Amherst College is an athletic powerhouse, and that fact is as evident in basketball as anywhere else. Both the men’s and women’s teams advanced to their respective NESCAC Championships yesterday. On the men’s side, it was the program’s 14 appearance in the title game in 17 opportunities. That’s not a misprint. Amherst has competed in 82 percent of all of the NESCAC Championship games in history, and until yesterday had a winning record: 7-6. Yesterday, though, it was not the Purple and White cutting down the nets, but the fourth-seeded Middlebury Panthers. Middlebury limped to a 3-5 start to the season, albeit against a challenging schedule, all on the road, but that slog seemed to prepare Middlebury well for conference play. They still fell short in a couple of games that should have been locks, though, specifically on the road at Conn College and Hamilton, which put the Panthers in a do-or-die situation. Capture the NESCAC crown, or hang up the sneaks until next year. They did just what they had to do on Sunday, punching their NCAA ticket by edging Amherst 81-79 in an all-time classic that featured 23 lead changes and one game-changing call that will haunt Amherst players forever. And because of that, this is going to be a very Middlebury-heavy stock report today. My favorite.
Middlebury C Matt Daley ’16
Cue the preamble about the double-double prognostications and oodles of talent. We all know that already. Let’s focus on his performance during the NESCAC tournament. After getting just five minutes against Wesleyan, Daley must have gotten really pissed, because he played great this weekend. Daley started both games against some of the best defensive centers in the league in Ed Ogundeko ’17 and David George ’17, played 27.5 minutes per game (huge considering that he averaged 17.7 minutes per NESCAC game this season), scored 34 points on 14-18 (77.8 percent) shooting, ripped down 11 boards, had three blocks, and helped hold Ogundeko, George and Eric Conklin ’17 to 20 points on 7-18 (38.9 percent) shooting. The Panthers are a completely different team with Daley playing like he did this weekend, and truly are good enough to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament.
Middlebury Head Coach Jeff Brown
Coach Brown received the best gift any coach could ever ask for back in 2007 – a program-changing player. It was not because of his talent alone that Mike Walsh, class of 2008, was a game changer. After a 6-18 freshman campaign and 12-12 sophomore year, Walsh and the Panthers made to the NESCAC tournament in 2007 but finished 15-10. With one more season to play, Walsh and co-captain Andrew Harris ’08 went to Brown and laid out their plan for changing the Middlebury basketball program. From that moment on, Middlebury basketball has been a powerhouse with a winning attitude and unbelievable work ethic, playing in eight of nine NESCAC tournaments since then and making making NCAA appearances. Add in a string of phenomenal, All-American caliber players in guys like Ben Rudin ’09, Tim Edwards ’10, Andrew Locke ’11, Ryan Sharry ’12 and Joey Kizel ’13, among others, and the job becomes a lot easier for someone in Brown’s position. This season has been different, though. There are some very solid players on the Middlebury team, but no superstars. They weren’t even a playoff team a year ago. And Jeff Brown was able to rally his team after a 3-5 start, after an 0-2 showing on the last weekend of the regular season, and yesterday with Amherst leading by 11 midway through the first half. Strategically this weekend, Brown employed the zone well against Trinity, limiting their ability to make outside shots, and Sunday was just a gritty performance that really culminates the effort this team has put in all year. Kudos to Coach Brown for probably his best coaching performance.
Let’s give a little love to a non-Panther. Riopel had the best weekend of his NESCAC life over the past two days. Having averaged 7.0 points per game this season, Riopel lit it up for 11 and 17 in Amherst’s two games, and burned the nets from deep, making six out of seven three point attempts. It’s actually sort of shocking that Middlebury held on yesterday considering that Amherst shot 45.9 percent from the field and 44.8 percent from deep, including Riopel’s 4-5 performance. I expect Riopel will step into the place of Connor Green ’16 in the starting lineup next season, because he’s a dynamic offensive player at times.
Granted, they faced two pretty potent offenses in Tufts and Middlebury, but the Purple and White did not do a good job of getting stops this weekend, allowing 83 points to the Jumbos and 81 to Middlebury. Vinny Pace ’18 was just a dominant force for Tufts, and on Sunday it was a combination of Matt St. Amour ’17 and Daley doing the work for the Panthers. So basically Amherst was ineffective at stopping opponents in both the front and back court. In NESCAC games, Amherst had a league-best 69.4 points per game allowed, so this may just be a blip on the radar.
The secret might just be out on how to slow down the Bantams. Against Middlebury, Trinity shot just 32.8 percent from the field and in their first half against Colby last weekend Trinity scored just 19 points (of course, they exploded for 52 second half points and won by 11, so maybe the point is moot). What Middlebury did well, and what the Mules did well for the first half, was switch ball screens and pressure the Trinity shooters. Easier said than done, but definitely a key in defeating the Bantams. Teams with length in the backcourt are a tough matchup for the Bants, and St. Amour, Jack Daly ’18 and Zach Baines ’19 are pretty tough to shoot over when they have a hand up. Luke Westman ’16 and Ryan Jann ’16 fall into that category, as well. In six of Trinity’s seven losses this season they’ve shot 31.6 percent or less from deep. Stop the three, stop the Bantams.
A rematch of a NESCAC quarterfinal from last season, this game promises to be a game dominated by both offenses. These are the two best offenses in the NESCAC in terms of points per game. They can both hurt you in a variety of ways, but both teams have also become much more reliant on their starting group as the season has gone along. That quarterfinal from a year ago doesn’t mean anything either. Amherst laid a beatdown on the Jumbos in that one, leading by 16 points at halftime and winning 92-66. Connor Green ’16 was hot, shooting 10-16 from the floor to score 29 points. That win was revenge for Tufts destroying Amherst earlier in the year during conference play.
Both teams only boasted one senior last season (Ben Ferris ’15 on Tufts and Alex Levine ’15 for Amherst), but still a lot has changed. For one, Jayde Dawson ’18 and Jeff Racy ’17 are starting now for Amherst while Reid Berman ’17 and Jacob Nabatoff ’17 have become bit players. On Tufts, Hunter Sabety ’17 transferred and all three of Tarik Smith ’17, Vincent Pace ’18, and Stephen Haladyna ’16 have started every game for Tufts after coming off the bench for the Jumbos last year.
Last time they played: Tufts 84 – Amherst 73, Feb. 5 at Tufts
The Jumbos led this one basically from wire to wire, and they threatened to blow out Amherst at points. An 18-3 run fueled by three 3s from three different players put Tufts up 34-18 in the first half. On his senior day, seldom used Zach Roswold ’16 had two big three pointers in the half. The second half saw Amherst continuously try and fail to cut into the lead, but they could never get the lead below seven points. Green had 28 points in the game and 17 in the half, but it wasn’t enough. Racy had his worst game of the year going 0-6 from three, turning the ball over twice, and fouling out. Tufts had their typical balanced scoring from the starting five, and Tom Palleschi ’17 led the way with 20 points, nine rebounds, and four big blocks. The loss cost Amherst the number one overall seed and is why we are in Hartford and not Amherst this weekend.
Amherst X-Factor: Point Guard Jayde Dawson ’18
I could easily put Green or Racy in this spot, but Dawson gets the nod because of how he has struggled recently. In the past four games vs. NESCAC opponents he has averaged 6.75 ppg and 2.25 apg after averaging 20.3 ppg and 4.7 apg in the three games before that. It hasn’t affected the team from Central Massachusetts very much given that they are 6-1 in that stretch. Still, an Amherst team where Dawson is locked in, making shots, and not committing stupid turnovers is a tough one. He pounds the ball way too much for no reason, and he certainly is not a true point guard, but Dawson has undoubtedly been much better this season than last. Amherst doesn’t need him to play well in order to win, but if he does then it’s hard to imagine them losing.
Tufts X-Factor: Center Tom Palleschi ’17
Little bit of a cop out putting the Jumbos best player as their X-Factor, but I believe that away from the friendly confines of Cousens Gym Palleschi needs to be a monster on both ends of the floor for Tufts to win. The big center has been putting up big points numbers in recent weeks, averaging 20.6 ppg over his last seven games as Tufts has shown a renewed commitment to working the ball through him. He has also only gotten better at blocking shots, averaging an absurd 4.3 bpg over that same span. Palleschi allows the Tufts perimeter defenders to take away the three point lines and not worry about the opponent getting easy points inside. Against as good of a three point shooting team as Amherst, the luxury of Palleschi protecting the rim means the Jumbos can sell out on the perimeter, just so long as they make sure to weak side rebound if Palleschi goes for any blocks.
1. Which sophomore plays better: Vincent Pace ’18 or Johnny McCarthy ’18?
These are the two best sophomores in the league, and they both happen to be long-armed shooting guards. I’m hoping that they guard each other for most of the game tomorrow to see who’s game gets the upper hand. Their strengths lie on opposite ends of the floor: Pace is better offensively and McCarthy plays best defensively. That doesn’t mean that they are slouches on the other end, of course. Pace went through a brief three-game slump in late January, but he has been way better in February even as his shot has struggled from deep. Driving against McCarthy is tough, but if Pace gets someone else switched onto him on a pick and roll then he will go to work. McCarthy, meanwhile, hits that step back jumper once or twice a game and makes you think he is the most talented player in the league. Still, he remains just a cog in the offensive attack for Amherst.
