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Mid-Major team to watch: Vermont Catamounts

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The story of the America East Conference last year was the Stony Brook Seawolves.

Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell trusted forward Jameel Warney — a three-time America East player of the year — in every big situation. Guard Carson Puriefoy provided enough help in the backcourt. As a result, the Seawolves made their first NCAA Tournament in school history. However, during this offseason, Warney and Puriefoy graduated and Pikiell left to take over a struggling Rutgers program.

Given the aforementioned departures, it would seem logical that Stony Brook will decline. Which team is next in line, ready to wrest the 2017 America East crown from the Seawolves? On paper, it is a toss-up between the Albany Great Danes (who finished second in the regular season) and the Vermont Catamounts (who finished second in the postseason tournament).

While the Danes do return a solid core, the Catamounts should worry America East foes more than any other team.

Vermont is one of the best-kept secrets in college basketball. Over the past eight years, the Catamounts have won at least 20 games. In fact, Vermont is one of 14 schools with at least 20 wins in each of the last eight seasons.

Seven of them (Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, North Carolina, Ohio State and Wisconsin) hail from major conferences, while five others (BYU, Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, San Diego State and VCU) play in upper-level mid-major leagues. That leaves Akron and Vermont as the two minor-conference teams; the Zips play in the Mid-American Conference.

While the Catamounts have recorded eight straight 20-plus-win seasons, they have made the NCAA tournament only twice — 2010 and 2012 — in those eight years. It is more than likely that the Catamounts will record their ninth straight season with at least 20 wins, but they will have a strong chance to make the tournament since they return a bulk of their team from last year.

Experience is vital in collegiate athletics, and this Vermont team is loaded with it. The Catamounts return five of their top six scorers from a year ago.

The biggest returnee for this Vermont team is point guard Ernie Duncan.

Duncan first arrived in Burlington in 2014. However, after playing only 56 minutes total in four games, Duncan received a redshirt. In his first full season of collegiate basketball, Duncan impressed.

The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Evansville, Indiana, native torched American East opponents. He tallied double figures in 21 of the 33 games he played. Duncan finished the season averaging 11.5 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. Those numbers were good enough to land him on the America East All-Rookie Team.

Not only did Duncan average solid statistics per game, he also led Vermont in free-throw percentage — 81.5 — and was third in the conference in 3-pointers made (2.5 per game) and 3-point percentage — 44.2 percent. Entering this season, Duncan is a front-runner for the America East Player of the Year Award.

While the Catamounts return Duncan, they lost forward Ethan O’Day this offseason. This is a big loss for Vermont, figuratively and literally. O’Day stood at 6-foot-9 and led the Catamounts in rebounds and blocks while averaging 11.5 points per game.

However, Tulane transfer forward Payton Henson should ease the blow of losing O’Day. The 6-foot-8, Siloam Springs, Arkansas, native averaged 13.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per 40 minutes during the 2014-’15 season.

Vermont also brings back guard Trae Bell-Haynes — 12.2 points per game last year — and forward Kurt Steidl, who averaged 11.2 points per game last season.

The Catamounts’ experience will help them in their tough non-conference games. Vermont takes on Harvard, Yale, South Carolina, Providence and Butler early in the season. Those games should prepare the Catamounts for America East competition.

It has been four years since Vermont has won the America East, but with all their returning experience, the Catamounts should be favored to win the conference and make some noise in March if everyone stays healthy.

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