#14 Wesleyan (10-2, 1-1) @ #18 Hamilton (12-o, 1-0), 7:00 PM, Clinton, NY
And as we dive into the second weekend of NESCAC play there is already a game that will test two teams’ long term capabilities. Hamilton and Wesleyan are due to square off in this marquee matchup on Friday January 12th in Clinton, NY. The home team, Hamilton, has dominated their non-conference schedule and carried that momentum into their first NESCAC game against Trinity, and Wesleyan conquered the mighty Middlebury Panthers and nearly toppled Williams in an OT loss last weekend. In what has been an obscure first conference weekend in terms of power rankings (although you can read all about how Cameron deciphered last weekend’s results in the 1/10 rankings here:) this game should help clear up what the tumultuous beginning has left unclear, and be our best evidence yet as to whether or not Hamilton is legit.
Wesleyan sits at 14th and Hamilton at 18th in the national poll. One year removed from being a disappointing last seed in the NESCAC playoffs, the Continentals are living up to their incredible talent this season. With versatile scorers like Michael Grassey ’19 and Peter Hoffmann ’19 surrounding stud Kena Gilmour ’20, Hamilton has, on paper, the strongest starting five in the league. Wesleyan, who was more expected to succeed in 2018, is also deep with experienced talent and their position in 2017 as a NESCAC semifinalist and NCAA tournament team would’ve favored them in this game a month ago. However, following losses in two of the Cardinals’ last three games, the home Hamilton squad can hardly be considered an underdog. After returning all of their 2017 starters, the system is in place for Hamilton’s continued success and it shows in their balanced stat sheet and in their win over Trinity last weekend 78-55. And Trinity beat Amherst the previous day 69-63, proving that they weren’t going to just roll over. Wesleyan has weapons on all parts of the floor too, although Jordan Bonner ’19 has seemed to have lost a bit of accuracy shooting lately. Hamilton averages almost 95 points per game, but they should be limited by Wesleyan’s defense, ranking third in rebounds, turnovers, and points allowed per game (64.5) in the conference.
Wesleyan X-Factor: G Jordan Bonner ’19
I’m not trying to pick on Bonner here, as we already did that a little bit in our most recent stock report, but in the last five games (Wesleyan is 3-2 in that span, including their only losses), his shooting totals have fallen off of the table. The stock report discusses his ridiculous 10-33 performance, looking like Kobe during his retirement tour, but that isn’t the only blemish. Cumulatively in the last five games, Bonner is 22-71 from the field (31%) and 10-40 from beyond the arc (25%). He started off the year hot and owns respectable numbers from the entire season (40% FG; 33.8% 3 PT), but the league is littered with players who started off hot and then fell off the face of the earth once league play began and defenses adjusted. Sure, Wesleyan has Kevin O’Brien ’19, Nathan Krill ’18, and Austin Hutcherson ’21 who are having solid seasons, but Bonner still leads the team in points at 16.9 PPG, and if he doesn’t improve his shooting given the pure volume of attempts he takes, Hamilton’s offense will be too much to overcome.
Hamilton X-Factor: G Kena Gilmour ‘20
Albeit not a particularly exciting pick, Gilmour completes the matchup to watch of this game. Likely to guard Bonner for at least part of the contest, the Continental scoring leader should have his hands full if he is to help limit the Wesleyan offense. With two blocks and eight rebounds against Trinity last weekend, Gilmour is nearly as much of a defensive force as an offensive one, leading his team with 18.5 PPG. In this breakout season, his shooting numbers have been excellent, at 37% 3 PT on the season and over 50% from the field, he is nearly a lock to score over 20 points, tipping the scales in favor of the home team. Gilmour is the catalyst of the offense that ranks ninth in the nation in points per game and will see his toughest test this weekend against a strong Wesleyan defense. This matchup should reveal just how legit Hamilton’s offense is, and if Gilmour rolls on, the team will too.
Despite being one of only four undefeated teams remaining in all of Division 3 basketball, Hamilton still has not joined the teams that are considered the ‘real deal.’ The Continentals are top-10 in the nation in two statistical categories, including the aforementioned points, along with scoring margin (8th). And yet, they still have to prove themselves in league play. This is their chance, and boy do they have the tools. They play as a unit, and after developing together for a season, now that all of their starters are back for a second season, they should be able to maintain this success into at least a top-4 NESCAC finish. I’ve been on the Hamilton train since the beginning of the 2017 season–showing that I was a bit premature with my support–and am a believer that they are a force to be reckoned with. However, they will be heavily tested by the best teams in the conference.
While I have talked plenty about Hamilton’s hot start, I need not forget that Wesleyan knocked off former national #2 Middlebury, and came dang close to doing the same against Williams. Kevin O’Brien is the most dynamic player on the court for either side in this game, averaging over six assists and rebounds per game, while also shooting at a 61.7 clip. Despite only averaging 8.4 PPG, he is certainly capable of scoring more, showing in 16 and 18 point performances earlier this year against Mitchell and Nichols, respectively, settling into a more pass happy role ever since. If Bonner continues to struggle with accuracy, look for O’Brien to pick up the intensity and bear some of the scoring burden. The Cardinals have undoubtedly played a harder schedule thus far, but despite their opponents, their 78.9 PPG average doesn’t quite keep up with the 94.8 PPG of Hamilton. So, two questions remain: Will Wesleyan’s defense be able to stifle the Hamilton offense? Do Hamilton fans understand how hot their team has started off and how to give them an edge in their home gym (this is a challenge)? I say no, and yes.
Writer’s Pick: Hamilton 86-83