Vermont star Marqus Blakelyand and the Cats return to the hardwood

ESPN is talking about University of Vermont athletics. Before you assume this national attention is about the men’s hockey team, think again.

College basketball experts, such as Jay Bilas, are giving notice to the Catamounts this year coming off an impressive season in 2008-2009.

Last year the Catamounts posted an impressive record of 24-9 overall and went 13-3 in America East league play on their way to winning the regular season America East Championship.

The Catamounts were a two-seed in the conference tournament but were upset by seventh-seeded Albany and the promising season came to an end. The Catamounts did earn a postseason bid to the College Basketball Invitational.

This year there is no doubt that the Catamounts have very high expectations for themselves.

“We want to finish in the top 3 in the America East during the regular season and hopefully be regular season champions,” head coach Mike Lonergan said. “By the end of the season, we hope to be in a good position to try and make a run at the America East Tournament Championship.”

 The Catamounts will lean heavily on two-time America East Player of the Year, Marqus Blakely. Blakely averaged 16.1 points and 9.0 rebounds per game last season as a junior.

Blakely is also a two-time America East Defensive Player of the Year award winner and was recently named one of the top 10 rebounders in the country by ESPN college basketball analyst and expert Jay Bilas.

 “Vermont’s star is only 6-5, but he is one of the most efficient and productive players in the nation. Blakely does most of his damage around the basket and is a remarkable athlete but has a nose for the ball like few others,” Bilas said in his column, which can be read on ESPN.com.

 If there is one facet of his game Blakely needs to improve on, it is his free throw shooting. He shot just 56 percent from the line last season; something that he admits must change for the 2009-10 campaign.

 “I left a lot of points at the line last year and we lost a lot of close games. I feel like partially those losses were put on me because of the missed foul shots. But I have been practicing all off-season, trying to get better,” the 6-5 senior Blakely said.

If Blakely can bring the level of his free throw shooting on par with the rest of his game, the sky is the limit for Blakely as an individual and the Catamounts as a team.

 The New Jersey native will not be the only player the Catamounts rely on if they plan on making it to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in school history, the last time being the unforgettable upset of Syracuse in 2005.

 Shooting guard Maurice Joseph, in his second season with the Catamounts after transferring from Michigan State, will be counted on for a bigger role this year after scoring 8.1 points per game last season.

“I did a lot of fine tuning during the offseason. My goals were to keep my jump shot consistent and to improve my ball handling,” Joseph said.

“I’d like to start the season off being aggressive offensively and hopefully the work I put in throughout the summer will help me have a successful year.”

Along with Joseph and the outstanding athletic ability of Blakely, the team will get contributions from 6-8 forward Evan Fjeld in the post and from sharp-shooting junior Joey Accaoui.

Accaoui shot 40 percent from the three-point line last season and if he can replicate or even improve upon that percentage this year, he will give the Catamounts another offensive threat.

“Everyone who watches will hopefully be able to notice that I’ve worked on my footwork and body control when shooting off the dribble this year. I spent a lot of time this summer working on that and hopefully I can improve my shooting percentage,” Accaoui said.

“I’ve gotten a lot of repetition in and have tried to continuously work on some of my weaknesses as well, such as defense. I do hope to raise the level of my game up and be more of a complete player for our team this season.”

Senior guard Nick Veir will also bring valuable experience to the team and will be relied upon as an athletic perimeter defender.

 In the end, the success of the Catamounts will depend on the play of Blakely. Despite all of his individual accolades, Blakely makes it clear that the team’s success is most important to him.

 “Hands down, I would trade [individual awards]; player of the year, defensive player of the year, all of it just to make it to the tournament once. You can have all the awards you want, if you don’t win, it doesn’t mean anything.”