This Connecticut rivalry, dubbed by some “The Battle of 91”, referring to the main highway that connects Middletown to Hartford, pits two teams that seemingly have overachieved and that have vastly different strengths against one another for the 190th time in history. Firstly, the Bantams host their first NESCAC Finals weekend since 2002, and will be looking to lean on their deep front court and hometown hero Jaquann Starks ’16 to bring just the second NESCAC Championship of the modern era (i.e. dating back to the inauguration of the NESCAC Tournament in 2000-2001) to Hartford. On the flip side, Wesleyan’s three-headed backcourt monster will look to outshoot the Bantams and move on to its first Finals in school history.
Anyone who knows anything about NESCAC basketball knows that defense is the calling card of the Trinity Bantams. This season to date, Trinity ranks first in the NESCAC in points per game allowed, first in offensive rebounds allowed, second in rebounding margin and second in field goal percentage defense. Ed Ogundeko ’17 in particular has developed into a beast on the defensive end, averaging 8.3 rebounds per game (sixth in the NESCAC) and 1.4 blocks per game (tied-fifth in the NESCAC), despite playing just 19.8 minutes per game due to the depth of big men that Trinity possesses. Tri-captain George Papadeas ’15 is one of the biggest bodies in the NESCAC and a strong defender himself, but Ogundeko has been so good this season that Papadeas has seen his minutes diminish as Ogundeko’s have grown. The other two members of the Bantams’ frontcourt, Shay Ajayi ’16 and Alex Conaway ’15, are no slouches, either. Ajayi turned in a double-double with 12 and 11 in the squad’s Quarterfinal win against Colby, and Conaway has been a consistent player all season long. The suffocating defense doesn’t stop once you get outside the paint, though. Tri-captain Hart Gliedman ’15, who dealt with a minor foot injury earlier this year but is now at 100 percent, might be the toughest perimeter defender in the NESCAC, bringing the quickness to guard point men and the size/strength combo needed to guard twos and smaller threes, as well as a wealth of experience. Gliedman spent a year at Div-I Liberty University in Virginia before transferring to Trinity, where he has made his mark as a leader on and off the court.
As for the Cardinals, all year long they have lived and died by the three-pointer, taking 21.7 treys per game, a number surpassed in the NESCAC this season only by Williams and Amherst. In their eight losses Wesleyan has shot an abysmal 29.2 percent (57-195) from deep, though they’ve managed a 38.1 percent mark on the season. The point guard trio of BJ Davis ’16, Jack Mackey ’16 and Harry Rafferty ’17 run the show for Wesleyan, but forward Joe Edmonds ’17 is the team’s best three-point shooter, and the sophomore blew up for 22 points in the Cards Quarterfinal win over Bates, the second time in three games that Edmonds had eclipsed 20 points, something that he hadn’t done before this season. The biggest concern for Wesleyan is its depth. Beyond the top six in the rotation, Tim Gallivan ’15 averages 10.9 minutes per game and Chris Tugman ’15 averages 10.4 minutes per game. Beyond that, no one hits double digits in that regard, and in Wesleyan’s Quarterfinal game Joseph Kuo ’17 was the starter with the least amount of minutes played with 29. What’s the point here? That Head Coach Joe Reilly apparently doesn’t have much trust in his bench beyond Rashid Epps ’16, who has started 18 games this year but has recently come off of the bench, often in favor of Edmonds. Rafferty praised some of the role players after Wesleyan’s win over Bates. “Jordan Sears [’18] was unbelievable in the minutes he gave us, just wearing out [Bates point guard] Graham [Safford ’15]….I thought one of the other biggest difference makers was Chris Tugman. It was just such a dogfight on the boards, such a physical game, and when he came in as a big body with some huge rebounds, it was perfect energy off the bench. He completely changed the flow of the game.” Certainly, players like Sears and Tugman will have to make an impact yet again if Wesleyan is to knock off the top seed and clinch a NESCAC Championship, because it is probably too much to ask for all five starters to go beyond 30 minutes on back-to-back days.
Last time they played:
It was not long ago that these teams went head-to-head on Wesleyan’s home court in a game that the Bantams edged out 65-61 on Friday, February 6. Rick Naylor ’17 was in the midst of some of the best shooting of his life at that time, and torched the Cards for 17 points on 5-6 shooting from beyond the arch. It was an ugly shooting day for the Cardinals. Davis, in particular, struggled with a 2-10 showing from the field, but he was able to get to the line and sink 7-8 free throws on his way to 12 hard-earned points. Mackey kept Wesleyan in the game with four three pointers, but Edmons was a total non-factor. Kuo had some success inside amongst the trees, posting a double-double with 14 points and 11 boards.
