The best team in the NESCAC over the past two seasons has been the Trinity College Bantams. That is really beyond debate too. Since the beginning of the 2014-2015 season, Trinity has gone 16-2 in NESCAC games. The second best record in that time is Amherst with a 12-6 mark. Trinity went further than any other NESCAC team in the NCAA tournament last season, coming within seconds of the Final Four.
These are all things you know, but I feel like the run by the Bantams is still an under-appreciated one; around here, at least, we continue to underestimate this team. We picked them to lose against Tufts on Friday night, and the Bantams have rarely topped our Power Rankings this year.
Trinity is also under-appreciated on a national scale. All of last year Trinity went unranked in the D3Hoops.com Top 25. Only when they made it to Elite Eight did they enter the Final Rankings. Even then, they were ranked just 17th. The Bantams are still not ranked in the Top 25 this season. Amherst, Tufts, and Wesleyan are ranked in the Top 25 this week. Trinity has beaten two of those teams, and is the only team to be above .500 against the other Top 4 NESCAC teams.
I get why the Bantams aren’t ranked: they lose games in the non-conference schedule that they really shouldn’t. This season they have lost five non-conference games, a high number for a supposedly elite team. However, what that analysis misses is that Coach Jim Cosgrove approaches those games as opportunities to get his more inexperienced players valuable playing time.
All that brings me to Friday night when Trinity had their way with Tufts down the stretch. The Jumbos made a second half run to tie the game back up at 58 apiece with exactly 10:00 left on the clock. Over the next four minutes, Cosgrove went unconventional, subbing out four of his starters in favor of bench players. Stalwarts Ed Ogundeko ’17 (playing at less than 100%), Andrew Hurd ’16, and Jaquann Starks ’16 headed to the bench for the likes of Erick Santana ’19 and Langdon Neal ’17.
A lineup with four bench players proceeded to soundly outplay the Jumbos over the next five minutes. With 4:29 left, the game had transformed from a tossup into one essentially over with the score 76-63 in favor of Trinity. The four bench players accounted for 13 of the 18 points scored in this stretch.
I want to pause here and say that Eric Gendron ’18 is a very very good scorer. He has a very good first step to get past his defender, and he has the size to finish at the rim. Not to mention that he can shoot the ball not just on wide open threes but in difficult, off-balance situations. He was the one that really fueled the 18-5 run with nine points all by himself. On a lot of teams Gendron would have a larger role, but he is biding his time while veterans like Ajayi and Ogundeko take center stage.
So to recap, on the road, with home court advantage throughout the NESCAC playoffs still on the table, with the score tied, Cosgrove went with a lineup with just one starter on the court. Rest assured, it was a gamble, one that no other coach in the NESCAC would make. If it didn’t work, I could very easily be writing about how Cosgrove’s refusal to play his core players more minutes is a fatal flaw in this team. But it did work in large part because of how much time Cosgrove has given for those players to develop this season.
Cosgrove is a fiery personality, and he certainly isn’t for everyone. On Saturday, his coaching philosophy was validated in a big way. After Amherst’s loss to Tufts, the Bantams have the inside track on getting the top overall seed.
Forward Shay Ajayi ’16 (Trinity)
It was Tom Palleschi ’17 that won NESCAC Player of the Week Honors this week, but Ajayi impressed me the most this weekend. With Ogundeko unable to start and able to play just 14 minutes because of an injury against Tufts, Ajayi stepped up in a huge way. On one end he was tasked with guarding Palleschi in the post, and on the other he was the main inside presence on offense. Palleschi got his with 25 points, but Ajayi still played alright defense on him and did a great job of keeping the Jumbo off the boards, allowing Palleschi to get just one offensive rebound. Meanwhile, Ajayi was exceptional with 26 points and 16 rebounds. He was the one starter who stayed on the floor during that critical run because of how important he was in that game. As evidenced from him having just eight points the next day against Bates, Ajayi is inconsistent. Still, he was stellar when his team needed him most.
Small Forward Dan Aronowitz ’17 (Williams)
The Ephs found themselves down by eight at halftime to Conn College, and it took a Herculean second half from Aronowitz to bring them to victory. He scored 25 of Williams’ 45 points in the half, including six of the Ephs’ final eight as Williams came back in the final minute to get the much needed victory. The junior plays within the system for Williams, but there is no doubt that the team leader in points and rebounds is the leader of this team. In the same way that Dan Wohl ’15 and Hayden Rooke-Ley ’15 stepped up last season, Aronowitz has been fantastic this season. The Ephs are probably locked into the sixth seed, and the win against Conn College was a big one.
Hamilton played their best game all season on Saturday beating Bowdoin handily 86-71. Ajani Santos ’16 enjoyed his best game of the season by far scoring 25 points. That win got them to 2-6 in the NESCAC. On Sunday, the Continentals led by eight at halftime against Colby, and it looked like Jack Dwyer ’18 had clinched things for Hamilton when he hit a jumper with 15 seconds left to make the score 79-75 for Hamilton. However, Chris Hudnut ’16 hit a three to make a one point game, and right at the buzzer Ryan Jann ’16 was fouled on a three pointer. He made two of the three free throws to send the game to overtime, and the veteran Mules finished things out from there. The loss keeps Hamilton at 2-6, keeping them from getting that critical third win. Now Hamilton has to win on the road at either Trinity or Amherst to have a chance at the playoffs. That won’t be easy.
Bowdoin didn’t show up in the first game this week against Hamilton, and that made their game vs. Middlebury all the more important. The Polar Bears managed to come back from a 13 point deficit, but their inability to pull in rebounds down the stretch killed them. Middlebury scored seven straight points down the stretch after getting offensive rebounds. The crucial play came with 2:45 left in the game and the score 67-67: a mad scramble for the rebound off a missed Zach Baines ’19 layup ended with Jack Daly ’18 getting the ball in the corner and finding a wide open Matt St. Amour ’17 who buried the shot. We have been saying all season that the Polar Bears miss John Swords ’15 on the interior, and there is no doubt that he would have helped against Middlebury as Bowdoin lost the rebounding battle 45-31.
For a team with as talented a roster as the Purple and White, Amherst has become over the course of the season heavily reliant on their starting five. The rotation still goes nine players deep, but Jacob Nabatoff ’17 and Reid Berman ’17 (two starters for much of last year) have become near non-threats with the ball, averaging a combined 4.0 PPG in NESCAC games. Eric Conklin ’17 is as steady as it gets as a backup big man giving about eight points per game, and Michael Riopel ’18 does a ton of things well besides score the ball. Still, this isn’t the monstrous rotation that people expected to wear teams out. We have seen Coach Dave Hixon have very short rotations in the past, and he won a National Championship playing basically six players. For whatever reason, a somewhat similar scenario is playing out this year, despite all of the talent on this team. Amherst got soundly beat on Saturday, and it was disappointing to see them have no extra spark in the second half, unlike the Bantams do.