Awards — OBW Jason Grochowalski America East men’s basketball Sixth Man of the Year

Named in honor of former Boston University Terrier Jason Grochowalski, who earned All-Conference First Team honors while coming off the bench during the 2003-2004 season.

OBW Jason Grochowalski America East men’s basketball Sixth Man of the Year
Cam Ward, Fr., G, Vermont

Ward provided a huge spark off the bench for the Catamounts, averaging 6.3 points and 1.9 assists in 19.1 minutes per game, shooting 44.1 percent from the floor and 40.8 percent from downtown. Ward brought quiet swagger and confidence off of the bench, and embraced taking – and making – the big shot. He also didn’t display a hint of ego coming off the bench. With three more years of eligibility, he has all the makings of a future star.

Cam Ward. (Courtesy Photo/Brian Jenkins/University of Vermont Athletics)
Cam Ward. (Courtesy Photo/Brian Jenkins/University of Vermont Athletics)

Awards — Austin Ganly OBW America East men’s basketball Dunker of the Year

Named in honor of the most awe inspiring and authoritative dunker Sam Perkins has seen come through the America East doors. Sure, a dunk is only worth two points on the scoreboard, but often times, it’s worth so much more.

OBW Austin Ganly America East men’s basketball Dunker of the Year
Devarick Houston, Sr., F, UMBC

Devarick Houston. Courtesy Photo / Gail Burton / UMBC Athletics
Devarick Houston. Courtesy Photo / Gail Burton / UMBC Athletics

This was an incredibly tough choice between Houston and Dre Wills. Wills, shorter by six inches, was perhaps the best leaper in the conference and was fearless getting to the rim and finishing with absolute authority in traffic. Houston, an incredible leaper in his own right, spent year playing up around the top of the square, and finised off alley-oops in Sports Center worthy fashion. In the end, Houston’s sheer volume of dunks proved to be the tie breaker by the slimmest of margins over Wills, who we are sure will grab an OBW Dunker of the Year award or two before his career is over.

Awards — OBW America East men’s basketball First Team All-Conference

Sam Rowley. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Sam Rowley. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

The creme of the crop, the best of the best, the Fab Five. Without further ado, here’s our America East men’s basketball All-Conference First Team. Flame away.

OBW America East First Team All-Conference
Sam Rowley, Sr., F, Albany

After showing flashes of being a completely and utterly dominant player, Rowley has finally embraced his role as the Great Danes’ go-to scorer, team leader, and the best player on the league’s best team. With the best low-post moves in the league (“crocodile rolls” as head coach Will Brown calls them), and the ability to finish with either hand, the 6’5” Aussie was an absolute matchup night mare this year, ranking second in the league in scoring (14.3 ppg), fourth in scoring in conference games (15.1 ppg), third in overall rebounding (7.7 rpg) and fourth in rebounding in AE play (7.5 rpg) while ranking fifth in overall field goal percentage (53 percent) and second in field goal percentage in AE play (56.3 percent).

Evan Singletary, Jr., G, Albany
No one in the league hit more big shots than Evan Singletary, who drilled game winning daggers throughout conference play, while also stepping in to Peter Hooley’s role as the team’s go-to perimeter scorer while also flawlessly running the Great Danes offense. Singletary ranked seventh in the league in scoring and scoring in conference play (12.7 and 12.9 ppg), and also made a huge impact on the defensive end.

Jahad Thomas, R-Fr., F, UMass Lowell
Definitely our most controversial pick, we already know we’re going to catch a ton of flack for this. Yes, Thomas is a freshman. Yes UMass Lowell finished sixth in the standings, and yes Thomas missed the final seven games of the season due to a torn ACL. But in 22 games the 6’2” battering ram was absolutely dominant – more dominant than any America East player not named Jameel Warney or Sam Rowley, and the AE’s version of Charles Barkley. Thomas also faced more defensive pressure – constant double and triple teams and even Box-1 defenses on multiple occasions – than any other America East player other than Warney and all he did was deliver, bulling his way to the hoop and earning every single one of his buckets and rebounds. Thomas tied for second in the America East in overall scoring (14.3 ppg) fifth in rebounding (6.5 rpg), and shot 52.3 percent from the floor (sixth overall). He also always seemed to be making the big play in the games biggest moment and was also the River Hawks best defender.

Jameel Warney, Jr., C, Stony Brook
What do you really need to say about Warney? He led the America East in overall scoring and scoring in league play (16.3 and 17 ppg, respectively) as well as overall rebounding and rebounding in AE games (10.4 and 11.4 rpg, respectively), and in blocked shots both on the season and in conference play (2.4 bpg, 2.3 bpg), and led the entire nation in double-doubles, all while facing double, triple and quadruple teams every night. Dude was a beast.

Dre Wills, Soph., G, Vermont
Dre Wills did absolutely everything for Vermont. He was the Catamounts best defender, best rebounder, best intimidator, spark plug, enforcer, and most efficient scorer. Wills led the league in field goal percentage both overall and in league play as a 6’1” guard (58.6 and 60.9 percent, respectively), while completely taking out opponents’ best scorers, and also made a big impact blocking shots and distributing the ball. The kid did everything.

Awards — America East men’s basketball All-Conference Second Team

(Credit: Travis Watcher/UMBC Athletics)
(Credit: Travis Watcher/UMBC Athletics)

This was one of the toughest years we’ve had distinguishing between our Second Team All-Conference and our First Team, with 10 truly quality selections. With that being said, here’s a look at the OBW America East men’s basketball Second Team All-Conference

OBW America East Second Team All-Conference
Cody Joyce, Jr., F, UMBC

Despite playing with no reinforcements – and we mean none – in the low post, and facing relentless defensive pressure, Joyce established himself as one of the best front court players in the league, ranking fifth in the league in scoring (13.5 ppg), second in scoring in league play (16.1 ppg), sixth in overall rebounding (5.7 rpg) and fifth in rebounding in conference games (6.4 tpg).

Tanner Leissner, Fr., F, UMass Lowell
Leissner emerged as the Wildcats best player, go to scorer and complete game-changer, ranking sixth in scoring in conference games (13.1 ppg), third in rebounding in conference play (8.5 rpg), sixth in overall scoring (12.8 ppg) and fourth in total rebounds (7.4 rpg), while serving as the focal point of the Wildcats offense.

Ethan O’Day, Jr., F, Vermont
If not for ongoing foul issues, O’Day would likely have been on our First Teamer, as whenever he stayed on the floor he was a complete game changer, ranking Eighth in the league in both overall scoring and scoring in conference games (11.9 and 12.7 ppg, respectively), finishing second in field goal percentage (56.7 percent) second in blocked shots (2.2 bpg) and tied for first in blocks per game (2.3 bpg).

Carson Puriefoy, Jr., G, Stony Brook
Puriefoy had an up and down season overall, but when he was playing well, he was electric, pushing the Seawolves offense, getting to the rim and knocking down tough shots. He ranked fourth in overall scoring (13.9 ppg), fifth in scoring in league play (13.4 ppg), second in assists (3.4 apg), and fourth in assists in AE play (3.4 apg).

Peter Hooley, R-Jr., G, Albany
Hooley missed nine games to be by his mother, Sue’s side during her final days as she fought against colon cancer, but he was a game changer whenever he was on the court, averaging 13.7 points per game and 2.4 assists per game, while shooting a robust 44.1 percent from the floor and 35.5 percent from downtown. He also continues to have the immeasurable “clutch” factor, hitting big shots at big moments.

Awards — OBW America East men’s basketball Third Team All-Conference

Rayshaun McGrew. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Rayshaun McGrew. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

Coaches vote for a variety of different reasons — some for who they think the best players are regardless of factors or pre qualifiers, but many because they want to pay homage to the upperclassmen, or for the best player on the best team, or because they don’t like transfers or JuCos.

When it comes to our awards, we give added weight to performance in conference play, and helping carry their team to wins (important note: There is a difference between carrying a team to wins, and getting carried along for the ride). But at the end of the day, we simply try to pick the best individual players no matter their class, seniority, or how they came to play in the America East.

With that said, here’s a look at our America East men’s basketball All-Conference Third Team.

OBW America East Third Team All-Conference
Rayshaun McGrew, Jr., F, Stony Brook

McGrew had a bit of an up-and-down season, and certainly benefitted from playing behind the unstoppable force that is Jameel Warney. That being said, the 6’7” junior’s rebounding numbers – his 9.5 rebounds per game in AE play and 8.4 rebounds per game each rank second in the conference — speak for themselves:

Mark Nwakamma, Sr., F, Hartford
If Nwakamma had been healthy, instead of battling a knee injury throughout much of the conference slate there’s an excellent chance he would have landed on either the All-Conference First or Second teams. His numbers – ninth in overall scoring (11.8 ppg), seventh in rebounding (5.7 rpg), 17th in scoring in conference games (10.9 ppg) and sixth in rebounding in AE Play (5.8 rpg) — remain admirable none the less.

Willie Rodriguez, Fr., F, Binghamton
Rodriguez did everything for the Bearcats, rebounding, defending, scoring from all over the floor, while making all the little plays that don’t show up in the box score. His 11.6 points per game overall, 12.7 points per conference game, 5.5 rebounds per game and 5.7 rebounds per conference game rank 11th, eight, eight and seventh, respectively.

Ray Sanders, Jr., G/F, Albany
Saunders was a lock down defender all season long for the Great Danes, spearheading their defensive attack, but turned it on offensively down the stretch in conference play when Albany needed him the most, ranking 16th in scoring (11.2 ppg) and 11th in rebounding (5.3 rpg) in AE play.

Jaleen Smith, Soph., G, New Hampshire
Smith was the unsung hero of the Wildcats, the biggest surprise in the league. On the defensive end, he was a lock down defender and the lynchpin of the league’s best defense. On offense, he created off the dribble, got to the rim, and found the open man, while also making a dent on the glass (his 5.6 rebounds per game in AE play ranked ninth).

Awards — OBW America East men’s basketball All-Defensive Team

Jaleen Smith. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Jaleen Smith. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

Dick Bennett once said, simply but profoundly, “For us to be successful on defense, we must get back and stop the basketball, eliminate easy baskets, keep the ball out of the lane, and bother the shooters.”

Bennett would have been happy with the five members of our OBW America East men’s basketball All-Defensive team, as they have those qualities in spades. Without further ado, here’s a look at our picks for the five best defenders in the “AE”.

OBW America East All-Defensive Team
Devarick Houston, Sr., F, UMBC

Houston, a 6’7” ball of energy and enthusiasm, was one of the best and most versatile defenders the league has seen in a long time, and literally spent time shutting down the 1-through-5 positions throughout the year. Whether it was blocking shots, picking pockets or rebounding the ball, he did it all.

Ray Sanders, Jr., G/F, Albany
An incredibly strong, tough and rugged 6’4” wing, Saunders was one of the most underappreciated players in the league and the unsung hero of the Great Danes, drawing the nightly assignment of covering the opponents best scorer.

Jaleen Smith, Soph., G, New Hampshire
A very long 6’4”, Smith played with tremendous energy and enthusiasm and emerged as arguably the best defender on the best defensive team in the conference, and spent the season running opposing scorers off of the 3-point arc and off the court entirely.

Jameel Warney, Jr., C, Stony Brook
Warney owned the glass, leading the league in defensive rebound both overall (6.9 drpg) and in conference games (7.3 drpg), while also leading the America East in blocked shots in conference play (2.4 bpg) while tying for the overall lead(2.3 bpg).

Dre Wills, Soph., G, Vermont
Wills was a one-man terror with the athleticism of a two-guard, the physicality of a power forward and the tenacity of a Tasmanian devil. Wills absolutely shut down opposing scorers, picked pockets, disrupted passing lanes, and also blocked shots (he ranked fourth in both overall blocks and blocks in conference games) and rebounded the ball (his 4.7 rpg led the Catamounts).

Awards — OBW America East men’s basketball All-Rookie Team

New Hampshire freshman Tanner Leissner. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
New Hampshire freshman Tanner Leissner. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

It was a banner year for America East men’s basketball rookies. In previous years, we had a hard time finding five truly worthy players to fill out an All-Rookie squad. This season, there were another half dozen or so worthy candidates who didn’t make the cut. We admit, we copped out by selecting six frosh for our squad, but every one of them was damn good.

OBW America East men’s basketball All-Rookie Team
Jourdan Grant, G, UMBC
Grant shouldered a huge load all season long for the Retrievers as the teams only ball handler and flourished, leading the league in assists both in conference play (4.2 apg) and overall (4.0 apg) while ranking 19th in scoring in America East games (10.8 ppg).

Trae-Bell Haynes, G, Vermont
Bell-Haynes hit a bit of a wall down the stretch for the Catamounts, but over the course of the season he was completely dynamic as a one-man fast break, ranking second in assists in conference games (4.0 apg) and third overall (3.4 apg), while also shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor.

Tanner Leissner, F, New Hampshire
As a true freshman Leissner established himself as the best and most important player for the best New Hampshire squad to set foot in Ludholm Gymnasium since the mid 90s. Capable of scoring from everywhere on the floor, the 6’7” power forward completely changes the Wildcats offense, ranking sixth in scoring both overall (12.8 ppg) and in league play (13.1 ppg), fourth in overall rebounding (7.4 rpg) and third in rebounding in conference games (8.5 rpg).

Kevin Little, G, Maine
Little missed nine games due to injury, and was gimpy for most of the year, but when he was on the floor, despite often times standing out as the only capable scorer on a depleted Black Bears roster, the dude straight lit it up, ranking third in America East play in scoring at 15.2 points per game (12.5 ppg overall).

Willie Rodriguez, F, Binghamton
Rodriguez is a true America East forward – 6’6”, not particularly athletic, but tough as nails — who finds ways to just get the job done. Rodriguez ranked 11th overall in scoring (11.6 ppg) and eighth overall in rebounding (5.5 rpg), and elevated his game in conference play, ranking eighth in scoring (12.7 ppg) and seventh in rebounding (5.7 rpg).

Jahad Thomas, F, UMass Lowell
Thomas missed the final seven games of the season with a torn ACL, but before he went down he wasn’t simply THE best rookie in the league, he was one of the best players regardless of class. A 6’2” power forward, Thomas bullied players a half a foot or more taller than him while facing double and triple teams (and even the box-1 on more than one occasion) that only Stony Brook star Jameel Warney saw more of, and still finished the year third in overall scoring (14.3 ppg), fifth in rebounds (6.5 rpg), and sixth in field goal percentage (52.3 percent), while also anchoring the River Hawks defense.

Awards — OBW America East men’s basketball All-Dunkers team

Romello Walker. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Romello Walker. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

The regular season has wrapped up, the seedings are set, and the America East Playoffs start in just three days. That mean’s its time for the annual OBW America East men’s basketball awards, starting off with our All-Rim Wreckers Team honoring the top five in-game dunkers in the league. Sure, dunks only count for two points on the score board, but they can change the emotion and momentum in a game.

Plus, they’re damn fun to watch. So, without further ado:

OBW America East All-Rim Wreckers (Dunkers) Team
Devarick Houston, Sr., F, UMBC

The 6’7” human-pogo stick was dropping out of the rafters all season long for rim-rocking alley-oops.

Romello Walker, Fr., G/F, Binghamton
Walker might be the highest flier in the league, and was a terror when he got out on the fast break.

Jameel Warney, Jr., C, Stony Brook
At 6’8” 260, Warney simply tried to rip the rim off every time he touched the ball with an array of power slams.

Kerry Weldon, F, UMass Lowell
Weldon was the middle ground between the likes of Warney and Houston/Walker, a big time high-flier capable of acrobatics, but also capable of rattling the backboard.

Dre Wills, Soph., G, Vermont
Generously listed at 6’1”, Wills was easily the most fearless dunker in the league, routinely driving the lane to throw down two-handed slams over far larger foes.

Marlon Beck II — don’t call it a comeback

Marlon Beck II. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Marlon Beck II. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

Don’t call it a comeback; Marlon Beck II has been doing this — working maniacally to improve his game and prove doubters wrong — for years.

One year ago, Beck was a star in the making as a freshman suiting up for Binghamton University, a shifty, pace changing point guard who fearlessly attacked the hoop and knocked down 3-pointers from anywhere inside of half court while averaging 10.2 points per game and 3.2 assists. A few weeks ago, Beck was a bust in the eyes of many outside the Binghamton program.

But to his Bearcats teammates and coaches, the 5’11” 175 pound point guard (and that listing is quite generous) has never faltered as a huge presence in the locker room and a beacon helping to guide Binghamton out of one of the darkest times in program history.

“He developed high character and discipline, great qualities. He is a confident kid and although he wasn’t playing [great] basketball earlier in the year, he never lost it,” says Binghamton head coach Tommy Dempsey.

As far back as he can remember, Beck, a Bowie, Maryland native has dreamt of playing Division I college basketball. And ever since he can remember, people have told him that he was “too small” to make those dreams a reality.

Those doubts have always fueled him to work harder than anyone else on the floor.

“I really had to make it,” Beck says, recalling his journey to Binghamton. “I didn’t get many college looks, I was still very young in high school so I decided to transfer to a school that was interested.”

Growing up as the son of two retired Army officers, Marlon Beck and Yvonne Prettyman-Beck, working hard to overcome obstacles has never been a foreign concept to the pint-sized point guard.

“The biggest thing about him is that he has parents who are two retired Colonel’s in the Army,” Dempsey says.

Beck spent his first two years of high school at Our Lady of Good Counsel, a private, Catholic, college-preparatory school in Olney, Maryland, before transferring to the Maret School, a prestigious co-educational, independent school in Washington, D.C., where he reclassified and was a three-year letter winner.

“Best years of my life,” Beck says, reflecting on his years at Maret. “The coaches really took me under the ring, told me what it took to succeed and were always tough on me.”

In his senior year, Beck helped Maret win a regular-season and postseason conference crowns and earn top-10 ranking in D.C.

Still, the Division I offers weren’t materializing.

“A few Ivy League schools were looking at me like Cornell and Princeton,” Beck says.

Beck was very interested in playing for Cornell, but after the Big Red signed several other guards, he didn’t see much opportunity to ever see the floor for Cornell.

“The communication lacked, so I backed away,” he says, adding “I had to open my options.”
Not many schools came calling after he opened back up his recruiting, but then his phone rang and on the other end was Dempsey, looking to build his first real recruiting class at Binghamton.

“They thought I was committed to Cornell when I got the call from Tommy,” Beck says. “They had signed a point guard already (Yosef Yacob), but he liked the idea of building a two-headed monster at the guard position. It was one of the most special moments in my life.”

Beck set foot on campus in Vestal, New York, a man possessed, intent on proving wrong all the schools passed on him. Three games into his college career, he did just that, exploding for a career-high 27 points at Cornell on Nov. 13 2013, drilling 9-of-15 shots and 6-of-9 from long range.

“That was special for me,” Beck says of his chance to show the Big Red what they had missed out on.

According to Dempsey, Beck played with confidence for the rest of the season, averaging 9.2 points, 2.9 assists and 2.1 rebounds per game for the year. But at the America East awards banquet, Beck hear his name called for conference awards or acknowledgements, something that irked him, but something that he turned to for motivation over his first off season.

Sophomore year proved to be a struggle for Beck, who saw his scoring drop to 8.2 points per game, and the young Bearcats, who were expected to make a leap out of the America East Conference basement, only to see their roster decimated by injuries, along with the departure of preseason First Team All-Conference pick Jordan Reed. According to Dempsey, as the team’s emotional epicenter and leader, Beck took the struggles particularly hard, and it affected his game during the early going.

“As a team we struggled,” Dempsey says. “What was hard for Marlon was that there was so much pressure put on him. In a lot of ways it was because the freshmen weren’t ready and we got into a tough place. He was losing confidence and it was more of the team struggling.”

Beck rediscovered his confidence and swagger in America East playing, hitting double-digits in scoring in eight conference games, including a stretch of six straight, and erupted for 20 points, on 8-of-12 shooting to go with four assists in a 76-69 victory against UMBC, to grab the sixth-seed in the America East Playoffs. Beck was equally big in 57-55 shocker over second-place Vermont on Feb. 18, drilling a deep 3-pointer from virtually the Bearcats logo at half court in the game’s deciding moments.

“If I’m not giving it my all I’ll let myself down,” Beck says. “If I’m not giving 100 percent they won’t give them their all. I need my teammates to get on me if I’m not.”

And despite a 6-25 overall record and 5-11 mark in conference play, and a first round road matchup against heavily favored Stony Brook in the first round of the playoffs, Beck isn’t about to start looking ahead towards next season.

“I think our team is strong and we know we have to work for it,” Beck says of Binghamton’s ability to pull off an upset. “I want to finish this season on a high note and make a run. Momentum is key in everything.”

Marlon Beck II. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Marlon Beck II. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

Cam Ward: Size doesn’t matter

Cam Ward. (Courtesy Photo/Brian Jenkins/University of Vermont Athletics)
Cam Ward. (Courtesy Photo/Brian Jenkins/University of Vermont Athletics)

Cam Ward still remembers how he felt when he was told he was too small to play Division-I basketball. It was nothing new — he only started playing basketball because his size hindered him from participating in another sport.

“My dad wanted me to wrestle when I was really young because he was a wrestler,” Ward says. “I was just way too little to wrestle, so I just picked up a basketball and kind of just went with it.”

So when Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith told Ward he would’ve made the lanky 6-foot-2, 155-pound sharpshooter an offer if only he was two inches taller, Ward handled it with class, but was understandably disappointed until another coach came along with a promise that his size wouldn’t matter.

“Basically when [Smith] said that I was kind of like, ‘Alright, I know it’s a business and stuff,’ but at the same time I was kind of disappointed,” Ward says. “I play hard, I would say, but it would come down to being two inches too small, and I took it kind of personal.

“The coach that really took a shot on me was Coach John Becker. He said size doesn’t matter, if you can play, you can play. That made me want to a come to a school like that, that really did want me here regardless of how tall I was. It made me want to buckle down and work hard for a coach like that.”

Now Ward is a freshman on a University of Vermont basketball team that is locked in as the number-two seed in the America East tournament and has developed into a key player with a massive potential that can only be limited by the sky.

“As his body fills out he’ll be able to handle to physicality a little bit better, especially in the non-conference, which is one of those things—he’s a really good America East guard, but he takes his lumps a little bit against the high-major teams and the more physically-mature guys and teams,” Becker says. “As he gets older he’ll be able to contribute in those games much better. I think he can be an all-league kid—he just has a knack, he has a feel, his competitiveness and his skill-level give him a chance to be a really, really good player here.”

***

Ward was born and raised in Marshall, Wisconsin, just a few miles outside of the basketball-rich city of Madison. He said growing up so close to the famed Wisconsin Badgers made him immediately want to immerse himself in the city’s basketball culture, which was an adjustment for his father, Dennis.

“He actually coached my older brother (Blake) to play basketball—he tried to teach us both to wrestle but we both decided to play basketball because we weren’t the biggest kids then,” Ward says. “He went from being a wrestling coach to a basketball coach, and he was learning the game just like we were but he was learning it at a faster pace to try to get us good at it. He took it hard, us not wrestling, but he’s over it now.”

Ward became a star shooter for Marshall High School and finished his high school career ranked sixth all-time in the state of Wisconsin with 2,384 points. Ward landed on Becker’s radar for his play with the local AAU team, the Wisconsin Playground Warriors. With Vermont graduating senior guards Sandro Carissimo and Candon Rusin, along with forward Brian Voelkel who ran the Catamounts’ offense, Becker was looking for help at the point guard position.

“What I liked about him was he was really skilled—he can shoot it, he can handle it, he just knew how to play,” Becker says. “We were graduating both our point guards so we needed guards. We had signed Ernie Duncan, and we needed at least one more. I knew the program he was playing with was really good and I liked his skillset.”

Unlike other coaches, Becker didn’t shy away from Ward due to his size because he had dealt with undersized players throughout his coaching career.

“Obviously, I knew that would be a challenge for him, but we’ve had a lot of kids that needed to get bigger when they got here. I knew he was a tough kid and as he got older he would fill out,” he says. “It was obviously something we had to look at as far as redshirting him or how we’re going to handle that, but I don’t get too concerned with that stuff. I’m more concerned with if the kid can play or not, so [his size] didn’t really factor into my decision [to recruit him].”

Cam Ward. (Courtesy Photo/Brian Jenkins/University of Vermont Athletics)
Cam Ward. (Courtesy Photo/Brian Jenkins/University of Vermont Athletics)

***

Along with Ward and Duncan, Becker brought in point guard Trae Bell-Haynes for a freshman class with three floor generals. Ward embraced the competition for playing time as soon as he arrived in Burlington.

“I knew they graduated six seniors so I knew they were going to bring in a ton of guards,” Ward says. “It is crowded (at the position) but it’s good because we’re all very good players and competition only makes us better. We all have the same goal, which is to make the tournament, so it all works out.”

In an unfortunate turn of events, Duncan, who earned the starting point guard spot, went down with a season-ending back injury after just four games. Ward said seeing his friend get injured hit him hard, but he knew he’d have to mature quickly so he can step up for the team. Ward credits his friendship with Bell-Haynes for helping to facilitate his learning curve.

“Ernie going down was awful news, we took it hard because it was one of our brothers going down and we knew how much he wanted to play,” Ward says. “[Trae and I] looked at it as an opportunity to use this experience to become better so that when Ernie comes back, we’ll have three point guards that not only can play, but are also experienced.

“In the summer [Trae and I] kind of hit it off right away. We decided to room together and he’s one of my best friends on the team,” he continues. “It’s good because we go back to the dorms after practice when we’re resting and we can talk about the team and things we can do better. We’re really good at talking things over, because sometimes there are things that you don’t want to go to the coaches with, so it’s good to have him there.”

Becker says he’s seen Ward make immense strides on the defensive end and believes he’s gotten better at balancing running the offense with picking his own spots to look to score. As Ward continues to get comfortable on the court, his personality has grown in the locker room as well.

“He’s got a lot of personalities. He is quiet, but he’s a real confident kid,” Becker says. “Him and Dre Wills are opposite as far as how outgoing they are, Dre being very outgoing, but they’re both really competitive guys and they’re at each other quite a bit. He’s a confident, competitive kid, and he doesn’t like to lose… [He and Dre] talk a lot, they’re always in each other’s face in the locker room or any kind of competitive thing we’re doing, they’re both really trying to win. I don’t hear what they’re saying all the time, but every time I look over they’re jawing back and forth in a good-natured way.

“Cam is really close with a lot of guys on the team, he seems to be one of those guys who people attract to. I don’t know what it is, but he seems pretty close with a lot of guys on the team.”

Ward has scored in double figures in four out of his last six games, and he is averaging 22.8 minutes and shooting 57 percent from the field over that span. It has been a year of growth for Ward, a learning process he has embraced with open arms because of his desire to make sure Becker never regrets taking a shot on the lanky baby-faced kid from Wisconsin.

“Coach always stresses that it’s a process, and it’s really true because at the beginning of the year I was really struggling trying to find myself in the rotation and now I’ve kind of solidified myself in the rotation,” Ward says. “I’ve just been working hard every day in practice, making sure the coaches knew I was ready to go because if they trust in you then they’ll put you on the court during the game. It’s been paying off.”

Cam Ward. (Courtesy Photo/Brian Jenkins/University of Vermont Athletics)
Cam Ward. (Courtesy Photo/Brian Jenkins/University of Vermont Athletics)