Being on break this past weekend, I followed the NESCAC action from afar even as my Middlebury classmates played their final regular season home games in Pepin Gymnasium. What stood out to me over the weekend was the continued separation between the top five and bottom six, and the Cardinals darkened that line with a buzzer-beating win over the sixth-place Ephs. As usual, though, there were close games even between the “elite” and the “also-rans”, but in this case all of big favorites won their games. So, while there is a little bit of variation in the top and bottom tier, there will be no teams crossing that chasm until one of the bottom feeders can emerge as a consistent adversary.
1. No. 19 Amherst (18-4, 6-2, Last week: 1)
Yes, they lost to Tufts, and yes, it wasn’t particularly close, but let’s not overreact. Look, Amherst isn’t a perfect team, and they might slip up here and there, but I still hold them as the favorite as of this posting today. Not to excuse Amherst from that game, but Tufts was at home, and the Jumbos shot 8-20 from three, and in case you forgot, Amherst is leading the world in three-point field goal percentage defense (27.4 percent allowed), so that’s anomalous. What’s more, Jeff Racy ’17 is in an epic slump right now (he was 0-6 from deep against Tufts), and I think that actually bodes well for Amherst going forward for two reasons. Racy’s slump has highlighted the ability of Connor Green ’16, Jayde Dawson ’18 and Johnny McCarthy ’18 to put up big points on any given night. They don’t need one guy to score 20 per game for them to win. Secondly, Racy is going to come back. He might not shoot near 60 percent from beyond the arc as he did early in the season, but he won’t go 0-6 very often, either. This team is still very good. As Adam pointed out though, the rotation continues to shorten, so the lack of bench production from the Purple and White remains a concern.
2. Trinity (16-6, 7-1, Last week: 2)
Two games, two easy wins, and one over the Amherst-slaying Tufts Jumbos in Medford. Even with Ed Ogundeko ’17 hampered, Trinity cleaned up the boards in both games. In stark opposition to Amherst, Trinity can get scoring from everyone up and down the lineup, which, in the end, might be the reason that Trinity prevails in a back-to-back NESCAC Semis and Finals scenario. For now, though, the head-to-head loss to Amherst still speaks loudly, and even though Tufts went on to beat Amherst the night after losing to Trinity, there’s the fact that the Jumbos may have been in panic mode and needing a win over Amherst. Don’t underestimate a team in a must-win situation.
3. Middlebury (14-8, 6-2, Last week: 5)
Spots 3-5 have become so muddled, but I took a glance over the Panthers last eight games and realized that if Andrew Groll ’19 hadn’t canned that short jumper as time expired to beat the Panthers, they’d be a lock for this spot and be 7-1 in conference play. Now, of course, we can’t just ignore that said nail in the coffin happened, that Middlebury has also fallen to Conn. College, that they only beat Colby by two points last Friday at home, and they haven’t yet played Amherst or Trinity. Still, as it stands today, they’re looking pretty good. They seem to have a bit of a fighter’s mentality this season, whereas in years past there was more of a sense that if the star wasn’t playing well or they were down at half, that you could write it off. Not anymore. I don’t have much wealth to wager these days (especially after some sour Super Bowl bets), but I’d put down a few bucks on Middlebury going 1-1 this weekend against the top two teams, which would mean a home playoff game in Pepin Gym.
4. No. 20 Wesleyan (18-4, 5-3, Last week: 3)
As I said in last week’s ranks, things are trending up for the Cardinals, so why did they move down a notch? Simply put, things are so close between Middlebury, Wesleyan and Tufts, and head-to-head scores move the needle ever so slightly. Tack on a nailbiter against Williams, a team that the Cards should beat handily on paper, and Wesleyan drops to No. 4. Still, the contributions of Jack Mackey ’16 and the solid eight-man rotation continue to give me confidence in this team. Their ability to pull out the victory against Williams suggests that they are a mature team, and that’s the difference between them and a green Ephs squadron.
5. No. 25 Tufts (17-5, 6-3, Last week: 4)
The win over Amherst and loss to Trinity sum up to a pretty par for the course weekend. Good for the Jumbos, as a 2-0 performance would mean bye-bye home game, but they were able to stay in the conversation with one win. In the loss to the Bantams, they breakout of Shay Ajayi ’16 is troublesome for Tufts. How was Tom Palleschi ’17, by far the league’s best shot blocker and a tough interior defender, not able to slow down Ajayi? Perhaps the key to beating Palleschi is to give the ball to someone quick who can step away from the basket and shoot jumpers, but how many teams have that guy? Not Amherst, maybe Middlebury if Matt Daley ’16 is making shots from 15-foot jumpers, sort of Wesleyan if Rashid Epps ’16 is going well, but if Joseph Kuo ’17 is in the game them Palleschi is apt to cover the latter, while Kyle Scadlock ’19 or Jack Simonds ’19 might be that guy, but as a whole their teams probably aren’t good enough to beat Tufts. So often in basketball it comes down to matchups, and it just might be that Trinity has the perfect one to exploit what Tufts can do on defense.
