Program Reviews: The relentless consistency of Vermont basketball

Welcome to Program Reviews, an earlier-than-expected offseason series where I interview coaches across all levels of college basketball about their program, the 2019-20 season, and what’s still to come. Today, Vermont and John Becker.

If you are under the age of, say, 30, it is just about impossible to remember a time where Vermont wasn’t a yearly 20+ game winner and routine postseason fixture. The Catamounts prominently feature in the greatest Gus Johnson call of all time, they’ve won 20+ games 12 seasons in a row (one of seven schools nationally to do this), they’ve finished .500 or better in conference play in 14 straight seasons, and they’ve won the America East regular season title 10 times in the last 19 seasons. It blew me away a little when I realized Vermont had never made the NCAA Tournament in school history until 2003; it simply feels as if they have always been here.

This is the life, and the consistency, of maybe the most unsung consistent program in college basketball. Everyone knows about Gonzaga by now, but there was a time where they were somewhat similarly overlooked. Same with Belmont, same with St. Mary’s, same with Gregg Marshall-era Winthrop, same with Gregg Marshall-era Wichita State. For that one special day in 2005, Vermont seemed like they could break through the barrier and become a household name.

They haven’t had the same breakthrough since, despite four additional NCAA Tournament appearances, but they’ve come pretty darn close. Vermont played 4-seed Purdue hard for a full 40 minutes in 2017 and did the same to 4-seed Florida State in 2019. Had the NCAA Tournament happened this year, they may have been able to get over the hump in Anthony Lamb’s senior year. It’s a shame we’ll never know, but we have a pretty good idea, because betting on the most consistently good mid-major program on the East Coast is a good idea in itself.

John Becker has been the architect of smooth consistency for nine seasons now. It hasn’t always been easy, even when Becker took the Catamounts to the NCAA Tournament in his first season; an 11-5 America East record feels underwhelming for this program. For a while, though, Becker’s had it rolling: a 59-5 record in America East play since 2016-17, 109 wins in the last four seasons, and four straight Top 80 KenPom finishes.

As Becker himself says, mid-major basketball is a world of ebbs and flows; for every Gonzaga, there is a Loyola Chicago or a George Mason, who pops up once and then largely disappears in terms of national recognition. The number of truly year-in, year-out consistent true mid-major programs, at this point, is maybe five or six teams long. And yet: here is Vermont, always operating at the same pace, doing the same things, and staying at the same level of success. I talked to John Becker about this remarkable consistency, how to take the next step forward, and why Anthony Lamb is a special player.

Will Warren: Describe your program philosophy in a few sentences.

John Becker: “I think we’re a defensive-first program. Defense, rebounding, and toughness are kind of year-to-year things we emphasize. From an offensive standpoint, we want to play a motion, ball-screen offense and tweak how flexible we are on that end in terms of adapting to talent. We don’t want to beat ourselves and really force others to beat us by limiting our mistakes. We also want to be a good free throw shooting team. All of those add up to winning basketball, I believe.”

WW: How did you end up going from coaching basketball and tennis at Gallaudet University to working in information systems and then back into coaching?

JB: “It was a very unconventional, serendipitous type of path to being a Division I head coach. I didn’t play at Catholic University; I was a guy that was on the fringes but was friends with guys on the basketball team who ended up getting into coaching. Jimmy Patsos (Siena, Loyola (MD)) and Mike Lonergan (Vermont, George Washington, Catholic University head coach at the time) were guys I was in with. Lonergan later brought me to Vermont after winning a championship at Catholic. I got out of college and got into the computer business, doing data entry and whatnot. After four or five years, I was feeling unfulfilled and thinking there might be something else for me that was a better fit. I had always loved basketball and was a very good high school player. With the help of Jimmy Patsos, I started working some camps and got on at Gallaudet University with his connections.

I coached basketball and tennis, and it’s a deaf/hard-of-hearing school, so I taught myself sign language. It felt like a better fit, but I was working a full-time job at Georgetown at the same time fixing computers on campus at the computer lab. I’d do that from 7 to 3 and then I’d drive across town to Gallaudet and coach from afternoon to night. I got married halfway through my time at Gallaudet and was never able to be at home or see my family. I had to make a decision, so I gave up basketball and went back into the IT field in earnest, right when the tech bubble was in full bloom. I was making a nice living, but again, after a few years, that feeling of unfulfillment and realizing life was short came back. I went back to work at Catholic University, my alma mater, and was an assistant for a couple of years. After those years, Mike called and asked if I wanted to be the operations guy at Vermont. At that point, I decided I’m not gonna have a back-up plan. I’d saved up some money and moved the family up to Burlington.

I did that for a couple years, was an assistant for three more, and then Mike left for George Washington. I was shocked and surprised and humbled to be elevated to the head coach position at Vermont nine seasons ago. I don’t know that I’d recommend it for anyone, but it was my path and it was how it needed to happen. Having a lot of experience outside of basketball and understanding the frustrations of an unfulfilled career, knowing how much that hurts…I think it’s helped me hopefully be a better mentor and leader. I want it to give people hope that there’s more than one way to accomplish things in life.”

WW: For most of my lifetime, Vermont has been one of the most consistent, reliable mid-major programs in college basketball. You’ve elevated the Catamounts beyond their normal range of outcomes to four straight Top 80 KenPom finishes and a stunning 59-5 run in America East play the last two years. What makes Vermont such a special program and enables it to stay this consistent for this long?

