Editor’s Note: While 99% of the work on these previews is done by the writers, the projected records for all NESCAC Men’s Basketball teams were decided upon by the editors collectively, not decisions of the writers themselves. So, if you want to be mad at someone about the record projections, be mad at us.
Projected Record: 8-2
The 2015-2016 season saw the continued maturation of a young Amherst squad from the year before. Buoyed by a pre-season trip to Italy, the team jumped out to a 13-1 start. They rode the hot start through the NESCAC season going 8-2, both losses coming on the road. After taking down Tufts by three points in the semifinal, the Purple and White fell to Middlebury in an epic NESCAC championship, 81-79. Yet Amherst still earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament where they proceeded to win their first two games at home by a combined three points. The third and fourth rounds saw Amherst take down budding rivals Babson and Tufts in a more comfortable fashion. Then, the team traveled down to Salem, Virginia for Coach David Hixon’s 7th Final Four appearance. Much like the NESCAC final, Amherst fell to Benedictine (Ill.) by a bucket.
The only player not returning this year for Amherst is Connor Green ’16. A pure scorer, Green led the Purple and White with 15 PPG. But, as with any volume shooter, there are days where shots are not falling and it can throw the offense out of rhythm. Expect a more balanced scoring distribution this year as virtually anyone Amherst throws out there can score the rock. Defensively, the team is anchored by senior, two-time captain, David George ’17. George is arguably the best rim protector in the NESCAC and continues to polish his offensive game. Sharpshooter Jeff Racy returns along with junior Swiss Army knives Johnny McCarthy ‘18 and Michael Riopel ‘18. Jayde Dawson ’18 is also back with Reid Berman ’17 to split minutes at the point. The depth and talent on this team makes a NESCAC championship and another deep NCAA tournament run strong possibilities. D3Hoops.com reinforced this notion by ranking Amherst the preseason #1.
Head Coach: David Hixon, 40th year, 767-271 (.738)
Asst. Coaches: Aaron Toomey ’14, Kevin Hopkins ’08, J.D. Ey, Al Wolejko
Guard Jayde Dawson ’18 (11.8 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 3.3 APG)
Guard Jeff Racy ’17 (11.2 PPG, 3 RPG, 49% 3PFG)
Guard/Forward Johnny McCarthy ’18 (13 PPG, 6 RPG, 2 APG)
Forward David George ’17 (8.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 60% FG)
Projected Starting Lineup
Qualifier: Given the depth of this year’s Amherst team, they could easily go 8-9 deep with little to no talent drop-off. But, you can only open the game with 5 on the court, so here it is:
Guard Jayde Dawson ‘18
A returning starter from last year, Dawson is an explosive player that can both score it, and hound opposing guards in the backcourt. I often liken Jayde Dawson to Russell Westbrook in that he can be by the far the best player on the court, but also, on occasion, the worst. A strong, energetic player he often toes the line between aggressive and reckless. Consistency will be the key for Dawson entering this season, but even a minor improvement from last year is a scary thought for opposing coaches. His size and strength allow him to get to, and finish at the rim. Dawson is also a streaky shooter who can stretch the floor at times but also garner the Rondo treatment when he’s off. A score-first guard, Dawson’s mercurial play can get him in trouble, but his ceiling might very well be the highest on the team. Defensively, he was second on the team a year ago averaging a steal per game. As previously noted, Dawson can make it very difficult for opposing guards to even get the ball past half court let alone get the team into an offense. The experience of last year should help, and a big year could be on the horizon for him.
Guard Jeff Racy ‘17
When Joel Embiid told the world how he learned to shoot, Jeff Racy may have been in some of the video clips he watched. The senior captain is a classic sharpshooter. He averaged 11.2 PPG a year ago, almost all of which came from behind the 3 point line. He shot it at 48.7% from downtown for the season and was even better in NESCAC play, with a 57% 3-point percentage. Racy added a little strength from the year prior, which allowed him to not only get it done offensively, but defensively as well. He was second on the team in minutes at 30.5 per game. His length allows him to defend multiple positions making it easier to leave him in the game no matter the matchup. Racy’s ability to stretch the floor creates space for other guys to get to the rim or post players to go to work. He figures to be the premier shooter for Amherst, and possibly the NESCAC, again this year. Few things were more entertaining last year than watching Racy get hot and teams frantically trying to take away his air space. While his form is slightly unorthodox, the results speak for themselves. Jeff’s shot is like many things in sports; it’s only weird if it doesn’t work and trust me, it works. Expect much of the same from Racy this year. Also, don’t sleep on Racy going off on February 4th when Amherst hosts Tufts – his younger brother Pat is a freshman Jumbo, and I’m sure Jeff would like nothing more than to bury his little bro’s team.
Small forward Johnny McCarthy ‘18
Coming off a Freshman of the Year award, Johnny showed virtually no signs of a sophomore slump. A factor on both ends of the floor, McCarthy averaged 13 points a game to go along with 6 boards. The 6′ 6″ swingman does a little bit of everything for the Purple and White. He can score it inside and out, and is often tasked with checking the opposing team’s best player. Deceptively quick, McCarthy always seems to get his hands on passes and break up the other team’s offensive rhythm. He has the speed to stay with smaller players and the length to lock up taller players as well. A common theme among this Amherst squad, Johnny offers versatility both defensively and offensively. One area of improvement would be jump shooting consistency. McCarthy can be a streaky scorer with bouts of icy shooting. He’s often able to offset this by getting to the rim and free throw line, but another player to stretch the floor never hurts. A tireless worker, McCarthy has improved every year. The decent high school player’s relentless work ethic has turned him into a bonafide NESCAC star. Do not be surprised if McCarthy shows up on multiple post season award lists.
