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.

Program Reviews: North Florida and the Birds of Trey

Program Reviews is an offseason series where the writer and owner of this website interviews college basketball coaches across all levels about their previous season, their program as a whole, and other things. Today’s subject is Matthew Driscoll, head coach of the North Florida Ospreys men’s basketball team, which won a share of the Atlantic Sun regular season title, their third in six seasons.

Generally, any sort of open-ended experimentation in basketball is at least interesting to watch. Whether it works or ends up being efficient is often just icing on the cake. As described to me by Pat McKenzie of St. John’s (MN), many coaches are copycats, which means you don’t often see a ton of originality in college hoops. When something original and unusual does occur, it’s not often that it ends up being as successful as we’d like, which reinforces simply choosing to do the thing that is more likely to work.

I’ve had an appreciation for North Florida for a while simply because they take the three-pointer more seriously on both ends of the court than any other program in Division I. This year, the Ospreys took 52.2% of their shots from downtown – #1 in the nation – and limited opponents to taking just 24.5% of their shots from three, #2 behind Northern Colorado. From 2014-15 onward, every North Florida team has taken at least 41.7% of their shots from three and has allowed opponents to get more than 29% of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc just once. Many programs are able to combine one or the other, but no other Division I program has pushed the extremities of what the three-pointer means on both sides of the ball.

Obviously, as a statistics nerd, this is beyond fascinating to me. It seems like the offensive and defensive endpoints of Moreyball, going as far as UNF forcing opponents to take 38.1% of their shots as non-rim two-pointers, the least-efficient shot in basketball. That’s nice and all, of course. But in a year where teams retreated back inside the arc somewhat thanks to the three-point-line extension, North Florida embraced the three more than ever.

Again, it’s one thing for a team to embrace this strategy. It’s another thing entirely for it to work repeatedly. As their coaches call them, the Birds of Trey made 37.8% of their threes (12th-best), the second-best mark in school history. Only 12 teams posted a better eFG%, and this particular offense finished 31st, UNF’s best offensive mark in their time in D-1. (Getting into unadjusted efficiency can get a little fishy, simply because schedules do matter, but UNF did finish eighth nationally in raw offensive efficiency.) This offense is and has been wildly successful, as North Florida now owns the Atlantic Sun’s two best offenses (2015-16, when they finished 36th) since Belmont’s departure after the 2011-12 season.

Given all of these statistics, I figured you might want to hear from the architect behind it all. Matthew Driscoll is a great resource of offensive concepts and career stories, and we got to discuss both in our Zoom call last week.

The below interview is lightly edited and shortened. At the end of the interview, you can find highlights of some of North Florida’s best plays this season.

WW: Describe your offensive philosophy in a few sentences. (Editor’s note: this ended up being more than a few sentences, but it was a pitch-perfect response about program history and philosophy.)

Matthew Driscoll: “We say all the time in our program that we want makers, not takers. Let me show you something.

Driscoll shows me the game ball from his first career victory. It reads North Florida, 57-46.

MD: “When recruits or current players come in the office and talk to me, they’ll be like, ‘Coach, that’s what we get in a half now.’ When we got into the league, we still had success, but the way in which we went about things, we weren’t like we were now. Belmont, East Tennessee State, and Mercer were all in the league, all really, really good coaches and systems. As I was watching them, I thought Belmont’s different, East Tennessee State’s different, Mercer’s different. All three would recruit to their systems. I thought, man, we gotta do something.

We always had a good three-point shooter – Parker Smith and Beau Beech both were great – and I thought to myself about how I loved the way Belmont and Davidson played. I loved how they spread it and shared it. Then I had to think: who wants to come here, and how can we get those guys, and can we be better going in that direction? When we signed Beau Beech in 2012, he was 6’6”, but he was a guard that could play the stretch forward. He played in what we call our Hybrid position, which is essentially a fourth guard. We knew that getting him would take us in a different direction. At that time, we had to commit to going super, super heavy on three-point shooting. We had forwards that could make a stationary three just good enough – 35-37% – but could also deck it and finish at the rim. Having these hybrids that are 6’7”, 6’8”, 6’9” has helped us find our niche.

The next year, we got Dallas Moore, a scorer that was the first lead guard we ever had who could make threes. Next thing you know, the spacing on the floor was going through the roof. It’s all layups and dunks, wide-open threes. If you ask our guys, they’ll tell you that that’s all we talk about, all the time. . . . We’ve really, really started to recruit specifically [to our system]. Let’s just look for round pegs and keep putting them in round holes.”

WW: Who are your main influences as a coach?

MD: “Coach Rick Barnes, I came in as a JV high school coach from Pennsylvania driving 13 hours with our varsity coach to Providence’s team camp. Subsequently, that helped me meet Coach Larry Shyatt, who is my mentor and took me to his coaching jobs at Wyoming and Clemson. He’s still one of my best friends to this day. Scott Drew is a master at envisioning the future, too.”

WW: You spent 12 years as a Division I assistant before getting your first D-1 head coaching job at UNF. What excited you about coming to North Florida in the first place?

