A Mammoth Shakeup: 2017-2018 Amherst Men’s Basketball Season Preview

Amherst College Mammoths

2016-2017 Record: 17-8, 7-3, lost to Williams in first round of NESCAC Tournament, earned NCAA Berth (lost to Keene State)

2017-2018 Projected Record: 18-6, 5-5

Key Losses:

G Jayde Dawson (19.1 PPG, 2.6 AST/G, 1.2 STL/G)

F Eric Conklin (8.3 PPG, 59% FG, 4.7 REB/G)

F David George (6.2 PPG, 6.6 REB/G, 2.2 BLK/G)

Introduction:

It’s hard to even write the phrase “Amherst might be down this year,” but it could be true. In an offseason marked by the graduation of one of the best senior classes in recent league history, Jayde Dawson’s loss looms very large. Dawson, for better or worse, carried Amherst last year, finishing second in the league in scoring and closing out several games with clutch shots. Of course, he also shot them out of some close games, to the chagrin of Mammoth fans. But Amherst has the perimeter scoring to replace Dawson. Johnny McCarthy has long looked ready to be a number one option, and Michael Riopel may be the best outside shooter in the league. The losses that will hurt the Mammoths more are in the frontcourt. Eric Conklin was an excellent post scorer who gave Amherst the opportunity to play inside-out with him and Riopel, and George, for all his offensive liabilities, anchored a solid defense. In a league in which two of the three pre-season top teams (Middlebury and Williams) have supersized lineups, losing your two best big men isn’t a great recipe for success.  Add in solid point guard Reid Berman and stretch four Jacob Nabatoff, and Amherst is faced with replacing four starters and a sixth man. Coach David Hixon (who is closing in  has been known for his ability to reload quickly, and Amherst again has one of the best recruiting classes in the conference, but this year will be a challenge even for him.

Projected Starters:

G Vic Sinopoli ’19 (1.2 PPG, 4.8 MIN/G, 3:1 A/TO)

Vic Sinopoli
Vic Sinopoli ’19 (Courtesy of Amherst Athletics)

This spot is a huge question mark for Amherst. Last year, Reid Berman offered a steady hand at the position, but ball handling and creating duties were pretty much  handled by Dawson or McCarthy. As Amherst’s early exit in the playoffs showed, this is not a particularly sustainable method. Sinopoli played very few minutes as a sophomore last season, but runs the offense well and has the experience that Coach Hixon always prizes. However, first year Grant Robinson ’20 is chomping at the bit for this spot. Robinson offers a higher ceiling than Sinopoli. A speed demon with great court vision, he could take ball handling duties away from McCarthy and bring the Amherst offense to a more organic level than they reached last season. Their tournament this weekend will be a fascinating chance to see who impresses the most at the one.

G Michael Riopel ’18 (10.2 PPG, 47.4% 3FG, 0.8 STL/G)

Michael Riopel
Michael Riopel ’18 (Courtesy of Amherst Athletics)

There’s more on Riopel below in the Breakout Player section, but you can see from his stat line above what he brings to this team; shooting. Riopel is as consistent a shooter as there is in the league. But he is far from a one trick pony. At 6’5,” he can guard multiple positions, and rebounds very well (3.9 REB/G last season despite varying minutes.) Riopel is freed up this season, and a huge breakout is possible.

G/F Johnny McCarthy ’18 (14.2 PPG, 8.0 REB/G, 46% FG, 34% 3FG)

Johnny McCarthy
Johnny McCarthy ’18 (Courtesy of Amherst Athletics)

For much of his career, people have discussed McCarthy like he was the victim of some horrible tragedy. “Poor McCarthy, he’ll never get the touches he deserves playing next to Jayde Dawson.” This was a dumb take. Never mind that the defensive attention Dawson drew made much of McCarthy’s drives to the rim far more open than they will be this year, but McCarthy still got twelve shots and six threes per game. But nevertheless, this year McCarthy gets his chance to be a solo act. He should be aided by a starting role and more minutes for Riopel (more on him later,) whose outside shooting should keep driving lanes open. But McCarthy hasn’t shown himself to be a great passer yet in his career. He only averaged two assists against 1.8 turnovers last year. If Amherst hopes to have a more ball movement-centric offense this season without Dawson’s one-on-one skills, that will have to start with McCarthy, their best player and, finally, their go-to-guy.

