Amherst (16-5, 6-2) @ Middlebury (18-3, 6-2), Friday, February 10th, 7:00 PM, Middlebury, Vermont
Almost four years to the day from Friday, Middlebury and Amherst faced off in a very similar situation.
The two teams entered the game in contention for the top seed in the conference tournament, and as two of the top 15 teams in the country. Amherst was still led by two elite guards in Willy Workman and Aaron Toomey, and Middlebury still relied on terrific backcourt depth, with Nolan Thompson, Joey Kizel and Jake Wolfin leading the Panthers to several NCAA berths in a row. The game featured a double digit comeback from the Panthers, a game-tying three off an intentional missed free throw for Amherst, three overtimes and an alien invasion (okay not the last one.) The then-Lord Jeffs emerged victorious 104-101 after the third overtime, having combined with Middlebury to produce one of the all-time classics in NESCAC basketball history. And as if that wasn’t enough history, get this: I wasn’t at the game because I had a high school game…AGAINST MATT ST. AMOUR. Spooky right?
Middlebury and Amherst have played several other terrific games, both in the regular season and the tournament. So it’s certainly fair to expect a tightly contested game in Pepin Gymnasium on tonight. However, both teams have weaknesses that the other side could use to win the game running away. This game is a quintessential game of the week because it should be a classic on paper, but either side could come out on fire and put the game away before it even starts.
Amherst’s Biggest Weakness: Frontcourt Production
This game may well feature the two best backcourts in the country. But both teams, and particularly Amherst, feature frontcourts that often struggle to keep up. Throughout this season Amherst has struggled to find an effective scoring option outside of Jayde Dawson ‘18 and Johnny McCarthy ‘18, and forwards have been the main culprit in that lack of production. Senior David George ‘17 is too often a non-factor on offense, allowing the opposing center to clog the driving lanes that Dawson and McCarthy love to exploit. Jacob Nabatoff ‘17 has been inconsistent, shooting under 40% from the field. It has generally been Eric Conklin ‘17 who has provided a frontcourt spark for Amherst, averaging 8 points per game on 60% shooting. Middlebury defends very well on the perimeter, so this is a game in which Amherst will need some production out of these big men to take the pressure off of McCarthy and Dawson.
Middlebury’s Biggest Weakness: Shot Blocking
The Panthers play with breakneck pace on both offense and defense. This means that the Panthers look to force a lot of turnovers on the perimeter, but give up some points as a result of gambling for steals. That’s okay as long as the offense is picking up the slack, but if Middlebury isn’t hitting early they can give up points in a hurry (see the first half of their game against Tufts.) This tendency to give up big runs is caused partially by this fast paced style, but it is also due to a lack of intimidating interior defense. Big man Eric McCord ‘19 has improved leaps and bounds as the season has gone on in terms of moving his feet on pick and rolls, but he simply is not atheltic enough to be a shot blocking threat. Nick Tarantino ‘18 is a terrific athlete, but his timing on block attempts is a little off, and his rebounding responsibilities draw him away from the shot. Matt Folger ‘20 is Middlebury’s only dangerous shot blocker, but he makes too many freshman mistakes in terms of help rotations and silly fouls to play big minutes in crucial games like this one. Teams that have slowed Middlebury down, like Williams and more recently Colby, have had success in limiting Middlebury’s offense. If Amherst tries to slow down Middlebury on both ends of the ball, the Panthers will need to guard inside as well as on the perimeter, and that means blocking some shots.
Amherst’s Biggest Strength: Clutch Play
Amherst only scores 73 points per game during league play, which is sixth best in the conference. Throughout the season they have struggled to score efficiently, and have several times found themselves in the position where they need a game-tying or winning shot. Enter Jayde Dawson. Dawson has game-winners against Babson (#2 in the country at the time and Amherst’s most impressive win thus far) and Bowdoin, and is arguably the best in the league at taking over a game when his team needs him the most. But Johnny McCarthy also has a couple big shots under his belt, including a ludicrous 28 footer to tie the game against Bowdoin, setting up Dawson’s game winner. If the recent history between these teams holds true, this game will come down to the wire. Amherst must like their personnel in that eventuality.
