Monday was the first day of spring. I know that the weather at many NESCAC schools begs to differ, but I promise you that it’s true. Spring is a melancholy time for sports fans. On the one hand it’s baseball season. As you might know from reading literally any article ever written about baseball, spring and baseball go hand in hand. Every play in baseball begins the same way; with a pitch. Every is redeemed, much like the deadened flowers are redeemed in the spring. And here at NbN our NESCAC baseball coverage has kicked off in a big way with Devin’s preview.
But in this early spring I’m thinking about the end of something; basketball season. This year of NESCAC basketball was in many ways unprecedented for the league. Not in my memory has there been such talent across the board. While there were obviously better and worse teams, every squad this season had at least a couple moments where they blended together and sang in that way that only basketball can create. At one point there were five NESCAC teams ranked in the national top 25, and those five teams all received bids to the NCAA tournament.
This was a very literary season. We had a tragic hero find redemption in Tuft’s Tom Palleschi, who went down with a brutal knee injury during his
senior season before returning to lead Tufts to the Sweet Sixteen. We had a classic trilogy a la Lord of the Rings in Middlebury and Williams Rounds One, Two and Three. The final battle was one for the ages, a gritty war that featured unsung heroes (Bobby Casey ‘19,) star turns (Kyle Scadlock ‘19 looks like a POY favorite after his NCAA run) and several atrocious blown calls a lot of high quality basketball. Before fading down the stretch, Hamilton put the league on notice that they’re ready to make a run. They lose none of their main rotation, and Kena Gilmour ‘20 and Peter Hoffmann ‘19 are as deadly a one-two punch as there is in the league. Next year could be the year that they rise to the upper tier.
I could write one of these paragraphs about every team. That is the nature of NESCAC basketball this season and going forward; every team has SOMETHING that makes them worth watching. There’s a reason that Rory, Colby, me, Henry and all the other writers want to take time out of our diverse liberal arts college experiences to write about sports. Quite simply, it’s all interesting. But I will keep this briefer than that. Here are a few thoughts, feelings, way too early predictions and just general things I’m excited for from this season, and looking into next.
The Williams-Middlebury Rivalry is Real, Folks:
Both Williams and Middlebury will suffer huge losses come graduation. For Middlebury, Matt St. Amour, Jake Brown, Bryan Jones and Liam Naughton were the leaders of the team both on and off the court, and formed a back court that was unmatched in the country. Daniel Aronowitz and Cole Teal filled similar roles for Williams. Neither team will ever be able to fully replace theplayers they will say goodbye to come graduation.
But there is hope in Williamstown and Middlebury. Both teams balanced their experienced senior guard with dynamic young talent, particularly at forward. Matthew Karpowicz ‘20 for Williams is a future star at center, and Scadlock is maybe the league’s best talent at the forward spot. But Middlebury is loaded too. Eric McCord ‘19 and Nick Tarantino ‘18 became a dangerous duo this year, and Matt Folger ‘20 has First Team potential even as a sophomore. And better yet, all of these players will remember the games this year. Middlebury embarrassed Williams in the NESCAC final, and then Williams got their revenge in Pepin in the NCAA’s. Those wounds wont heal quickly, and we should be in for battles between the Ephs and Panthers for years to come.
The First Team Center Spot is Wide Open:
If you look throughout the league, the majority of the losses outside of Williams and Middlebury are big men. Tufts loses Palleschi, Bates loses both Delpeche’s, and Trinity loses Ed Ogundeko. This means that the door is ajar for new names to step forward as the beasts of the league. Early contenders would be Scadlock, Hoffmann and Joseph Kuo ‘18 of Wesleyan, but there plenty of darkhorses who could step up. McCord should get a lot of looks as part of Middlebury’s possibly less guard-oriented offense, and Williams has several young bigs who may make leaps. It will be fun to monitor who is stepping into those very big pairs of shoes.
Amherst Had Better Reload:
The Purple and White are lucky in that they keep the dynamic back court of Jayde Dawson ‘18 and Johnny McCarthy ‘18. But in almost every other area they are significantly weakened. They lose their most consistent bench threat in Eric Conklin, as well as David George (center and defensive stalwart) and both their point guards. And unlike Middlebury and Williams, they did not have a lot of deeper bench players who showed the potential to fill their shoes. Amherst struggled all season with a lack of depth, and graduation will decimate that already thin bench. Amherst traditionally recruits well and has benefitted from transfers in the past. If they don’t do that quite as well this offseason, they run the risk of falling even further behind surging teams like Hamilton and Williams.
Before we get to the Williams Final Four preview, a couple thoughts on Middlebury’s terrific season, and the legendary careers of Jake Brown ‘17, Matt St. Amour ‘17, Bryan Jones ‘17 and NbN’s own Liam Naughton ’17. One of the hardest things about writing this blog is simply remembering that the players are students. The players that we laud, criticize and analyze every week have classes and friends and social stresses and just general college things going on in addition to the sports that we value so highly. I personally can’t imagine adding an intense sports schedule to my busy academic schedule (blogging, playing video games and eating onion rings,) and we have the responsibility to remind ourselves of that while writing.
But that is also one of the best things about writing this blog. NESCAC sports are a very tight knit community (as are NESCAC colleges in general) and it’s a thrill to write about people who are also your classmates and friends. This experience has been especially real for me in the last four years. I feel very blessed to have entered Middlebury at the same time as Matt, Jake, Bryan, and Liam even more blessed now to write about them, and simply to know them.
I want to single out Liam for a second. Like Bryan, he had the misfortune of entering in an incredibly strong guard class, and didn’t get a ton of minutes over the course of his first three seasons. But he never once let it get him down. He continued to work hard in practice, and was an incredible teammate for his whole career (his bench celebrations were a source of great joy for fans in the seats.) And this season he was able to provide valuable minutes off the bench when Middlebury’s guard rotation shortened up. Every team needs stars to win, but teammates like Liam are just as, if not more important.
The accolades for St. Amour and Brown have rolled in, and are deserved tenfold. Indeed, I can’t even open up my Facebook feed without seeing an article about a new award that Matt has won. But their success goes beyond awards. For four years they, along with Bryan (who had the bad luck of being in the best guard class in the country; he starts on every other NESCAC team) and Liam have represented Middlebury with flair, joy, and class. It’s been my pleasure to watch them and cover them, and it is my continued pleasure to know them.
*wipes a single tear from my eye*
Alright, on to the Ephs…Williams (23-8, 7-6, lost in NESCAC Final)
Turns out the Ephs’ blowout win over Middlebury in the regular season was not as much of a fluke as we thought. After losing to the Panthers in the NESCAC final, the Ephs took the rubber match last weekend in a game that showed just how much they have grown as a team throughout the year. Williams has always been a good shooting team, but early in the season if they weren’t hot from three, their defense wasn’t good enough to get them a win over a quality opponent. But that Williams team is long gone. Williams shot very well against Middlebury (49%, 40% from three,) but it was their defense that got them the ticket to Salem. The Ephs held Brown and St. Amour to 10-26 shooting (1-12 from three,) and held the Panthers to as a team to their lowest home scoring output of the season. Against Middlebury, Williams showed that they have everything firing on all cylinders, and are a real threat to win the National Championship.
Final Four Opponent: Augustana College Vikings (23-8, 11-5, lost in conference final)
The Vikings are similar to Williams in that they have peaked in the NCAA tournament. Neither team won their conference final, but they both have put everything together to make a Final Four run. Augustana is led by their backcourt, with guards James Johnston ‘17, Chrishawn Orange ‘19 and Dylan Sortillo ‘18 leading the team in scoring. They seem to play at a very slow pace, only averaging 77 points on only 12.3 assists per game. The Vikings shoot a very high percentage from the field (48.5%) but don’t take many shots, and therefore have low rebounding numbers. Their team leader in rebounding is Johnston at 5.4, and the next highest number is 3.6. This is good news for Williams, as rebounding is their biggest weakness (the Panthers had 20 offensive rebounds last weekend, keeping them in the game.) Williams also defends the perimeter very well, so facing another team that relies heavily on their guards should be music to their ears.
