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Lonergan Discusses Team's Start, Fabulous Freshman PDF Print E-mail
Written by VT Sports Network News Feed   
Tuesday, 04 January 2011


By Chris McManes, MikeLonergan.com
Tuesday, January 04, 2011

WASHINGTON -When Marqus Blakely, Maurice Joseph and Nick Vier graduated last year after leading Vermont to Coach Mike Lonergan’s first conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearance at the Division I level, most observers thought the Cats would be on the wrong side of the score plenty this year.

Then when Garvey Young unexpectedly decided to transfer, UVM was left with just one starter – senior Evan Fjeld – from its 25-win campaign. Suddenly, the rebuilding of the Catamounts became a major project. Victory total predictions tended to range from 12 to 17, and America East coaches tabbed Vermont to finish fifth.

So far, it looks like everyone was wrong.

Lonergan has orchestrated his team to a 9-3 record. Victories include ending Siena’s 38-game home winning streak and winning at Quinnipiac and Iona. All three are ranked in the top 100 of the NCAA’s Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). Iona lost to then-No. 5 and undefeated Syracuse by just six points before the Cats nipped them, 84-79.

Two of UVM’s three losses came at the hands of powerhouses and once-beaten Connecticut and Brigham Young. UConn is now ranked ninth in the nation and BYU checks in at No. 14. The other setback came at Fairfield (10-3).

The Catamounts open America East Conference play tonight at Stony Brook (6-6, 1-0). Game time is 7 p.m. The Seawolves defeated the Cats twice last year en route to their regular-season conference championship.

Fjeld has been steady in the paint for Vermont, averaging career highs in points (17.5 ppg) and rebounds (7 rpg), and hitting a league-leading 58.3 percent of his field goals. Fellow senior Joey Accaoui is also enjoying a career year, averaging 13.5 points. He’s made 25 of 26 free throws for a sizzling 96.2 percent clip, good for fourth in the nation.

The biggest surprise has been freshman Brian Voelkel, a 6-foot-6, 210-pound power forward who leads the conference in rebounding (10 rpg) and assists (5 apg), and is second in steals (1.8 spg). He has been named America East Rookie of the Week four times and is the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year.

Lonergan answered the following questions via e-mail this morning a little after midnight.

Coach, having lost four starters from last year, including one of the best in UVM history, few observers probably thought you'd be doing as well as you are. How have you been able to mold this team into one that has started the season 9-3 and has notched some impressive road victories?

“We were picked fifth in our conference and on paper that is where we probably belonged. Our players and coaching staff were motivated by the preseason polls. As great a player as Marqus was, and as much as we miss him, we feel we have a great basketball program and want to compete for a championship every season no matter who we lose to graduation. We knew Evan would have to have a monster senior year and Brian would have to be the special player we thought he could be for us to have another great season. So far so good."

What concerns you most about your team as you get set to open conference play at Stony Brook?

“I am concerned about our lack of consistency at the point guard position. We need more assists and better defense from that position. Our turnovers are down from our point guards but they need to increase their assists, steals and rebounds. We also need to be better with our team defense. The intensity level isn’t always what it should be. Our free throw shooting from some key guys has been disappointing as well. That needs to change for us to compete for another America East championship.”

How is Evan Fjeld a different player this year than last season?

“Evan has continued to work hard to improve his game, and this year he has a new role as our go-to player. He is getting more touches and is the focal point of our offense. He has done a great job but needs to be stronger with the ball, which will improve his assist/turnover ratio [12 assists, 34 turnovers]."

You’ve had good success with players wearing No. 23 – Marqus Blakely for the past four years and now Brian Voelkel. How has Brian been able to adapt to the college game so quickly, and did you ever imagine that he would be doing this well?

“Some people gave me a hard time about letting Brian wear 23 but I haven’t heard a peep lately. Someday I hope Marqus’ number is retired but until then I like to let the players wear their favorite numbers. I knew Brian would be a special player. I felt the same way about Marqus and Joe Trapani, [who’s now a senior at Boston College]. I feel the same way about one of our recruits coming next year. I don’t like to hype freshmen but I told the media this summer Brian would lead us in assists and possibly rebounding. I didn’t think he would lead the entire conference. Brian has a high basketball IQ and is a tenacious rebounder. He is also the best passer I have ever coached. He is a great kid who has the potential to be a better offensive player in the future."

Matt Hahn, who had been one of your assistant coaches since you arrived at UVM in 2005, left during the offseason to take a similar position at Robert Morris. You moved Matt O'Brien up to assistant coach and hired former Catamount Kyle Cieplicki as director of basketball operations. How has your new staff, including longtime assistants Hajj Turner and John Becker, adapted to their new roles and duties?

“I miss Matt Hahn so much. He is a terrific recruiter and coach. Not many guys are good at both. Financially, it was too good a deal for Matt to pass up at Robert Morris, so I encouraged him to take the position. I don’t like turnover on our staff and one of the reasons we have been the most successful America East basketball program during my tenure is because of my great assistants. Getting Kyle to leave Brown and join our staff helped ease the pain of Matt’s departure. Kyle is terrific and Matt O’Brien has done a great job in his new role. I told recruits the last two years that I feel I have the best group of assistants in the conference and maybe the country.

Is there anything else you'd like to discuss?

“I couldn’t be happier with our 9-3 record. We have three road wins against top 100 RPI teams. Not many teams can say that, and that is why our RPI is so high. I love this team and am proud of them. I am also realistic. I know we have some glaring weaknesses and a young team, and that we need to keep improving. We have won so many close games and it will be hard to keep winning every close game. I just hope we stay healthy, get better and reach the postseason for our fourth time in six years. Go Catamounts!”

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