2. Does Amherst hit threes?
Amherst shoots so many threes that it can drive you crazy when they don’t go down. In the regular season they shot 79 more threes than any other team, or 12.8 percent more threes than anyone else. When those shots don’t go in against a good opponent, Amherst tends to lose. They shot 7-25 (28 percent) from three against Tufts in the first meeting this year. There is no question that Amherst is capable of burying opponents in a flurry of long-distance shots, but an Amherst team that shoots exclusively from the three point line is a one-dimensional and beatable one.
3. Which bench shows up?
Both of these teams are very reliant on their starting five, which is funny because last year they would both regularly go 10 deep in their rotation. However, the upside for the Amherst bench is much higher. Michael Riopel ’18 can affect the game in a number of ways, and Eric Conklin ’17 is nearly a guarantee to score a few baskets every game. On the Tufts side, Ben Engvall ’18 or Stefon Duvivier ’18 is capable of swinging the game by canning a couple of threes from deep. At the end of the day, I trust the ability of the Amherst bench to change the game more than I do Tufts. I do expect the starters on both sides to get heavy minutes, but the ability of Amherst to replace one of their starters who isn’t playing well with someone replicable could be the difference.
I mentioned at the top that offense is the strength of both teams. That means either team is fully capable of ripping off a game-changing run at any time. String a few three pointers together and suddenly a double digit lead almost disappears. The winner of this game is unlikely to score less than 80 points, but the ability of Amherst to shut down teams from deep could be a difference maker. On the season, Amherst is the best in the COUNTRY in defensive 3 point field goal percentage, but Tufts was able to shoot 8-20 (40 percent) from deep in their first meeting. The length of the Amherst perimeter defenders and the change in scenery makes it unlikely that the Jumbos find a way to replicate that type of shooting.
Tufts won the first matchup this year, but that game was in Medford on a Saturday which favors the home team even more than a Friday night game. I don’t think either school is going to bring a big crowd to the game Saturday. If it’s anyone, it would be Amherst, but I was at their semifinal game last year at Trinity and there were literally zero students at that one. The Jumbos have lost only two games at home this season, and they tend to shoot worse from distance away from Medford, MA.
Amherst is the better team overall, and on a neutral floor I think they get the best of the Jumbos. These are two very talented teams, and it is going to be a treat to watch them go up against each other. At the end of the day, I think that Amherst gets and converts more looks from three than the Jumbos do in a close battle. One thing that could keep things interesting at the end: Amherst is shooting under 70 percent from the free throw line. If the Jumbos are down late but put the right players on the foul line, anything could happen.
The Trinity Bantams have had a lot of recent success against Middlebury. For what it’s worth the Bants outlasted Middlebury 90-85 a season ago. More relevant, of course, was the 97-86 beatdown that Trinity slapped on the Panthers two weekends ago. I know it was only an 11-point victory, but I do think the word “beatdown” is appropriate. Firstly, 97 points is a ridiculously high number. Secondly, Trinity lead by 18 with just over six minutes to go, and only a barrage of three-pointers from backup guard Bryan Jones ’17 kept it from being embarrassing for Middlebury. So that does not bode well for the Panthers.
Here’s why that doesn’t matter, though. Firstly, Adisa Majors ’18 has been very good all season long, but let’s be honest, just two weeks ago he was still somewhat of a novelty, with only four double digit scoring performances all season. Then he put up 18 against Amherst on 7-8 shooting and 15 at Trinity, and after another 18 in just 19 minutes against Wesleyan in the NESCAC Quarters, Majors has officially become someone you game plan against. Secondly, Matt Daley ’16 is healthy(-ish). Yes, Daley only played five minutes against Wesleyan, but that doesn’t mean he can’t put up a double-double on Saturday. The theme for Panthers Head Coach Jeff Brown all season has been to ride whatever is working on a given day, which is why all 12 active Panthers were in the game in the first half against Wesleyan. Bottom line, it just wasn’t working for Daley, but it very well might be this weekend, and the Majors-Daley combo has a lot of potential. Thirdly, and lastly, while all of the remaining teams have plenty of motivation in their search for a NESCAC crown, Middlebury has a little extra something on the line. Without a sweep this weekend, the Panthers will be playing golf come Monday (as the saying goes – believe me, no one’s playing golf in Middlebury, VT on Monday). The other three teams are locks to be playing NCAA games. Will that make a difference? I don’t know, but there’s no danger of Middlebury looking past this weekend.
Last time they played – Trinity 97 – Middlebury 86, Feb. 13 at Trinity
After seven minutes, Middlebury was up by three, 14-11. That was nice. Then Trinity took the lead. Then it was 10 at halftime. Then it was quickly 15. And Middlebury chipped back a little bit. But then it was 18 after a Langdon Neal ’17 jumper. Trinity shot the lights out, going 34-61 (55.7 percent) from the field, 8-18 (44.4 percent) from deep and 21-27 (77.8 percent) at the line.
“I just think we did well making shots. We were comfortable shooting the ball, we did a good job getting the ball inside to our big guys, and they did a good job taking the ball to the basket.” – Trinity head coach James Cosgrove
Middlebury just couldn’t get stops. Trinity didn’t let Matt St. Amour ’17 get many looks from three (just 0-2), something they have to replicate on Saturday. Jaquann Starks ’16 couldn’t miss (6-10 FG, 4-6 3PT). And Trinity shared the ball exceptionally well with 22 assists, up from their 16.5 average. The Bantams played a complete game, and Middlebury just could not hang.
Middlebury X-factor: F Zach Baines ’19
You think you’ve arrived, kid? Think again. Shay Ajayi ’16 and Ed Ogundeko ’16 probably form the best frontcourt combo in the NESCAC. “They’re two of the hardest workers I’ve ever coached, and they keep coming every day to get better,” said Trinity coach James Cosgrove. For Middlebury, their frontcourt is constantly in flux. Daley, Connor Huff ’16, Majors, Nick Tarantino ’18, Eric McCord ’19 and Baines have all started there. One thing that I feel fairly confident in, though, is that Baines will get a lot of minutes and they will be at the four. Which means – have you been following along? – he will have to defend Ajayi. In case you forgot, Ajayi is a senior, averaging 14.1 ppg, with NCAA Elite Eight experience. That is a tall order for Baines. He gives up an inch or two to Ajayi, but makes up for that with his length. I believe that he’s the only big man Middlebury has that can guard Ajayi at the perimeter, but he lacks the size (read: weight) to stop Ajayi when he gets around the rim. He will need help from Majors, Huff and Daley, but Baines is going to be a key in slowing down Ajayi and putting a hand in his face.
Trinity X-factor: PG Andrew Hurd ’16
Hurd leads the NESCAC with a 3.5 A/TO ratio, which is sixth in all of Division-III as of Thursday. On the flip side, Middlebury is the best in the NESCAC at forcing turnovers with 15.1 takeaways per game. Last time they played, Hurd has six assists and no turnovers. So that’s it, just do what you do, Drew. These backcourts are so evenly matched – St. Amour, Jake Brown ’17 and Jack Daly ’18 vs. Hurd, Starks and Rick Naylor ’16. You basically have a classic “true” point guard, a high volume shooter and defender/occasional scorer on both sides of the balance sheet. That’s why a pristine game from Hurd could be the difference, elevating Trinity’s backcourt and supporting a frontcourt that already has the advantage.
1. Can you shut down Matt St. Amour twice in one season?
My instincts say “no”, but I’ve been wrong once or twice before. St. Amour gets a lot of his threes in transition, not from traditional set plays. The Panthers, as we know, like to run, and sometimes St. Amour gets lost in transition. Now, if you shoot the ball like Trinity did last time, there aren’t many opportunities to run for the other team. So, in reality, offense, and offensive rebounding, is the best defense for the Bantams in this game. Put the ball in the hoop, stop transition looks, and St. Amour will be relegated to a free throw shooter like he was in the last meeting between these two teams.
2. How does Trinity Coach James Cosgrove exploit the frontcourt advantage?
The Bantams will work the ball through Ogundeko often, but backing him up against Matt Daley (6’8″) or Majors (210 pounds) isn’t likely to be the best strategy. I think the obvious answer is to pull out the four man with Ajayi, which isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel. Whenever the Panthers have two true bigs in the game – not Baines, who’s a stretch four – Trinity has to take advantage. Therefore, I don’t think Middlebury will play with two bigs very often, but the combos of Daley-Majors, Majors-Huff and some McCord sprinkled in will definitely occur.