Johnston seems to be the player to watch for Augustana. At 6’5” and 190 pounds, he has terrific size at the guard position. He is their leading rebounder and second leading scorer (5.4 and 12.7 respectively,) and certainly is the best match-up on paper for Daniel Aronowitz ‘17, Williams go-to scorer. With his size and rebounding ability, he will also play a critical role in stopping Kyle Scadlock ‘19, Williams’ best big man. Johnston will be the key to Augustana’s gameplan.
X Factor: Forward Kyle Scadlock ‘19
Speaking of Scadlock, he is the most important player for the Ephs tonight. Augustana, as every team must do against Williams, will try to run them off the three point line, and their slower pace could throw the Ephs off their rhythm. Additionally, they are a very deep team on the perimeter, giving them a lot of defenders to throw at Aronowitz, Cole Teal ‘17 and Bobby Casey ‘19. They do not have many defenders to throw at Scadlock. The Vikings are pretty big (they have four players over 6’7”) but not many of them play big minutes. And very few teams in the country have the versatility to keep up with Scadlock’s combination of size, quickness and skills. Scadlock’s assertiveness on offense has been a key to Williams’ run. He is averaging 17 points per game in their last seven, and his threatening inside presence opens up driving lanes and three point attempts for the guards. It is when he disappears and doesn’t look for his shot that Williams struggles. Scadlock has a great matchup tonight; if he shows up for it, Augustana is in trouble.
Other Teams in the Final Four:
#1 Whitman College Blues (31-0, 16-0, Won Conference Championship): vs Babson, 5:00 PM
As you can probably tell from their record, the Blues are the favorite to come out of this weekend as national champions. They are one of the most dynamic offenses in the country, averaging 91.8 points per game on 48% shooting. They seems to just be loaded up and down the roster with great scorers, rather than doing it with ball movement. They only average 12.5 assists per game, a shockingly low number for such a dynamic offense. They are led in scoring by National POY Candidate Tim Howell ‘18, who averages 20.4 points per game. Howell is an electric one on one scorer, and his skill off the dribble opens things up for his teammates. And they take advantage of those opportunities. Four other Whitman players score in double figures, including Jack Stewart ‘19, who shoots 42.3% from three. If you had to point to a weakness for the Blues it would be on the boards and at the foul line. Their rebound margin is only +1, a low number for such a dominant team, and they only shoot 64% from the line. But for 31 games in a row, neither of those things have mattered.
#3 Babson College Beavers (29-2, 14-1, lost to MIT in Conference Final): vs Whitman at 5:00 PM
Babson spent much of the season as the number one team in the country before dropping due to their conference final loss. But like Stella, they’ve gotten their groove back in the NCAA tournament. They scored 102 points in their Elite Eight win over Keene State, shooting 61% from the field. Stopping Babson begins and nearly ends with stopping senior guard Joey Flannery ‘17. At 6’5” and 215 pounds, Flannery has the size to score inside, but is also a deadly outside shooter and ball handler. He averages 23.4 points per game and has proven himself to rise to the occasion in big games. He had 38 in their Sweet Sixteen win over Tufts. And as if that wasn’t enough, Flannery also averages 7.1 rebounds per game. But Babson isn’t a one man show. Junior guard Nick Comenale ‘18 averages 16 points per game on 42% shooting from three, and big man Isaiah Nelson ‘17 provides a valuable post scoring threat. Babson is one of the most well-rounded teams in the country. The Babson and Whitman game at 5:00 tonight should be a classic, I recommend checking it out before tuning in to Williams to support the NESCAC family.
Going into last Sunday’s Williams-Bates game, Middlebury had a chance to play Bates, Williams or possibly Hamilton depending on the outcome. Bates drew the short straw, dropping the game 65-62 and now has to play maybe the hottest team in the country. And what’s worse, the Panthers will be at home with all the students back. In order to have a chance in this game, Bates will need to slow Middlebury down, get terrific performances from both Delpeches and their perimeter players, and also catch Middlebury on an off-shooting night (something they haven’t truly had since they lost to Williams.) It’s a tall order, but stranger things have happened.
Middlebury X-Factor: Bryan Jones ‘18
Jones has been one of the biggest surprises of league play, averaging nearly 10 points per game. His 53% shooting from three leads the league during NESCAC play. He has given the Panthers backcourt, already extremely lethal, another weapon. His deadeye shooting has made it impossible for teams to load up on Matt St. Amour ‘17 on the perimeter, opening up driving lanes for him and also Jack Daly ‘18 and Jake Brown ‘17. It is due in large part to Jones being a threat that all the Middlebury guards’ stats have jumped up in league play.
However, Jones struggled on Tuesday against Plattsburgh State. Starting in place of Jake Brown, Jones shot 2-11 from the field and 0-5 from three. It was a surprising return to the inconsistency that has dogged Jones throughout his career, and inconvenient timing for its reappearance at that. If Brown misses more time, Middlebury can’t afford to give stronger defensive teams than Plattsburgh the ability to trap St. Amour on the perimeter, taking away his three point shots and much-improved mid-range game. While Jack Daly ‘18 is more than capable of handling point guard responsibilities in Brown’s absence (by “more than capable,” I mean “flirts with a triple-double”) he is not quite a three point threat. Jones doesn’t have to be white hot, but he needs to give Bates a reason to guard him or else the Panthers could be in for a long night.
Bates X-Factor: Jeff Spellman ‘20
Spellman, a transfer who arrived shortly before league play began, is a similar player to Jones but has recently been trending in a different direction. He sits third in the league overall in three point percentage at 41.7%, but has only shot 30.8% in league play. Against Williams he shot just 4-11 from the field and 1-7 from three. He did add 7 assists, but without his jumpshot Bates has very little offense outside of post-ups from the Delpeches. Pounding the ball into the post is an effective way to slow down the game, which is certainly the impulse when game-planning against Middlebury. But if Bates doesn’t have any outside shooting threats around their Twin Peaks (reboot 2017 let’s goooooo), the Panthers will do just what they did to Ed Ogundeko – swarm them whenever they get the ball, creating turnovers and forced, empty possessions. Spellman will be the key in taking away this part of Middlebury’s defensive gameplan.
How Bates Can Win:
They need to find someway to keep the score low. Middlebury is averaging 99 points per game in league play at home, and put up 97 against Trinity even without Brown. The natural way to do this would be to pound the ball on offense, taking time off the shot clock and preventing Middlebury’s offense from getting the ball. They have the ability to do this thanks to the Delpeches. Having two big men who are threats to score on the block prevents Middlebury from doubling big-to-big, and should create open threes or one-on-one post-ups. Bates will have to be raining fire from outside to make this strategy work, or else Middlebury’s offense is certainly fast enough to make up for lost time.
On defense, Bates will have to take away the three point shot. By jumping Matt St. Amour on the perimeter, they will take away his three-pointer and funnel him towards the Delpeches, who are both dangerous shot blockers. With Jack Daly, they will most likely leave him alone from three. However, it will be imperative to guard him one-on-one. St Amour will of course require double teams, but leaving a man open when Daly has the ball is asking for a bucket. He’s too good a passer, and Middlebury’s big men are getting too good at finishing at the rim to be left alone. Daly beating men off the dribble also creates open three-point shots. If Bates can take away those threes and funnel drives towards the Delpeches (particularly Malcolm), that leaves Middlebury pull-up, midrange jump-shots. These are inefficient shots, and will allow the Delpeches to own the boards. Bates is certainly an underdog here, but there’s a thin path to victory for them.
How Middlebury Can Win
I’m having trouble finding an answer for this other than “continue doing exactly what they’ve been doing.” Middlebury’s offense has reached a level lately that few NESCAC teams have ever achieved, but their defense on the interior has finally caught up. Middlebury is always going to give up points because of their fast paced offense (quick shots=long rebounds, fast breaks for the other team) but they have quietly gotten very good in the half court. The guards have of course always been excellent, but the big men have improved leaps and bounds, especially Eric McCord ‘19. McCord has become very quick on rotations and hedging the pick and roll, and provides a nice fundamental counterpart to Nick Tarantino’s athleticism. Interior defense will be the key to Middlebury’s strategy in this game, as the Delpeches are the key to Bates’ offense. I expect Middlebury to double heavily on either Delpeche from the perimeter on defense, and dare Bates’ guards to make threes. On offense, all the Panthers need to do is more of the same. Run, hit shots and move the ball around the perimeter until a lane opens up.
