The next two games could be unexpectedly pivotal for the Vermont basketball team. Why are games against America East cellar-dwellers UMBC and Binghamton so big? Because the last two conference games of the year are against he only teams Vermont has lost to in conference: Boston University and Maine. These two games against UMBC and Binghamton are major stepping stones toward UVM locking up an automatic postseason birth (in the NIT) and the #1 seed in the conference tournament. If they win these next two games, they will sit at 12-2 in conference, and the Maine game in Orono will be played for the America East title (assuming Maine can also win 3 of 4 against Stony Brook, UNH, Albany, and Hartford). They get currently third-place BU at home for the last game of the year, which could prove to be huge depending on what happens in the next couple weeks.
UMBC comes into tonight's game having won 4 of their last 7, including last week's upset at Maine. The win streak started when they beat BU at home on January 20. Prior to that BU game, their record was a paltry 1-17. Led by the heroics of Siena transfer and America East POY candidate Chris De La Rosa, UMBC has became a formidable foe. 5 foot 10 inch De La Rosa is averaging 16.7 points per game, 6.7 APG, and an incredible 4.5 RPG. In the first meeting between the two teams, Vermont used a 56-21 advantage in the second half to dominate the UMBC Retrievers. In the last few minutes it seemed as though UMBC gave up: they took terrible shots, did not pass the ball much, and watched as Vermont scored at will. They will be motivated to take their best shot at Vermont tonight, so the Cats better be ready.
Binghamton's story is completely the opposite. The Bearcats surprised America East by winning their first three games of conference play. They surprised themselves by losing the next eight games. They do not play until the travel to Burlington to take on the Catamounts Sunday, so they will be riding that eight game losing streak coming into hostile territory. But they will also have had an eight-day layoff to prepare for the Cats, which could make it another interesting test for UVM.
And of course, the game that has not been discussed thus far is the ESPN Brackbuster matchup against the College of Charleston on February 19. Vermont got the best matchup out of any America East team, and got the only nationally televised game awarded to the conference. It is a tough matchup for Vermont, particularly on the road. Charleston has the fourth leading scorer in the country, Andrew Goudelock (23.8 PPG, 41.8% from 3-point range). The cougars rank 40th in the country in team points per game (76.3) and 17th in field goal pct. (48%). Georgetown and Charleston are the only two teams this season who have beaten Coastal Carolina. To put it mildly, Charleston has a good NCAA tournament resume. That game should be a true test for Vermont. It will also go a long way toward deciding NCAA tournament seeding, should Vermont be fortunate enough to make it.