“Rita, do me a favor. I need someone to give me a good, hard slap in the face.” It was confusion, and some minor trepidation, that Phil (Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day”) felt throughout his second time experiencing the same sequence of events: the 6:00 AM “I Got You Babe” wake-up, the annoying insurance dweeb Ned Ryerson, the ceremony at Gobbler’s Knob.
It wasn’t until that same 6:00 AM alarm sounded a third time that full-blown panic set in. “Rita, I’m re-living the same day… Over and over,” Phil tells his affectionate but skeptical producer. Such was the emotional state reverberating throughout the Reilly Center and inside the minds of Bona faithful as we watched our third-straight home opener loss unfurl.
It wasn’t even the rhythm-less dud of a 12-point stunner that the banged-up and mediocre-at-best MAC visitors handed our 12-point favorites. No, the magnitude of our quandary was shoved upon us with a sudden, game-altering and potentially season-defining injury. Of course, the Adams injury ahead of our 2017 Niagara opener and the Griffin injury against Bucknell last season weren’t close to season-defining, but undeniably contributed to initial, gut-punch losses. They were opening defeats that we hadn’t seen since 2004, and suffered only once ever in the RC before that.
This time, Ohio big man Sylvester Ogbonda set a high screen on Kyle Lofton that allowed guard Jason Preston to get to the rim. It was there that a waiting Osun Osunniyi jumped to block Preston's left-handed finger-roll and came down awkwardly on his right leg, causing what looked like a bad knee hyperextention.
Thankfully, it seems we've avoided total disaster, and Osun may "only" be out two or three weeks with a bone bruise, but this all still stings. An 0-1 start, combined with a half-dozen or so games without maybe our most impactful player is... less than ideal.
So, here we are again. Like Phil waking up next to an in-tact pencil he broke in half the night before. The trudge commences.
GOD DAMN IT.
On to Vermont.
The class of the America East conference will come to a raucous Reilly Center Friday night for the rubber match of a three-game series that has delivered tremendously. If the first two meetings were any indication, Friday will provide a thrilling triumph for one side and a heartbreaking loss for the other.
In December 2017, Vermont stud Anthony Lamb (more on him soon) came back to his hometown of Rochester to square off in a back-and-forth affair that featured 12 lead changes, eight ties and a buzzer-beating three from Matt Mobley. Mobley had uncharacteristically disappeared during the game. He went just 0-for-2 from the field before knocking down an ice-cold dagger as time expired that gave the Bonnies their fifth straight win.
It took two overtimes and a career-high 42 points (15-28 FG, 6-16 3PT) from Lamb for the Catamounts to get revenge in Burlington last season. Lamb had a remarkable 150 offensive rating, with no turnovers and one foul in 47 minutes of play. It’s good to be the home team, and that’s now good for the Bonnies.
With Lamb on the roster, Vermont has gone 83-21 (45-3 in the conference). With John Becker running the show since 2011, Vermont has racked up 107 America East wins in 128 games, including eight straight 20+ win seasons, four regular season conference championships and three tournament championships (2012, 2017, 2019).
Last year’s America East player of the year and All-America Honorable Mention, Lamb was recently named to the Naismith Watch List. Obviously, the Catamounts offense completely revolves around the 6’6” forward. He’ll take the ball wherever his teammates can get it to him – down low, on the perimeter, at the high post. He showed off his newly-developed three-point shot against the Bonnies last year, knocking down six treys and eventually nailing 36.5% of his 137 attempts throughout the season.
This threat has made him all the more dangerous, allowing him to also drive out of isolation on over-pursuing defenders for a finish at the rim, or dish it to one of several dangerous spot-up shooters. So who will have the most difficult assignment of the off-season - guarding Lamb in space and out of isolation sets?