Although Bryan Jones and Jeff Spellman are undoubtedly the lead guards off the bench for their respective teams, the other members of the bench mobs deserve credit. Crowd favorite (and NbN writer, no big deal) Liam Naughton has clawed his way into the rotation as a steadying senior presence on the court, as well as a three point threat. He will be important in the tournament, as the other two guards off the bench are freshmen Joey Leighton and Perry Delorenzo, neither of whom are quite ready for tournament time. On Bates’ side, the most obvious next threat is Jerome Darling ’17, who has demonstrated his explosiveness scoring the rock a handful of times this season. His biggest performance of the year came in the upset of Tufts, in which Darling 4-9 three-pointers en route to 21 points. Bates could definitely use another superhero performance from Darling this weekend. Elsewhere, the Bobcats will look to Quinlan Leary ‘17 ( a summer camp teammate of yours truly), who has recently moved into the starting lineup to replace Nick Gilpin ‘20, giving Bates more experience and strength on the perimeter. In addition to the need for threes from Spellman, Bates will need Leary, Gilpin, or other guards like Shawn Strickland ‘18 or Justin Zukowski ‘18 to give them surprise firepower off the bench. Basically, everything needs to go right for Bates to have a chance, while Middlebury just needs to keep playing their game.
Last week I used the intro to the stock report as a way to explore the somewhat cheesy comparison between NESCAC Men’s Basketball and the trading on Wall Street. Try as I might, I can’t think of a metaphor for stocks to top it, so I’ll just stick to the hoops. This weekend raised many questions. Tufts had seemed so solidly on top of the conference. Middlebury seemed to be heading downward into a skid. Wesleyan was a defensive team, and Amherst was more offensively focused. But things change, this weekend they certainly did.
Amherst held Trinity to shooting just 1/14 from deep in a 66-53 win on Saturday. They forced 16 turnovers, and took advantage of them, scoring 16 points of of them. More than just good shot contesting, Amherst held Trinity to just 5 assists as a team. This indicates some sturdy defensive organization, one with little to no breakdowns. The Bantams are averaging just over 71 points a game, and typically shoot 44.5% from the field, and 35% from deep. Amherst held them to 53 points on 32% shooting and 7.1% from three, respectively. I’d love to avoid the cliche, but hey, defense wins championships.
Wesleyan’s Explosiveness –
Wesleyan shot 48% from the field and 50% from beyond the arcin 85-75 win over Conn. Harry Rafferty played 34 minutes from the opening tip and had 20 points on 6/12 from the field and three of four from deep. What’s notable about Wesleyan’s 85 points is that the rest of the Cardinal’s starters combined for only 20. Even good teams have off nights, and so an essential mark of any good teamis that it has a depth of players beyond the starting five who can pick up the slack. On Saturday in New London, Joseph Kuo and Andrew Gardiner pulled the rope. The senior forward Kuo was good for 10 of 16 shooting from the field in his twenty point performance. Jordan Bonner dropped 23 points in 28 minutes off the bench. He was 4/6 from deep, but also got to the hole with enough consistency to hit 7 free throws. Wesleyan is known as one of the premier defenses in the conference – the Camel’s 75 points can be largely explained by a 32 point explosion by Tyler Rowe – and if they can keep getting performances off the bench like the ones this weekend their chances look good heading into the tourney.
The number 4 team in the country lost to Bates in Lewiston on Saturday 84-72.(Editor’s Note: They also dropped a non-league tilt to U-Mass Dartmouth on Tuesday.) They were behind the entire second half. I guess this explains the absurd number of shots it took the Jumbos to score 72 points, but it’s not unfair to expect a little higher efficiency from a team that’s leading the conference in points. Vinny Pace alone, who scored 19 points in 30 minutes, took 22 shots, 12 of them threes. Tuft’s starters combined took 60 shots. They were 36.1% from the field, 18.5% from three, and shot a mere 53.6% from the line. One could attribute the poor shooting to a very solid Bobcat defense, but the weak showing at the line and the huge amount of shots attempted points to a despicable shooting performance. It could be true that it just wasn’t Tufts’ day, but a performance like the one they had Saturday has to hurt. A bounce back, or lack thereof, this upcoming weekend, where they face solid Trinity and Amherst teams, will be a solid indicator of whether or not the Jumbos have the grit and potential to make a tourney run that their national ranking would have indicated. Credit where credit is due: Bates balled out, but this weekend could have been the beginning of something very bad for the Jumbos.
My Credibility Regarding Middlebury –
Last week I raised into the question the vitality and balance of thePanther’s offense. I said they were too reliant on Matt St. Amour and Jake Brown. And then the Midd kids scored 115 points against Hamilton. That certainly answers the vitality question. As for the balance, Middlebury had 4 starters and 6 players in double digit scoring. So much for my analysis. Midd shot 62% from the field, and 59% from deep. Combine that with 91.7% shooting at the line, and a career-high 25 point performance from Mr. Bryan Jones, and the 115 point thumping of a then-tied-for-third Continentals is not that surprising. It is true that it was a special performance, and one can’t expect that kind of output on any sort of consistent basis, but what gives me even more confidence that the Panthers have recovered from their loss to Williams is that Middlebury had 26 assists. That’s an offense that is humming. Roll Pants, thanks for proving me wrong.
As Rory pointed out in the Friday preview, the third weekend is often a pivotal one for playoff chances. An 0-2 weekend this late in the season can be damning for post-season hopes, and that is only exacerbated by how strong the league is this year. Teams like Williams, Colby and yes, even Amherst need strong weekends to keep their playoff hopes alive, or reassert their place at the top of the league.
GAME OF THE WEEK – SUNDAY: Middlebury (13-2, 3-1) at Williams (12-4, 1-3): Sunday, 1/22, Williamstown, MA, 2:00 PM
Will I choose Middlebury as the Game of the Week in every preview? Probably. But this game deserves must-watch status. Not only is it a rivalry game pitting two of the most successful teams of the last decade against each other, it features two of the best scorers in the league in Matt St. Amour ‘17 and Daniel Aronowitz ‘17. And it should end before the Patriots game starts, so no worries there.
Middlebury and Williams enter the game on very different footing in the league. Middlebury is 3-1, and was very close to pulling out a win at Tufts. Williams, on the other hand, comes in at 1-3 and has looked like one of the bottom teams in the league. For much of the post-Michael Mayer era, Williams has been a highly dangerous and successful 3-and-D team, relying on outside shooting and strong perimeter defense to remain a contender in the NESCAC. But the Ephs haven’t been able to put together those two components of their machine yet this year. Despite taking the most three point shots in the league by a considerable margin, they have the third-lowest percentage. The defense is still strong from a numbers standpoint, but they have been exploitable by patient offenses, allowing the third-highest shooting percentage to their opponents in the league. Williams might not have the personnel to continue playing their patented style, but they could prove that idea very wrong with a win over the Panthers.
We’ve been writing a great deal lately about how the forward rotation of Matt Folger ‘20, Nick Tarantino ‘18 and Eric McCord ‘19 has given the Panthers an interior presence that many felt they’d be lacking this year. But in this game, I see the guards off the bench as being a crucial factor in Middlebury’s game plan. Williams will undoubtedly attempt to use the three point shot as a way to counteract Middlebury’s quick-strike offense. And if they’re hitting those shots, the Panthers may need some firepower from the outside to match them. That’s where the guards come in. The primary outside threat off the bench for Middlebury is Bryan Jones ‘17, who played some nice minutes early in the season but has shot just 5-18 in conference play. Recently, freshman guard Joey Leighton ‘20 has shot very well, entering the rotation just before league play and hitting 44% of his three pointers. Senior Liam Naughton and freshman Perry Delorenzo are also options, but haven’t played much in tight spots. Middlebury may need Jones and Leighton in particular to be scoring threats to open the floor for the three starting guards and the post players.
