- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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For most of the first two months of the season, the Duke Blue Devils were a bad defensive team. Not by their own standards. Not relative to their conference or their opponents. No qualifications needed. Just plain bad.
Their home game against Vermont on Nov. 24 offered up the perfect example. Duke barely escaped the Catamounts, 91-90, and needed 26 points and nine rebounds from Jabari Parker and a go-ahead Rodney Hood free throw with five seconds left to get there. Worse yet was what pace told us about Duke's defense: The Blue Devils had allowed 90 points on their own floor to Vermont … in 65 possessions.
After the game, Mike Krzyzewski said his team was "awful." This was accurate. There was no other way to explain how a team that had scored .90 points per trip in its three previous games -- lossses to Bryant, Providence and Wagner -- had hoisted 1.38 on Duke in Cameron Indoor. It became personal Duke shorthand: "The same defense that allowed 90 points in 65 possessions to Vermont on its own floor ..." We probably overused it.
In the months since, Duke has patched up its defense and scored at a more efficient rate than every team in the country save Creighton. You are aware of these things. You are probably not aware of what Vermont has done since its near-miss at Cameron. Which is to say you've missed a team taking its own conference to the woodshed on a nightly basis.
Vermont lost three more nonconference games after Nov. 24, to San Fransisco, Quinnipiac and Harvard. It lost exactly one America East Conference game, 67-64, at Stony Brook. In pretty much every other America East game -- not every game, but almost -- it has utterly demolished its opponents. You can count the even marginally close games on one hand. (Sunday's overtime win over Binghamton was one of them. But then again, seven players fouled out in an apparently horrendously officiated game, so it's kind of hard to add that one to the analysis.) The majority of Vermont's conference contests have ended in drastically lopsided fashion. It's almost felt unfair.
You can see the dominance in the Catamounts' conference efficiency profile (subscription required). They rank first in the AE in points scored and allowed per possession, and by huge margins. They rank first in field-goal percentage, 3-point percentage, turnover percentage, defensive rebounding percentage, 2- and 3-point defense, and block percentage and steal percentage on both sides of the ball. Pick your stat, and Vermont has probably destroyed the America East at it. It's a comprehensive thing. If all you saw of the Catamounts was their performance at Duke, you might assume they were roughly this good. But if you noticed any of their other nonconference losses, you might be surprised. And you should be.
Of course, the America East is not a very good basketball conference this season. Even if Vermont had won at Duke, it probably wouldn't be in the at-large conversation, certainly not with all those other bad losses on its ledger. Either way, the path forward is the same: Vermont's only chance of getting to the NCAA tournament is winning the America East tournament later this week.
These are the times that can make the practice of awarding automatic bids to tournament champions feel like a mistake. For 16 games, Vermont was so obviously better than the rest of its league that its final statistical tallies look fake. But if the Catamounts slip up just once this week -- one off night, one stretch of foul trouble -- the America East will send a different team to the NCAA tournament. That seems kind of silly, right?
Silly or not, that is the task ahead of Vermont this week. It's the same for any mid-major that won its regular-season title but didn't build a strong enough at-large résumé, which is most of them: One weekend to validate an entire season's worth of work. It's unfair and dramatic, and often both at the same time. But there's nothing to do now but win.