So there I was – it was Tuesday and I was just sitting around trying to put together a plan of attack to become an academic weapon in between now and finals. Just minding my own business when Pete sends me his list of talking points to edit. I finally got around to reading it Wednesday night in the midst of my increasingly building workload, and when I finished, I couldn’t ignore the feeling that something was off. I took a quick read through and didn’t notice any grammar mistakes, a pleasant surprise for Pete’s work. So I reread the talking points he put together, and then it struck me. There was no mention of the #1 or the #3 teams in the nation, Amherst and Tufts. Seems a bit odd, no? Well, congratulations Pete, because if this was your strategy to motivate me to write a blog, it worked. Maybe I just have a soft spot for these two because I grew up an Amherst fan and am now a Tufts superfan, but I’m sick and tired of the lack of credit being given to these two. The fact is, omitting these two teams is inexcusable at this point in the season, so I’ll do the honors. Here’s how two of the top three teams in the nation are doing so far this fall.
Amherst is 4-0 after Tuesday night’s solid win against Westfield State, and has done nothing that indicates their number one national ranking is undeserved. Their closest game has been an 11 point victory on the road against Anna Maria, which is also their only away game at this point. In their home contests, however, Amherst has been nothing short of dominant, outscoring their opponents by a total of 89 points in those three matchups, or just under 30 PPG. Obviously, Amherst hasn’t been faced with the strongest competition so far, but they also haven’t shown any signs of weakness. The Purple and White are playing the best defense in the league by far (just 58.0 OPPG), allowing 9 points less than the next closest NESCAC defense (Williams). They’re not necessarily forcing the most turnovers in the world (13.5 TO/G, 7th in the league), but they are forcing opponents into taking difficult shots. I mean really tough shots. Opponents are shooting just 34.7% from the field and 26.3% from three-point land against Coach Hixon’s squad…. That second percentage is absolutely miserable.
One reason Amherst is able to force this poor offensive play is that they are so versatile on defense. Jayde Dawson ‘17 can guard pretty much any opposing point guard, Johnny McCarthy ‘18 flashes such length that Kevin Durant looks like he has t-rex arms in comparison, and both Michael Riopel ‘18 and Jeff Racy ‘17 more than hold their own. Amherst switches pretty much everything on the perimeter, something they can do because of their athleticism, size, and most of all, because they have David George ‘17 manning the paint – not a bad little safety net behind you as a perimeter defender.
“Oh, but Rory, Amherst doesn’t have anyone who can score! McCarthy is their top scorer with just 13.0 PPG – that’s 18th in the NESCAC!!!” So what. Amherst never has anyone that scores significantly more than the rest of the team, that’s why they’re always so good. Coach Hixon currently has four players averaging double digits: McCarthy, Dawson (11.0), Riopel (10.5), and Eric Conklin ‘17 (10.3). That’s not something too many NESCAC teams can say. They are also so deep that they don’t play their starters the entire game, they just simply don’t need to. Of the top 10 scorers, only the 10th highest scorer (Vinny Pace, who I will get to), that is averaging under 20 minutes per game. Pace is actually the only one averaging under 24 MIN/G. Well, McCarthy is the only one on Amherst averaging over 24 MIN/G, and the next highest is Riopel, who is playing 20.5 minutes on average. My point is this: Amherst scores the ball extremely efficiently, and while it’s certainly impressive that Jack Simonds is scoring 25.2 PPG, he is also playing 36.2 MIN/G. I’m not picking on Jack, I’m just saying that there is a strong correlation between minutes played and points scored. This is a pretty consistent trend through the top 10 scorers, which is why Amherst’s wide array of scoring threats should be more highly regarded than it seems like it is. Amherst is really, really good, and they deserve that recognition.