Williams’ big man rotation is a key for them as well. It is very telling that in Williams’ only NESCAC win thus far, a 72-66 road win over Colby, they got 33 points from their four forwards. In the other games, Williams has received a shocking lack of production from the frontcourt, on both sides of the ball. Williams is the second worst rebounding team in the league, and neither James Heskett ‘19 nor Matt Karpowicz ‘20 nor Marcos Soto ‘19 has been nearly consistent enough offensively to worry opposing teams. If Williams is to match Middlebury’s newfound interior presence, they will need good production from at least two of those bench players, as well as starters Kyle Scadlock ‘19 and Michael Kempton ‘19.
This is a critical game for Williams, who is drifting dangerously close to falling out of contention for a top four seed. They have traditionally enjoyed a huge home court advantage, and have beaten Middlebury in some classics in Williamstown over the last few seasons, particularly in tournament play. But they need more than history on their side on Sunday. They need their role players like Cole Teal ‘17 and Heskett to hit some threes, and they need Dan Aronowitz ‘17 and Scadlock to play like stars. Aronowitz in particular should be key, as he will probably be matching St. Amour for much of the game. He has to at least play him to a draw if the Ephs have a shot.
Middlebury wins this one on paper. They have far more offensive weapons on the perimeter, and should be able to crash the boards against Williams’ frontcourt. However, Williams’ style of play is by nature unpredictable. If they are hitting threes, they can hang with anyone in the country, and it will be Middlebury’s job to run them off the line and into the paint, where they are far less proficient at finishing over size.
Writer’s Pick: Middlebury
Connecticut College (10-5, 1-3) at Tufts (13-2, 4-0): Medford, MA, 3:00 PM
Basking in the glow of their new standing at the top of the Power Rankings, Tufts has taken the league by storm, winning their first four NESCAC games. They still haven’t quite gotten POY-level production from Vincent Pace ‘18, but KJ Garrett averaged 15 PPG over the two games last weekend, giving them a valuable offensive weapon off the bench. The Jumbos still have problems in the post, as Tom Palleschi ‘17 has struggled offensively for much of the season. That said, Tufts has plenty of weapons ready to pick up the slack.
Connecticut College has a lot of momentum entering this weekend. They shocked Amherst last Sunday, owning the paint en route to an 83-76 OT win. The Camels were able to lock down Jayde Dawson ‘18 as well as any team has this year, holding him to 9 points on 4-10 shooting. That suggests that they should be well-equipped to handle Pace, who showed signs against Middlebury that he’s rounding back into form. They also got 40 points and 18 rebounds collectively from senior forwards Zuri Pavlin ‘17 and Daniel Janel ‘17. Tufts showed against Middlebury that strong post players can give them problems, as Eric McCord emerged against them with 22 points. Therefore, Connecticut College has the tools to pull off another upset, but I don’t see it happening.
I’m setting the over/under for total points in this game at 105, as arguably the two best defenses (and least consistent offenses) in the league square off in what may come to be known as “The Battle of the Bricks.” Wesleyan looked to be nearly dead after starting off 0-2, but roared back with two straight wins over Amherst and Trinity. Wesleyan’s elite defense was on full display in both games, holding the two teams to an average of 60 PPG. They finally received some offensive firepower from Kevin O’ Brien ‘19, and Harry Rafferty ‘17 too, an encouraging sign. To win at Bates, they will need one of those two, or Salim Green ‘19 (finally got his name right) to shoot well from the perimeter, as Bates’ interior defense is often pretty much impenetrable.
Bates has been one of the surprises of the season thus far, sitting at 3-1 with a quality home win over Hamilton under their belt. Their success has obviously been chiefly due to the Delpeche twins, who combine for 27 PPG and 19 REB/G. Additionally, Malcolm leads the league in blocks at over 3 per game. The Delpeches are the keys to Bates’ offense and defense, but freshman transfer Jeff Spellman ‘20 has been pivotal in giving the Bobcats a perimeter threat off the bench. He had 30 points over the weekend. Bates should give Wesleyan a heavy dose of both Delpeche brothers, putting a tremendous defensive burden on Nathan Krill ‘19 and Joseph Kuo ‘17. Taking Bates’ lyric little bandbox of a home court into account, I see the towering twins leading Bates to another impressive home win.
Well if they lose this one, there’s officially a crisis in Amherst. The Purple and White have lost two in a row, both to teams that hadn’t won a game in league play entering their match-up. Amherst’s problems have been copiously and gleefully documented on this blog, but they boil down to a lack of dimensionality on offense. Johnny McCarthy ‘18 and Jayde Dawson ‘18 have too much responsibility, allowing teams like Wesleyan to load up on them and dare other players to beat them. Colby probably doesn’t have quite enough perimeter depth to make use of this gameplan, but other teams have certainly taken notes on what Wesleyan and Conn College did to Amherst last weekend.
Colby may be the only team that played worse than Amherst last weekend. At 0-3 in the league, they are carving out a niche as the bottom team in a very strong league. Colby simply doesn’t have enough weapons to hang with the top teams in the league. Patrick Stewart ‘17 is an excellent stretch four, but like McCarthy and Dawson, he often carries an unreasonable burden for the Mules, yet with less of a supporting cast around him than the two Amherst guards. Amherst should use this game to get back on track, and ideally find a little more depth on offense.
This game is a matchup of stars. Jack Simonds ‘19 and Ed Ogundeko ‘17 would be my top two POY candidates at this point in the season, due to their importance to their respective teams. Bowdoin for the most part goes as far as Simonds can carry them, as was proven by his electric 32 point performance in their lone NESCAC win over Williams. This game will be an excellent test of Simonds’ scoring chops in league play, as Trinity boasts an elite defense anchored by, who else, Ed Ogundeko.
Ogundeko may carry an even heavier load for Trinity than Simonds does for Bowdoin. In addition to being the key to the offense, he leads the league (and by nature of the transitive property, the team as well) in rebounding, and may be the one of the most intimidating shot blockers in the league. Players are straight-up terrified of shooting layups against him, which is heavily responsible for Trinity being among the league leaders in most defensive catagories. Bowdoin, on the other hand, is the worst rebounding team in the league. This could well be another 20-20 game for Big Ed, and if that’s the case, I see Trinity taking the win at home.
The last Cardinals victory over Middlebury came on Jan. 15, 2005. That’s 13 meetings, and one other NESCAC quarterfinal. Last season’s loss to the Panthers seemed to galvanize Wesleyan on their eventual championship run. This season’s game was a huge upset to start the season, as Wesleyan was expected to be near the top of the heap and Middlebury looked like a rebuilding project. Almost two months later, it’s hard not to see the Panthers as the favorite in this game. Playing at home is nice, a new frontcourt threat has emerged (more on that later), and Wesleyan is coming off of a shocking weekend where they dropped a pair of contests to Colby and Bowdoin. Will the Cards turn the tide today? It won’t be easy.
Last time they played: Middlebury 86 – Wesleyan 76, Jan. 8 at Wesleyan
It was a disastrous start for Middlebury. The Cardinals went up 14-2 in less than five minutes. Moments later, Middlebury coach Jeff Brown swapped out a few starters for his trio of freshmen, and the game completely changed. Eric McCord ’16, Zach Baines ’16 and Hilal Dahleh ’16 stopped the bleeding and helped the Panthers clamp down defensively. When McCord subbed out six minutes later it was a 20-14 Wesleyan lead, and later back-to-back Dahleh treys tied the game at 30-apiece. The second half was a battle, but a Middlebury onslaught to the tune of a 16-5 run in the final 3:25 proved to be the difference. In the end, Matt St. Amour ’16 was the Panthers’ top scorer, which is par for the course, but the 30 points received from McCord and Dahleh absolutely changed the game. On the flip side, 17 bench points from Joe Edmonds ’16 kept Wesleyan in the game, which leads to …
Wesleyan X-factor: G Joe Edmonds
Edmonds and guard Harry Rafferty ’17 have had to adjust to slightly reduced roles this season. In 2014-15, six Cardinals played over 22.0 mpg, Edmonds and Rafferty included, and that duo started more games than not. The Cardinals have a lot more depth this season, and Rafferty and Edmonds have had to work off of the bench for the most part. Edmonds hasn’t had a great, high-volume shooting night since that evening against Middlebury. He has tallied 10, 11, 10 and 11 again in a handful of games, but otherwise has only taken a few shots and been held to single digits. The Cardinals are going to get plenty of points from guards BJ Davis ’16 and Jack Mackey ’16, but can Edmonds step up and chip in double digits off the bench while stretching the floor? A year ago, that was a no-brainer. Now, the answer is up in the air. Edmonds posted a 41.1 percent mark from behind the arc a year ago; he’s at 30.1 percent this season. Which Edmonds shows up today?