6. Williams (14-8, 4-4, Last week: 6)
They continue to solidify that No. 6 spot, even in defeat, as a buzzer beating loss to the Cardinals is nothing to tuck your tail over. They also just squeaked out a win over Conn. College, but the Camels are darn good, in case you hadn’t noticed. The biggest thing holding this team back is youth. Losing Mike Greenman ’17 has been, I think, an unquantifiable loss. He probably wouldn’t have put up massive numbers on the stat sheet, but his presence would have been invaluable, and we might be talking about the “top six” teams instead of the “top five” if he were still playing. As it stands now, two freshmen, Kyle Scadlock and Bobby Casey ’19, are playing starter minutes, while two others fit into the tail end of the rotation, and the rest of the rotation is pretty inexperienced, as well, with the exception of Dan Aronowitz ’17.
7. Conn College (12-10, 3-5, Last week: 9)
Sort of how I did with Middlebury, I look at Conn’s last X number of games and say, I could easily have seen this or that turning out differently and we might really have something here. Of course, you can often say that with any team, but Conn’s play has really stuck out to me. They’re young, they’re inexperienced, and they could easily fade off like most young teams, and yet they just keep competing. And I’m moving them up in the rankings, despite losing five straight games. Those five games – a neck-and-neck two-point loss vs. Tufts; a disappointing 105-89 loss vs. Mitchell College; an eight-point loss to Wesleyan, in Middletown, in which the Cardinals had to go 20-30 from the floor in the second half to win; a comeback attempt fallen short at Western Connecticut; and a lead let slip to Williams, 70-67. As the Camels get a little more mature, they’ll learn how to win those games, and by next season they could be hosting a playoff game.
8. Colby (14-8, 2-6, Last week: 7)
My Mules keep holding on. I shouldn’t call them “my Mules,” because I don’t want to play favorites (other than Middlebury), but I have stubbornly believed that they can turn it on all season long. They almost beat the Panthers, and they just got by the Continentals in the season’s highest-scoring NESCAC game. That’s just who Colby is – a run ‘n’ gun squad that will struggle against the better defenses. The bright side for them is that Chris Hudnut ’16 has been playing consistent minutes which gives them a chance in any game, and Pat Stewart ’16 has, at least for now, surpassed Racy as the best three-point shooter in the NESCAC. What’s more, Stewart isn’t a one-trick pony. As if this offense wasn’t dangerous enough already.
9. Hamilton (11-11, 2-6, Last week: 11)
Things are pretty ugly down here in the bottom trio right now, but none of these teams are quite dead yet. The Conts have a brutal weekend ahead with Trinity and Amherst coming up, but it’s not ridiculous that a 3-7 team could squeak into the playoffs, so they still have plenty to play for, and they showed it last weekend. The 15-point win over Bowdoin was consummate. Hamilton outshot the Polar Bears in every facet, matched them on the boards and only let Bowdoin ahead for the first 3:15 of the contest. The enigma that is Ajani Santos ’16 looked like an old version of himself, only better, with 25 points and seven boards. Unfortunately, the magic wore off in the game against Colby. Santos only played 17 minutes and had four points, but it was the frosh Michael Grassey ’19 bursting onto the scene with 23 bench points. Groll collected a double-double, as well, with 18 points and 10 boards, but Colby just outshot Hamilton in the OT period to pull away. This is another young team gaining valuable experience this season, and getting a playoff game would be huge for their development.
10. Bowdoin (10-10, 2-6, Last week: 8)
The loss to Hamilton really stung this weekend, and the Polar Bears didn’t put up too much of a fight against Middlebury. At this point we have a pretty good grip on what Bowdoin can do. They only go as far as Lucas Hausman ’16 and Jack Simonds ’19. Against Middlebury, that pair combined for 52 of the team’s 69 points. On the season they have scored 51.3 percent of Bowdoin’s points, by far the highest percentage for any duo (Vinny Pace ’18 and Tom Palleschi have tallied 37.6 percent of the Jumbos’ points). That can lead to some exciting games to watch, but it’s not a recipe for success, especially not at this level.
11. Bates (10-13, 2-7)
Bowdoin just creamed the Bobcats last night, but even if that hadn’t happened, Bates would probably still be in this spot. They’ve lost three in a row, seven of eight, and eight of 10. Things have really deteriorated. Bates opened the season with six straight games of 79 or more points, and had a five-game stretch where they scored 73+ four times. In the nine games sense, Bates has scored less than 70 in seven of those games, and the 73-51 loss to Bowdoin last night was probably the team’s low point. All of that is a long way of saying that Bates’ season has been in free fall for awhile. Other teams have figured out how to force Mike Boornazian ’16 into a lot of tough shots, and he’s had some bad shooting nights because of it with no one to pick up the slack. As I said before, none of these teams are dead yet, but it will take a monumental effort and a lot of luck for Bates to sneak into the postseason.