A lot of people have been wondering all year – why is Tufts ranked #3? I just simply don’t get that question. Tufts started at #5 because of their Elite Eight finish last year, but they have also proved that they still deserve to be up there. Really? Ab-so-lute-ly. Tufts is currently out to a perfect 5-0 start. Spanning back through the 1999-2000 season, Tufts has not done this once. Frankly, I don’t know what happened in the 1998-1999 season or any season before that – Tufts archives don’t go back that far – but let’s just leave at this, it has been a VERY LONG TIME since Tufts had such a good start. Additionally, Tufts consistently has one of the hardest non-conference schedules in the NESCAC, and this year is no different. On Tuesday night, Tufts won an absolute battle against #23 WPI at home by score of 75-71. They also beat an Emerson squad that has been rising in recent years, and MIT, who is always at least in the Top 25 discussion. Fact is, Tufts has some solid wins on their resume already, and it’s only December 2nd. So how are they doing it?
This is the interesting part – Tufts is not really dominating in any categories. Let’s look at their defense first. The Jumbos are 5th in points allowed, they foul the 4th most, and they only force the 6th most turnovers. Tufts opponents shoot 39.3% from the field and just 33% from deep (3rd and 5th best respectively). They do have Tom Palleschi ‘17, who was second in the nation in blocked shots last season, and is continuing his dominance down low with an average of 4.2 BLK/G. He’s currently tied with Bates’ Malcolm Delpeche ‘17 at first in the conference, but realistically, I don’t see any way that Delpeche (or anyone else) takes the blocked shots crown from Palleschi at the end of the season. Still, however, blocked shots does not necessarily mean good team defense. Statistically, Tufts looks like an above average defensive team, but not the most dominant in the league. So how about the Tufts offense then?
Tufts, who led the rest of the league in scoring last year by a pretty comfortable margin, is currently 7th in the league in scoring. They’re shooting the 7th highest percentage at 45.6%, and they are hitting just 68.3% of their free throws, 3rd worst in the league. They also only tally the 8th most AST/G in the NESCAC, and turn the ball over the 2nd most. So how are the Jumbos doing it?
Well, the fact is, they just know how to win. Their primary gameplan has two-parts: get to the foul line and hit threes. Tufts has shot and made the 2nd most free-throws in the ‘CAC behind Wesleyan, and they have shot and made the 4th most three-pointers. They’ve got five guys knocking down shots from beyond the arc: Ben Engvall ‘18 (7-16), Tarik Smith ‘17 (6-14), Ethan Feldman ‘19 (10-25), Vinny Pace ‘18 (7-18), and Eric Savage ‘20 (5-13). When you have that many guys that can hit shots from deep, it’s pretty difficult for opposing defenses. So, just chase shooters off the arc, right?
Wrong. If you don’t sag, then Palleschi will eat down low. Defenses have been aware of this so far, and they’ve sagged into the paint, doubled team, and have fronted Palleschi. Basically, they’ve said, “if we’re going to lose, someone besides Palleschi is going to have to beat us.” The tough part is, Tufts has other guys! A lot of them. It seems like they’ve taken a page out of Amherst’s playbook in that no one guy is going to run the show, but rather, the whole squad is going to chip in. Opening night, it was Feldman and Everett Dayton ‘18 who carried the ‘Bos. Game 2 – Smith, Palleschi and Feldman. Game 3 – Pace, Smith, and KJ Garrett ‘18. Game 4….okay you get my point. It’s someone different every night, and that right there is why Tufts is so good. Whatever you take away, the Jumbos have a Plan B, C, and D. This team is very, very good, and if we are lucky, we could see an incredible #2 vs. #3 matchup tomorrow night: Babson vs. Tufts. Just pray that Babson and Tufts both handle business like they should tonight in the Big Four Tournament and maybe, just maybe, tomorrow will be electric.
In summary, Amherst and Tufts are two of the best teams in the country, and as of now, seem to be the two best teams in the conference. I know that our job is to cover everyone in the NESCAC, but having two ‘CAC teams in the top three is not the most common thing in the world. The best teams in the NESCAC generally spread out their scoring and play nearly impenetrable defense. Amherst is doing this, and they’re playing phenomenal defense. Tufts is really spreading out the scoring, and playing solid D. These two are the best two teams in the conference right now, but unfortunately we’re going to have to wait until January to see how they stack up against the rest of the conference. I’m looking forward to Amherst-Tufts once NESCAC play begins, but for now I just hope we get to see a Babson-Tufts matchup tomorrow.