Middlebury X-factor: C Matt Daley ’16
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Daley might be the most gifted big man in the NESCAC. He just can’t stay healthy, through no fault of his own. He’s had so many issues this season – a soft tissue strain in his groin, a foot injury, concussion symptoms, and plain old illness that kept him out last weekend. So he never turned into the 20-10 guy that pundits believed he could be. He’s still a force when he’s in there. Daley is currently sixth in the NESCAC in field goal percentage, and the defensive end/rebounding is where he really shines. The big man rips down 7.8 boards per game in under 22.0 mpg. Imagine if he was actually healthy for all of those minutes, too, not nursing injury after injury. For what it’s worth, Daley ranks 13th in the NESCAC in points per 40 minutes, which is a testament to his importance when in the game. Wesleyan has two big guys who are athletic scoring threats in Joseph Kuo ’17 and Rashid Epps ’16 and Daley will be needed in order to stifle that pair.
1. How will Wesleyan shoot the ball from behind the arc?
If you’ve been reading along all year, you know that I’ve been fixated on the Cardinals (in)ability to shoot the three. They’re stacked with guys with great pedigrees who have underperformed in that regard this season. Wesleyan has taken the fifth-most three point attempts in the NESCAC, but is only making 32.3 percent of them (10th in the NESCAC). There was one hilariously bad four-game stretch against Amherst twice, Trinity and Tufts when Wesleyan shot 12-80 (15 percent) from deep. They went 8-22 (36.4 percent) in the last game against Middlebury. But of course, sports is a “What have you done for me lately?” business. Still, the recent returns aren’t much better. The Cards have upped the frequency with which they’re shooting treys recently, but not making any more of them. They are 22-81 (27.2 percent) over the last three contests. Will they be able to get open threes and make them today? Maybe, but Middlebury has a lot of length on the defensive perimeter. Jack Daly ’18 will give some trouble to Davis and Mackey, as well the super-long Zach Baines ’19.
2. Who wins the frontcourt battle?
Kuo and Epps vs. Daley and Adisa Majors ’18. The Wesleyan frontcourt is skilled brings a combination of size and speed. For Middlebury, Daley has the speed and length, while Majors has the brute strength. It’s an interesting match up, because I don’t know who has the advantage. Is it the pair of well-rounded forwards? Or can Daley and Majors work together to play as one shot-rejecting, block-defending, rim-protecting super-basketball-hero? Also in the mix are Wesleyan’s Nathan Krill ’18 – high motor, good length, and a work horse – and Connor Huff ’16 – high basketball IQ, and a good shotmaker. Lastly, Middlebury’s Zach Baines is sometimes employed as a stretch-4 type. That could be extremely problematic for Wesleyan, because Epps isn’t going to be quick enough to stop him on the perimeter.
3. Can someone other than Matt St. Amour put the ball in the hoop for Middlebury?
St. Amour has been a marked man since he started the conference season so strongly, and there hasn’t been a consistent second scorer for the Panthers. Sometimes it has been Daley, recently it’s been Majors, and a few times it’s been Baines or point guard Jake Brown ’17. My worry is that everyone will look to defer too much and no one will get the job done. Baines (7.1 ppg) has never played in a NESCAC playoff game, neither has Jack Daly (7.1 ppg) or Majors (6.9 ppg). If Daley can stay on the court for 25 minutes, I think he’s going to get a lot of usage and some big buckets, and subsequently Majors might see a few less minutes, but in those minutes he should be effective as well. On the perimeter, you’re not going to get one guy scoring a lot of buckets alongside MSA. Coach Brown likes to throw everyone in in the first half and feel out the flow of the game, so Hilal Dahleh or Bryan Jones ’17 are among those who could make a surprise impact with a couple of big shots early.
What to Expect
A lot of points. It might be a bit under the radar, but Wesleyan actually has the best field goal percentage defense in the league (38.1 percent) and the third-best points per game average defensively (68.1 percent), and still the Panthers ran up 86 points in their last meeting. Especially with Middlebury playing at home, Coach Brown is going to instruct his nephew, the younger Brown, to push the pace and get Wesleyan running. Tiring out the Cardinals’ high-usage starters, i.e. Davis and Mackey, is the key to testing out that depth. The Cardinals have won plenty of high-scoring games this year, though, so it won’t be easy to run them out of the gym. I think that Wesleyan will try to beat up on Matt Daley whenever he gets the ball down low and neutralize that second scoring threat that I just talked about above, forcing the Panthers to find someone else to score the ball. And, of course, both teams will lock onto the opposing superstar: Middlebury on BJ Davis and Wesleyan on Matt St. Amour. The Panthers are usually a switching team around the perimeter, but expect Jack Daly to man up with Davis to start. On the opposite end, my guess is that youngster Kevin O’Brien ’19 is tasked with covering St. Amour. I think the height advantage that St. Amour would have over Davis or Mackey would lead to a lot of easy buckets. That means that Edmonds will also be called on to cover St. Amour off of the bench.
It’s the No. 4-No. 5 game, so it should be a close one. I, of course, have somewhat of a vested interest here, so I apologize if my prediction waxes a little fanatical.
Just about every game last night carried with it an exciting storyline. Wesleyan toppled a Top-25 team for the second game in a row. Trinity barely snuck by Colby, dropping the Mules to 0-4 in NESCAC play. Conn won again, and with three wins are probably just one more victory away from guaranteeing a playoff bid. Amherst took care of business versus Bowdoin – no matter how great Lucas Hausman ’16 is, the Polar Bears don’t have enough weapons to compete. Williams over Hamilton was the one game that went pretty much as expected and told us very little about either team. Today’s games carry just as much weight and intrigue.
Tufts at Conn College, 1:00 PM, New London, CT
Tufts and Conn are teams with identical records going in opposite directions, though to be fair they started at opposite ends of the spectrum. Tufts has now lost two OT games to Middlebury and Wesleyan, while Conn continues to win close game after close game. The Jumbos looked hectic in the OT period against Wesleyan, marking the second overtime period where Tufts fell apart at the seams. Vinny Pace ’18 on three occasions in the overtime found himself in the air with no idea where to pass it. Tom Palleschi ’17 missed an ugly three. And there was no coordination on offense as the seconds ticked away.
That being said, the Jumbos have all the talent in the world and will be tough to defend. On the opposite end, Conn PG Tyler Rowe ’19 has emerged as a future star. The matchup between him and Tarik Smith ’17 will be a great one. Still, when I look at every position in the lineup, the Jumbos seem to have the edge. Conn’s best chance will be to do some work in the frontcourt between Zuri Pavlin ’17 and Dan Janel ’17, because Tufts lacks frontcourt depth.
Prediction: Tufts 81 – Conn 78
Bates at Wesleyan, 3:00 PM, Middletown, CT
The Cards look to be figuring it out, but let’s not forget that one week ago they were coming off of a 26-point loss to Amherst and looked like a ship without a rudder. They have not fixed their biggest issue – three-point shooting. The Cardinals have made just 12 of their last 80 (15.0 percent) attempts dating back to that loss to Amherst, and 31 of their last 146 attempts (21.2 percent). Against Tufts last night Wesleyan shot 3-21 (14.3 percent) from three point land, 13-27 (48.1 percent) from the free throw line, and turned the ball over 22 times.
