vermont season ticket holder, was nice enough to offer to do a Five Questions About Vermont Q&A with us, and I was happy to take him up on his offer for an NCAA tournament edition of The Inquisition.

The big bold letters are our questions, and the rest of the text is all VCF.......

QUESTION #1: John Becker has been the head coach of the Catamounts for over a decade now. What’s your favorite thing about UVM hoops under his guidance, and what’s your least favorite thing?

VCF: There are two things I like the most about him and one thing I like the least about him, and I’ll discuss them in turn.

Firstly, when Josh Speidel, a highly-rated recruit out of Indiana, was in a car crash, Becker was able to negotiate a deal with the NCAA where Vermont would be able to honor his scholarship without it counting against Vermont’s scholarship allotment. This ultimately came to an emotional end where Speidel was, in a prearranged moment with arch-rival Albany, allowed to score his first (and only) NCAA basketball points. Outside of the recent conference championship game, it was one of the loudest reactions I’ve ever heard in the Patrick Gym. Secondly, Vermont has had a tremendous run of success with Becker as coach. This is the fourth time in six years Vermont has made the NCAA men’s tournament. And if you look at those other two years, Vermont would likely have won the 2020 conference championship, but it was canceled due to COVID-related issues. The other time, Vermont lost the championship on a buzzer-beater shot from UMBC.

About the only thing I don’t like about him is he can sometimes be protective of his players, almost to a fault. A few years ago, there was a superstar player up here who got accused of sexual assault against another student. Although the player in question never faced criminal charges from the incident, there were allegations of a coverup at the university. While everything has remained the same in the basketball program, my hope is that this is the first—and ONLY time—something like this happens under Becker’s watch in the program.

QUESTION #2! Finn Sullivan was named America East Player of the Year this season, but Dylan Penn holds the honors as the most valuable player in the conference in 2022-23. Which side of the coin do you agree with, and why?

VCF: Honestly, you cant go wrong with either. This speaks in large part to Vermont’s depth as a team. Both Finn Sullivan and Dylan Penn have the ability to take over a game at any point. As a result, I feel like this Vermont team, had they gotten it together earlier this year and had a better start to the season, could easily have been seeded a little bit higher and thus in a better position to pull off an upset in the NCAA tournament. While I feel an upset of a powerhouse like Marquette is highly unlikely, a lesser team could easily be susceptible to overlooking the Catamounts.

This year, Vermont presented a very unique challenge, especially in conference, as defending them was very tricky. Penn and Sullivan both put up huge numbers this year, often with tremendous support from other players like Robin Duncan (the last of the Duncan brothers to play here), Kam Gibson, Matt Veretto, and Aaron Deloney. As such, both Penn and Sullivan are deserving of the accolades they have received this year, and the reaction to Sullivan’s three-pointer with an and-one late in the game was the loudest reaction of the conference title game this past Saturday.

QUESTION #3! By way of height and weight if nothing else, Matt Veretto would be pointed out as Vermont’s starting 5 man. However, the 6’8”, 220 pound Connecticut native doesn’t really rebound all that much for a guy with his size relative to his teammates and he can really fill it up from the outside at 42% from long range. How would you describe Veretto’s overall playing style within Becker’s system?

VCF: Veretto has really found himself in a tricky position, as he is trying to fill the shoes of the departed Ryan Davis. Davis was the ultimate big man inside, often putting himself into positions which were practically impossible to defend. Veretto doesn’t play this way. Rather, while he is often counted on to be the next Ryan Davis, Veretto combined the shooting ability of other players with his overall inside play. Against UMass-Lowell in the conference championship game, Veretto knocked down three three-pointers in the second half alone. The second and third baskets in this stretch helped Vermont finally inch ahead, as they were previously locked in a tight game. Veretto also took a fourth shot, where he was fouled, and he sank all three free throws.

When it comes to rebounds, Veretto isn’t really the guy to watch. Rather, it’s Robin Duncan. I mentioned earlier that he was the final Duncan brother at Vermont. His older brothers Ernie and Everett both played here, and when they were younger, Robin wasn’t allowed to shoot baskets at practice with them. Rather, they made him rebound for them while they practiced shooting. As such, Robin grabs a lot of rebounds but doesn’t shoot on par with Ernie and Everett, both of whom could knock it down from anywhere on the offensive side.

QUESTION #4! Both Penn and Veretto are in their first (and presumably only?) season with Vermont, and both play major roles on the team. Given UVM’s general run of success in their league, how much of the success of this season was foreseeable back in October and/or how much of this has been a surprise because of what those two guys can do on the floor?

VCF: Quite frankly, the run Vermont went on this year to reach March Madness was not foreseeable in November. Vermont opened this year having lost its two best players in Ryan Davis and Ben Shungu after last year, and also had a brutal out-of-conference schedule with only three home games in two months. As a result, Vermont was having to transition this year while also, in effect, being a traveling team. They played Brown on November 7. Their next home game wasn’t until December 1, and by that point, Vermont’s record was a disappointing 2-7.

The general reason for the lack of home games is because Vermont is held in such high regard that no one wants to come to play here any more. And so, Vermont was still figuring things out, without their starting five really set until they settled on Kam Gibson, Sullivan, Veretto, Robin Duncan, and Dylan Penn. The one X-factor for Vermont is Aaron Deloney, who has won the last two sixth man of the year awards in the conference and is something of a secret weapon off the bench.

So, while Vermont didn’t start well this season, when they realized the winning formula with their roster, they got going. Had they been playing like this all season, it is certainly possible that they could have picked up at least two more wins on their early road trip. When they settled their roster going into December, they turned it around and began winning games. By the end of the month, they were at 6-8, with conference play about to begin. Given the general weakness of the conference (Editor’s Note: Ranked #25 out of 32 by KenPom’s efficiency metrics), with the only other good team this year being UMass-Lowell, it meant Vermont was in prime position to get the top seed and home-court advantage for the conference playoffs.

QUESTION #5! Let’s say Shaka Smart pulls the trigger on a home-and-home series with Vermont. Where should Marquette fans coming to Burlington stop for a burger and a beer before making their way to Patrick Gymnasium? Is there a local establishment that has a highly sought after speciality?

While I find it highly unlikely Marquette will ever come to Vermont, there are several places for beer and burgers in town. Going downtown, I would definitely suggest the Farmhouse Tap and Grill, or Ken’s Pizza/The Pub, but burgers and a beer are not the best options here. There is so much to offer. We have sports bars like Buffalo Wild Wings and Texas Roadhouse here, but if those aren’t your speed, here are some other options:

-For Chinese food, I have to give a shout-out to the Dim Sum Cafe in downtown Burlington. I love authentic Chinese cuisine, and this is the closest to the real thing we have in the area.

-If you’re in the mood for great soups, I suggest places like Pho Dang in Winooski, Pho Hong in Burlington, or Pho K&K in Williston. All have delicious soups which are practically guaranteed to warm you up on a cold day.

-If you want pizza, I have to give my own personal stamp of approval to Pizza 44 in the South End of Burlington. While pizza itself is everywhere, this is the place to go for Wood-Fired pizzas, which have a flavor I’ve never had anywhere else.

-If you simply want a place where everything is within walking distance, go to Church Street in downtown Burlington. You can walk around the road, without worry of cars, with lots of restaurants and pubs within walking distance.

Now, while I said it is unlikely Marquette will ever come here, maybe that will change when the new Tarrant Rec Center is built. It’s going to be south of the campus of the University of Vermont, and is meant to be the new home of UVM men’s basketball once it’s completed. It will be interesting to see if more teams want to come play here once the Rec Center is completed, too.