Game Information: #16 Amherst vs. #2 Benedictine, 5 PM, Salem, VA
New year, new nickname, different roster, same result.
Amherst is back in the Final Four for the third time in just four seasons after a one year hiatus and looking to claim the program’s third national title. More than their previous two trips, this year’s journey to the Final Four was considered a long shot. In 2014 the Purple & White entered the tournament ranked No. 7 at 24-3, and in 2013, when they won the whole shabang, they were 25-2 and ranked second in the country. This year, Amherst ranked No. 16 coming into the tournament, and squeaked through the first weekend with two wins by a total of three points. Then, Amherst controlled the game against Babson in the Sweet 16, but the contest with Tufts was knotted up with under four minutes to play before Amherst finished on a 13-0 run.
No matter how it happened, Amherst is here now with a chance at the title. But, they have to take on, arguably, the best team in the country in undefeated Benedictine University.
It’s hard to find a weakness in the Eagles’ game as they play in their first Final Four. They are lead by two juniors, both from Naperville, Illinois, just a 10 minute ride from the Benedictine campus. Luke Johnson ’17 is an elite talent for the D-III level. He’s taken a circuitous route to get here – playing at two other schools and spending some time earlier in his career at Benedictine, too – but he certainly appears comfortable at last. The 6’9″, 235 lbs center averages 14.5 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 3.2 apg and, here’s the whopper, 3.0 bpg. That’s Tom Palleschi status. Johnson was named the All-Central Region Co-Player of the Year by D3Hooops.com. His fellow Napervillian, Michael “Blasé” Blaszczyk ’17 (I just came up with that nickname), leads the team with 14.6 ppg and contributes across the board with 4.8 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.1 spg and 0.7 bpg. Blaszczyk also brings size to the table at 6’3″, 190 lbs, and has ratched it up in the tournament, scoring 63 points over four games to lead his team. The third key Eagle to watch out for is PG Tahron Harvey ’17. Harvey is a D3Hoops.com All-Central Third Teamer averaging 13.5 ppg, 5.0 apg and 2.2 spg.
The key for Benedictine is that they have shooters all over the floor. Their rotation runs nine deep, and everyone but bruising sixth man Tim Reamer ’16 (6’5″ 240 lbs) can knock down the triple. (Reamer, by the way, was awarded the Elite 90 Award as the athlete at the Final Four with the highest cumulative GPA.) Seven of those nine shoot over 30 percent from deep, including Johnson, which presents a match up nightmare for Amherst. The Eagles will look to feed the big man on the block and let him distribute to their shooters. Furthermore, Benedictine is tenacious on the boards, outrebounding their opponents by 14.7 boards per game. Johnson is a big reason for that, but everyone in the lineup can get after the boards.
Amherst X-factor: Close Out Defense
I’m not going with one player here, but rather a philosophy. And, it’s a philosophy that Amherst has employed quite well so far this season. Amherst has the best three-point percentage defense in the country, and it’s not just because they present great length. To allow only 27.7 percent of opponents’ three pointers to drop, you have to be very good at closing out. I expect Head Coach Dave Hixon to instruct his players to double down on Johnson when he gets the ball in the post, which means it will be even more difficult for Amherst to close out on shooters. If they leave the Eagles’ shooters open it’s going to be a long day for Amherst, but if they can force Benedictine to try to make tough shots in traffic against the size that Amherst’s starting five provides, that could be a recipe for success.
Benedictine X-factor: C Luke Johnson
Johnson is obviously a great all-around player, but he’s an X-factor in this one not because of his scoring, but his propensity to rebound. Amherst has a pretty mediocre rebounding team, grabbing just 3.2 more rebounds per game than their opponents. Recall that Benedictine averages +14.7 boards per game. They also have a great defensive unit. Eagles’ opponents only score at a 37.8 percent clip from the field. That means buckets will be hard to come by for Amherst, and there won’t be many second chances with Johnson cleaning up the boards.
What to Expect:
It’s always so difficult to project NESCAC teams against out-of-region squads. From what I’ve seen over the past four years, the NESCAC is easily the best conference east of Wisconsin. They top-to-bottom quality of teams just can’t be beat, and I think you can look at the number of NESCAC teams that get into the NCAA Tournament, their success, and the success of even mid-tier and lower-tier NESCAC teams against high-quality out-of-conference opponents as proof of that statement. Therefore, and not because of favoritism, I often lean towards NESCAC squads. Even Benedictine can be questioned for the quality of their opponents. Their strength of schedule as of the last NCAA Regional Rankings, which come out before conference tournament play, was an average 0.524. Amherst had a .558 SOS at that time. Since then, however, Benedictine has beaten #10 Ohio Wesleyan and #13 Alma in the NCAA Tournament, so they’ve proven their mettle, and you don’t go 30-0 without having one heck of a roster.
On the Amherst side, the biggest question for me is always the point guard play. Jayde Dawson ’18 is great at times, and at other times gets pulled for Reid Berman ’17, who’s a very good player but has completely gone one-dimensional this year offensively, scoring just 2.1 ppg. One or the other will have to have a big game distributing, because with Benedictine’s defense the worst case scenario for Amherst is that they lose their offensive flow and start trying to go one-on-one on every possession. At the five spot, David George ’17 will see big minutes while trying to defend Johnson, which means less minutes for Eric Conklin ’17, George’s offensive counterpart. If Coach Hixon has to go with a lineup of Berman, Connor Green ’16, Johnny McCarthy ’18, Jeff Racy ’17 and George for extended stretches then they lose some significant offensive punch.
Whoever sees big minutes at the point for Amherst, though, expect this game to be played in the high 70’s and possibly 80’s. Amherst can score in bunches with the best of them, and the Eagles have tallied an outrageous 88.1 ppg this season. With two great, tough defenses though, don’t expect those points to come easy. We might have a uniquely fast-paced game on our hands with lots of misses, few offensive boards, and quick transitions.
As well as I believe the NESCAC prepares its teams for postseason play, I don’t see a chink in the Benedictine armor. The last game they won by less than nine points came on December 30. That’s almost three months ago. Amherst will have to play a perfect game in order to win. I don’t think they can pull it off. They may come close, and a hot night from Racy and Green beyond the arc could push the Purple & White over the top, but Benedictine has the lengthy defenders to stop that and I don’t see it happening.
Prediction: Benedictine 85 – Amherst 80