Some say that the playoffs are all about momentum. Who’s hot, who’s not? We can all think of teams that have ridden late season hot streaks to championships, but just as often (maybe more often) the Cinderella story meets a brick wall come playoff time. Well, if you are a believer in playoff momentum, then this is the article for you. Who’s playing their best basketball right now, and which lower seed could make some noise?
1. No. 16 Amherst (20-4, 8-2, Last week: 1)
Amherst rebounded nicely from last week’s loss to the Tufts Jumbos. The top spot was a clear two-horse race between Amherst and Trinity, and Amherst was just more consistent this weekend. They pretty easily handled Middlebury, keeping the Panthers at an arm’s length all day long, and basically did the same to Hamilton the following day. Meanwhile, the Bantams let the Conts hang around into overtime. Amherst just looks to be playing all-around good basketball right now. Their problem all year long has been inconsistency from one starter or another, but everyone played well this weekend. If the Amherst roster is playing at its best, they won’t be beat.
2. No. 25 Trinity (18-6, 9-1, Last week: 2)
Even though going to OT against Hamilton is one reason why I have the Bantams at No. 2 this week, that challenge did provide them with some much-needed high-pressure experience. On the season, Trinity has won its games by an average of 17.3 points, and only two of those have come by less than 10 points (which doesn’t include their 10-point OT win against Hamilton). I know that this was an Elite Eight team a year ago, but it’s been awhile since they’ve played in a really meaningful, tightly-contested game and pulled out the win. As is often the case in professional sports, a hard-fought win or even a loss can end up paying dividends in the playoffs.
3. No. 19 Tufts (19-5, 7-3, Last week: 5)
The 77-73 win over Williams wasn’t extremely impressive, but a win is a win and the Jumbos took care of business last weekend and during the week against Pine Manor. We know they can play with the best, because they’ve beaten Amherst, but we also know that it’s a flawed team without much depth. They’ve gotten a few big games from Stephen Haladyna ’16 recently, and Ryan Spadaford ’16 had some big games of his own earlier this year. That’s what the Jumbos need more of if they’re going to go deep in the NESCAC tournament, and possibly further. The interesting thing about the win against Williams is that these two will be running it back on Saturday, this time in Medford. The question is whether Williams can make the necessary adjustments.
4. Middlebury (14-10, 6-4, Last week: 3)
It was a tough weekend for Middlebury, but it was equally tough for Wesleyan and Williams. The difference is in the quality of opponents for each team. There’s no shame in losing to two ranked teams in Trinity and Amherst, and even though the Panthers didn’t threaten either team, they were competitive in both games. In fact, I would argue that the play of Adisa Majors ’18 recently (33 points, 14 rebounds this weekend) makes Middlebury more intimidating than ever. Don’t get it wrong, a healthy Matt Daley ’16 in addition to Majors would be best for the Panthers, but his status right now is unknown.
5. Colby (16-8, 4-6, Last week: 8)
Yes, that’s right, the Colby College Mules are No. 5 in this week’s ranks. They’re flying high after winning two games to secure a playoff bid, and they’ve been answering some of my questions about their ability to compete for a NESCAC title. It had flown under the radar, but John Gallego’s ’16 strong play had coincided with some spotty performances from Luke Westman ’16, but Westman has had his best offensive stretch of the season over the last three games, all wins. Secondly, Colby didn’t have to rely on Ryan Jann ’16 alone to score points this weekend to get the wins. Jann filled it up for 19 points against Conn College, but struggled with just five points against Wesleyan. In his stead, Westman, Chris Hudnut ’16 and sniper Pat Stewart ’16 picked up the slack. That all-around attack gives me confidence in the way they are playing. AND, maybe most impressively of all, they actually played pretty good defense last weekend, holding both of their opponents to 73 points or less and winning, something they’d only done one other time this season.
6. Bowdoin (12-10, 4-6, Last week: 10)
Hold up! Blow up the ranks! Colby and Bowdoin? Over Williams and Wesleyan? Yep, that’s right. The Polar Bears are HOT, pulling off the same feat as the Mules. The only difference for me is that Bowdoin used the same formula they have all year, relying on their two-headed monster to will them to victory. Well, the defense is going to have to ramp it up to 11 in the playoffs, and I don’t know if two weapons is enough to get by Amherst (I’m actually pretty certain it’s not). Still, I’m impressed by what they accomplished last weekend, and if they were going to play tomorrow I would take the Polar Bears over the Cardinals – who they just beat – or the Ephs.
7. Williams (15-9, 5-5, Last week: 7)
The best thing I can say about Williams this season is that they’ve been consistently just above average, winning when they should and losing when they should. The Ephs are 5-0 against Colby, Bowdoin, Hamilton, Conn College and Bates, but 0-7 against Wesleyan, Amherst, Trinity, Tufts and Middlebury. Their reliance on youth is holding them back in tight games against good opponents. They’ve had double digit turnovers in every one of their losses to NESCAC teams. How fast can their youngsters grow up? If they’re going to upset Tufts, it better happen by Saturday.
8. Wesleyan (18-6, 5-5, Last week: 4)
Really ugly weekend for the Cards who fell to Colby and Bowdoin. Maybe it was just a matter of the latter two teams having the motivation necessary to pull off the upsets and get into the tournament, but the best teams don’t play down to their competition. The three point shooting, which went through an epic cold spell midway through the year, hasn’t improved too much, which is not good because Wesleyan has taken the fifth-most three pointers this season. The key for me is the contribution that they get off the bench. Harry Rafferty ’17, Nathan Krill ’18 and Joe Edmonds ’16 are all going to get close to 20 minutes on Saturday – if they’re playing well. Wesleyan needs scoring from the two upper classmen and strong defense from Krill to stop down Daley and/or Majors.
9. Hamilton (11-13, 2-8, Last week: 9)
It’s just sad for me to write about the bottom three teams, because I hate to pile the insult onto the injury, but I have to say a few words. More than the two teams below them, Hamilton put up a fight down to the bitter end. A couple of breaks here and there, and those two OT losses and the 12-point loss to Amherst over the past three games could have gone the other way. Kudos to Hamilton for taking it to Trinity, especially, who should never have let themselves get into that situation. As we’ve said before, the Continentals are young and talented. They’ll be much higher on this list come this time next year.
10. Conn College (12-12, 3-7, Last week: 10)
While they might have been putting up more of a fight than the 11th-ranked Bobcats, Conn was still unable to pull out any victories down the stretch. They ended the year on a painful seven-game slide. The three-point loss to Williams probably stings the most because Conn was up by 12 at halftime. The Camels showed real signs of life this year, and early on I thought they could be a surprise contender for a home playoff game. Their first years were really special, Dan Janel ’17 stepped up his game in a big way, and Zuri Pavlin ’17 did what he’s always done, and he was able to defer a bit more with a couple of playmakers finally around him. Conn was not a bad team this year. They just need to learn how to win.
11. Bates (10-14, 2-8, Last week: 11)
I don’t know what happened, and I won’t even speculate. A 2015 Sweet Sixteen team, the Bobcats looked like a completely different team this year, and they crumbled down the stretch. Bates is 2-7 since Jan. 9, with one of those wins coming over the 3-21 Maine-Farmington Beavers (the other came over Hamilton). It’s sad to see the career of Mike Boornazian ’16 and his classmates end this way. We thought Boornazian was a lock for All-NESCAC laurels at the beginning of the year, but with the way the Bobcats season ended, I’m not sure that that’s still the case.