An Opening Salvo: Weekend Preview Part One

Bobby Casey is willing to go to the end of the earth and back to get Williams a win over hated-rival Amherst. That, and this picture was too good not to include (sorry Bobby). (Courtesy of Williams Athletics).

Remember early in the season when we thought the league might be less chaotic this season? We were wrong. For the first time ever, there are five NESCAC teams in the D3Hoops.com Top 25, with Middlebury (22) and Williams (25) joining Amherst (3), Tufts (8) and Wesleyan (9) after impressive tournament wins coming back from break. And as if that wasn’t complicated enough, Amherst and Wesleyan both lost on Tuesday night, throwing both the NESCAC and national rankings into a state of chaos mirrored only by the American political climate. And to add still ANOTHER layer of intrigue, four of the five ranked teams face each other on Friday night, kicking off what promises to be a spectacular season of league games. Amherst and Williams renew the biggest little rivalry in sports, and Middlebury takes on Wesleyan at home in a game that I think I might just try to attend if I’m not too busy. Oh yeah, and the other teams play too. Let’s break down those two marquee match-ups, and the rest of the games around the league.

GAME OF THE WEEK: #3 Amherst @ #25 Williams, 7:00 PM, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Overview:

Image result for globo gym purple cobras
I’m not saying that Amherst reminds me of the Purple Cobras…but I am saying it and have said it several times in the past on this very blog.

NESCAC’s version of the Average Joes-Globo Gym rivalry returns on Friday night, as Williams and Amherst square off in as important a game as one can hope for in the opening weekend of league play. After opening the season at #1 in the country and looking fairly unstoppable over the first couple weeks, Amherst has dropped two out of their last three. The chief reasons for their sudden mortality are on offense. They turned the ball over 17 times in their loss to Eastern Connecticut on Tuesday, and shot only 36% in a loss to Springfield last week. The depth the people raved about for Amherst early in the season is in disarray. Eric Conklin is the only bench player who has made a difference for Amherst lately, as his minutes have jumped up due to the inconsistent (to be diplomatic) play of starting center David George ‘17. Amherst has too often relied on the volume scoring of Jayde Dawson and the efficiency of Johnny McCarthy to keep them in games.

Williams comes in on almost the exact opposite track. Impressive wins over Hope and Mount Union in the Mount Union Classic vaulted the Ephs into the top 25, and they maintained their position with a (somewhat lackluster) 74-62 win over Oneonta St. on Tuesday. In a departure from the last few years, the Ephs have recently won despite poor showings from three point land. Williams is hovering around 28% in their last three games, and yet they are 3-0. This is due to an excellent team defense, and honestly, the play of sophomore forward Kyle Scadlock. After a slow start to the year, Scadlock has averaged 19 PPG in the last three, bringing to life the star leap that some projected after an impressive freshman year. Shooting struggles aside, Williams has to love the spot they’re in entering league play, and Amherst certainly shouldn’t be thrilled with theirs.

X-Factors

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Coach David Hixon diagramming a play during an Amherst timeout.

For Amherst it has to be pure, elemental anger. Yeah they’ve lost a couple games, but every team will at some point. But to be the pre-season #1 and have to hear idiot pundits like myself and even their own fans cry gloom and doom must royally tick them off. Williams is an excellent team, but this is Amherst basketball we’re talking about here. They were #1 for a reason: they have loads of good players, and they are coached by the legendary David Hixon, who is certainly capable of whipping these guys into shape. A rivalry win in the opening weekend of league play would be a delicious way to remind the league why they were at the top in the first place.

Cole Teal
Cole Teal ’17 (Courtesy of Williams Athletics)

Williams has been winning without three point shooting, but that will get far more difficult to do against elite opponents like Amherst. The Ephs will have trouble getting good looks in the paint against Amherst’s length, meaning that perimeter shots will have to make up the difference. Additionally, Williams does not match up well defensively with Dawson and McCarthy, the backcourt that makes Amherst’s engines run. Therefore, Williams will have to hit some threes to keep pace. This makes Cole Teal ‘17 a major key (shout out: DJ Khaled) to this game, and to the remainder of the season. Teal is capable of insane hot streaks and insane cold streaks, but lately he has been doing far more of the latter. He was quiet in Mt. Union, shooting just 1-5 over the two games, but he bounced back with a nice night against Oneonta, tallying 15 points on 3-5 shooting from deep. Teal will need to be hot against Amherst both to score from the perimeter and open up the middle for Scadlock and Aronowitz.

Final Thoughts

Both teams have struggled to find production at the five this season. Williams has spun their “Random Center” wheel several times this season, but so far none of them have been winners. Meanwhile, David George of Amherst has been like the parents from Stranger Things: there in person, but pretty lackluster and ignores a lot of responsibilities. This should lead to a tight, high scoring game, one that I would tend to favor Williams in, as they’re at home. But Williams has no answer for McCarthy and Dawson, both of whom can swing a game themselves. It’s a toss up at this point, the best possible projection for a rivalry game of this magnitude.

