Tufts (17-7, 6-4) @ #15 Hamilton (21-3, 7-3), 3:00 PM, Clinton, NY
It’s finally time for the madness that is the NESCAC tournament. Last season we saw the title game between Middlebury (the #2 seed) and Williams (the #6 seed), which shows that really anything can happen. Only adding to the chaos is the fact that 5 teams tied for first place this season, giving Middlebury a road game in the first round despite being tied for first, and giving Tufts the #6 seed despite being just a single game out of first place. Many people (or just me) have likened the NESCAC tournament to FIFA’s Euro Cup – it is a smaller tournament that only covers one region, yet many people argue that it is more difficult to win the Euro Cup than the FIFA World Cup because the Euro Cup boasts a much deeper pool of teams. I would argue that the same could be said about the NESCAC – the conference consistently has more tournament teams than anyone else, and the conference tournament is certainly deeper top to bottom than the NCAA Division III tournament. As a result, the first round games are just as exciting as the later round games, especially in a season where the teams are so evenly matched. The opening round game between #3 Hamilton and #6 Tufts is one to highlight, as this season has been a bit of a role reversal for both teams:
Hamilton comes into the matchup at #15 in the nation after finishing the season at an outstanding 21-3 mark, including 7-3 in conference play. The Continentals got off to a blistering start, coming out of the gates at 14-0 before suffering a bad loss to the eventual #1 seed Amherst. They dropped games to Bowdoin and Williams as well, placing them in the midst of the 5-way tie. In their first meeting, Hamilton traveled to Medford and handed it to the Jumbos in a 74-57 drubbing in an incredibly ugly shooting game. The star for Hamilton, sophomore Kena Gilmour ’20, had a modest game in the first meeting, netting 10 points on 2-9 shooting, while hauling in 9 boards. As a team, the Continentals lead the NESCAC in points per game (87.4), steals per game (8.8), and turnovers forced per game (18.4). This means that Hamilton will look to run and speed up the game, because the higher the score goes, the better their chances.
The story for Tufts this season has been a bit different. Although they were just a game out of first place, they finished with the #6 seed – their lowest finish since 2013-2014. What’s interesting is that had Tufts not dropped their meeting with Bates, they would have entered into a 6-way tie for first place, which is crazy to think about. Either way, here we are, with this intriguing matchup. In their regular season game with Hamilton, Vincent Pace ’18, the unquestioned star for Tufts, only put up 12 points and 6 rebounds on 3-14 from the field and 1-8 from deep. These numbers are nothing in comparison to his season line of 17.6PPG, 8.3REB/G, 40% FG. The real issue for the Jumbos was that they were outrebounded by Hamilton, 49-38. While Hamilton may have one of the biggest lineups in the league, Tufts has to be better keeping them off the boards if they want to have a chance in this one. Tufts also shot an abysmal 24% from the field, which will likely improve in this contest.
Hamilton X-Factor: F Michael Grassey ’19
The Continental lineup is stacked with scorers, and Grassey is one of them. He has had a very consistent presence all season, averaging 13.7PPG, 6.7REB/G, 50.7% FG, 42.2% 3PT. What sets Grassey apart is that he has the ability to really go off, in addition to being a consistent scoring threat. He has had three 20-plus point performances (27 vs. Conn College, 29 vs. Cazenovia, 24 vs. Utica) and can get REALLY hot from downtown. In those three games combined, he went 16-22 from behind the arc. At 6’4”, 205lbs, he is tall enough to shoot over guards, and his size makes him a prolific rebounder. Hamilton has many weapons, but if Michael Grassey ’19 can put up a big performance, they are nearly impossible to beat.
Tufts X-Factor: duo of C Luke Rogers ’21 and C Patrick Racy ’20
As I mentioned before, Tufts struggled on the rebounding side in their first meeting with Hamilton. Guards Vincent Pace ‘18, KJ Garrett ‘18, and Everett Dayton ‘18 provide the majority of the Jumbos’ rebounding, despite them having two large centers in their rotation. This game for Tufts will be decided by this duo because with Rogers standing at
6’8”, 230lbs and Racy at 6’7”, 215lbs, they are huge presences in the paint. They have similar stat lines – about 5PPG, 4.5REB/G, 45% FG – and each play just under 20 minutes per game. This means that they have a similar effect, so Coach Sheldon has the option of playing them separately to always have one on the court at all times, or they could go big and put them both on the floor to match Hamilton’s size. Either way, I expect these centers to have a much larger impact in this one.
I have to admit, all signs seem to point to Hamilton in this one. They crushed the Jumbos in their first matchup in Medford, and have seemed to play better, consistent basketball this season. This will likely be a high scoring game with the Continentals and Jumbos having the 1st and 3rd highest scoring offenses respectively. Hamilton shoots a much higher percentage from the floor, from three-point land, and from the charity stripe, which obviously gives them a huge edge. I praise the Continentals, but I have a weird feeling about this one. Their lineup is still a bit young and unproven in the postseason, and NESCAC basketball is just really weird. Vincent Pace ’18 is an absolute winner, and has proven himself capable of putting up huge performances, as he displayed in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season when he put up 37 points. Hamilton may be 21-3 and #15 in the nation, but for some reason I’m not completely sold on them so I have to go with my gut feeling here. The #6 seed means nothing to the Jumbos and I believe that Pace and co. have a little bit of tourney magic in them to steal a win from the hands of the Continentals.
Writers Pick: Tufts 86-81