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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
No first-year college basketball coach in the country has a more difficult act to follow than Vermont's Mike Lonergan.
Tom Brennan, Lonergan's predecessor, could work a room like a polished politician and crack wise better than some Vegas nightclub acts. And that's the easy part.
Brennan, who announced his retirement before last season, called it a career after leading the Catamounts on an incredible three-year run where Vermont reached the NCAA Tournament for the first three times in its 105 years of basketball. He capped it with last season's record-breaking 25-win campaign that included a stunning upset of Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
But wait, that's not all. Vermont also graduated four senior starters, including three-time America East Player of the Year Taylor Coppenrath (25.1 ppg, 8.9 rpg) and three-time first-team all-league selection T.J. Sorrentine (18.7 ppg, 4.3 apg), two of the best players in the history of the program.
"It's a tough job," said Lonergan, who compiled a 251-88 record and won the 2001 NCAA Division III national championship at his alma mater, Catholic University. "People in coaching probably thought it was the toughest job in coaching that opened up."
It's also an opportunity that he is extremely excited about.
"I feel like I've worked my whole life for this job," said Lonergan, who spent last season as an assistant at Maryland.
Lonergan's work at Vermont is just beginning, and he knows it may take some time for he and the Catamounts to find themselves.
"We'll be young and inexperienced," Lonergan said. "After that, I don't really know."
The one returning player Lonergan knows the most about is junior Martin Klimes, a 6-8 forward/center. Klimes (4.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.8 apg) moved into the starting lineup last season and played in Coppenrath's shadow. He averaged 11.3 points in Vermont's final three games and harassed Syracuse All-American Hakim Warrick into 10 turnovers in the Catamounts' NCAA win.
Klimes, whose parents both played for the Czechoslavakian Olympic team, picked up valuable experience playing for the Czech Republic in the World University Games this summer. He will need to avoid foul trouble and shoulder a larger load on offense this season.
"I think he's a hard-nosed, tough defender and a tough kid," Lonergan said. "We are going to look to him to score more. He's got a lot of height and is tough as nails."
The Catamounts are also counting on sophomores Josh Duell and Ryan Schneider to step forward at the forward spots.
The 6-8 Duell (5.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.8 apg) established himself as an outside threat (38-for-98, .388 3PT) last season and is the leading returning scorer on the Catamounts. Duell, a member of the America East All-Rookie Team, got a lot of open looks because defenses collapsed on Coppenrath last season and will be counted on to be more of a force in the post.
"We'll look for him to get back inside a little bit more and trail on the break," Lonergan said.
The 6-7 Schneider (4.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg) is also a perimeter threat, but he needs to improve on his shooting percentage (31-of-107, .290 3PT) this season. A top candidate to start at small forward, Schneider scored in double figures five times last season and could see his production improve significantly with extended playing time.
The Catamounts are hoping junior Chris Holm, a 6-11 transfer from Rhode Island, will be able to help. Holm (1.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg) played in 23 games for the Rams in 2003-04 and worked against Coppenrath in practice last season, but he was slowed by a knee injury in the off-season and may need some time to recover.
Kyle Cieplicki, a 6-4 sophomore, will also take on a greater role. Cieplicki (2.1 ppg) starred for his father at nearby Rice Memorial High School and is a member of the third generation of one of Vermont's top basketball families.
"He's a typical coach's son," Lonergan said. "He can pass and he can shoot."
Sophomore Timothy McCrory (1.0 ppg, 1.0 rpg), a 6-6 forward, saw limited minutes in 22 games as a freshman but is a good rebounder who could help on the wing.
Lonergan will also rely heavily on several newcomers during his first season.
Mike Trimboli, a 6-1 freshman from Norwalk, Conn., is expected to continue a Vermont tradition and take over Sorrentine's spot at the point. The Catamounts have had four straight four-year point guards and, although he is not a true point, Trimboli has a lot to offer after averaging 28 points and six assists and earning first-team All-New England Prep School Athletic Conference honors at St. Luke's School in New Canaan, Conn., last season.
"He can really, really shoot the ball," Lonergan said. "He's not going to beat guys clean off the dribble, he'll have to be more crafty."
Ryan Shields, a 6-8 forward, teamed with Trimboli to lead St. Lukes to the 2005 NEPSAC Class D title. Shields (17.0 ppg, 19.0 rpg), a tough inside player from Wilton, Conn., led all Connecticut high school players in rebounding last season and was a two-time all-conference pick at Catholic High in Stamford.
Colin McIntosh, a 6-8 freshman forward from Milton, Mass., could be the most talented member of the freshman class and an instant contributor. McIntosh, who averaged 15 points and eight rebounds while prepping at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Mass., is a solid shooter with good athleticism but needs to get stronger.
Lonergan also landed guards Jason Green and Rob Sisca to bolster the backcourt.
The 6-1 Green was captain on a DeMatha Catholic (Hyattsville, Md.) team that went 29-2 and was ranked ninth in the nation by USA Today. Green, the son of former Ohio State quarterback Cornelius Green, is a solid defender who averaged 10 points and five assists his final season in high school.
"He was kind of like the [departed Vermont guard] David Hehn of DeMatha," Lonergan said. "He guarded the best player on the other team and shot when he was open."
Sisca, a 6-3 shooter from Weston, Conn., is a long-range specialist who scored 1,490 points while setting records for most career (173) and single-season three-pointers (69) at Weston High. An all-state pick as a junior and senior, he averaged 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists as a senior.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
This Vermont team will have a whole new look compared to the one that ran roughshod through the America East in recent seasons.
The good news for the Catamounts is that the league has undergone so many changes this season that they could still be competitive. The bad news is that Vermont has far more questions than answers heading into the season.
"The biggest thing we need is scoring," Lonergan said.
Klimes, Duell and Schneider provide some experience up front, but the backcourt is unproven and opponents aren't likely to let up on Vermont after getting roughed up by the Catamounts the last few years.
Cieplicki has a year behind him and could be a productive player. Trimboli, Green and Sisca provide plenty of promise for the future, but it's difficult to rely on freshmen in a league where guards often dominate.
Brennan was wise enough to leave on top and leave the rebuilding to someone else. Lonergan has the ability to get the job done, but it will take some time for him to mold the Catamounts into a consistent winner again.
For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).