JB: “I think about it a lot. The success and the consistency is kind of unheard of at the mid-major level, as you usually ride the ebbs and flows of getting a transcendent player. I inherited a good situation, so to speak. I think we’ve been able, somehow, to continue to get better players that have bought in to how we do things. We have a community here that is all-in on our program. I think when kids get here, they feel like they’re really part of something that’s bigger than them. It really matters here, and Burlington is a beautiful place with a great school. It’s a college town with a unique, cool mid-major basketball program. We don’t have all the facilities and amenities that schools we’re recruiting against have, but we do win and it does matter here. It’s a little harder to get guys to come here, but the ones that do understand it’s not about the bells and whistles but for winning and for being part of something that matters. . . . We’re starting to see the brand and the name recognition with players throughout the country, which is exciting. We want to keep pushing this thing forward and get better and better.”

WW: For most of your tenure and your predecessor’s tenure, Vermont wasn’t much of a three-point-taking team – your players hit the shots, but they were more selective. In the last two seasons, though, the Catamounts broke the previous KenPom-era records for three-point attempt rate. Was this a conscious shift towards the three, and if so, why’d you make that move?

JB: “Offensively, I really believe in balance and playing inside-out and still playing a bit of back-to-the-basket basketball. I’ve really resisted getting caught up in shooting threes every time down the court or trying to get the quickest, fastest shot. I’m not naive to the analytics, though. It’s just something that’s evolved and guys are just better. We’ve had Anthony Lamb, who’s arguably the best player to play at Vermont. He’s dynamic at all three levels, but he really made his hay playing in the paint. What changed is that teams loaded up to him in the post with double and triple teams. The defense slanted to him before he got the ball. It just was the shot we were given was the three. It was hard for us to score in the paint because teams were really collapsing on Anthony. We had some great three-point shooters, so it just seemed like we had to do a lot more of shooting threes to open up Anthony and making teams have to make a decision.”

WW: Anthony Lamb is one of the most widely agreed-upon great mid-major players of the last decade. What set him apart as a player, in your eyes?

JB: “The work ethic, he’s just different. Since the minute he got to campus, he’s in the gym all the time, morning, day, and night. He has a drive to be great and a fear of not being good enough. Obviously, his body type is very interesting – he’s a naturally strong kid in his lower half that allows him to move basically anyone where he wants. He’s only 6’5”, maybe 6’6” on a good day, but he has a 6’11” standing reach, so he’s able to move guys around and able to elevate and finish over people. He also has incredible footwork in the post. He started to develop perimeter skills late in his freshman year. Anything I told him he couldn’t do, he was going to go into the gym and figure out how to do it and become good at it. That’s how he became a good three-point shooter and a great free throw shooter.”

WW: There’s two things I’ve really loved about your defense for the majority of your tenure: you make it really, really hard for opponents to get second chances and you force tough, contested shots both at and away from the rim. Why do you think your program has been consistently excellent in both areas?

JB: “We practice defense probably 60-70% of practice time. We’ve done a great job of holding guys accountable – it doesn’t matter how good you are offensively, you won’t play if you don’t execute our defensive gameplan and our defensive system. Guys have understood the deal, and recruits have it emphasized to them. There’s not much pushback about how you’re gonna get on the court. From a defensive perspective, not only do we practice and drill the fundamentals of it, it’s philosophical. We want to force contested mid-range jump shots. When we coach our guys on what we want to give up, that’s what’s emphasized. That evolves every year a little bit, but for the most part, if a guy from my first year came in and watched a practice today, he’d see a lot of similarities from then to now.”

WW: What’s your favorite win you’ve had as a coach?

JB: “I know by far my favorite loss of all time was the Duke game back in 2014. I don’t have a great memory, so I can’t remember the early ones, but the St. Bonaventure double overtime win was incredible. Senior night with Josh Speidel was incredible. I always remember the championship wins in 2017 and 2019. My very first year, we went to the Tournament and played Lamar in the First Four, who was being coached by Pat Knight at the time. It was a really difficult year for a number of reasons. There was a fire at my house in the middle of the season and I had to move into a condo. We lost five straight early in the year. We went on to win the championship at Stony Brook and I just remember having some incredible wins against Maine and Hartford. Anyway, we played Lamar in Dayton and it might have been as good a game from start to finish as we’d ever played.”

WW: You’ve got a new arena coming in soon, you’ve posted 12 straight 20-win seasons as a program, and you have more wins than all but nine programs over the last four years. What’s the next big step, if any, for Vermont as a program?

JB: “As a coach, we won a First Four game, we’ve been to three NCAA Tournaments in my tenure, and won Coach of the Year four years in a row. All that stuff is incredible and I’m proud of it, but I want to get to the Sweet Sixteen. I think because of the amount we’ve been to the Tournament and because we’ve had good games against teams like St. John’s, Virginia, Kentucky, Purdue, and Florida State, we want more national recognition. If we make the Sweet Sixteen, that would likely happen. In talking to recruits, parents, and transfers, you start to see the power of television and the power of sustained success. We’re able to get better players with those things. I don’t think I’ve made any secret of the fact that I want to see us continue to find the resources and see if we can make this into as big a basketball program as we can make it.”

WW: Last question: what’s your go-to entertainment during the quarantine?

JB: “Ozark and Better Call Saul, I’ve been into quite a bit. My kids watch Mad Men and the Office, so I end up catching an episode or two of those.”

Here’s a highlight package of 15 of my favorite Vermont plays from this past season, both offense and defense.

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