Yet somehow, the Cards won, and surprisingly it was by dominating the frontcourt. Joseph Kuo ’17 and Rashid Epps ’16 are known commodities, but Nathan Krill ’18 has started to play some important minutes. This year’s Wesleyan team is deep, a far cry from last year’s squad that ran only six deep. They’ve gone through a lot of growing pains, but I think they’re going to be better than last year’s team once they get through the kinks, and this game should be a comfortable win because Bates is not playing well right now.
Prediction: Wesleyan 75 – Bates 64
Trinity at Bowdoin, 3:00 PM, Brunswick, ME
The Bantams certainly don’t win pretty, but they do win as they escaped against Colby 62-60. Trinity will look to get the ball inside a lot today, something they failed to do last night finishing the night with just 8 free throws as a team. Frontcourt depth behind Shay Ajayi ’16 and Ed Ogundeko ’17 remains a concern. Primary backup Connor Merinder ’19 could really use a breakout game to get more confidence going down the stretch. Otherwise the Bantams are in danger of Ogundeko getting into foul trouble.
To stop the Bantams inside, Bowdoin needs a team effort, especially rebounding the ball. The Polar Bears sorely miss John Swords ’15 in that category, but they still should be doing a better job boxing out as a team. The individual offensive brilliance of Lucas Hausman ’16 and Jack Simonds ’19 had the Polar Bears up on Amherst. It’s possible that great performances from those two today are enough, but I think the Bantams defense is too stout.
Prediction: Trinity 73 – Bowdoin 67
Amherst at Colby, 3:00 PM, Waterville, ME
The good news for Colby is that Patrick Stewart ’16 played 31 minutes last night and Chris Hudnut ’16 returned in limited action to score 8 points. The bad news is they need a massive upset to avoid an 0-5 conference start. Ryan Jann ’16 had an off night against the Bantams going 0-7 from the field, and the Mules need him to make tough shots. Colby is getting healthy, but they might not be getting there fast enough to help today.
Connor Green ’16 looked like his old self scoring 27 points against Bowdoin. Amherst in the second half was sending three guys to crash the offensive boards, and the leaping ability of guys like Green and Michael Riopel ’18 made a difference. Whatever Amherst found in the second half last night needs to carry over to today. An engaged and aggressive Amherst team is a terror for the rest of the league because of the athleticism and size the roster has. Barring Colby hitting everything from three today, Amherst gets the job done.
Prediction: Amherst 82 – Colby 71
Williams at Middlebury, Sunday 3:00 PM, Middlebury, VT
This is the only game this weekend besides Tufts vs. Conn College that features two above .500 teams in conference. The Ephs are now riding a three game winning streak, but the three games all came at home against Hamilton, Bowdoin, and Colby. Those three have a combined conference record of 1-12. The scores of those game are also remarkable similar: 75-66 over Colby, 76-65 over Bowdoin, and 73-63 over Hamilton. The other constant in those games was Dan Aronowitz ’17, who averaged 21.0 PPG and 10.3 RPG over the three game stretch. Aronowitz is much more of a threat from three this season, and the Panthers need to keep an eye on him at all times.
Middlebury won’t have played in over a week when they take the court tomorrow, and that time off has given them plenty of time to get ready for the Ephs. The Panthers strength recently has been great depth. Guys like Adisa Majors ’18 and Bryan Jones ’17 have been coming off the bench and giving an instant lift to the team. Their depth helps to keep the Panthers fresh since they are constantly pushing the ball up the court. Williams has the discipline and personnel to counter that transition offense, however. Sometimes basketball is just about who hits shots and who misses them, and if that is the case in this one then I like Williams in a squeaker.
Editor’s Note: Things can be a little confusing now that the season is underway. Consider the rest of our previews as season predictions based off of a compilation of conversations with coaches and players and observations from the first couple of games. All statistics that appear next to players’ names are from the 2014-15 season.
One word describes Middlebury’s 2014-15 season: disappointment. I know that’s terribly harsh, but there was no one around the league that would have predicted that the Panthers would miss the NESCAC tournament for the first time since 2005 – especially after the team’s 9-0 start to the year. Once NESCAC play began, though, it was all downhill, and fast. Panther-killer Graham Safford ’15 once again finished off Middlebury in the NESCAC opener. In 2013 Safford drilled a three-pointer with 11 seconds left to steal a win in Pepin Gymnasium, and last season it was four made free throws down the stretch to ice a home win for Bates. Next came the Tufts Jumbos, who sent the Panthers back to Vermont with a 80-63 loss.
The Panthers finished 17-7 and 4-6 in conference. The rotation lost forwards Hunter Merryman ’15 and Dylan Sinnickson ’15 (now playing with UVM), who accounted for 40 percent of Middlebury’s points last season. Without those two in the lineup, there is a serious lack of outside shooting, and the biggest question will be how to replace two 6’5″ bodies with range and the athleticism to get to the rim.
Middlebury’s reign of dominance – eight consecutive NESCAC appearances from 2007-14; six consecutive NCAA appearances from 2008-13; NESCAC titles in 2009 and 2011; an Elite Eight trip in 2013; a Final Four in 2011 – feels pretty far in the past these days. The Panthers are going to be fighting to finish in the top half of the NESCAC this season.
17-7 overall; 4-6 NESCAC (t-8th); did not qualify for NESCAC tournament
Coach: Jeff Brown, 19th season, 291-174 (.626)
Returning Starters: Two
PG Jake Brown ’17 (7.2 ppg, 6.3 apg, 1.5 apg) SG Matt St. Amour ’17 (12.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.8 apg)
This should really say 2.5 returning starters. The “.5” comes from F Connor Huff ’16. Huff had a 12-game stretch last season where he started every game, and early on this year he’s come off the bench in the Panthers’ first two contests but played 19.5 mpg. Huff is a bit undersized in the front court, but plays with heart and has a high basketball IQ. That’s about as cliché as it gets, but Huff is dependable and you know he will play smart basketball. He’s efficient from the field and from the stripe and will rarely turn the ball over.
Projected Starting Five:
PG Jake Brown
Brown is a traditional pass-first point guard. His quickness and ball handling skills are unmatched, and with the way uncle and Head Coach Jeff Brown likes his teams to run, Jake Brown is perfect for this offense. He learned under the tutelage of future Middlebury Hall of Famer Joey Kizel ’13, and even though Brown is a much different style of player, he’s made this team his the way Kizel once did. I think he’s the most critical piece to the Panthers’ success, but the passing, running and defense are a given. It’s the shooting that’s the issue. Middlebury fans have heard about how great of a scorer JB was in high school, but he seemed to have lost his jumper before arriving in Middlebury. He’s worked extremely hard on that part of his game, and the early returns are great – Brown is 10-16 (62.5% FG) from the floor and 2-3 from deep. He needs to be an outside threat to make up for the losses of Merryman and Sinnickson.
SG Jack Daly ’18 (2.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.7 apg)
The two and three guard positions are interchangeable, and if you want to stretch the definitions a little bit, the point guard position is fluid, too. Middlebury will probably run with four guards on the floor at points this season, and they’re able to do it because they have another true point in Jack Daly. At this point, Daly is a bit like a Brown-light. He was hampered by an ankle injury for most of last season, which lead to some pretty poor shooting numbers, but is now healthy and has stepped into a major role. He’s a strong perimeter defender, too, which might provide Coach Brown with an opportunity to take Jake Brown off the toughest match ups sometimes, which could further lead to an offensive boost for the younger Brown.