Writer’s Pick: Williams.

#9 Wesleyan @ #22 Middlebury: 7:00 PM, Middlebury, Vermont

Overview:

Image result for breakaway by kelly clarkson
Wesleyan will be trying to finally BREAK AWAY from Middlebury on Friday night.

Middlebury has not lost to Wesleyan since 2004. Let that sink in. The last time Middlebury lost to Wesleyan, Matt St. Amour was 10 years old. The last time Middlebury lost to Wesleyan, the greatest song of all time (and my go-to karaoke song) “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson had just been released. The last time Middlebury lost to Wesleyan, Mel Gibson was still a marketable movie star. That said, Wesleyan looked poised to break that streak until Tuesday night. After starting off 11-0 and beating #4 Marietta, Wesleyan was knocked off pace by Rhode Island College 62-55. The loss to RIC featured many of the problems that have plagued Wesleyan in league play over the last few years, namely a lack of offensive firepower and shot-making down the stretch. Standout guards Harry Rafferty ‘17 and Salim Green ‘19 combined for 2 points on 1-15 shooting, numbers that many experts have referred to as “bad.” Wesleyan will not win if they don’t get production from the perimeter, and Middlebury is arguably the best perimeter defensive team in the league. Additionally, the loss of defensive stopper PJ Reed will hurt Wesleyan’s efforts to slow down the run-and-gun Panther offense.

Middlebury enters league play with momentum, but some depth problems. Sophomore guard Hilal Dahleh remains out with a back injury, and forward Zach Baines ‘17 will likely miss the weekend as well. These are two valuable weapons that the Middlebury offense will dearly miss, particularly from a floor-spacing perspective. However, in the Staten Island Tournament of Heroes (DOPE name for a tournament by the way,) Middlebury weathered those losses and a prolonged shooting slump from Matt St. Amour ‘17 to win the championship and vault into the top 20. They owe their success to a two-game stretch of excellent defense, and the heroics of Jack Daly ‘18, who continued his low-key All-League candidacy with a buzzer beater over #17 Illinois-Wesleyan (as well as 14/7/7.5 averages.) In Staten Island, Middlebury showed the toughness to rise to the top of the loaded NESCAC, but they will need to hit outside shots more conistently to beat the elite Wesleyan defense.

X-Factors:

While Daly and St. Amour were certainly the MVPs of Middlebury’s tournament, it was contributions from the bench that allowed the Panthers to weather tough shooting from the starters. And the stand-out player from the Middlebury bench was freshman forward Matt Folger.

Matt Folger
Matt Folger ’20 (Courtesy of Middlebury Athletics)

Folger is an excellent shooter who had threes in both games of the tournament, but defensively was where he really set himself apart. The lanky forward had four blocks over the two games, including three in the championship. Folger’s combination of size, athleticism and timing make him the interior defensive force that Middlebury has been lacking. He and Nick Tarantino will be crucial in stopping Wesleyan’s post duo of Joseph Kuo ‘17 and Nathan Krill ‘18.

 

Wesleyan’s defense is far from in doubt. They are the number one field goal defense in the country, and boast a perimeter defense that is uniquely able to shut down Middlebury’s three-headed dog of excellent guards. However, Wesleyan simply has to score, and the person most responsible for that is Salim Green ‘19. Green is an exceptional defender, but Middlebury is too deep and fast for Wesleyan to pound the ball and win 55-50. Green will need to score and push the pace if Wesleyan has any hope of ending their 11 year losing streak against the Panthers.

Final Thoughts:

Of all the teams in the league, Middlebury may be the best equipped to handle the indefinite losses of Dahleh and Baines. They have great chemistry and experienced leaders at the helm, as well as a deep bench that is rounding into shape at exactly the right time. But “handling” losses isn’t the same as fixing the holes they create. Middlebury is vulnerable right now, particularly in outside shooting and interior defense. These are the areas that Wesleyan will look to exploit on Friday night. However, Wesleyan has no chance if they shoot anything like the way they did on Tuesday. Someone besides Joseph Kuo needs to put the ball in the basket for the Cardinals, or else their league season will look very different from their first 12 games.

Writer’s Pick: Middlebury

#8 Tufts @ Bowdoin: 7:00 PM, Brunswick, Maine

Of course I hate Tufts, a six fingered man from Tufts killed my father.

I was going to let Rory handle this one, since according to an intrepid commenter I “hate Tufts,” but I think I’ll be able to handle it. I certainly do not hate Tufts, I just left them off the Awards Preview because none of their individual players have stood out yet from a postseason honors standpoint. That could certainly change in league play, particularly as Vincent Pace ‘18 gets healthier and healthier. Pace returned early in the season from a knee injury, and is still rounding himself back into form. When 100% he is certainly one of the best all around players in the league, capable of leading Tufts to a NESCAC title. This opening weekend will be a good test of just how ready he is to take on a heavy minutes load.

