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Going into the NCAAs, no team is hotter than Vermont





The 21 straight wins that Vermont has stacked together — the longest current winning streak in men’s college basketball — look like a monument now, but when the streak began, the Catamounts did their best not to think anything of it.

They beat Siena, they beat Harvard, they beat Maine, and they kept focused.

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“We were talking to each other to try to do our best to keep each other in the moment and not look too far ahead,” said point guard Trae Bell-Haynes.

They beat Hartford, they beat Binghamton, they beat Maryland Baltimore-County, and they kept it in perspective.

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It was still early. They still had goals.

Then they beat New Hampshire, UMass Lowell, Albany, and Stony Brook, and they had a winning streak that was impossible to ignore.

“I think right towards the end of conference play, we beat Albany, Stony Brook, that put us at 10 or 11, and you started to notice, ‘Oh, wow, we’re doing something right now,’ ” Bell-Haynes said.

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Coach John Becker cited the same tipping point.

“I think once we got through the league the first time, we had a favorable back end of our conference schedule, I said, ‘Wow,’ ” said Becker.

The Catamounts suddenly found themselves mentioned with Gonzaga and Belmont in conversations about the most scorching teams in NCAA basketball.

“For most of it, what helped us was the other teams that had streaks that were ahead of us,” said Bell-Haynes.

The Catamounts (29-5) have to go way back to before Christmas — to Dec. 21 — to remember the last time they lost. They ran the table in America East, going 16-0, a feat never before accomplished in conference history. They also swept all of America East’s postseason awards: Becker won Coach of the Year, Bell-Haynes won Player of the Year, Anthony Lamb won Rookie of the Year, Darren Payen won Sixth Man of the Year, Dre Wills won Defensive Player of the Year.

They’ll open NCAA Tournament play Thursday in Milwaukee as the Midwest Region’s 13th seed, going against fourth-seeded Purdue, but the hot streak that’s gotten them there still seems a surreal whirlwind.

“It’s been a lot,” Bell-Haynes said. “I really haven’t had time to reflect. But just kind of looking at it now, it’s just unbelievable.

“You go into a season with goals, but we’ve exceeded our goals, and we didn’t even think we would be able to do some of the stuff that we’ve done, which is unbelievable.”

They had motivation coming off last season, when they lost a heartbreaker to Stony Brook in the America East tournament championship game. With the majority of their team back this season, they were confident that they would make another run.

“We had a couple of tough stretches last season where we were kind of able to learn from it,” Bell-Haynes said. “We had pretty much the same team, so guys just knew what to expect and knew what we wanted to avoid as a team.”

For a team that relied on depth to dominate, the biggest challenge was keeping the pressure at bay while the wins piled up. But it was one they had no issues managing.

“Our guys did an amazing job of staying focused throughout the season,” said Becker. “Not letting the streak and not letting the undefeated regular season — which no other team in America East history had ever done — make them feel pressure at all.

“But we did talk about it. I tried to keep the pressure off the guys, and we didn’t allow all that to filter back into our locker room until we had finished the job at hand.”

Bell-Haynes emerged as a leader a year ago when he averaged 12.2 points and 3.7 assists as a sophomore, but this season, he refined himself into a model of efficiency, scoring fewer (11.2 points), but shooting better (49.8 percent), keeping his assists level (3.8), but dramatically cutting down on turnovers (1.9).

“All of our guys really value winning over everything else, but Trae is kind of the epitome of that,” said Becker. “This year, he really learned how to harness that chip and use it, but was really efficient.”

But the team’s heartbeat is a player who never had a chance to step on the floor. Josh Speidel was recruited out of Columbus North High School in Indiana in 2014 as one of the top 15 prospects in the state, but a car crash in 2015 left him with traumatic brain damage. For Becker, honoring Speidel’s scholarship was never a question, and Speidel has been a constant presence in the program.

“He’s such a great kid and a special kid that when that happened, I wanted to make sure that the family knew that we would honor that scholarship and [they would] not have to worry about that and just worry about helping Josh get better,” Becker said.

“It’s been a long process for him, for the family, and we just wanted to be there and support him in any way possible.”

The team was at Marquette Tuesday getting ready for Thursday’s game, and Speidel was on the sidelines doing pushups. He got on the floor and put up jump shots. When the team runs baseline-to-baseline drills, he’s on the side trying to keep up. Every so often, practice comes to a halt because teammates stop to cheer him on.

“It’s inspirational to our guys,” said Becker. “He’s just one of us now. He’s like an injured player working on the side, getting better.”

Speidel said the team’s success has pushed him the same way.

“I appreciate all the support, just how much the guys inspired me also,” he said. “Just how hard they play and their streak that they’re on, just how they handle themselves. I know they said that I inspired them, but they’re doing the same for me.”

When Becker and his wife moved to Vermont with their two children 11 years ago to take a basketball operations job that paid just $7,000 (no benefits), he never imagined things playing out the way they have. He was 38 at the time, so the decision was a leap, but it’s all been worth it.

“Eleven years later, it’s just been a blessing,” Becker said. “It just continues to get better and better. I don’t know why these good things keep happening to me, but they do, and I’m really fortunate.”

When the Catamounts beat Albany Saturday to clinch the America East title and punch their tournament ticket, Becker was still in shock. But over the past couple days, he has started to process things.

“It started to sink in a little bit,” he said. “I really started to appreciate this magical season that we’ve had and we still hope to continue to make some noise here in the NCAA Tournament.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.


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