After watching Vermont defeat his Hofstra team in the first round of the CBI tournament last March, Pride coach Joe Mihalich offered this assessment of the Catamounts:
“They’re a very well-coached team. It’s hard to score on them. They’re efficient, they have a good balance, and a good chemistry.”
When Vermont senior forward and returning leading scorer (12.4 points) Ethan O’Day is asked about this tide of adulation, you can sense him nodding over the phone.
There is a reason this Catamounts program has won at least 20 games for seven seasons running, including the four since John Becker became head coach in ‘11–12. (UVM is 51–13 in conference play, and has made four postseason appearances, in those four seasons.) It’s the reason the team pours itself into defensive work each practice.
The Catamounts finished ‘14–15 ranked 15th in the country in scoring defense, at 59.2 points allowed a game. At least nine players averaged at least 10 minutes. There is a system in place that works; grit tethered to skill has fueled it.
“It’s about a competitive winning culture that’s been here since the moment I stepped foot on campus,” says O’Day. “It’s expected that we win every year, and win a lot of games. We expect to compete for the America East championship, and try to go on to the NCAA tournament.”
Both O’Day and Becker attribute the genesis of this expectation of excellence to the remarkable run in the early aughts, keyed by the triumvirate of Catamount coach Tom Brennan and stars T.J. Sorrentine and Taylor Coppenrath. “I looked up to those guys,” says O’Day, who is from Mansfield, Connecticut. “They started this thing, and it’s just stuck with us.”
O’Day remembers that Sorrentine three against Syracuse, the way it stamped Vermont on his mental map. When the school began recruiting him in his junior year of high school, he was already well-versed with the program. He took a visit, and fell in love with this school he defines as “big, but small.” Something about the stunning scenery casts a relaxing hue.
Many looked at UVM last season, saw the six freshmen on the roster — freshmen accounted for almost 30% of the team’s minutes in ‘14–15 — and figured a break in that streak of 20-win seasons had to be coming.
Not so — and O’Day now points to those sophomores as a big key for the upcoming season. The younger guys, with experience under their belts, are ready to go.
Becker says that O’Day will be even more instrumental in Vermont’s attack, and it’s one reason he spoke with his senior about extending his shooting range to the three-point line. (O’Day has attempted just two three-pointers in his collegiate career.)
“If he’s able to do that, in our ball screen, motion offense, it’ll really help,” says Becker. “We don’t have a true 4 man on our roster this season that can stretch the court, so we’re hoping Ethan can slide to that position and stretch defenses out. We really like our 4 men to do that. He’s got a dependable 17-foot jumper, and a nice lefty hook, and he can use his athleticism to finish at the rim, but the next progression is to shoot it out to three.”
O’Day is in his element operating from the free throw line in, where he can mix deep post-ups with his face-up approach, both of which are bolstered by his quickness for a 6–9, 200-pound post. “I want to try and pick and pop a bit, too,” O’Day says, referencing how graduated Catamounts senior forward Hector Harold excelled in that department.
In addition to the skill work, Becker and O’Day both realize the need to cut down on foul trouble. In the America East tournament semis last March, O’Day picked up his second foul with 8 minutes remaining in the first half against Stony Book. Save for a brief re-entry, he had to sit until halftime.
Vermont ended up losing the game by two points. In the second half, O’Day played 16 minutes, and posted eight points, three rebounds, three blocks and two steals — the type of all-purpose performance he’s become known for.
O’Day might be the perfect example of the type of steward that’s helped foster UVM’s run of success. Role player in his first two seasons on veteran-laden teams; growing into a focal point as a junior. “Ethan’s not vocal, but he’s a leader because he’s one of our hardest-working guys,” says Becker. “He understands the expectations and the culture in place.
“I think there is something you feel here. It’s embodied by our players — the kids who are attracted to our program are kids that want to win. Everyone says that, but our kids have a really good understanding of what it takes to win. They’re unselfish, team-oriented, about the program and continuing the success.”
O’Day, tinkering with his game to make sure he can provide the biggest possible boost to the Catamounts’ upcoming season. That’s the type of leader that lingers in college basketball’s collective memory.