Bowdoin, on the other hand, has their star very much ready to go. Jack Simonds ‘19 is leading the league in scoring at 23.3 PPG, and the Polar Bears for the most part rise as far as he can take them. However, on Tuesday night they had a nice win over Bridgewater State despite Simonds having “only” 17. Sophomore guard Jack Bors had 23 off the bench, and forward Neil Fuller ‘17 added 15. We haven’t seen this balance from Bowdoin yet this year, and if it continues in league play, Bowdoin could definitely make some noise. Tufts has a huge edge in this game, but don’t count the Polar bears out just yet.

Writer’s Pick: Tufts

Bates @Colby: 7:00 PM, Waterville, Maine

Jeff Spellman
Jeff Spellman ’20 (Courtesy of Bates Athletics)

With the Brothers Delepche manning the middle, Bates was always scary defensively. But transfer Jeff Spellman ‘20 has given the Bobcats some needed offensive punch off the bench. Spellman was a fairly sought after D1 recruit coming out of high school, and committed to Stonehill College. However, he transferred to Bates before playing at all, and immediately hurt his ankle. The 6’2” guard made his NESCAC debut against Farmingdale State on the 29th, and had 13 points off the bench on Tuesday in a big road win against Brandeis. With a terrific defense and a revitalized offense, Bates is looking a little scary.

Entering their non-conference matchup with Bates on December 10th, Colby had lost four out of five and appeared to be carving out a spot at the bottom of the league. But they pulled out a gritty win in that game, and then another in their first game back against UMaine-Farmington. Like the Starship Enterprise, Colby is led by Patrick Stewart ‘19, who averages over 16 points per game. This game might not be critical at the top of the standings come the end of the season, but it is certainly a matter of pride for the Maine rivalries, and also will help determine which of these teams  (if any) make the final cut for the NESCAC playoffs.

Writer’s pick: Bates

Connecticut College @ Hamilton:

This game will fly under the radar due to the Middlebury-Wesleyan and Williams-Amherst games, but it is quietly a fascinating match-up that could have major ramifications at the end of the year. Connecticut College has played with tremendous balance all season. They have four players averaging over 10 points per game, including the front-runner for the made-up NESCAC Sixth Man of the Year award in Isaiah Robinson ‘18. Robinson averages 10 per game off the bench on 45.2% shooting from three. Robinson’s offense off the bench has been critical in Connecticut College’s success, as an efficient offense has masked a mediocre defense at times for the Camels.

Speaking of efficient offenses, Hamilton leads the league in points per game at 87, and is third in shooting percentage at 48.3. The Continentals are led by a trio of stellar sophomores. Peter Hoffmann, Michael Grassey and and Tim Doyle all average over 13 points a game and shoot over 50% from the field. This youth is obviously a benefit, as this core could make Hamilton a player for the next couple years at least. However, it may also hurt them during league play. These players are not used to playing meaningful minutes in league play; Hamilton was not a contender during their freshman campaign. Connecticut College is older and more experienced (though still pretty young), and that could help them if this game comes down to the wire. Additionally, Hoffmann, Hamilton’s leading scorer and best defender, is only shooting 47.2% from the foul line. If the game is close in the final minutes, Connecticut College may try to exploit this, forcing Hamilton to choose whether or not to have him on the floor.

Writer’s Pick: Hamilton

Trinity @ Pine Manor: 3:00 PM, Brookline, Massachusetts

Writing about a non-league game after all this excitement makes me a little bit tired, but I’m going to write through it because #BlogIsLife. Pine Manor has had an uneven start to the season, standing at 7-4. Their only other NESCAC matchup was an early season 97-96 loss to Colby. However, from my extensive research on their season (a cursory glance at their website,) Pine Manor looks to be a pretty tough matchup for Trinity. They play at a blinding pace, taking 81 shots per game, which is a full 22 (!) more than the infamously slow Bantams. This game looks like it will be less of a basketball game and more of an ideological debate regarding the nature of the sport.

Speaking of Trinity, they have been one of the toughest teams to figure out in the early months of the season. They started off the year losing three of four, and then a nice win over Springfield (three straight NCAA berths, has beaten Amherst and Conn College) made it appear that they had righted the ship. But they followed that up with a terrible loss to Susquehanna and another loss against a very good Eastern Connecticut team, and they were back down again. And finally, they just put up by far their best performance of the year against Plattsburgh, scoring 107 points and shooting 66% from the field. The Bantams have struggled to find any consistent perimeter scoring around center Ed Ogundeko, but against Plattsburgh they proved that they can beat anyone when they have it. This game will be a crucial final tuneup for Trinity as they look to make a run in league play.

Writer’s Pick: Pine Manor

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