3. Will any of the Middlebury bench players get hot in the first half?
Last meeting, it was Jones in the second half who got hot, but as mentioned, every one gets a shot in the first half on this Panthers team. Maybe it will be Jones (who’s dealing with sickness this week), maybe it will be Hilal Dahleh ’19 and his sweet lefty stroke, maybe Liam Naughton ’17 could drain a couple of quick threes, but someone is going to need to sneak a few buckets while the Bantams aren’t looking. Middlebury has had one consistent scorer all year, and even though we think that Majors can be counted on, that still only leaves two guys who can put the ball in the hoop more than twice a game. That makes defensive assignments pretty easy. Someone else needs to take some pressure off the Middlebury duo of St. Amour and Majors. And don’t let Trinity get up at half. With that defense (38.2 field goal percentage against; second in Division-III), good luck coming back. The only teams to trail Trinity at half and come back to win were the somewhat anomalous Eastern Connecticut (down by six), No. 16 Susquehanna (down by one) and No. 21 Plattsburgh St. (down by two) back in December and early January. So basically unless you’re a ranked team down by one or two points or from Eastern Connecticut you aren’t coming back on this team.
What to Expect
Expect Trinity to go back to Ajayi as much as possible. Jack Daly and Jake Brown should keep Starks in check for the most part, but Ajayi is a match up nightmare.
“I think for us, defensively, the matchup with Ajayi is really a challenging one,” Panthers coach Jeff Brown said. “In the past he played quite a bit of perimeter. The last couple of seasons he played a lot of the three-spot. So he’s one of those inside-outside forwards who’s extremely athletic, and with some of our post players it’s a tough cover.”
Coach Brown wants to switch more on the perimeter, something that Colby did well in the first half of last week’s Quarterfinal when they held Trinity to 19 points, and throw some different looks at the Bantams. I think we see a good deal of 3-2 zone to limit Trinity’s looks from three. I’ve yet to mention Eric Gendron ’18, but his 44.1 three point percentage ranks fifth in the NESCAC. You can’t let him get hot, either. “[Gendron’s one that really kind of concerns me off of the bench,” Coach Brown said. Middlebury needs to force stops to create transition buckets.
On the other end, if the Panthers can’t get going in transition, they’re in for a long afternoon. Trinity is obviously very tough and physical in the half court defensively, and I don’t think Middlebury can play that way for 40 minutes. Majors has the size to do it, but even that is outweighed (literally and figuratively) by the presence of Ogundeko. Look for St. Amour to try to get going early and give Middlebury a lead with a couple of threes. Baseline screens and hand offs for Number 11 will be a common sight.
“He’s dynamite shooting the ball.” – Trinity head coach James Cosgrove on Middlebury guard Matt St. Amour
As far as the NESCAC goes, Middlebury ranks first in offensive turnovers (i.e. fewest turnovers) and Trinity ties for fourth. On the flip side, Middlebury has forced the most turnovers per game (15.1) and Trinity has forced the fourth most turnovers per game. Something has to give. In a game of this intensity, with these stakes, I think the defense wins out. Not that it will be sloppy – these point guards are too good for that – but I envision a lot of fast-paced basketball which tends to result in some silly turnovers. Therefore, ball control is key. Don’t make mistakes with the ball. For Trinity, the key is to beat up on the Middlebury bigs. For Middlebury, the key is similar. Use Trinity’s aggressiveness against them. Middlebury’s not a very good free throw shooting team, but St. Amour (who takes 5.4 free throws per game, third in the NESCAC) is great from the stripe (81.5 percent), and forcing the Trinity forwards into foul trouble will change the game.
Additionally, Trinity has home court working heavily in their favor. They should have some boisterous crowds this weekend, unlike last when most of the students were gone because there was no class on Monday and Tuesday of that week. The Bantams have been tough to topple at home, going 11-1, that one loss coming against Amherst, and Trinity coach James Cosgrove is aware of the benefit of playing at home.
“It’s always nice to be playing at home. I think we feel real comfortable here. We’ve done some nice things here over the last couple of years.” – Trinity head coach James Cosgrove
Furthermore, the first time the Panthers step onto the court in Hartford will be an hour or so before game time. As a team, they chose not to take advantage of an early morning shoot around time slot. Whether that decision will pay off or not remains to be seen. Of course, Middlebury was on the Oostings hardwood two weeks ago, but they might want to forget about that.
In case you missed it over the last two-plus years, I’m a big Middlebury fan, and my co-editor, Adam Lamont, is a big Bowdoin guy. We’re both students, and we’re not afraid to let you know when we have a rooting interest. Despite all that, I can’t pick the Panthers in this game. Forgive me, guys, but you made me look foolish two weeks ago when I gave you the nod to win at least one against Amherst and/or Trinity. I won’t be fooled again. I hope I’m wrong, but Trinity just looks too good. They’re 12 for their last 14. One of those was against Amherst (the other was against 11-14 Merchant Marine – one of those mysteries where you chalk it up to being a full moon, Friday the 13th and everyone on the team taking part in a mirror-smashing party while walking under a step ladder … okay it wasn’t actually Friday the 13th). Point being, I just think Trinity will win. Prove me wrong, boys. I want to keep watching Middlebury basketball for a few more weeks.
What has appeared to be a pretty chaotic NESCAC season suddenly got a lot more clear when the top four teams all pulled out wins in the NESCAC quarterfinals. It wasn’t that clear cut, considering that Colby led Trinity for a good 30 minutes of their game and Bowdoin was down three points with under six minutes to play. Still, the top four teams won, and a big reason for that is the impact of home court advantage.
Trinity, Amherst, Tufts and Middlebury combined to go 18-2 in their NESCAC home games. And those two losses both came at the hands of a fellow top four team with the Bantams knocking off the Jumbos in Medford and Amherst beating Trinity in Hartford. The biggest upsets of the regular season all came on the road: Middlebury falling to Hamilton, Colby topping Amherst, and Bowdoin getting the best of Wesleyan (not that big of an upset in hindsight but still).
Winning on the road is hard, even when there aren’t big raucous crowds to deal with. Athletes are creatures of comfort, and whether it’s the ability to have the same pregame routine or the familiarity of shooting in your home gym, teams undoubtedly do better at home at this level. As an aside, this makes Wesleyan’s championship run last year with two road and one neutral site wins all the more impressive.
SG Matt St. Amour ’17 and PF Adisa Majors ’18 (Middlebury)
Pepin Gymnasium was ROCKING on Saturday, and these two were supplying a lot of the fuel for the crowd to feed off of. After two subpar shooting performances last weekend, St. Amour did not hesitate from long distance early scoring 19 points in the first half as the Panthers built a substantial lead. As he cooled off in the first half, Majors took over, scoring 16 enormous second half points. Eleven of those points came in the final 5:30 of the game. After Nathan Krill ’18 pulled Wesleyan to within five points at 68-63, Majors scored the next six points for the Panthers to get the lead back up to 74-65. The difference in play from Majors this season from last year when he was a seldom used backup has been incredible. The sophomore works his butt off, has a really nice touch around the rim, and is a great mid-range shooter.
Forward Connor Green ’16 (Amherst)
Green has OWNED the Polar Bears over the past two seasons. In four games against Bowdoin, he averaged 24.0 ppg. That includes a clunker in the NESCAC semifinals last year when he had just seven points on 3-14 shooting. That didn’t matter though as Amherst won that game easily 76-56. In the other three games, Green has been sizzling hot from deep, going 19-36 (52.8 percent) on what have been very high difficulty shots. On Saturday, Green finished with 29 points, four rebounds, three assists and no turnovers. His big performance helped Amherst overcome subpar games from Jayde Dawson ’18 and Jeff Racy ’17. I have no idea how Green is going to play next weekend: he could either shoot Amherst out of the tournament or carry them to a NESCAC title. Regardless, I think that Saturday reminded us that he is still Amherst’s best scorer, and it clinched Green’s spot on the All-NESCAC First Team.
Tufts’ Offensive Balance
It is no secret that the Jumbos work their offense through Tom Palleschi ’17, but the junior center is not capable of being the scoring threat that some of the perimeter scorers in the league can be. The offense for Tufts works because all five starters are capable of creating their own shot. And even though Palleschi doesn’t shoot threes very often, he is shooting 45.5 percent from three this season. That means that every Tufts starter is also capable of hitting the three. That puts a lot of strain on a defense. On Saturday, four of the five Jumbo starters were in double figures (the other, Ryan Spadaford ’16, had 8 points), and each of them made a three pointer to boot. The downside for Tufts is that their bench has become somewhat of a non-factor down the stretch. That starting five will have to carry them next weekend.
What a weird season for Wesleyan. They were great against an admittedly soft non-conference schedule to rip off an 11-game winning streak heading into the conference season. Then they started 1-3 in NESCAC before winning their next five games (all vs. NESCAC teams) at home. Would it surprise you if I told you the Cardinals losses in their final three games were all on the road? Wesleyan was #7 in the last regional rankings, and it’s extremely unlikely they get an at-large bid.