F Eric Sellew ’20 (2.5 PPG, 9.3 MIN/G)

Eric Sellew
Eric Sellew ’20 (Courtesy of Amherst Athletics)

Sellew is another player who didn’t get many minutes last season due to Amherst’s short rotation. But with George and Conklin gone, Sellow is set to have his moment in the sun. A prototypical stretch four, Sellow has been working this off-season at stretching his range behind the arc, a prerequisite for this spot in Amherst’s perimeter-based offense. As a regular contributor last season, Sellew has a clear first crack at this starting spot, but he is not without competition. Junior Dylan Groff ’19 has made tremendous strides during training camp, and Fru Che, a first year, has impressed as well. Sellew has to be an offensive threat for the Mammoths to have enough firepower to keep up with Williams, Tufts and Middlebury.

C Joseph Schneider ’19 (2.1 PPG, 4.6 MIN/G)

Joseph Schneider
Joseph Schneider ’19 (Courtesy of Amherst Athletics)

Schneider is a fascinating player, and could be the key to Amherst making the jump from “fine” to “good” or even from “good” to “great.” At 6’10” and with a tremendous wingspan, Schneider is one of the biggest players in the league, and offers a nice centerpiece to what is a very long Amherst lineup. He got little to no playing time last year behind George, Conklin and Nabatoff, but projects as a key cog in the offense this season. He has good footwork and hands, and his size alone should make him something of a shot-blocking threat. Amherst has succeeded in the past with four perimeter players and a traditional center, so the lack of outside from shooting from him and backup CJ Bachman ’19 shouldn’t be too much of an issue. If Schneider can be a real threat the way Conklin was last year, Amherst could be in business.

Breakout Player: G Michael Riopel ’18 

As I mentioned above, Riopel is a deadeye shooter. But he won’t be able to rely the constant double teaming of McCarthy and Dawson this season. Of course, McCarthy will still demand a great deal of defensive attention, but teams will still make sure to leave a good defender on Riopel. If he is going to make a leap, it will have to be as a ball handler and driver. He showed signs of being able to that last season, shooting nearly 50% from two point land overall. But during league play, he made only one non-three pointer per game. He needs to at least develop a midrange pull-up game to contend with players running him off the three point line. And with his height, he has the potential to finish at the rim too. Amherst’s offense last season was often stagnant, with far too much one on one play. The loss of Dawson should improve that, but scoring will be a problem, and Riopel is crucial to solving it.

Michael Riopel ’18 will need to become more of an all around threat to make up for the loss of Dawson.

Everything Else:

I hesitate to use the term “rebuilding year” for the Mammoths. They still have McCarthy, one of the three or four most skilled players in the league, as well as Riopel. A better term might be “retooling.” Amherst is faced with the task of changing their entire style of play. Although much of the criticism of Jayde Dawson was alarmist, he did force the Mammoths to play a slower style of basketball than they would like. This season, the Mammoths look poised to play a ball movement-heavy, 3-and-D type of game that should at least be more fun to watch, and possibly more successful as well. Riopel and McCarthy are the key to this offense, but the retooling has occurred mostly in their supporting cast. Sellow and Groll are stretch fours whom Amherst will use mostly on the perimeter. And G Tommy Mobley ’20, after barely playing during his first year, will get serious minutes and three point looks.

This new, aggressive style should apply on defense as well. After relying largely on David George to make up for gambling on the perimeter, Amherst is now playing a switchier lineup, with a focus on the perimeter. Riopel and McCarthy have elite size and length for their position, as does Sinopoli. And of course, Schneider is one of the bigger players in the league. He will be a key. If he is a liability in the pick and roll, teams like Middlebury and Williams will be able to roast him with their skilled perimeter bigs. But if they play a smaller player, they will severely lack rim protection. There’s a chance that Amherst’s off-season losses hurt them on defense more than offense.

Amherst has retooled with Williams in mind, as every team in the league has had to do this off-season.

Amherst is one of the harder teams in the league to project. They lost an almost impossibly high percentage of their scoring and minutes in the off-season. For any other team, this would be a death sentence, and this preview would be about them looking towards 2018-2019. But this is Amherst we’re talking about. They always seem to find a way to be there at the end of the season. And, with a far more sustainable (and young) offense, Amherst is in a position to be there in the future as well.

 

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