SF Matt St. Amour
St. Amour is quite the enigma in Vermont. A two-time Gatorade Player of the Year and 2,000-point scorer in high school, coming from a high school so small it wouldn’t even fill up an intro econ class at Middlebury, he couldn’t have had much higher expectations. St. Amour got a good amount of playing time as a freshman, but he struggled to adapt to the college game and his shooting percentages were ugly. Then his season ended prematurely with a torn ACL in February. His sophomore campaign started off decently, but it was a miracle that he was even able to play 20-plus minutes just nine months after blowing out his ACL. It was an up-and-down year for St. Amour … until the last six games of the season. Something clicked for the sophomore, and, in the words of Coach Brown, St. Amour “dominated”. For Middlebury to be competitive in the NESCAC this season, St. Amour might have to be the team’s top scorer and be a multi-faceted threat on offense. He has the ability to shoot from deep, mid-range, and get to the hoop. He has a tendency to get into awkward positions when finishing, though, which has resulted in some brutal landings. If he can stay on the floor, 2015-16 could be St. Amour’s coming out party.
PF Nick Tarantino ’18 (3.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 0.9 bpg)
Tarantino reminds me of the guy below, C Matt Daley ’16. Tarantino has a bit more range in his game, but they’re both long and athletic. Right now, Tarantino is effectively splitting time with Huff, and I think that continues pretty much all year, but with such a guard-heavy rotation, it’s almost necessary to keep Tarantino’s height out there on the floor. At 6’7″, he can adjust shots and discourage interior passing. Can he guard thicker big men, though? And will he be able to slow down the stretch-4’s of the league? I don’t envision that being much of a problem, because there aren’t really many of those guys established in the league right now (maybe Williams’ Kyle Scadlock ’19 is that guy, but only time will tell), but it could definitely be a problem in non-league games.
C Matt Daley (8.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 56% FG)
Matt Daley, the perennial X-factor for the Panthers. I don’t think that he’s had a month during his entire career where he’s been healthy the entire time. He dealt with a lower-body soft tissue injury at the start of the preseason, but for now, at least, the athletic big is cleared and ready to go. Daley has a lot of finesse in his offensive game – think Tom Palleschi ’17, but more style – but he can get feisty, too. His frame reads as pretty slender (6’8″ 215 lbs), but he’s not an easy matchup for any opponent. My favorite example – the Middlebury game versus Tufts two years ago. Daley was – predictably – battling back from an injury, and so was only able to play 15 minutes, but 10 of those were some of the hardest fought minutes in the second of a game that I’ve ever seen. Hunter Sabety went 8-8 in the first half with a bevy of defenders failing to stop him. He went 0-1 in the second half and got so upset with Daley’s defense that he nearly spear tackled the Panther at one point.
Daley can be one of the game’s best offensive big men and rim protectors … or he could get hurt and miss a long stretch of games. He’ll be needed if Middlebury is to return to relevance this year.
Breakout Player: C Matt Daley
Daley has probably been my pick for Middlebury’s breakout player four years running. I think this is the year he finally makes me look good. Health is really the only question. If healthy and able to play hard for 30 minutes, he will put up numbers. Big ones.
In case you didn’t figure it out, Middlebury has a lot of guard depth, but not much when it comes to the front court. Expect a deep rotation until New Year’s, as Coach Brown tries to figure out the best combination. Other guys in the mix will include guard Bryan Jones ’17, guard Hilal Dahleh ’19, guard/forward Zach Baines ’19, forward Adisa Majors ’18 and forward Eric McCord ’18.
Jones is another very athletic player. He was great for short stretches last season off the bench, coming in to provide energy, and he can shoot pretty well. However, Dahleh is more likely to amass minutes in the backcourt. The freshman can stretch the floor with a nice, lefty three-point shot, and can handle the ball if Brown and Daly need a breather, but his defense might be a question.
There is a lot of hype around the super-athletic Zach Baines. We throw around the term “athletic” a lot when talking about “student-athletes”, but if there was some kind of superlative suffix that I could throw on that word to describe Baines, then I would. Baines is “athletic-est”, if you will. He throws down with ease. He’s got about a 10-foot wing span. But he’s skinny and his game might take time to develop. With Baines at the four, Middlebury will have a tough time defending opposing frontcourts, but as the three Baines could be a matchup nightmare.
Majors and McCord round out the frontcourt rotation. I’ve gone back and forth on my prediction for McCord. Hampered by an injury in the preseason, McCord hasn’t had much of an impact in the team’s first two games, but he’s unique to the Middlebury roster at 6’7″ 254 lbs. Since the graduation of Pete Lynch ’13, the Panthers haven’t had a strong interior presence to both score the basketball and play tough defense. McCord, who hails from the same high school as Lynch, could become that player. However, with Tarantino and Daley both healthy – and strong minutes from Huff cleaning up the boards – there might not be a need for McCord right now. The Panthers have actually out-rebounded their opponents in the first two games. The bigger issue has been perimeter shooting and stopping their opponents from putting the ball in the hoop.
The beginning of the season is always tough for NESCAC teams, with games against opponents already three weeks in to practice and with two to three games under their belts. Heck, NESCAC Champion Wesleyan lost to Lyndon St. in its opener. Lyndon State! The 2013-14 Williams team that went to the National Championship lost to Southern Vermont in its season opener that year. Something about those pesky little Vermont schools … Panther fans, don’t be too disheartened just yet, but if shots still aren’t falling at the end of Christmas break, they might want to start figuring out what it will take to get Sinnickson back from UVM and Merryman from Spain. Furthermore, one front court injury for Middlebury and it could be a field day for teams like Tufts, Williams, Amherst and Bates that have talented front courts.
And lastly, I know I’m going to catch some heat around campus for being so critical … good thing it’s almost Thanksgiving break.
Trinity now holds a game and a half lead over everybody in the NESCAC with a 6-1 conference record, but it took a late second half comeback against Bowdoin to first force overtime and then escape with the win. In what was a very entertaining back and forth game, the Polar Bears took a six-point lead on a John Swords ’15 layup with 5:40 left, but the Bantams battled back and took a one point lead on a huge Rick Naylor ’16 three. Bryan Hurley ’15 knotted things up at 62 all with a free throw and neither team was able to score again in regulation. In overtime Naylor scored four more points and Trinity hung on to win by one. Naylor finished with 16 points and Ed Ogundeko ’15 had a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds.
The Bantams won a little more comfortably over Colby on Saturday to cement their status as the NESCAC frontrunners. That position is very tenuous because Tufts holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over Trinity. Also, the Bantams have to go on the road for their final three conference games against Wesleyan, Conn College and Middlebury. Their offense is at best inconsistent, and every team they play feels like they have a good chance at winning so long as they make shots. That Trinity has also lost a couple of questionable midweek games also throws a damper on their NESCAC success. The Bantams have fought their way to the top, but the sifting sands of the conference landscape might not make that the place to be.
Point Guard Graham Safford ’15 (Bates)
Safford carried the Bobcats to a huge 2-0 weekend in Lewiston. Against Wesleyan on Friday night he scored 31 points, 22 of which came in the second half. He scored 18 of Bates’ final 31 points. Then Saturday he showed his ability to impact the game in so many ways despite having an awful day shooting the ball from the field going 1-11. He scored all 10 of his points in the second half, most of them foul shots down the stretch. Since he couldn’t hit shots, Safford made sure to get his teammates involved handing out 10 assists. He also upped the intensity on the other end finishing the game with a crazy seven steals. Conn College gave Bates a good battle, but Safford made sure that his team did not experience a let down game. A 2-0 weekend puts Bates right back into the thick of things near the top. They get to play Williams at home on Friday night, a big advantage for them. So long as Safford is healthy, his ability will keep Bates in every game they play.
Amherst Perimeter Players
Cheating a little here because Connor Green ’16 is really a forward, but he does a lot of work around the perimeter as well. One of the Amherst student announcers compared Green to Carmelo Anthony, a very apt comparison because both can get outrageously hot from deep but also like to be physical and get to the rim. Obviously Green got hot this weekend, especially against Bowdoin where he buried the Polar Bears with a flurry of three pointers. Reid Berman ’17 did not score a point all weekend, but he also handed out 21 assists, and Johnny McCarthy ’18 returned to his early season form averaging 15.5 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 4.0 APG, 2.0 SPG and 3.5 BPG. Coming into the season Amherst appeared to have a bevy of frontcourt players and a lot of question marks in the backcourt. Now, including Jeff Racy ’17 and Michael Riopel ’18, there is a plethora of players making an impact on the perimeter. In order to make space for everyone, Coach Dave Hixon is going back to a guard-heavy lineup and using Green as a small ball power forward for long stretches.