MD: “After we had started to win at Baylor, people are probably thinking ‘Coach D should be able to get a Division I head coaching job.’ 2007, the year before we made the NCAA Tournament, the Robert Morris job opened and I interviewed for it, the one Mike Rice eventually got. The next year, the St. Francis (PA) job opens, and I’m going after this thing hard. This is near Pittsburgh, where I’m from. In my mind, I’m getting this job. I don’t get the job. I’m freaking crushed. I go home, and my wife says, ‘God ain’t ready for you to be a head coach.’

I go back to Baylor, we end up going to the NIT. There was a woman that used to jog with us, and her boyfriend was a volleyball coach at the University of North Florida. I say ‘what’s that?’ She tells me it’s in Jacksonville and it’s beautiful. I went back to the office to look it up and it looked nice. I started looking into the basketball side of it, saw they were in the Division I transition process.

The athletic director at Wyoming the only year I was there became the AD at North Florida. Larry Shyatt, the associate head coach at Florida, decided not to take the UNF job because he wanted to go back to Wyoming. I never even saw the campus. [Athletic director] Coach Moon offered me the job as I’m walking into the pregame meal before we’re playing Penn State for the NIT championship. I took this job, sight unseen, and Coach Shyatt told me ‘don’t worry, you don’t even need to see it.’ I got on the plane and never went home.”

WW: Earlier, I talked about how clearly important the three is to your offense. Your Ospreys took more threes per-possession than any other team in the country this year. However, on the defensive side, only Northern Colorado held a lower rate of opponent three-point attempts. What led you to place this amount of value on the three-pointer on both sides of the ball?

MD: “Because threes beat you. Layups and dunks, protecting the rim, that’s critical. In the last six years, we’ve had three Defensive Players of the Year, all rim protectors. The three is just so significant as a shot – you can be up by eight points and two shots later it’s a two-point game. I thought Gary Williams and Juan Dixon were so, so good at running guys off the perimeter. I’ve always had that in the back of my brain, and we’ve always run people off the line. This year, we averaged 11.8 made threes and 4.8 allowed, that’s +7. That means we’re +21 points to start the game statistically from three.”

WW: I want to ask you about a very specific play in the Liberty game earlier this year.

UNF wins the tip-off directly to a frontcourt player, who swings it to a shooter that immediately drains a three. It takes maybe three seconds and you’re already up 3-0. Where did this come from?

MD: “We lost to Louisville by I don’t know how many a few years back. We did the same thing, won the tip-off, threw it right in front of Pitino’s bench and Trent Mackey buried a three.

Pitino’s postgame press conference was so humbling, because he said so many nice things about us and our system and how much time they had to spend preparing for it. Later that summer, we asked one of his assistants what happened after that play. He turned around and was “mothereffin'” them dudes, cussing at them! We call these plays the game within the game. The opening tip, the first play of the second half, after every timeout, every out-of-bounds play, every special situation, every missed free throw. That’s all the game within the game. It adds up to 20-30 possessions. I got that from Jerry Wainwright in the late 1990s when I was at Clemson.”

WW: Per KenPom.com, this was the highest-rated offense in school history (31st). Why was this particular group so successful offensively, and what set them apart from previous teams?

MD: “This group was able to develop faster because of the groups before making our scheme more simple and less experimental. We have this thing really oiled well with continued talent. We should be tops year in and year out! Don’t forget we played the 22nd-hardest schedule, including three top 10 NET teams that won their respective leagues.”

WW: You’re coming off of what was probably the second-best season in school history and you run one of the most fun, enjoyable offenses in basketball. What’s the next big step for the North Florida program?

MD: “Getting back to the NCAA Tournament and winning a Tournament game. We’ve never done that, and I think that would be huge for us. Winning an Atlantic Sun championship is by far at the top of the list, simply because of what we have to do in non-conference. We’ve got to bring in so much money [for the program] that we have six or seven built-in losses before we even play. We’ve beat Purdue once, we beat Illinois once, but those are few and far between.”

WW: What’s something people don’t know about North Florida as a university?

MD: “What people don’t realize is we’re eight miles from the Atlantic Ocean. We’re eight miles from downtown Jacksonville, which has an NFL team. We’ve got a $5M mall outside our front door. Our school is sitting on 1,300 acres. Plus, we have a lazy river. It’s about as well-kept a secret as you could possibly imagine. Once you get kids here, it’s simple. It’s more about getting them here in the first place. We’re six hours from Atlanta, six hours from Miami, six hours from Charlotte. It’s a unique, unique place.”

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

MD: “My wife and son and I watched Knives Out. We also watched the whole Tiger King…scenario. I was disappointed in the exploitation and how they didn’t pay the workers. I told my wife and our staff I didn’t watch it anymore, but my wife got me to watch one more episode and the next one was “did she kill her husband or not.” That was deep! They got me back in. Anyway, I wouldn’t say it was my choice – General Hospital is more important to me than that. My wife and I watch it every night. I just got done watching McMillions and turned my whole staff onto it.”

Here’s 15 of my favorite UNF plays from the games I watched: