MANCHESTER -- The Burr and Burton Academy boys basketball team isn't just committed to defense.
The undefeated Bulldogs are married to it.
Heading into Saturday's home game against Mill River, the 10-0 Bulldogs have been downright stingy on the defensive side of the court. The team has allowed 42.7 points per game -- and take out a three-overtime 99-95 win over Mount Saint Joseph, and the number dips to 37 per contest.
"Since day one, we have come in here knowing there are a lot of good teams in Vermont and that if we want to win, we have to stop them," said junior Taylor Muench. "This program is all about defense."
And defense has, so far, resulted in a perfect start. But as the Bulldogs, who made the jump from Division II to Division I this season, get into the heart of their schedule, they'll need that defense to step up against some tough opponents.
After playing Mill River, BBA faces a two-week stretch that includes home-and-away games with Mount Anthony Union High School and Brattleboro, along with a home game against Rutland. All three schools are D-I foes, and after the stretch the Bulldogs will know a lot more about their ability to stack up against the rest of D-I come playoff time.
"We all know what we have to do," junior Tyeshawn Gadson said. "All the talk about the big teams, yeah, they have been in D-I for a while and have experience. This is our first year. We lost a championship (last year in D-II to Vergennes), but we want to make a stand. We want teams to know we aren't an ordinary D-II team. We try hard, we are inspired to try and win."
That inspiration starts when BBA doesn't have the ball.
"You can always bring your effort on the defensive end. Every game you can bring that effort," said junior Conor Harrington. "You are going to have tough nights offensively, and great nights, but you can always be consistent on defense. We work on that consistency."
Using a swarming man defense, mixed in with several different press sets plus a few zone looks, the Bulldogs look to apply pressure to the opponent's ballhandlers as quickly as possible.
"I think kids can get too comfortable against a zone defense," said BBA coach Dave Shehadi. "They can pass and catch, but can they put it on the floor with someone barking at them? We like to get out on the perimeter and bother people and make them uncomfortable."
The perimeter defense starts with point guard Joey Shehadi and extends to Gadson and Muench. As the troika work to deny passing lanes and keep teams limited in the shots they can get off, they also look to get the ball back as quickly as possible to start the offense.
"A lot of our defense turns straight into our offense. That is how we get a lot of our momentum," Joey Shehadi said. "That is ultimately how we come away with the big leads."
But the Bulldogs aren't a one-trick pony on defense. While the idea is to apply as much pressure as possible on ballhandlers, the team also prides itself on help defense, and the ability for one player to cover another's back.
"When we play man, especially against the great players [we] play against, you have to play help defense," said junior Ryan Smith. "If everyone is on the same page and playing defense together, that will help the defense succeed as a whole."
And the Bulldogs have also developed another layer to their defense this season -- a presence in the middle.
The 6-foot-3 Harrington occupies the center position for BBA this season. And while Shehadi admits that "we are probably asking him to play in a spot that isn't real natural to him," the junior has embraced his role and has started to come into his own over the last two weeks.
The highlight of Harrington's season so far came in a win against Rutland. In the 45-42 decision, Harrington stuffed the stat sheet with nine points, eight rebounds and five blocks.
"He is a presence in the middle," Smith said. "He has great timing on the ball when shots go up. It helps, especially when if I get beat knowing that Conor is going to be back there to have my back."
While much of the focus for the Bulldogs comes in its starting core, coach Shehadi also talked about the need for his bench to be ready to play meaningful minutes.
"It could be Cody [Gilbert] or Roy [Trugler]. Will Tate, Simeon Iglinski, Jack Bunker, Drew Herbert, they all play meaningful roles and could play on any team in the state," Shehadi said. "It is hard to come off the bench, they want to play. This is a good team, and it is hard to break into the starting rotation. But [I tell them]: Be ready. We would like to play full tempo...and that means you have to go to the bench."
No Bulldog would talk much about the prospects for what the rest of the season may hold. But, with some hard-nosed defense and a pinch of luck, BBA could wiggle into a top-two seed for the D-I playoffs, ensuring home court advantage until the semifinals. But as the theme has been all season for BBA, the only way the results will come is if the team does what it does best.
"We just have to take pride in our defense," Joey Shehadi said.
Geoff Smith is the Assistant Sports Editor at the Bennington Banner. He can be reached at (802)-447-7567 x120, by email at email@example.com, or on Twitter @GSmith_Banner