The Middlebury Panthers and Salisbury Sea Gulls are both dancing, but they got here in very different ways. Middlebury finished the season 17-10, and needed an incredible run through the NESCAC tournament to get into the NCAAs. Salisbury, on the other hand, fell in heartbreaking manner in the Capital Athletic Conference championship game against No. 4 Christopher Newport. The Sea Gulls (21-6, 13-5) beat just about everyone but CNU this season, losing to the CAC conference champs three times and twice in overtime, including in the championship. They didn’t think they’d be returning to the Little Dance, one year after making it and falling to Trinity in the Second Round, but the committee was kind and Salisbury is back.
Both teams’ seasons were on almost equivalent paths until the final minutes of their respective championship games. While a shocking carry call on Amherst’s Johnny McCarthy ’18 gave Middlebury the ball and essentially iced the game, an even more mind-blowing push call against Salisbury’s Kyle Savercool ’16 at the buzzer sounded sent CNU to the foul line for the win. Check out the video here, and you decide if Savercool (#15) shoved anyone.
Anyway, enough about how they got here. As Salisbury first year coach Andrew Sachs told me, “We are in [and] that’s all that matters.” Sachs comes to Salisbury, his alma mater, after six years at Bethany College and five at Holy Cross. As our loyal readers, you’ve heard plenty about what Middlebury can and can’t do, but you must be wondering just how good Salisbury is. That’s the beauty of D-III, that teams from outside of one’s region are often a complete mystery, and that can make for some pretty exciting games.
The first thing to know about the Sea Gulls is that their best player, Wyatt Smith, has been out all season with an injury. Smith was a 14.7 ppg forward last year, shooting at 58.6 percent and tearing down almost eight board per game, and had 37 points on 16-20 shooting last year in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. According to Sachs, Smith was indisputably the best player in the CAC. Whether that’s true or not, that assessment speaks to the accomplishment of Salisbury to get to this point without such an important player. In his place forward Gordon Jeter ’17, the team’s only All-CAC honoree, has emerged as the leading scorer, but even calling Jeter a forward is a bit misleading. The Sea Gulls have been outsized pretty much every game this year. Jeter stands at a slender 6’6″, 185 lbs, and is the team’s five-man, if you insist on putting a number on it. He’s very athletic and long, and is the focal point of the Sea Gulls’ offense via the pick and roll. More on that later.
The second thing to know about Salisbury is that they rank second in Division-III at 60.3 ppg allowed. Salisbury will try to break the rhythms of their opponents. They will press and play zone. And they will double everything in the post. And I mean everything. If Jeter has to play man one-on-one on Matt Daley ’16, this game is going to be over quick, so quick rotations are going to be incredibly important for Salisbury.
Salisbury X-factors: G Justin May ’16 and F Chad Barcikowski ’18
I’ll be honest, in my conversation with Coach Sachs, the names May and Barcikowski didn’t come up once. May has served as the team’s sixth man all year, playing 17.1 mpg and scoring 6.7 ppg. I don’t even know what his skill set is like. The same applies to Barcikowski, who’s playing 12.2 mpg and scoring 6.0 ppg. What I do know is that the Sea Gulls have played with an eight-man rotation all season, and now one of those eight, back up Jordan Brooks ’18, is out with an injury and won’t return unless Salisbury is able to make a deep run in the tournament. The Sea Gulls will need to get some quality minutes off of the bench. The saving grace is that they might be aided some by the media timeout structure of the NCAA Tournament – timeouts after 16, 12, eight and four minutes in each half.
Middlebury X-factor: C Matt Daley ’16
Sorry, everyone, back to the well here, but honestly, if Daley goes to work this game is over. He’s got more height than anything Salisbury can throw at him, and not only can he put up double digit points, he might approach 10 assists if he can effectively pass out of those double teams in the post. Defensively, Daley will have to hedge aggressively when Jeter sets screens for the ball handler. And even against the press, Daley will be key because the Panthers will look to get the ball to him in the middle to break the pressure. Adisa Majors ’18 and Connor Huff ’16 will be just as important filling in that role when Daley takes a breather.