On Saturday the fight that Wesleyan possesses was clear even though they fell short. They got a big performance from Harry Rafferty ’17 to come back in the second half. The game looked to be over with just over a minute left and Middlebury holding a nine-point lead. Then BJ Davis ’16 and Jack Mackey ’16 hit two absolutely ridiculous threes to pull the lead back to five points. However, that was as close as Wesleyan would get. The season didn’t go quite as planned for the defending champions, but you have to admit that they went down fighting.
Some fans of the Ephs have been bemoaning the combined inability of Williams to get assists and not turn the ball over for much of the season. And I haven’t bought into those complaints until Saturday. In the second half, there was a stretch when Williams seemed to be turning the ball over on every possession. And when they didn’t, they weren’t able to generate any good shots. The Ephs finished the game with 15 turnovers and 10 assists. For the season, Williams finished last in the NESCAC averaging as a team 13.4 apg. The offense that Coach Kevin App runs is one predicated on constant cutting and screening, but it wasn’t great at creating good looks inside. The Ephs instead took a lot of threes, the second most in the NESCAC. The return of PG Mike Greenman ’17 from injury next season will do this offense a lot of good.
Expectations for Colby were high entering the season. The six Colby seniors were all good NESCAC players, and Chris Hudnut ’16 is one of the five best players in the league when healthy. On the other hand, all this class has to show on a NESCAC level is four consecutive eighth place finishes and subsequent first round exits. A bunch of factors held the Mules back the last two seasons, and there is no denying that Colby was a good team this year capable of knocking off anybody. On the other hand, the Mules failed to ever really deliver on their promise as a team. Now that this group of seniors is graduating, the Mules are going to be in deep trouble next season.
The game against Trinity was a microcosm of that promise. They were in control for much of the game, leading by as many as 12 points. Ultimately, the Bantams came back and enforced their will in the second half. Colby was bothered by the defensive intensity of Trinity, and on the other end they forced just one turnover from the Bantams in the half. What doomed the Mules was that Trinity went back to what works for them: being physical and getting inside. In the first half Trinity shot zero free throws (neither did Colby which is somewhat incredible). However, in the second half the Bantams got to the line 20 times and made 16 of them.
The last Cardinals victory over Middlebury came on Jan. 15, 2005. That’s 13 meetings, and one other NESCAC quarterfinal. Last season’s loss to the Panthers seemed to galvanize Wesleyan on their eventual championship run. This season’s game was a huge upset to start the season, as Wesleyan was expected to be near the top of the heap and Middlebury looked like a rebuilding project. Almost two months later, it’s hard not to see the Panthers as the favorite in this game. Playing at home is nice, a new frontcourt threat has emerged (more on that later), and Wesleyan is coming off of a shocking weekend where they dropped a pair of contests to Colby and Bowdoin. Will the Cards turn the tide today? It won’t be easy.
Last time they played: Middlebury 86 – Wesleyan 76, Jan. 8 at Wesleyan
It was a disastrous start for Middlebury. The Cardinals went up 14-2 in less than five minutes. Moments later, Middlebury coach Jeff Brown swapped out a few starters for his trio of freshmen, and the game completely changed. Eric McCord ’16, Zach Baines ’16 and Hilal Dahleh ’16 stopped the bleeding and helped the Panthers clamp down defensively. When McCord subbed out six minutes later it was a 20-14 Wesleyan lead, and later back-to-back Dahleh treys tied the game at 30-apiece. The second half was a battle, but a Middlebury onslaught to the tune of a 16-5 run in the final 3:25 proved to be the difference. In the end, Matt St. Amour ’16 was the Panthers’ top scorer, which is par for the course, but the 30 points received from McCord and Dahleh absolutely changed the game. On the flip side, 17 bench points from Joe Edmonds ’16 kept Wesleyan in the game, which leads to …
Wesleyan X-factor: G Joe Edmonds
Edmonds and guard Harry Rafferty ’17 have had to adjust to slightly reduced roles this season. In 2014-15, six Cardinals played over 22.0 mpg, Edmonds and Rafferty included, and that duo started more games than not. The Cardinals have a lot more depth this season, and Rafferty and Edmonds have had to work off of the bench for the most part. Edmonds hasn’t had a great, high-volume shooting night since that evening against Middlebury. He has tallied 10, 11, 10 and 11 again in a handful of games, but otherwise has only taken a few shots and been held to single digits. The Cardinals are going to get plenty of points from guards BJ Davis ’16 and Jack Mackey ’16, but can Edmonds step up and chip in double digits off the bench while stretching the floor? A year ago, that was a no-brainer. Now, the answer is up in the air. Edmonds posted a 41.1 percent mark from behind the arc a year ago; he’s at 30.1 percent this season. Which Edmonds shows up today?
Middlebury X-factor: C Matt Daley ’16
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Daley might be the most gifted big man in the NESCAC. He just can’t stay healthy, through no fault of his own. He’s had so many issues this season – a soft tissue strain in his groin, a foot injury, concussion symptoms, and plain old illness that kept him out last weekend. So he never turned into the 20-10 guy that pundits believed he could be. He’s still a force when he’s in there. Daley is currently sixth in the NESCAC in field goal percentage, and the defensive end/rebounding is where he really shines. The big man rips down 7.8 boards per game in under 22.0 mpg. Imagine if he was actually healthy for all of those minutes, too, not nursing injury after injury. For what it’s worth, Daley ranks 13th in the NESCAC in points per 40 minutes, which is a testament to his importance when in the game. Wesleyan has two big guys who are athletic scoring threats in Joseph Kuo ’17 and Rashid Epps ’16 and Daley will be needed in order to stifle that pair.
1. How will Wesleyan shoot the ball from behind the arc?
If you’ve been reading along all year, you know that I’ve been fixated on the Cardinals (in)ability to shoot the three. They’re stacked with guys with great pedigrees who have underperformed in that regard this season. Wesleyan has taken the fifth-most three point attempts in the NESCAC, but is only making 32.3 percent of them (10th in the NESCAC). There was one hilariously bad four-game stretch against Amherst twice, Trinity and Tufts when Wesleyan shot 12-80 (15 percent) from deep. They went 8-22 (36.4 percent) in the last game against Middlebury. But of course, sports is a “What have you done for me lately?” business. Still, the recent returns aren’t much better. The Cards have upped the frequency with which they’re shooting treys recently, but not making any more of them. They are 22-81 (27.2 percent) over the last three contests. Will they be able to get open threes and make them today? Maybe, but Middlebury has a lot of length on the defensive perimeter. Jack Daly ’18 will give some trouble to Davis and Mackey, as well the super-long Zach Baines ’19.
2. Who wins the frontcourt battle?
Kuo and Epps vs. Daley and Adisa Majors ’18. The Wesleyan frontcourt is skilled brings a combination of size and speed. For Middlebury, Daley has the speed and length, while Majors has the brute strength. It’s an interesting match up, because I don’t know who has the advantage. Is it the pair of well-rounded forwards? Or can Daley and Majors work together to play as one shot-rejecting, block-defending, rim-protecting super-basketball-hero? Also in the mix are Wesleyan’s Nathan Krill ’18 – high motor, good length, and a work horse – and Connor Huff ’16 – high basketball IQ, and a good shotmaker. Lastly, Middlebury’s Zach Baines is sometimes employed as a stretch-4 type. That could be extremely problematic for Wesleyan, because Epps isn’t going to be quick enough to stop him on the perimeter.
3. Can someone other than Matt St. Amour put the ball in the hoop for Middlebury?
St. Amour has been a marked man since he started the conference season so strongly, and there hasn’t been a consistent second scorer for the Panthers. Sometimes it has been Daley, recently it’s been Majors, and a few times it’s been Baines or point guard Jake Brown ’17. My worry is that everyone will look to defer too much and no one will get the job done. Baines (7.1 ppg) has never played in a NESCAC playoff game, neither has Jack Daly (7.1 ppg) or Majors (6.9 ppg). If Daley can stay on the court for 25 minutes, I think he’s going to get a lot of usage and some big buckets, and subsequently Majors might see a few less minutes, but in those minutes he should be effective as well. On the perimeter, you’re not going to get one guy scoring a lot of buckets alongside MSA. Coach Brown likes to throw everyone in in the first half and feel out the flow of the game, so Hilal Dahleh or Bryan Jones ’17 are among those who could make a surprise impact with a couple of big shots early.
