While I don’t like to play favorites, basketball has to be my favorite NESCAC sport to both watch and write about. Maybe it’s the small rosters and long season that allow for story lines to develop like they can’t in football and baseball. Or maybe it’s the fact that the Bowdoin gym allows me the opportunity to sit so close to the action that I can literally touch opponents while yelling at them.
So before I go any further, I want to apologize to any players who I jeered over the course of the season. I assure you it was nothing personal, just business.
This season was a fantastic one to cover because of how unpredictable it was. Take a look back at our Power Rankings from December 12, and you start to get an idea of how some teams’ fortunes rose and fell over the course of the season. The axis of Amherst, Williams, and Middlebury was blasted to smithereens from every direction. This was the first season since 2001-2002 that a team other than one of those three finished atop the regular season standings. Having none of them even hosting a home NESCAC playoff game would have been unthinkable just 12 months ago. Whether this year was a fluke or represents a sea change in the league is still to be determined, but the gobs of talent on Amherst would indicate that the Jeffs, at least, are likely to be back on top soon enough.
Though Wesleyan ended up winning the NESCAC tournament, there is no doubt that Trinity was the best NESCAC team this season. They were 9-1 in the league and had the #1 seed sewn up before the final weekend even happened. The only two games they lost to NESCAC opponents went down to the final minute and the Bantams had a chance to tie both of them right at the end. In the NCAA tournament they overcame a slow start in their opening round game and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen where they controlled the game the entire way to beat Bates. They honestly should have made the Final Four but ended up blowing a late lead to Babson. The Bantams didn’t play pretty and they were too balanced to have one player truly stand out.
While the league overall was deeper than ever, what the NESCAC lacked was the bona fide superstars that usually dot the landscape. The departure of talent from the NESCAC between 2013-2014 and this year was immense, and that left a vacuum. In the early going Graham Safford ’15 and Dan Wohl ’15 were the two best all-around players. They faltered somewhat as the season went along, and the balance of teams like Wesleyan and Trinity came to the forefront. Injuries to Chris Hudnut ’16 and Hunter Sabety ’17 cut their excellent seasons short and also hurt the chances of Colby or Tufts making a run at a NESCAC championship.
Then almost out of nowhere Lucas Hausman ’16 started scoring like he was James Harden using a set of moves to confound opposing defenses. Though critics said that he failed to contribute in other ways, Hausman was the clear choice for Player of the Year by the time the dust settled. Even though Bowdoin ended up missing the NCAA tournament, Hausman led them to a big home playoff win over Williams by scoring 37 points. In the process he decisively ripped away the POY trophy away from Wohl who, unfortunately, struggled offensively in his final college game.
I also want to celebrate how NESCAC students got behind their teams this year. NESCAC students are probably rightly viewed as apathetic towards their sports for the most part. While some marquee games might get students away from Netflix and into the stands, most games take place in front of very few supporters, aside from the parents of the players. This year fans got behind a number of teams. Up in Maine the Bates fans took their always fantastic atmosphere to another level while Colby and Bowdoin saw improvements from what is usually a mostly non-existent atmosphere.
Trinity and Wesleyan are also not known for their fan support at basketball contests, but by the end of the season both had significant amounts of fans at their games. The NESCAC semifinal between Wesleyan and Trinity was a back and forth affair not only on the court but also in the crowd. Ultimately Wesleyan prevailed in both contests, and a day later the Cardinal fans rushed the Bantams’ home court to celebrate their newly crowned NESCAC champions. That the uptick in fan support came in a wide open NESCAC season is not a coincidence.
Because of their massive fan support and surprise run to the Sweet 16, no team and school better epitomized this season than Bates. The Bobcats went 1-9 in conference a year ago, but we knew that they had much more talent than that returning this year. Their sweep of Colby and Bowdoin in December not only put the NESCAC on notice about this team but also how hard it would be to win at Bates. My trip to Alumni gym for that December Bates-Bowdoin game remains a personal highlight for the season because of how live that Bates crowd was. Though my beloved Bears lost by 20, I had to admire how loud the gym got during a crucial second half run that was punctuated by two big dunks.
The raucous home crowd was a huge reason why Bates finished the regular season 12-0 in Lewiston. Bates fans were shocked when Wesleyan beat the Bobcats in NESCAC tournament because Alumni Gym had taken on such a sense of invincibility. When Bates got into the NCAA tournament, the vast majority of Bates students watched on campus for the first two rounds before making the trip to Babson for the Sweet Sixteen. While I was not at the game, all accounts and pictures show an enormous Bobcat crowd. Even though Bates fell short, the game was a victory for the wider community.
Believe me, I understand the corroding effects that a big sports program can have at a college. Look no further than Duke and how two women did not want to bring forward sexual assault allegations against basketball player Rasheed Sulaimon because they feared a backlash from the rabid Blue Devil fan base. Yet if Duke is one extreme then the tepidity of NESCAC fans is another. As Aristotle and Buddha asserted, the middle way is the best, and I believe that NESCAC fans got closer to that middle ground between apathy and fanaticism where passion lies. This year was a fun ride, and I am excited to do it all again next year.