Last December, Schmidt threw many different looks at Lamb. With Griffin out due to injury, wings Stockard and Tshiefu Ngalakulondi manned up on him and guarded him out of a zone. Mostly it was Osunniyi and Ikpeze coming out to the perimeter to try to disrupt him with size, but he’d still drive to the bucket for a finish or nail down a deep three over Osunniyi’s outstretched 7’8” wingspan.
We probably won’t see much of Ikpeze assigned to Lamb due to match-ups this season, so it’s possible an athletic 6’8” Robert Carpenter or Justin Winston could see minutes on Lamb – though a tall order for a freshman in the second game. Bobby Planutis saw 30 minutes at Lamb's position Tuesday, but could be matched up elsewhere. There has been no answer for him and there might not be again Friday, so containing his supporting cast may be all we can ask.
That cast will primarily be Duncan brothers Everett (6’6”) and Robin (6’5”), and guard Stef Smith (6’1”). Other than Lamb, Smith had the highest usage of returning Vermont players, and will work off the ball to find open looks. He had 21 points in 42 minutes against us last season, and be opposite Lofton during most possessions.
Everett Duncan can also knock down outside shots at a high rate (40% for his career) as a spot-up shooter, while Robin Duncan will be a distributor and cutter. If Schmidt puts Planutis on Lamb, expect Welch to match-up with Everett Duncan for most lineups, while Vasquez and Robin Duncan check each other. I could also envision a bigger lineup featuring Ikpeze, Carpenter, and Planutis on the floor at once, with Carpenter on Lamb and Welch or Vasquez at the "2".
Down low, Alabama grad transfer Daniel Giddens (6’11”, 247) will bang bodies with Ikpeze, and allow Lamb to shift back down to his natural “4” position. A top-50 player and top-10 center out of Oak Hill Academy, Giddens proved to be a more than adequate defender and shot-blocker during his tenures at Ohio State and Alabama.
Amadi the Bonnie will certainly have his plate full Friday night, and without a true backup for a time, he’ll be expected to put in minutes that he may not have been capable of putting in last season. Look for Robert Carpenter to play more stretches at the 5 as well during Ikpeze's breathers.
Off the bench, Ben Shungu, a 6’2” redshirt junior guard will likely be back for action after nursing an injury. He’s a pick pocket on the defensive end, and has the capability to get hot from the outside. He started regularly down the stretch last season, and had a career-high 15 points against Florida State in the NCAA Tournament last March.
Capable six-foot freshman Aaron Deloney and fellow classmate Eric Beckett could also see some minutes at the guard spots. Beckett uses his large, 6’4”, 225-pound frame to get to the rim, but can also shoot adequately from deep.
6’8” sophomore bigs Ryan Davis and Oklahoma State transfer Duncan Demuth will be key pieces off the bench for Becker this season. Davis led all scorers with 17 points in Vermont’s last exhibition game, and had a promising freshman campaign in ’18-’19. Demuth played in all of OK State’s games last season, but a concussion could keep him from seeing time against the Bonnies.
Worrisome for St. Bona, who were ice cold in the opener and bumbled into multiple unforced turnovers, is Vermont’s defensive capabilities. Before acquiring Giddens on the transfer market, they had the best defensive efficiency rating in their conference, and were third in the nation in defensive rebounding rate. Lamb’s versatility in guarding multiple positions allows them to switch often, so adding a serviceable center to the mix should only make them more unyielding for opposing offenses.
Vermont is very likely to be our toughest non-league foe, and they should be one of the best non-P6 squads in the land. They’ll be a headache for every team on their schedule due to their smart play, shot selection, defensive rebounding, and their limiting of turnovers. The Bonnies do have an invaluable Friday night home court advantage, as well as one more game (though bad) than the Catamounts under their belts. Stockard scored 27 points in last season's effort, while Lofton played all 50 minutes and added 23 points. With usage leader Stockard (29.2%) gone, freshman Alejandro Vasquez surprisingly led the team in usage against Ohio (33.8%). Whether it's Vasquez, Welch, Lofton, or Planutis, someone - anyone - will need to catch fire Friday. Let's Winn.