What to Expect
A lot of points. It might be a bit under the radar, but Wesleyan actually has the best field goal percentage defense in the league (38.1 percent) and the third-best points per game average defensively (68.1 percent), and still the Panthers ran up 86 points in their last meeting. Especially with Middlebury playing at home, Coach Brown is going to instruct his nephew, the younger Brown, to push the pace and get Wesleyan running. Tiring out the Cardinals’ high-usage starters, i.e. Davis and Mackey, is the key to testing out that depth. The Cardinals have won plenty of high-scoring games this year, though, so it won’t be easy to run them out of the gym. I think that Wesleyan will try to beat up on Matt Daley whenever he gets the ball down low and neutralize that second scoring threat that I just talked about above, forcing the Panthers to find someone else to score the ball. And, of course, both teams will lock onto the opposing superstar: Middlebury on BJ Davis and Wesleyan on Matt St. Amour. The Panthers are usually a switching team around the perimeter, but expect Jack Daly to man up with Davis to start. On the opposite end, my guess is that youngster Kevin O’Brien ’19 is tasked with covering St. Amour. I think the height advantage that St. Amour would have over Davis or Mackey would lead to a lot of easy buckets. That means that Edmonds will also be called on to cover St. Amour off of the bench.
It’s the No. 4-No. 5 game, so it should be a close one. I, of course, have somewhat of a vested interest here, so I apologize if my prediction waxes a little fanatical.
One of the late games this weekend matches up Tufts with Williams, two teams that played just last Friday. This is the first game for the Jumbos since then, while Williams had the chance to play a tune-up game in which they trounced Bates by 20 points. Williams comes in at 5-5 in conference play making them the No. 6 seed. Williams has been perfectly average this season. They’ve lost to every team ranked higher than them and beat every team ranked lower than them. Tufts’ 7-3 record varies slightly from this pattern, but it’s still somewhat accurate. The Jumbos beat every team ranked sixth or lower as well as Amherst, but lost to Trinity, Middlebury and Wesleyan, the first, fourth, and fifth seeds.
These two were separated by a margin of just four points when they played each other, so this should be a good one. Tom Palleschi ’17 has been hot for the Jumbos of late, averaging 21.6 ppg in his last six games, and he looks to continue that streak into the NESCAC tournament tomorrow. For the Ephs, Dan Aronowitz ’17 shook off a tough three game stretch and put together three outstanding games to round out league play, averaging 23.3 ppg against Conn College, Tufts and Williams.
Last time they played: Tufts 77 – Williams 73
When Tufts and Williams matched up just a week ago in Williamstown, the ability to protect the rock was the difference in the game. Tufts turned the ball over just four times last Friday, three of which came in the first half. Williams, on the other hand, committed 15 turnovers. Quite simply put, the lack of ball control Williams demonstrated lost them the game. Tufts didn’t shoot the ball very well from the perimeter (7-24 3PT) and got to the line 10 less times than their average of 26 free throw attempts per game. They were able to pull out a close victory, in large part due to the contributions of tri-captain Stephen Haladyna ’16. On 8-17 shooting from the field and 3-6 from deep, Haladyna matched Williams’ best scorer Aronowitz bucket-for-bucket on the way to his season-high 22 points. On a night where Vinny Pace ’18, Tarik Smith ’17, and Ryan Spadaford ’16 shot the ball pretty poorly, Haladyna’s leadership propelled the Jumbos to victory. Tufts Coach Bob Sheldon said, “Stephen has been due for a breakout game. Our team has done this all year: if one or two guys aren’t playing well, somebody else steps up.”
The other big duel of the game was between Tufts center Tom Palleschi and Williams guard Cole Teal ’18, both of whom dropped 17 points, but in very different ways. The Williams offense is centered on tons of on- and off-ball screens with the goal of creating chaos for opposing defenses, which leads to open shooters. Teal was able to get free beyond the arc and light up the scoreboard on five separate occasions, providing the Ephs with a huge boost. Meanwhile, Palleschi did most of his damage in the paint. He was able to rack up 14 points from field and another three from the free throw line, but Ed Flynn ’16 did not make it easy for him. Flynn is couple inches taller than Palleschi, something the Tufts big man does not usually see, and maybe this had something to do with his 7-16 shooting performance. Palleschi missed SEVEN lefty hooks in this game, a shot that he usually makes look easy.
When I asked Williams Coach Kevin App about Palleschi’s performance, he noted, “We held Palleschi to 17 points on 16 shots, that’s about a point per shot.” Williams is going to take that 10 times out of 10. Palleschi is a force inside, and holding him to under 50 percent from the field on almost all layups/hook shots is pretty good. The way Williams packed in the paint worked pretty well defensively, as it forced Tufts to kick the ball out and beat Williams from the perimeter, a strategy which would have been successful if Tufts hadn’t scored 12 more points off of turnovers than Williams did. I expect Williams to protect the ball better tomorrow, but I also expect Tufts to shoot better from the outside, so this will be another great matchup between the two squads.
Tufts X-Factor: Guard Ryan Spadaford ’16
Overall this season, Spadaford is the third highest scorer and rebounder on the Jumbos roster, but when Tufts traveled to Williamstown last weekend Spadaford did not play well. He shot just 2-9 from the field and shot 0-6 from behind the arc. Missing good shots early, Tufts’ “shooter” clearly became frustrated as the game went on, made evident by a few forced shots. However, last weekend’s game is EXACTLY why I think that Spadaford is going to come out hot on when his team hosts the Ephs in Medford. As one of three captains leading Tufts, Spadaford is not going to let his team get upset at home due to his playing poorly. Just two weeks ago, after a poor game against Trinity in which Spadaford shot 0-4 from three and scored just two points from the field, he bounced back against Amherst and rained down 3-5 from deep. Expect Spadaford to put up a lot of shots: this streaky shooter has shown that he can be pretty deadly when he gets the crowd behind him at home.
Williams X-Factor: Bobby Casey ’19
Bobby Casey, like Spadaford, did not play particularly well last weekend. Casey also shot 2-9 from the field, and he added four turnovers to round out a subpar performance. However, Casey, also like Spadaford, showed that he has the ability to bounce back from poor performances. Just two days after the loss to Tufts, Casey dropped 16 points on 5-6 from the field and 4-4 from three-point land! Casey is young, and Tufts defense forced more mistakes out of him than any other NESCAC team has, but he has also demonstrated his ability to step up in big games. Against Amherst, Casey scored 13 points and didn’t turnover the ball once while dishing out three assists. When Williams faced Trinity just two days later, Casey dropped a season-high 17 points while recording two assists and just one turnover. The Ephs are going to need help from their role players, especially now that the Jumbos have had a chance to figure out a little more about Teal and Aronowitz. I think Casey is going to find some room to work, and this time, he’s going to take advantage of those opportunities.
1. Can Williams contain Tom Palleschi again?
As Coach Sheldon said, “Tom had 17 points, seven rebounds, and three blocks, and we’re not happy with his game.” That statement sums things up right pretty perfectly. Palleschi can play a lot better. I don’t see Tufts going 7-24 from outside again, so the Williams guards are not going to be able to sink into the paint to help out on Palleschi nearly as much. Frankly, I think Palleschi is going to have a mammoth of a game tomorrow.
2. Can Tufts force Cole Teal off the three-point line?
Obviously, Tufts is going to be locked in on Teal, but I’m sure they were when they faced off in Williamstown too. Teal showed off his elusiveness by ducking around option screens all over the place last weekend, and Tufts had a hard time communicating on those screens, leading to Teal sinking five threes-pointers. Basically, the answer to this question relies on a couple things: 1.) The ability of Tufts to switch more fluidly off of screens – when there is seamless switching and Teal is forced to attack the hoop, he is not nearly as effective. 2.) The ability of other guards to put the ball in the basket – obviously Aronowitz is going to get his points, but if guys like Bobby Casey, James Heskett ’19, Chris Galvin ’18 and Kyle Scadlock ’19 can score the ball efficiently, Teal will find himself open, too.
3. Will Tufts dominate the turnover battle again?
Like I noted above, Williams turned the ball over 15 times last weekend …Tufts turned it over just four times. Tufts scored 15 points off turnovers while Williams scored just three. For Williams to win this game, they NEED to take care of the basketball. It’s unlikely that the Jumbos will take care of the ball as well as they did last time, but limiting wasted possessions is vital for Coach App’s squad. Williams is a young team, but they are going to need to play wiser than their years if they are going to pull off the upset.
What to Expect
It’s no secret that Williams has a very hard test ahead of them. Tufts is a much more experienced team with some really tough players to guard in Palleschi, Pace, and Smith. Spadaford and Haladyna have shown their ability to step up to the challenge in must-win situations, and the Williams young guns like Scadlock, Casey and Heskett are going to be tested in their first NESCAC Tournament action. Aronowitz has been here before, but not as the go-to-guy, so this playoff game is going to be a bit different for him as well.
Not to be overlooked is how loud the Tufts crowd is going to be: the #6 Tufts women’s team plays before the men’s game, and if the Lady Bo’s get the crowd going with a big win (as they are favored heavily to do), Cousens Gymnasium could be a raucous arena come 4:00 pm on Saturday. The key for Williams is to come out hot to quiet the student section. If they can get on top early, then the crowd will play a minimal role in this one. Spadaford is known to be a guy who feeds off the energy of the fans, and since his shooting is going to be such a big factor in this one, Williams can’t sleepwalk their way through the first few minutes.