Middlebury’s Biggest Strength: Ball Movement and Security
As you may have heard me say once, twice or thirty times, the only better guards than Middlebury’s trio in America are the Power Rangers. Jake Brown ‘17, Matt St. Amour ‘17 and Jack Daly ‘18 have the Panthers leading the league in assists.
But more impressive than that is their turnover ranking. Middlebury has the third fewest turnovers in the league, which is amazing considering how fast they play and how much they look to move the ball. At their peak, there’s no team in the league that can stop the Panther offense due to how well they move the ball and shoot from the perimeter. When they struggle, it is because they have stopped whipping the ball around on the perimeter and are settling for jump shots. Middlebury must have confidence in their ball movement, as Amherst will certainly attempt to slow them down and force them to play half court offense.
Amherst X-Factor: Michel Riopel ‘18
Middlebury is too good a team for Dawson and McCarthy to drag Amherst to victory like Murthaugh and Riggs in Lethal Weapon. They’ll need some back-up, and Riopel is the perfect candidate. A 48% three point shooter, Riopel is deadly from outside. But he is more than just a three point specialist. Earlier this week in a loss to Wesleyan, Riopel put up 16 points and 9 rebounds on just 8 shots. This efficiency is what makes him such an effective third option alongside Dawson and McCarthy, both of whom have the tendency to become volume scorers when they, and the team, are struggling. However, Riopel will need to become more aggressive in this game. Middlebury is well equipped to handle Dawson and McCarthy, which means Riopel should have some opportunities to create for himself. Eight shots will be too few for him in this game.
Middlebury X-Factor: Zone Defense
Middlebury’s defensive strategy can be likened to the Joker’s strategy for taking over Gotham in The Dark Knight: sew chaos and discord wherever they can. One of the ways that Middlebury toys with opposing offenses is by switching from man defense to zone with little warning. The Panthers don’t need a timeout to set up the offense, they can do it as the other team brings the ball up. This can really shake an opposing offense, forcing them to switch their game plan on the fly. Middlebury’s perimeter players are excellent zone defenders, as Brown and St. Amour are adept at playing passing lanes while Daly hounds whoever has the ball. The big men in the back are getting better at challenging shots at the rim without fouling, particularly McCord. Amherst is not a tremendously threatening three point shooting team, save Riopel and McCarthy, so a zone might be a good strategy for Middlebury employ. If they can shut down McCarthy and Dawson’s lanes to the rim, Amherst will have great difficulty finding other ways to score.
Both Middlebury and Amherst are in contention for the top seed in the league tournament. However, Tufts is also in the mix, but it is Amherst who controls their own destiny in terms of attaining the number one seed. If Amherst wins both, they get the top seed. If Tufts wins and Amherst loses at least one, then it will be the Jumbos who have home court advantage throughout the playoffs. Finally, if Middlebury wins both and Tufts loses tonight, then Middlebury will be top dawg in the NESCAC tournament. In order to control their destiny for the the number one seed in the league tournament, everyone needs to win tonight. Then we’ll seed what happens tomorrow.
Middlebury matches up very well with Amherst on paper. In Daly, Brown and St. Amour, the Panthers have the perimeter depth needed to hang with Dawson and McCarthy. However, McCarthy’s size and strength presents something of a matchup issue. Daly is probably best-suited to match McCarthy, leaving St. Amour or Brown to guard Dawson. Dawson’s hard-driving style creates the worry that he will get Brown or St. Amour in foul trouble, which would hinder Middlebury’s offense tremendously. This is why I could see the Panthers playing a great deal of zone in this game.
Middlebury is tremendous at home, but they have the misfortune of catching the campus during a break, so the student section won’t be quite as rowdy as one might imagine for such a crucial matchup. However, the home court advantage is still going to be crucial. Amherst has had an absurd home/road split this season (15 home/6 road) and are only 2-4 away from LeFrak this year. Middlebury has shown themselves to be a team that rises to the occasion at home, and I see them doing it again on Friday night.
Writer’s Pick: Middlebury