Vermont has won 21 straight games with help from standout freshman forward Anthony Lamb, but the Catamounts must overcome a distinct size disadvantage to upset Purdue.
MILWAUKEE — Vermont traveled to West Lafayette last season and had no answers for Purdue big men Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas, who combined for 30 points and 15 rebounds in the Boilermakers’ 107-79 romp.
But the Catamounts didn’t have 6-foot-8 forward Anthony Lamb, this year’s leading scorer and rebounder as a freshman who has helped them reel off 21 consecutive victories.
“We’re a much better defensive team, have more depth up front,” coach John Becker said Wednesday. “You know, against Purdue last year, they scored 107 and made 18 3s. We’ve done a much better job of guarding the 3-point line this year. That will be a big deal again (Thursday) night.
But the biggest conundrum is how No. 13 seed Vermont, with Lamb tied for being the tallest player on the team, can find a way to neutralize Swanigan and Haas on both ends of the floor. The Catamounts will have to keep the duo away from the basket defensively while figuring out a way to get near it on the offensive side.
Lamb, who averages 12.6 points and 5.4 rebounds, could be the X-factor.
“One thing that’s been very evident with Anthony, the moment is not too big for him,” Becker said. “He’s not afraid of the moment.
“He’s a special player and really provides an inside-out threat for us and really rebounds the ball well. But most importantly, from a character standpoint, he has that clutch gene, it seems.”
Lamb will need to step up again against Swanigan, the Big Ten Player of the Year who is tied for the national lead with 26 double-doubles. The two compare in height with Swanigan holding an inch on Lamb, but Swanigan has a roughly 25-pound advantage and is versatile on top of it.
Like Becker said, though, Lamb isn’t shying away from the moment.
“It will be like playing against an NBA-caliber player,” Lamb said. “That test is going to be the first (of its kind) I’ve had in my lifetime so far. I’m definitely looking forward to it, and I’m happy to be going with my brothers.”
His brothers – teammates – will try to take some of the pressure of the freshman by taking it right at Purdue’s big men. America East Player of the Year Trae Bell-Haynes is a quick 6-foot-2 guard who thrives on getting to the basket. He’s hit only 18 of 53 from 3-point range this season.
Bell-Haynes finished with 17 points and seven assists in last season’s loss to Purdue. Ernie Duncan had 18 points in that contest, and despite averaging just 8.6 points for a balanced-scoring team this season, he has the ability to explode having netting a career-high 33 earlier this season.
Backup junior guard Cam Ward provides a solid defensive presence and is playing in his home state. He’d like to remain here for another couple of days.
All of that makes Bell-Haynes believe Vermont has what it takes to send the Boilermakers home early.
“Now, where we’re at, we’ve got 40 minutes and completely new season,” Bell-Hayes said. “We’re going to go out there and try to win that.”