I think that Tufts is simply a better team than Williams, especially at home. The game last weekend could easily have been a blowout if any number of guys on Tufts hits the open shots they normally hit. I don’t think turnovers are going to play as big a factor in this one, but I do think Tufts is going to shoot the ball much more efficiently, especially Palleschi. If this one goes the way I think it will, Tufts will pull away at the end.
Trinity comes into Saturday’s matchup undefeated in February, winning all four of their conference games by 10 or more points, while Colby is coming off a three-game winning streak. Despite being the top seed, this by no means will be an easy win for Trinity. This is a rematch from last year’s quarterfinal, which proved to be a challenge for Trinity as they scraped by with a 66-63 victory.
Last time they played: Trinity 62 – Colby 60
Colby hosted Trinity on January 22, when they blundered and handed the Bantams their 13th win in a 62-60 final. This came one night after the Mules upset No. 16 Amherst 66-64. This game stayed nick and tuck all the way through, the lead trading nearly 20 times. Trinity’s Shay Ajayi ’16 and Ed Ogundeko ’17 each earned a double-double accounting for 24 points and 21 rebounds. Colby’s Sam Willson ’16 and Patrick Stewart ’16 each had 17 points and five boards. The Mules were outrebounded by a margin of 39-33; this is a result of Colby’s lack of size, which also led to Trinity’s four blocks and Colby’s one. Colby did have some points to build on, as they were efficient with turnovers and personal fouls, turning it over eight times to Trinity’s 12 TO’s and registering 10 fouls as opposed to Trinity’s 15. Off the bench, Eric Gendron ’18 got hot, scoring 16 points on 50 percent shooting. Chris Turnbull ’17 also racked up 25 minutes, five boards and six points coming off the bench, which speaks to the depth of Trinity, whose bench contributed 83 minutes to Colby’s 63 minutes. Colby has some scorers, particularly in Chris Hudnut ’16, Ryan Jann ’16 and Stewart, but Jann was virtually nonexistent in this game, going 0-7 from the field, cracking his goose egg from the free throw line with 1:41 left to go in the game. While giving credit to the Bantam defense, this was a fluke performance from Jann, and he will certainly have a bigger impact on Saturday.
Trinity X-factor: Power Forward Shay Ajayi ’16
Earning a double-double in the past two matchups against Colby, Ajayi led his team to two important victories, the more important of the two coming 364 days ago in the quarterfinal at Trinity. He is one of Trinity’s senior leaders, and knows better than anyone how to perform in this situation. Besides feeling comfortable with the home-court advantage and success against Colby, Ajayi comes into this game with the hot hand shooting 57 percent from the field in February, breaking his season high in points twice; first with 26 points against Tufts, then with 29 points against Hamilton. Expect him to haul in a ton of boards and be effective from the field as the Bantams look to roll through to the semifinal.
Colby X-factor: Center Chris Hudnut ’16
Hudnut played tattered for their meeting in January, so his presence was undermined coming off the bench and accounting for eight points in 13 minutes. At 6’8″, he has the ability to rebound the ball, and is coming off a double-double against Wesleyan where he scored 19 points and had 15 rebounds. Hudnut was not on the playoff roster last year, but he has been an essential piece to the puzzle throughout his career. A healthy Hudnut may have spoiled the Bantams from attaining another #1 seed this season, but that is neither here nor there. With Hudnut in the lineup Saturday, this game becomes a lot closer and screams upset. He will help patch up the Mules hole of rebounding margin, while adding a serious offensive threat as he is 7th in the league in scoring.
Can Ed Ogundeko shut down Chris Hudnut ?
Chris Hudnut can shoot the basketball, and he is crafty and smooth down low with a nice hook. Hudnut, playing hurt, scored eight points in just 13 minutes in their last meeting. Ogundeko will compete with Hudnut, who is bound to make some magic happen. On his home floor, Ogundeko will challenge him with his brute strength and athletic ability. If Hudnut gets a ton of buckets, Ogundeko will make up for it on the boards. It will be a real battle down low on Saturday and expect Ogundeko to rise to the occasion. Ogundeko is at the top of his game right now, while Hudnut is coming off an injury.
Who will show up? Colby’s shooters or Trinity’s defense?
Colby ranks first in the NESCAC in field goal percentage and third in scoring offense, boasting three of the league’s top 17 scorers. Of the starting five, each has gotten hot in the past three games scoring at least 19 points. While this is all important in winning a basketball game, they are taking on Trinity who has the best defense in the league. They rank second in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense and first in rebounding margin. I’ll say it time and time again, DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS. The Bantams depth will keep fresher legs in the game, and the defense will be breathing down Colby’s neck the whole game.
How will Trinity match Colby’s offense?
Colby’s offense clearly has a lot of threats, and if they do show up Saturday, Trinity will need to put up some points of their own. Trinity’s defense will surely limit Colby’s scoring, and they will be looking for offensive support from Jaquann Starks ’16 and Eric Gendron. Ajayi and Ogundeko will need to make their contributions as well. With the help of a healthy Chris Hudnut, it will be that much harder for the Bantams to get points in the paint.
What to Expect
Expect a battle. These two teams have met twice in the past year, and both games have been nail biters. Trinity has gotten the upper-hand each time, but the game changes when you add a healthy, beast of a center. Both teams are going to look really good, and Colby will look more like a top tier team than an eighth-seeded team. With Hudnut filling the center position, it will take away from the effectiveness of Ogundeko, who has been a substantial player all season. Hudnut has the potential to bully Ogundeko with his height, but don’t be surprised if Ogundeko pushes right back.
Trinity held Colby to a 36.4 percent field goal percentage, a far cry from Colby’s 46.8 percentage on the season. With Jann being ice cold in that game and Hudnut banged up, it will be a different Mules team that comes into Hartford on Saturday. Trinity was fortunate to beat Colby in NESCAC play this season, so they will need to be in top form to move on to the semifinal. Stewart will do his best to get in Trinity’s way as he is the best three point shooter in the ‘CAC. Trinity will be ready to fire back with the third- and fourth-best three point shooters in the league, by percentage, in point guard Andrew Hurd ’16 and Gendron.
Trinity coach James Cosgrove and Colby coach Damien Strahorn will have an amplified role in this game as it will likely be tight to the finish. Adjustments are going to be huge, especially for the Bantams who will be facing a much different Colby team than they saw in January. Though Colby flaunts a starting lineup of all seniors, they don’t have near the playoff experience that Trinity has.
Colby might get off to an early lead with Trinity making a push going into the half. The second half will be a back and forth battle that the Bantams get the best of.
#2 Amherst will face #7 Bowdoin in a NESCAC quarterfinal matchup, this Saturday at 4:00 in Amherst. Bowdoin has some momentum, beating Bates, Wesleyan, and Conn College by no less than seven points each in the last two weeks. Amherst has the best overall record of any NESCAC team, and they have gone 6-1 in their last seven games. Their only loss in that span was a 84-73 showing against a strong Tufts team that beat Bowdoin 102-69 earlier in the year.
Last time they played:
January 22: Amherst 92 over Bowdoin 78 (2014-15 matchups: Amherst won regular season matchup 81 – 66 and in NESCAC semifinals 76 – 56)
Bowdoin was up by 11 at the half in that game, but Amherst exploded for 56 in the second to come all the way back. Lucas Hausman ’16 did his usual work with 32 points on the day, but 20 of those came in the first half. After him, only freshman Jack Simonds ’19 managed double digits for the Bears. Amherst outshot Bowdoin from behind the arc, 43% – 25% (12-28, 7-28), and Amherst senior Connor Green ’16 had his second highest scoring game of the year at the time, with 27 points. Amherst destroyed Bowdoin on the boards, outrebounding the Polar Bears 44-28. The second half was a completely one-sided affair where Amherst really flexed their muscles.
Bowdoin X-Factor: Forward Jack Simonds ’19
To take this quarterfinal matchup, Bowdoin needs Hausman to do what he does nearly every night, but just that won’t be enough. Simonds, the freshman forward, and reigning NESCAC player of the week, needs to be feeling it, and early, for Bowdoin to have a chance Saturday. He tallied 16 points against Amherst earlier in the year, and if he keeps his hot streak going and puts up a gaudy total, he’ll give Bowdoin a real chance. For the week, Simonds averaged 23.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, shot a pretty 50.0% (25-50) from the floor, and managed 88.8% (16-18) on his free throws. Simonds is a mismatch for anyone because of his ability to drive past bigger players and bully smaller players in the post. Amherst does have the bodies to slow him down, however. Connor Green ’16 could end up guarding Simonds in a fun matchup between senior and freshman.
Amherst X-Factor: Small Forward Jeff Racy ’17
It is no secret that junior small forward Jeff Racy ’16 is lethal from behind the arc, making his threes at a 51% clip on the year, and he’s been on fire the last two games, going 10/12 from three. If he gets in a groove on Saturday, Bowdoin will be in trouble. The Polar Bears allowed the most made threes of any team during NESCAC games, and that plays right into the hands of Amherst. Stopping Racy begins with limiting penetration from Jayde Dawson ’18 on pick and rolls. Bowdoin struggles when they have to scramble and rotate on defense. Racy was 5-9 from distance and finished with 17 points the first time that these two met.