Small Forward Joe Edmonds ’16 (Wesleyan)
The Oklahoma City native had by far his best weekend of the season, and he came up huge on Saturday to get Wesleyan a much needed win at Tufts. He led Wesleyan with 18 points, four assists and four rebounds. Edmonds has been somewhat of a catalyst for Wesleyan. In the three Cardinal conference wins Edmonds is averaging 14.0 points, and in their losses he is averaging 8.0 points. He did a good job of attacking the basket against Tufts with Hunter Sabety ’17 out with an injury. Do not sleep on the Cardinals who came very close to completing a 2-0 weekend against Bates and Tufts. Many probably wrote them off when Middlebury tore them apart a few weeks ago, but this is a resilient team. At the very least, they are a team capable of giving everybody in the NESCAC a big scare.
After a lot of tinkering, Coach Jeff Brown was finally able to employ the starting five that most fans envisioned on Sunday in Jake Brown ’17, Matt St. Amour’17, Hunter Merryman ’15, Dylan Sinnickson ’15 and Matt Daley ’16. Daley is finally delivering on his mountains of promise, and if (a huge if for him) he can stay healthy then he gives Midd a true big man in the middle. His emergence comes as many of the Panthers bench players slide into the background. Connor Huff ’16 will reinvent himself as an energy guy off the bench, but he might work better as a player with stars around him. Dean Brierley ’15 and Bryan Jones ’17 will see time at guard, but neither of them really scares teams. Not a single freshmen even saw the floor against Hamilton, though Nick Tarantino ’18 and Jack Daly ’18 have shown flashes of strong play this season. The Panthers starting five scored all but five of Middlebury’s points against Hamilton. Middlebury loves to push the pace and they are best when they rotate guys in and out, but they seem overly reliant on their stars right now.
Really a tough weekend for Colby because they had to face their two toughest road opponents without their star Chris Hudnut ’16, who was out with an injury. The Mules rely on Hudnut so much on the boards and in the paint that it likely would have taken a near perfect performance from every one of their remaining players to pull out a victory against either Amherst or Trinity. The severity of the injury to Hudnut is still unclear, but the Mules will not be able to survive a prolonged absence from him. Two weeks ago the Mules were 3-1 and seemed to be coming together. Now at 3-4 it is possible they miss the NESCAC tournament all together. This season, one injury, one bad weekend can ruin your season. On the flip side, the Mules could rebound quickly and get back on track.
Small Forward Stephen Haladyna ’16 (Tufts)
Lost in the hubbub around the Jumbos strong start in conference was the continued struggles of Haladyna. The second leading scorer on Tufts last season, the junior lost his starting spot in the lineup halfway through the season and has done little to justify getting it back. Then he had a nice game Friday against Conn College going 3-3 from three, his best shooting performance of the year. That made his subsequent goose egg on 0-5 shooting Saturday all the more frustrating. Haladyna is in a year long shooting slump making an abysmal 24.1 percent from three. Never a great playmaker for others, he is also now not getting a lot of rebounds which means he is struggling to contribute in any fashion. Other players have stepped up and helped Tufts manage his decline, but it looks close to a lost season for Haladyna.
2013 Record: 17-9 (6-4 NESCAC), third in NESCAC, reached semifinals of NESCAC tournament
Head Coach: Jeff Brown, 18th season (274-167, .621)
Starters Returning: 3
G Matt St. Amour ’17
G/F Dylan Sinnickson ’15
F Hunter Merryman ’15
Breakout Player: Dean Brierley ’15
Though the guard played only 7.7 minutes per game last season, he earned his co-captaincy because of the respect he commands for his work ethic. If you have ever walked by Pepin Gymnasium during the day, at any time of year, you have likely seen Brierley making it rain from all over the court. He is one of the smoothest shooters in practice. The challenge now is for the senior to translate his skills to the game.
Projected Starting Five:
G Jake Brown ’17
It is tough to follow one of the best players in program history, but Brown is up to the task. Brown, nephew of coach Jeff Brown, is a different type of player than the departed Joey Kizel, a feisty defender and pass-first point guard. For his position, Brown is probably the best defender on the team. He should see a big bump in production because of increased minutes after playing only 21.7 minutes per game last year.
G Matt St. Amour ’17
St. Amour began last season starting at the two guard, but struggled shooting the ball, which ought to be his greatest strength. His season was cut short when he succumbed to a torn ACL in early February, but reports are that he has made a speedy recovery and will be active for the season opener. It’s possible that Brierley begins this season starting at the two-guard, but this is a long term prognostication. St. Amour, when he’s healthy and effective, will be in the starting lineup.
G/F Dylan Sinnickson ’15
Was there a bigger surprise in 2013-14 than Sinnickson? The super athletic swing man had his sophomore season ruined because of injury, but he became the Panthers’ best scoring threat very quickly last year, nearly matching Kizel in every scoring category but free throw percentage. If Sinnickson can get to the line a bit more and hit his freebies at a higher rate, he could make a run for NESCAC Player of the Year. And he should be able to get to the stripe, because his athleticism lets him get to the rim more often than not.
F Hunter Merryman ’15
Merryman was among the nation’s best three-point shooters two years ago, and though he did not hit at quite that high of a rate last season, he still shot over 40.0 percent from deep and averaged 12.3 points per game. Merryman and St. Amour will be counted on to hit open shots in transition.
C Matt Daley ’16
Daley represents the biggest question mark for the Panthers. For anyone that has watched Middlebury over the last two years, the wait for Daley to turn into a day-in an day-out force has been a long one. Much of the inconsistency is due to poor luck, as Daley suffered from mono for much of last season, but when he was healthy early on he had some dominant games. Better than his 24-point performance in the season opener was his all-around effort against Tufts, in which he scored 15 points in just 15 minutes and frustrated Tufts’ Hunter Sabety ’17 in the second half of the game. Daley’s presence will be as important, if not more so, on the defensive end as the offensive end, as he will be needed to shut down some of the NESCAC’s impressive frontcourts, such as Tufts and Amherst.
In a down year, the Panthers entered the NESCAC tournament as the third seed last season. Despite the loss of some integral parts, this year’s team could be better than last, if everything goes right. The transition game will be the Panthers’ strength, as they will be able to match their opponents’ athleticism at every position.
The rest of Middlebury’s rotation, after the six players listed above, will consist primarily of G Bryan Jones ’17, F Jake Nidenberg ’16, F Connor Huff ’16, C Chris Churchill ’15 and newcomer G Jack Daly ’18.
Jones can be electric and is an above average shooter, but he did not get much time last year as he sat behind Kizel and Brown at the point. He will need to play with energy at all times on the floor if he wants to get significant minutes.
Jones will also be pushed by Jack Daly, whom Coach Brown refers to as “game ready”. Daly has good size for the point at 6’3″, and is strength is the transition game, which fits in perfectly with Middlebury’s style.
Forwards Nidenberg and Huff saw similar minutes last season. The former is a high-energy guy who can chip in with points, boards and defense. Unfortunately, he is still recovering from an injury suffered over the summer and has yet to participate fully in practice. Huff is a crafty offensive player who can come in for a shift and tally a few points.
Churchill has not gotten many minutes in his career, but as a senior and the biggest body on the roster, he will be crucial in spelling Daley and providing strong defense.
The biggest concerns for this year’s team will be the lack of experience beyond the starting five and whether or not someone can step up and become a dominant one-on-one defender. Over the last two seasons, Nolan Thompson ’13 and James Jensen ’14 were able to take the other team’s best offensive player and neutralize his impact, but seeing as Brown stands at 5’10”, he is unable to defend beyond the point guard position. Sinnickson has the size and athleticism to fit the Jensen mold, but he will be relied upon so heavily to score that it might be asking for too much for him to be a shutdown defender as well. We might see some interesting lineups that could free up Daley to defend big 3’s and 4’s.
Despite the inexperience of the second half of the rotation and the defensive questions, Middlebury has enough talent to compete for a NESCAC title.