Forward Jacob Nabatoff ’17
The only member of the projected starting five that did not start last year, Nabatoff looks to have an expanded role this coming season. He did start a lone game last year, but averaged only 2.5 PPG in 10.5 MPG. A potential stretch 4, he has range that extends to the three point line. It will be interesting to see how Nabatoff’s game develops with more minutes. He started 29 games his sophomore season and averaged a serviceable 6.3 PPG. The senior had a 38% 3-point field goal percentage last year, demonstrating his ability to knock down the three ball. Nabatoff is probably the biggest question mark in the starting line-up, but definitely has the talent and skill set to be a contributor. There’s something to be said too about being a senior. I’ve seen it a number of times where players finally hit their stride in the final year. Look for Nabatoff to be an improved player this season, adding some ever-present depth to Amherst’s front line.
Forward David George ’17
A two-year captain, George is in many ways the heart and soul of the team. The 6’8″ forward anchors the defense and offers a back-to-the-basket threat on the offensive end. He shot it at just around 60% from the floor last year and looks to expand on his offensive game even more in his final year. George’s length and athleticism make him an elite defensive presence. He averaged over 2 blocks a game last year and can be heard barking out commands to fellow teammates when he quarterbacks the defense. George is also capable of providing an emotional spark, whether it be a big block or thunderous dunk. Both the literal and figurative backbone of the team, George looks to close out his stellar career with another successful season. As a strong voice in the locker room, he will also be tasked with fighting the complacency that can follow a successful season. David George is an established player and you can depend on him to provide much of the same this year.
Breakout Player: Guard Michael Riopel ’18
I don’t know if you can really consider it a breakout year considering the season that Riopel had a year ago, but he has the chance to elevate his game to another level. A long, athletic wing, he spent 6 weeks out of his summer working with former Amherst standout and 2013 national champion, Willy Workman ’13. His goal was to add strength and continue to round out his game, especially on offense. The 6′ 5″ guard did a little bit of everything last year averaging a tick over 7 PPG, pulling down close to 4 rebounds, and even dishing out 1.3 APG. Like many other players on this Amherst team, Riopel has the versatility to guard multiple positions. Offensively, he did not shoot a ton of threes, but was effective when he did, connecting on 41% of his attempts. Along with the PG Jayde Dawson, the junior swingman adds a slashing element to the offense and displayed the ability to get to the rim. Coming off the bench, he made the second most free throw attempts on the team. The added strength should allow the trend of Riopel getting to the charity stripe to continue. While I think he’ll still come off the bench, that fact has more to do with matchups than ability. The role also allows the freedom for Riopel to bring added defensive intensity along with instant offense. If the NESCAC had a 6th man award I would put him at the top of the short list of potential winners, a la ’07-’08 Manu Ginobli. Fiercely competitive, Riopel, through his hard work, has put himself in a prime position to have a career year.
Past performance is not always an indicator of future success, but last year’s tournament run has expectations for this year’s team running high. The team loses only one player from their rotation that ran up to 9 players deep a year ago, and as a result, they received the #1 ranking on d3hoops.com. While the team will certainly miss the presence of Connor Green ’16, the offense may find more continuity now that they don’t necessarily have a pure scorer. In talking with Coach Hixon, some of the challenges this year’s team will face are an expanded roster and contentedness. The positives however, greatly outweigh the negatives. I think that even though the team made the NESCAC final and Final Four there is still a sour taste left in their mouths from not bringing home any championships. Coach Hixon also lauded the leadership on this team both by the seniors and the younger guys as well. One element about having an expanded roster that can be a bonus is the ability to have competitive practices. When guys push each other in practice, it makes it that much easier come gametime.
The level and depth of talent on this team should make for an exciting season. Seniors Reid Berman and Eric Conklin round out the rotation from a year ago. Berman provides a steady hand off the bench to run the point and lead the team in assists per game in limited action last year. He provides both leadership and grit while doing all the little things a basketball team needs to be done. Conklin is an undersized big at 6’6″ but uses his 235 lb frame, excellent footwork, and a soft touch to be an effective inside scorer for Amherst. Additionally, he is an excellent screener which allows other guys to get open looks.
The Purple and White open up the season with their annual Ken Wright tournament that should have stronger competition than in years past. Babson also visits Amherst in December and Coach Hixon said that would be a good test considering the games the two teams have played in the past. Last year featured a double overtime thriller before a competitive sweet sixteen matchup that saw Amherst win both. The league should be as competitive as ever, helping weed out pretenders and prepare contenders for postseason play. One of the benefits of having such a tough league schedule is that it will force Amherst to bring it every night. Additional home games should also play to the Purple and White’s advantage given their unbeaten record in Lefrak Gymnasium a year ago. The preseason #1 ranking is a place few coaches want to be because it can lead to additional pressure and complacency. I don’t think those issues will crop up for this team due to the leadership it possesses. Ultimately, the team has the talent to be better than they were last year and hopes to take the final step. A NESCAC championship appearance along with a Final Four run is nothing to sneeze at, but the end goal this season is to close the deal and finish out with even more hardware.