The game was tight throughout with nine lead changes, eight of which came in the second half. Wesleyan was within one in the game’s final minute, but two three-point attempts clanged off of iron and the Bantams headed home with the four-point win.
Wesleyan X-Factors: Guards Harry Rafferty ’17 and Jack Mackey ’16
Gliedman is going to make Saturday Hellish for one of these two talented guards, leaving the other one with a potential quickness advantage over his defender. Trinity often has three big men on the floor, but something has to give because Wesleyan usually has three point guard-like players on the court at once. There’s no way Ajayi, despite his athleticism, can stop Mackey or Rafferty on the perimeter. This could mean more minutes for Naylor, Andrew Hurd ’16 and Chris Turnbull ’17. Will they be up to the challenge of stopping passes like this from Mackey (we had to get this in here somewhere)?
— ESPN Highlights (@HighlightsESPN) February 24, 2015
Trinity X-Factor: Point Guard Andrew Hurd ’16
I get the feeling that the opposing strengths of these two teams leans in favor of Wesleyan, and for that reason it will be crucial for Hurd to step up and play big for the Bantams. Starks gets a lot of credit for leading the Bantams offense, but Hurd is actually the team’s top assist man with 3.0 per game. He will often replace Starks on the court, but when they are on the floor together Hurd does most of the initiating of the offense, and they figure to be active together for a lot of this game in order to matchup with Wesleyan’s guards. Hurd will have to play solid basketball on both ends of the floor for the Bants to hold off the visiting Cardinals.
1. Is Joseph Kuo ’17 ready for a bruising?
Ogundeko and Papadeas are two of the strongest big men in the NESCAC, and maybe in all of D-III. Ogundeko has really evolved as player since NESCAC play started. Kuo is the only real big man that Wesleyan rolls out on a regular basis. Expect Tugman and Gallivan to get some extra minutes in order to give Kuo a breather, but the sophomore is going to have to play big to keep Wesleyan in this one.
2. Which game does Trinity decide to play?
The one where they score in the 80s and 90s and just outshoot their opponents, or the one like the 71-69 win over Williams where the teams shot a combined 37.1 percent from the field, 25 percent from deep and 54.8 percent from the stripe?
The beauty for the Bantams is that they know they can win both ways, but I don’t think they want to get into a shootout. As a rule, Trinity likes low-scoring games.
As Starks put it in an interview with contributor Carson Kenney, “As usual we have been focusing on defense. We know that Wesleyan is a good shooting team. So our game plan is simply make them take tough, contested shots and don’t give them anything free and easy. If we take away their three point shooters I feel it will be tough for them to beat us. If we don’t do that then we will have a tough time beating them.”
3. What the heck are Trinity Days?
Well since we fancy ourselves journalists we went ahead and found out. Trinity students get two days off each semester around a weekend (how the College decides those days is beyond me) and it just so happened that Thursday and Friday of this week were off for all students. So, a lot of students are home for a long weekend. How many will come back early to cheer on their Bants is an important question. A lot of alums should still make Oosting pretty full, but there’s nothing better than a student section at a college basketball game.
What to Expect
Expect the game that the Bantams want to play; slow, tough and physical. Wesleyan is going to be hard-pressed to get any points in the paint, which will mean a lot of three-pointers and long jumpers, but Trinity won’t allow for many offensive rebounds. The Bantams will then look to chuck the ball into the paint and let the big men work.
The matchup will really come down to how well Wesleyan shoots the ball, and Wesleyan Head Coach Joe Reilly agrees. “[The reality of the NESCAC tournament is it’s going to be a team that shoots the ball well from the perimeter,” Reilly said. My mind is saying Trinity will win this one. They’ve beaten Wesleyan before, they’ve been the best team all year and they’re at home. But they’ve also won a lot of close games and barely squeaked by #8 Colby in the Quarterfinals. They haven’t been a dominant top seed, and with the Cards flying high I think they have a good shot at the upset. Damn the mind, my heart is going with Wesleyan. And isn’t heart what the playoffs are all about?
Prediction: Wesleyan 75 – Trinity 70