by Bill Murphy
Rice defeated St. Johnsbury last March 48-40 in overtime in Patrick Gymnasium to claim the Vermont Division I Basketball championship. The win was one more signal, that Rice was unquestionably, the number one program in Vermont boys basketball circles. For the Burlington Parochial school, it was the fourth title in seven years and the teams sixth title game appearance in those same seven years. Paul Pecor and his team are certainly familiar to the big game spotlight.
Monday night, Rice traveled to St. Johnsbury and the Hilltoppers were able to come out of the contest with a little bit of payback with a 46-39 victory. The word little bit is used because a regular season game comes nowhere near being equal to a title game. Even a regular season sweep, would not add up in most persons book.
St. Johnsbury is considered the best team in the state right now by anyone who has the pulse of a basketball IQ. Their record is 10-2 and the official Vermont Principal Association standings have them listed third, but that is only because everyone is not created equal. The Hilltoppers play a tougher schedule and as a result, they have two losses, both coming in a trip to Pennsylvania to play top level competition. They were beaten by Allentown Central Catholic 74-45 and by Pennsbury 64-50, but one may bet their final dollar, that this team is better for having played the games. In Vermont competition, every Hilltopper game has been a win by fifteen points or more, except two, at Burlington 47-39 and the Rice game 46-39. St. Johnsbury, Rice and Burlington all have to be considered title threats and the real question may be, is their anyone else who stands a chance?
The VPA official rankings have Burr + Burton rated first with a 12-0 record. Respect has to be given to the Bulldogs and the odds are that they will end up being seeded in one of the top four positions, but the eye test says, they are not one of the best four teams. Their schedule does not compare in toughness with any of the other top five teams and if they do finish first or second, they will most likely give someone an easier route to the finals, if they advance as far as the semi-finals. On the other side of the coin, even if they are not as good as whomever they possibly meet in the semis, if they are good enough to be seeded one or two, they probably are good enough to beat a superior opponent on a given night. B+B has been challenged by Rutland at home 45-42 and Brattleboro recently on the road 49-46, but have handled those challenges well. One thing is certain, as has been proven by early season North-South match-ups, Rutland and Brattleboro are no St. Johnsbury, Rice or Burlington.
The Burlington Seahorses are second by the numbers at 11-1 and their lone loss was to St. J by that 47-39 count. The Seahorses won at Rice 51-50. Pecor’s defending champions are currently fourth at 9-3. In addition to bowing to their two northern rivals, they fell to a New York State team, Jamesville Dewitt, 81-73. Like St. J, Rice scheduled out of state to upgrade their competition. Rice’s closest game, other than against the already mentioned contenders was a 61-60 home victory over Mount Mansfield, who is lined up fifth in the present rankings at 9-3 also. MM’s other losses came at Burlington 64-49 and at home against St. J 86-60. If the Vermont standings were done by a poll, they would likely read St. Johnsbury, Burlington, Rice, Mount Mansfield and Burr + Burton in that order.
Back to the question, does anyone other the top three have a chance, it says here that either Mansfield or B + B is likely to advance to the Final Four, but the thoughts are, that neither one of them is likely to win two games there and capture the title. If another team, moves on to the D-I Final Four, it will be a total surprise.
Each year we take a look at the state divisions through the eyes of the defending champion coach and Pecor sees things in a similar way that we do. “We are all chasing St. Johnsbury,” he told The Northeast Sports Network last Friday afternoon, a full three days before he traveled to the Hilltoppers for the Monday Night contest. He went on to say “they basically have everyone back from last year and they have both experience and a large number of seniors, which makes them a tough team to beat.”
Pecor holds out hope for his own team and we doubt that will change unless they become eliminated. He went on to tell us last Friday that “our goal is to keep getting better and hopefully we will be ready when the time comes for the biggest games of the season.”
Obviously Burlington peaked Pecor’s attention when the Seahorses defeated his team and the veteran coach is aware that all the top teams have Rice circled on their calendars. “There is no doubt we get everyones best punch,” he said going on to add, “this is our chore, but it’s also an incredible opportunity. The tradition of Rice basketball has been here a long time, long before I was here. This is a special thing.”
He is exactly right. Rice has been to 28 title games over the years. The six appearances in seven years is their best stretch ever, BUT, Rice had gone to the Final Four eight times in eleven years before the current streak and prior to that, following a four year absence from the party, they had five FF’s in seven years and then going back even further, there was another three year absence, preceeded by six Final Four appearances in a row. I think you kind of get the idea.
It would really be a surprise if any other team claims a spot in the Final Four, BUT, stranger things have happened. At this moment, the best of the rest in the VPA rankings are Mount Anthony (6th/8-4), Middlebury (7th/6-5), Colchester (8th/8-5), Brattleboro (9th/7-5), South Burlington (10th/7-5), and Rutland (11th/7-6). All these teams are listed together,r because eventhough they do not appear to match-up with the top tier, they all have winning records. If there was just one team from that group to single out, it would have to be Rutland, because they defeated Mount Anthony, Colchester and Brattleboro and lost by four (60-56) at home versus Burlington.
The remainder of the field is led by Spaulding (12th/5-8), who is followed closely by North Country (13th/4-8), Champlain Valley Union (14th/4-9) and Essex (15th/4-9). The field is rounded out by 16th place Bellows Free Academy of St. Albans (2-9) and Mississquoi (17th/1-11).
This appears to be an unusual year in Division I, with just a few elite teams. Then there is always the possibility of Vermont basketball, acting like Vermont weather: wait a few minutes and things will change.