1. Will Salisbury get hot from deep?
The Sea Gulls shot 24.9 three pointers per game this season, right around 50th in the nation, making 9.0 per game, which ranks 48th in the country. They don’t necessarily live and die by the three, but everyone that steps on the court for them is a threat to shoot it. All five starters are in the 30-40 percent range, and May is just above 40 percent. Middlebury isn’t a big jump shooting team, and only Matt St. Amour ’17 can really get them back in a game if they fall behind, so an early barrage from Salisbury could make things difficult for the Panthers.
2. Who can take care of the ball?
As mentioned, Salisbury is great at stopping opposing offenses, and part of that is forcing turnovers, having caused 500 turnovers this season. The Panthers, with their reputation for harassing other NESCAC teams and getting steals, caused 401 turnovers. Coach Sachs is a terrific defensive coach. He’s had really good defensive teams in the past, leading the country in steals one year at Bethany. Still, Middlebury has Jake Brown ’17, whom Sachs believes is the best point guard Salisbury has faced all season. Will the Sea Gulls be able to rattle Brown?
3. Is the spotlight too big?
Middlebury assuaged my fears that they might shrink in the moment with their victory in the NESCAC tournament, but the NCAAs are, of course, a different animal. Salisbury has been here before, losing to Trinity in the Second Round a year ago. No one from Middlebury has played in the NCAA Tournament. The current seniors got to step on the court in the final seconds as North Central was laying the smack down in the Elite Eight in 2013, but that’s it. Now, it’s a neutral site, so the crowd won’t be a factor, but there’s no denying the added pressure of an NCAA Tournament game. On the flip side, for Middlebury, they weren’t even supposed to be here As Jack Daly ’18 put, “I feel like we’re playing with house money right now.”
On paper, I think Middlebury has the upper hand. They have way more size, and I think their skill in transition bodes well for breaking the Salisbury press. Sure, the Sea Gulls are athletic 1-5 and can be difficult to cover, but there are no slow, lumbering bodies in the Middlebury rotation, either. Daley is almost ideal to cover Jeter on the pick-and-roll, and Zach Baines ’19 will be a good defender off the bench to challenge three pointers. Furthermore, Middlebury played better competition in the NESCAC than Salisbury faced in the CAC. Sachs admitted as much. Still, there remains the fact that the Sea Gulls steal the ball a million times per game. They’re so disciplined defensively, and what if Daley can’t pass the ball out of the post? What if they get hot from three? What if Brown has a few ugly turnovers?
In the end, though, I’m going with the team that Dave McHugh of D3Hoops.com dubbed the Cinderella of the tournament, Middlebury. (You can check out Dave’s conversation with Jeff Brown from yesterday here at the 1:07 mark, although his dubbing of Middlebury as the Cinderella came in the midst of Monday’s four hour bracket breakdown. I dare you to listen to that whole thing.) Being so close to the team might have blinded me, but it also has made me acutely aware of how much better they are with Daley on the floor and healthy. They’re closer to a 20-7 type of team than the 17-10 team they finished the season as. I’m giving Middlebury the edge in a game that plays closer to the Salisbury pace and remains tight, but the Panthers’ experience on the road (only nine games at home this season) will pay off.
Prediction: Middlebury 69 – Salisbury 62
Eye on Saturday
Hypothetically, if Middlebury pulls out the win, they’ll be playing the winner of the host Stockton University and Keene St, whom Middlebury beat by nine back in February. I’ll be honest with you, Keene St. is a major underdog in this one, and if they pull off the upset I’m putting a hefty sum on the Panthers to cruise into the Sweet 16. However, I doubt that happens, and Middlebury would have to play the host on Saturday. The second day of the first weekend is all about heart and grit, because teams don’t have much time at all to game plan. Bates needed an overtime period to beat Stockton at the Ospreys’ gym last year in the Second Round, but only two Stockton starters from that game are back this year. The numbers actually have them pegged as a pretty similar team to Salisbury in that they shoot a lot of threes, make them at a respectable but not incredible rate, keep teams to under 65 points and force other teams to turn the ball over, but don’t have a ton of height and struggle rebounding the ball. With that being the case, I like the Panthers chances to sneak into the Sweet 16, but as is always the case in Division-III, it’s damn near impossible to predict, so let’s just enjoy the show.