Can Bowdoin get 15+ points out of three players?
Even if Simonds and Hausman play at the top of their game, it may not be enough for the Polar Bears. Bowdoin cannot expect to get 35 out of both of them, so someone will have to come up big, considering Amherst has put up 92, 81, and 76 in their last three contests against Bowdoin. Taking into account the loss of graduated defensive stalwart John Swords ’15, that 92 spot in this year’s matchup looks even more daunting. Even beyond Hausman and Simonds, the Bowdoin starters are plenty capable of helping out on offense: Neil Fuller ’17, Jake Donnelly ’16, and Matt Palecki ’16 have all had double-digit point tallies this year, and they’ve all done it against NESCAC foes. Palecki would be the most likely candidate, but if any of these three can add 15+, Bowdoin will have a real chance.
Will Amherst make their free throws?
It may not be a sexy stat, but Bowdoin’s defense fouls less than Amherst’s, and more importantly, Amherst is shooting just 68 percent from the line this year, against Bowdoin’s 77 percent. If Bowdoin wins, they aren’t going to blow Amherst out, and the Bears could very well end up needing those points this weekend. Of Amherst’s top four scorers, only sophomore Jayde Dawson ’18 makes more than 70% of his free throws. Bowdoin shouldn’t be worried about getting burned by playing aggressive defense against this Amherst squad.
Which Connor Green will show up?
In his last Bowdoin game, Green put up 27. In the two games against Bowdoin last season, Green had 7 points (in the NESCAC semifinal), and 33 points. With his season average of 14.6 ppg, Green is a far less consistent offensive threat than Bowdoin’s Hausman, but he’s more than capable of having a monster game. His season high is 39, and he racked up 28 in Amherst’s most recent loss to Tufts. Amherst spreads the ball around, and Bowdoin will not be able to shut down all four of Amherst’s 10 PPG starters. If Green has yet another huge performance against this Bowdoin squad, Amherst will be hard pressed to lose.
What to expect
The numbers are stacked against Bowdoin. The last three matchups between these rivals have been one sided, with Amherst winning those three games by an average of over 16 points. Amherst is a well-rounded team; they share the ball exceptionally well, with 4 out of their 5 starters averaging more than 12 PPG, and leading scorer Connor Green sits at 14.6 PPG. Bowdoin will have to limit breakout performances in order to slow the Amherst offense. Bowdoin faces an uphill battle on the defensive side of the ball too, with Amherst’s defense only giving up 69 PPG compared to Bowdoin’s 77 PPG. Bowdoin’s offense will have to click, and early, in order to have a chance. If Bowdoin can hang with Amherst, this game is going to be a shootout.
Amherst’s two conference losses both came on the road, and they are a handful in the friendly confines of Lefrak gymnasium. Their big play ability will help get what should be a big crowd into the game. Bowdoin is an obviously talented team, but this just isn’t a good matchup for the Polar Bears. The size and speed of Amherst will be too much.
Some say that the playoffs are all about momentum. Who’s hot, who’s not? We can all think of teams that have ridden late season hot streaks to championships, but just as often (maybe more often) the Cinderella story meets a brick wall come playoff time. Well, if you are a believer in playoff momentum, then this is the article for you. Who’s playing their best basketball right now, and which lower seed could make some noise?
1. No. 16 Amherst (20-4, 8-2, Last week: 1)
Amherst rebounded nicely from last week’s loss to the Tufts Jumbos. The top spot was a clear two-horse race between Amherst and Trinity, and Amherst was just more consistent this weekend. They pretty easily handled Middlebury, keeping the Panthers at an arm’s length all day long, and basically did the same to Hamilton the following day. Meanwhile, the Bantams let the Conts hang around into overtime. Amherst just looks to be playing all-around good basketball right now. Their problem all year long has been inconsistency from one starter or another, but everyone played well this weekend. If the Amherst roster is playing at its best, they won’t be beat.
2. No. 25 Trinity (18-6, 9-1, Last week: 2)
Even though going to OT against Hamilton is one reason why I have the Bantams at No. 2 this week, that challenge did provide them with some much-needed high-pressure experience. On the season, Trinity has won its games by an average of 17.3 points, and only two of those have come by less than 10 points (which doesn’t include their 10-point OT win against Hamilton). I know that this was an Elite Eight team a year ago, but it’s been awhile since they’ve played in a really meaningful, tightly-contested game and pulled out the win. As is often the case in professional sports, a hard-fought win or even a loss can end up paying dividends in the playoffs.
3. No. 19 Tufts (19-5, 7-3, Last week: 5)
The 77-73 win over Williams wasn’t extremely impressive, but a win is a win and the Jumbos took care of business last weekend and during the week against Pine Manor. We know they can play with the best, because they’ve beaten Amherst, but we also know that it’s a flawed team without much depth. They’ve gotten a few big games from Stephen Haladyna ’16 recently, and Ryan Spadaford ’16 had some big games of his own earlier this year. That’s what the Jumbos need more of if they’re going to go deep in the NESCAC tournament, and possibly further. The interesting thing about the win against Williams is that these two will be running it back on Saturday, this time in Medford. The question is whether Williams can make the necessary adjustments.
4. Middlebury (14-10, 6-4, Last week: 3)
It was a tough weekend for Middlebury, but it was equally tough for Wesleyan and Williams. The difference is in the quality of opponents for each team. There’s no shame in losing to two ranked teams in Trinity and Amherst, and even though the Panthers didn’t threaten either team, they were competitive in both games. In fact, I would argue that the play of Adisa Majors ’18 recently (33 points, 14 rebounds this weekend) makes Middlebury more intimidating than ever. Don’t get it wrong, a healthy Matt Daley ’16 in addition to Majors would be best for the Panthers, but his status right now is unknown.
5. Colby (16-8, 4-6, Last week: 8)
Yes, that’s right, the Colby College Mules are No. 5 in this week’s ranks. They’re flying high after winning two games to secure a playoff bid, and they’ve been answering some of my questions about their ability to compete for a NESCAC title. It had flown under the radar, but John Gallego’s ’16 strong play had coincided with some spotty performances from Luke Westman ’16, but Westman has had his best offensive stretch of the season over the last three games, all wins. Secondly, Colby didn’t have to rely on Ryan Jann ’16 alone to score points this weekend to get the wins. Jann filled it up for 19 points against Conn College, but struggled with just five points against Wesleyan. In his stead, Westman, Chris Hudnut ’16 and sniper Pat Stewart ’16 picked up the slack. That all-around attack gives me confidence in the way they are playing. AND, maybe most impressively of all, they actually played pretty good defense last weekend, holding both of their opponents to 73 points or less and winning, something they’d only done one other time this season.
6. Bowdoin (12-10, 4-6, Last week: 10)
Hold up! Blow up the ranks! Colby and Bowdoin? Over Williams and Wesleyan? Yep, that’s right. The Polar Bears are HOT, pulling off the same feat as the Mules. The only difference for me is that Bowdoin used the same formula they have all year, relying on their two-headed monster to will them to victory. Well, the defense is going to have to ramp it up to 11 in the playoffs, and I don’t know if two weapons is enough to get by Amherst (I’m actually pretty certain it’s not). Still, I’m impressed by what they accomplished last weekend, and if they were going to play tomorrow I would take the Polar Bears over the Cardinals – who they just beat – or the Ephs.
7. Williams (15-9, 5-5, Last week: 7)
The best thing I can say about Williams this season is that they’ve been consistently just above average, winning when they should and losing when they should. The Ephs are 5-0 against Colby, Bowdoin, Hamilton, Conn College and Bates, but 0-7 against Wesleyan, Amherst, Trinity, Tufts and Middlebury. Their reliance on youth is holding them back in tight games against good opponents. They’ve had double digit turnovers in every one of their losses to NESCAC teams. How fast can their youngsters grow up? If they’re going to upset Tufts, it better happen by Saturday.
8. Wesleyan (18-6, 5-5, Last week: 4)
Really ugly weekend for the Cards who fell to Colby and Bowdoin. Maybe it was just a matter of the latter two teams having the motivation necessary to pull off the upsets and get into the tournament, but the best teams don’t play down to their competition. The three point shooting, which went through an epic cold spell midway through the year, hasn’t improved too much, which is not good because Wesleyan has taken the fifth-most three pointers this season. The key for me is the contribution that they get off the bench. Harry Rafferty ’17, Nathan Krill ’18 and Joe Edmonds ’16 are all going to get close to 20 minutes on Saturday – if they’re playing well. Wesleyan needs scoring from the two upper classmen and strong defense from Krill to stop down Daley and/or Majors.
