The holiday break brought us quite a bit of surprise this year, which is actually pretty new for NESCAC basketball. As we have mentioned time and time again, NESCAC teams traditionally beat up on non-conference teams in early season games. This season has looked a little bit different thus far. Again, the early season games are about trying different schemes and finding out what works best for each team, so it is not all that surprising to see some strange results. Despite this fact, there were some notable things that took place as many teams traveled all over the nation to take on the best teams Division III has to offer:
After a sluggish start to the season (in part due to tough scheduling), Tufts has begun to find their identity. Although they did not play their absolute best basketball out in California, they were still able to head back to the east coast with two victories. Vincent Pace ’18 has looked every bit of the star player they were counting on, with two convincing performances. Pace put on two solid performances, beginning with a 19-point, 6-rebound effort against Pomona-Pitzer. Against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps he struggled a bit from the field, going 5-17 and 1-7 from behind the arc. He was still able to overcome this tough shooting night by going 5-5 from the free-throw line to finish with 16 points. What makes him such a great player is that he continues to find ways to impact the game outside of scoring, which he displayed by hauling in 13 rebounds against CMS. The Jumbos also benefit from the return of KJ Garrett ’18, and this is huge for their depth as Garrett provides consistent guard play and the rebounding spark that they need. Tufts is proving yet again why they belong at the top of the league.
Williams F James Heskett ‘19
The loss of Kyle Scadlock ’19 left a lot of production up for grabs in the Eph lineup. James Heskett ’19 has stepped up to fill the scoring void in a very big way. While he stands at 6’8”, Heskett is as pure a shooter as they come. Over the break he put up two monster scoring efforts, and was incredibly efficient in doing so. Despite a disappointing loss to Hamline, Heskett poured in 24 points on 9-12 shooting, including 5-8 from deep. He followed this up with an even more impressive performance against Cal Lutheran, lighting them up for 29 points on 9-15 from the field, 5-10 from three-point land, and 6-6 from the free throw line en route to a bounce-back win. These types of games are exactly what Williams is looking for in the wake of the Scadlock injury, and fortunately it extends beyond just Heskett. The Ephs employ a four-guard lineup that is absolutely lethal from beyond the three-point line, and they love to shoot, leading the conference in both made threes and attempted threes. This strategy is even more effective given that they are centered around the outstanding big-man duo of Michael Kempton ’20 and Matt Karpowicz ’20. Even without Scadlock, this is a very dangerous Williams squad that certainly has the rest of the league on notice.
Kena Gilmour and Hamilton
Hamilton now stands alone as the only undefeated team remaining in the NESCAC. Despite a relatively unimpressive non-conference schedule, the Continentals continue to impress. Kena Gilmour ’20 has now become a household name, earning MVP honors at the Greyhound Classic in which Hamilton took home the trophy. Gilmour dropped 22 points and posted a career-high 11 rebounds against Lebanon Valley, then followed that up with 23 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals in the title game against a strong Moravian team. Hamilton is continually aided by hot three-point shooting, most notably Tim Doyle ’19 and Joe Pucci ’18 who are first and second respectively in 3-point percentage. At this point we just have to wait and see if the Continentals can bring this type of play into conference games, because they have done all they can do at this point to show that they are ready to jump into the top echelon of the ‘CAC.
Ranked NESCAC Teams
It seems that being ranked in the top 25 this year has been a curse for NESCAC teams. Early in the year, Bowdoin made a jump into the D3 hoops rankings, then proceeded to lose back-to-back games to Colby and St. Joe’s. Williams got as high as third in the rankings, then lost to Wesleyan at home (pre-Scadlock injury), but remained in the top 10. They then lost to a relatively weak Hamline team over the break. Middlebury* got all the way up to number 2, then lost two of their last three games, albeit against very good opponents, #13 York and #12 Swarthmore. Wesleyan was undefeated and on the brink of cracking the top 10, and then lost to a struggling Springfield team. This week Hamilton entered at #24 in the national rankings, so the Continentals better watch out, or they will suffer a similar fate as the top dogs.
*I’m going to give Middlebury a break here because Coach Brown absolutely stacked their non-conference schedule. Four of their first nine games were against schools that have seen time in the top 25 this year. Though they hoped for better than a 2-2 finish in those games, I’ll chalk it up to working out the kinks after losing a large portion of their production from last season.
I don’t mean to say that the NESCAC has fallen dramatically because the teams are a combined 86-29, which is still very good. What we saw over vacation was a bit different than past years. Hamilton and Trinity were the only teams that won their respective holiday tournaments, and even the teams that didn’t compete in an official tournament struggled a bit. I already talked about the losses of Middlebury, Wesleyan, and Williams (who all won their holiday tournaments last season), but unfortunately for the NESCAC, it extends beyond that. Colby fell to the host Salem State squad in their tournament, Conn College continued their struggles, losing to Maine-Presque Isle, Amherst dropped a game to NAIA Southeastern University, and Bates lost three winnable games to average Concordia University, Brandeis, and St. Joe’s teams.
This is a bit uncharacteristic of the best conference in the NCAA, but it is a tough year to follow after many teams across the league lost big performers from the loaded 2017 class. The reasons for this are varied. Of course, some teams are simply struggling. Williams is still working out the kinks of playing without Scadlock, and Middlebury is simply finally realizing that they lost two of the best guards in the country. But non-conference scheduling has also gotten stronger. As traditional in-state doormats (like Castleton in Vermont) drop NESCAC teams from the schedule, coaches have opted to replace them with strong teams from across the country, meaning more losses outside of NESCAC play for the best teams. This will only benefit the league come league play. The power rankings are going to look a lot different week-to-week, and the league games will be higher quality as teams have experience with quality opponents already. Us NESCAC students will continue to count on our cherished basketball programs to keep us moving through the harsh winter, as we see record-low temperatures devastating the northeast.