9. Hamilton (11-13, 2-8, Last week: 9)
It’s just sad for me to write about the bottom three teams, because I hate to pile the insult onto the injury, but I have to say a few words. More than the two teams below them, Hamilton put up a fight down to the bitter end. A couple of breaks here and there, and those two OT losses and the 12-point loss to Amherst over the past three games could have gone the other way. Kudos to Hamilton for taking it to Trinity, especially, who should never have let themselves get into that situation. As we’ve said before, the Continentals are young and talented. They’ll be much higher on this list come this time next year.
10. Conn College (12-12, 3-7, Last week: 10)
While they might have been putting up more of a fight than the 11th-ranked Bobcats, Conn was still unable to pull out any victories down the stretch. They ended the year on a painful seven-game slide. The three-point loss to Williams probably stings the most because Conn was up by 12 at halftime. The Camels showed real signs of life this year, and early on I thought they could be a surprise contender for a home playoff game. Their first years were really special, Dan Janel ’17 stepped up his game in a big way, and Zuri Pavlin ’17 did what he’s always done, and he was able to defer a bit more with a couple of playmakers finally around him. Conn was not a bad team this year. They just need to learn how to win.
11. Bates (10-14, 2-8, Last week: 11)
I don’t know what happened, and I won’t even speculate. A 2015 Sweet Sixteen team, the Bobcats looked like a completely different team this year, and they crumbled down the stretch. Bates is 2-7 since Jan. 9, with one of those wins coming over the 3-21 Maine-Farmington Beavers (the other came over Hamilton). It’s sad to see the career of Mike Boornazian ’16 and his classmates end this way. We thought Boornazian was a lock for All-NESCAC laurels at the beginning of the year, but with the way the Bobcats season ended, I’m not sure that that’s still the case.
Unlike some other NESCAC sports (*cough* football *cough*), in men’s basketball we see teams regularly battle all the way down to the wire. This season seemed like there were even more close games than usual. In total, six conferences games went to OT this year, twice the number from last season. Many more came down to one or two plays down the stretch. There were so many good ones that I decided to go back and count down the very best. Honestly, some of the games that got left out were great in their own right.
10. January 30: Bowdoin 85 over Colby 82, Brunswick, ME.
This was the best game I saw in person this season, and I feel wrong putting it this low. After all, it did feature the reigning NESCAC Player of the Year Lucas Hausman ’16 going bucket-for-bucket down the stretch with Chris Hudnut ’16, who was unstoppable on this day. Hausman would finish with 35 and Hudnut with 32. The difference was the 20 points the Polar Bears got from point guard Jack Bors ’19. Bowdoin led by as much as nine with 6:13 left in the game, but there wasn’t ever a doubt that Colby was going to make a run late. In overtime Jack Simonds ’19 had the first six points, and Hausman scored the next seven. Colby had a chance to tie in the final seconds, but John Gallego’s ’16 shot was no good. That this game is so low tells you a lot about how many quality finishes there were.
9. January 23: Colby 64 over Amherst 62, Waterville, ME
Colby entered this game 0-4 in conference while Amherst was 4-0. With that being said, this wasn’t nearly as big an upset as two years ago when a young Colby team shocked an eventual Final Four Amherst team in Waterville. The Team from Central Mass was ice cold, shooting 33.3/26.5/52.9 for the game. Luke Westman ’16 had just two points and fouled out halfway through the second half, but John Gallego ’16 stepped up to score 13 points. The Mules also benefited from Chris Hudnut ’16 playing well while still getting back to full strength and scoring 17 points. A controversial Connor Green ’16 offensive foul call helped to seal the deal for Colby in the final minutes as Gallego hit his free throws. A last second three by Green for the win failed to land, and Colby got their first conference win.
8. February 7: Colby 99 over Hamilton 95, Clinton, NY.
The highest scoring game of the NESCAC season, this was one of many games that went to overtime under weird circumstances. Down four with under 20 seconds left, Chris Hudnut ’16 hit a three to make it a one-point game. Hamilton missed one of two free throws, and Ryan Jann ’16 got fouled on a three point attempt essentially as time expired. He hit the first two but missed the third and the game went to overtime. The Mules controlled the extra period to give themselves new life in the NESCAC playoff race. Patrick Stewart ’16 was dripping from three point land going 6-6 from beyond the arc to lead the way with 22 points. All five Colby starters finished in double figures.
7. January 15: Middlebury 85 over Tufts 82, Middlebury, VT.
At halftime the score was 40-40, and at the end of regulation it was 72-72. The theme of this game was Middlebury’s bench scoring 35 total points. An astonishing nine Panthers scored at least five points, a feat made even more incredible by the fact that the game was close the entire way through. The game went to overtime because of a cold-blooded three by Vincent Pace ’18 coming off a high ball screen. With ten seconds left in overtime and Middlebury up three points, the Jumbos got a great look to tie the game up. The three from Stephen Haladyna ’16 went in and out, and the Panthers got the big home victory.
6. January 10: Trinity 76 over Williams 75, Hartford, CT.
The final game of the first weekend was a dandy with the young Ephs pushing the veteran Bantams all the way to the end. The victory was a coming out party for Ed Ogundeko ’17, who scored a game-high 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. The final 10 seconds were frantic with Shay Ajayi ’16 first putting Trinity up 74-73 on a fast break layup. Then he committed a stupid blunder fouling Cole Teal ’18 70 feet away from the basket. However, Jaquann Starks ’16 raced the other way for a layup to pull out the win for the Bantams. The loss was the first of a few late heartbreaking conference losses for Williams.
5. February 6: Middlebury 67 over Colby 65, Middlebury, VT.
The first half of this one was a smothering defensive performance from the Panthers, and the score was 35-22 Middlebury at halftime. The game really got going at the beginning of the second half when Colby went on a 32-10 run to turn a 15-point deficit into a seven-point lead. Credit has to go to Middlebury for not folding at this point and coming right back with an 11-3 run that made the score 58-57 Middlebury. The rest of the game was neck and neck. After Adisa Majors ’18 tied things up 65-65 with 0:30 left, Colby could have held for the final shot. However, Luke Westman ’16 drove and missed a layup. Jack Daly ’18 leaked out on the rebound for an easy bucket, and that proved to be the final difference.
4. January 30: Amherst 89 over Trinity 82, Hartford, CT.
The game between the top teams in the NESCAC fell on travel weekend with Trinity undefeated at 5-0 and Amherst at 4-1. This game was uptempo and close throughout, but it lacked any real drama. Amherst led the entire second half, and the Bantams never got the lead below five points. The Team from Central Mass was not slowed down at all by Connor Green ’16 having just seven points. Johnny McCarthy ’18 and Jayde Dawson ’18 both scored more than 20 points to pace Amherst. Ultimately, this game was the only conference loss for Trinity, but it didn’t hurt them since Amherst lost on the road to Colby and Tufts, thereby ceding homecourt advantage to the Bantams.
3. January 22: Wesleyan 78 over Tufts 77, Middletown, CT.
Another fantastic finish in this one. The decision by Vincent Pace ’18 to go for the steal with Tufts up two points, five seconds left, and Wesleyan in-bounding the ball with 90 feet to go was a bad one. That sent BJ Davis ’16 to the line where he calmly hit both free throws. In overtime, Joseph Kuo ’17 made a layup with under 30 seconds left to give the Cardinals the win. Kuo, Rashid Epps ’16, and backup big man Nathan Krill ’18 combined for 50 points and 23 rebounds as the size of Wesleyan was too much for the perimeter-heavy Jumbos. Both teams shot terribly from the foul line and committed a ton of turnovers in an ugly contest.
2. January 16: Amherst 88 over Conn College 86, Amherst, MA.
In the moment, the Camels pushing Amherst to the brink seemed like an indication that Conn College was going to make a major run this year. That didn’t happen, but this game was still a lot of fun to watch. Defense was optional in the first half after which Conn College led 49-45. Lee Messier ’18 was 5-5 from the field in that first half to lead the Camels with 13 points. But it was Jayde Dawson ’18 who took over down the stretch with 19 second half points. At the very end of this one, Conn College tried to run an inbounds play designed for David Labossiere ’19 to tap in an alley-oop, but his attempt missed and Amherst escaped on their home floor. This game more than any, between the presumed top team in the NESCAC and a team that went winless in NESCAC play last season, is an indication of how close teams played each other this year.
1. February 5: Wesleyan 66 over Williams 63, Middletown, CT
The number one game didn’t go to overtime, but it was a barn burner nevertheless. Williams and Wesleyan have played some great games over the past two years, and this one was probably the best. In front of a raucus home crowd, it was all BJ Davis down the stretch. In their first meeting this season, Davis had already beaten the Ephs on a runner with less than two seconds remaining. In this game, Davis scored the final 15 (!) points for Wesleyan to turn a 56-51 deficit into the eventual 66-63 Wesleyan win. The combination of the home atmosphere, the recent history of these two rivals (this win gave Wesleyan the Little 3 title), and the quality of the shot made this a clear choice for the top spot. I mean, just watch the video of Davis’ shot and try to tell me there was a better moment than that this year.