Upset in the Making? Bowdoin @ Amherst NESCAC Quarterfinal Preview

Bowdoin (15-8, 4-6) @ Amherst (16-8, 7-3), 7:00 PM, Amherst, MA

Overview:

Somehow Amherst ended up as the #1 seed in this tournament after looking at a 5-3 conference record going into the final regular season weekend. They knocked off Williams 72-57 and then downed Middlebury 80-68, successfully owning the teams that used to hold the #1 and #2 spots in the league. This crazy change of fortune weekend came on the heels of losses in 2/3 of their previous games, one to Tufts 60-56 and the other to Wesleyan 71-57. What once looked like a rather dismal season for the historically dominant Mammoth team has turned into one with promise for a championship and an NCAA berth as they also received votes in the last D3 National poll.

Men’s Basketball’s Win Streak Halted by Jumbos
Grant Robinson ’21 and Amherst have improved throughout the year, and seem to be peaking at the right time.

Bowdoin as the #8 seed has to be happy that they are facing Amherst. All things considered, as the last seed in these playoffs, they could easily be seeing Williams, Middlebury, or Hamilton, all more formidable on paper than the Mammoths. Yes, they are now facing the hottest team in the league dating back to the first week of February (so, yeah, just last week), however, they also have one of the most talented yet top heavy starting lineups in the league. Their roster’s make up creates a trap game here where they have a legitimate chance to knock off the top seed in the tournament. Yes, Bowdoin lost already 75-60 to Amherst just a few weeks ago, but their opponent also shot over 50% from the floor that night (7% above their season average), while their top scorers performed below their normal levels.

Amherst X-Factor: F Dylan Groff ‘19

Dylan Groff
Dylan Groff ’19 (Courtesy of Amherst Athletics)

This might seem like a bit of a wild-card pick, but choosing Michael Riopel of Johnny McCarthy would’ve been just a bit too boring. Amherst is likely going to win this game and that is due to their depth. Riopel and McCarthy are good, perhaps All-NESCAC good, but the Mammoths don’t have a Player of the yYear candidate like the other top teams. They do, however, have bench players who contribute and a lock down defense (second in rebounds and third in points allowed per game.) Groff contributes to this depth and added eight and 10 points in the two games last weekend, shooting 7-9 (4-6 from deep), giving his team an accurate weapon off of the bench. Amherst is at their best when they get contributions from all over their bench, and are at their worst when they rely too much on McCarthy and Riopel. Their bench is also their biggest advantage over Bowdoin, who has a lot of talent but isn’t very deep. Groff is one of the players who could help Amherst put this one away.

Bowdoin X-Factor: Hugh O’Neil

Hugh O'Neil
Hugh O’ Neil ’19 (Courtesy of Bowdoin Athletics)

With Amherst’s defense as strong as it is, O’Neil is going to need to be a force in the paint for the Polar Bears to have any chance. The leading rebounder on this team, and among the league leaders, O’Neil’s 9.0 REB/G are impressive and a necessity in his team’s playoff game. What is more questionable is his shooting ability. Although he averages a respectable 9.6 PPG, his individual contest stat lines fluctuate hugely from game to game and are a key indication of Bowdoin’s success. He shot 6-8 for 12 points against Hamilton in a big 72-68 win and shot 3-8 last weekend against Wesleyan in a 74-65 loss. While those are just two examples, generally, Bowdoin does better when O’Neil shoots more, complementing their balanced front court attack well. If he can haul in the boards, he should also have a big role shooting the ball.

Final Thoughts:

Along with O’Neil, Bowdoin also has David Reynolds, Liam Farley, and Jack Simonds leading the way for them. Each of those other three players all average over 10 PPG, and bring in over 13 rebounds and five assists combined. This gives them a dynamic starting four with guard Zavier Rucker serving as a pass first guard (3.3 A/G) with limited yet accurate shooting numbers. Their average number for rebounding and points allowed (both 7th in the NESCAC) along with good shooting numbers puts their talent level above their eighth ranking in the standings. All this to say, they are a very tough first round matchup. With three of their conference losses coming by single digit point totals, they can compete with the top teams (72-68 win against Hamilton, 72-70 loss against Midd).

David Reynolds ’20 and Bowdoin have one of the more talented starting lineups in the league, making them not a standard 8 seed.

Unlike Bowdoin who almost won several NESCAC games, Amherst walked the walk at the end of the year and showed up to play. Their final weekend run gives them all of the momentum, a home game, and the edge in this quarterfinal matchup. As mentioned, seniors McCarthy and Riopel lead the way for this squad averaging 11.4 and 12.4 PPG, respectively, adding over 13 boards per game between the pair. Grant Robinson ’21 is a versatile ball handler for his team too, tallying over three rebounds and assists and scoring nearly 10 PPG. Experience, success, and confidence should lead Amherst to victory, despite a challenge from the underdog.

Writer’s Prediction: 78-73 Amherst

Better Late than Never: Men’s Basketball Stock Report 1/31

Stock Up

Jack Daly’s Foul Shooting

Jack Daly ‘18 has, by far, the most responsibility on his team of any player in the league. He plays around 35 minutes a game, handles the ball 90% of the time and guards the best player on the opposing team. And this responsibility only increases late in games, when every part of the offense runs through him. Of course, this makes his foul shooting incredibly important. More often than not, he is the one that teams will be fouling at the end of close games. So when he was struggling from the line, it was a HUGE problem for Middlebury. Overall, Daly is at 68% from the line, and underwent a 7-17 mess early in the season. But, as he so often does, Daly has raised his game when it counts. In league play, he is shooting 77% from the line, and single-handedly won Middlebury’s game against Trinity at the line with an amazing 18-20 showing. And as if that wasn’t impressive enough, last night he iced Keene State as well, going 8-8. Daly is the guy Middlebury will have at the line in big moments, and the way he’s shooting right now, Middlebury wouldn’t have it any other way.

Daly is dominating the league right now, and that dominance is finally extending to the foul line.

Amherst in League Play

I don’t think we’ll ever have a NESCAC season without Amherst in the mix. After looking nearly dead for much of the season, the Mammoths have roared (trumpeted?) back to life, winning three straight NESCAC games, including blowouts over Hamilton and Bowdoin. Amherst relies mostly on an excellent defense to win games; they are third in the league (behind Wesleyan and Trinity) in opponents PPG and FG%. But their offense is beginning to come around as well. Michael Riopel ‘18 is one of the deadliest three point shooters in the league, but has diversified his game nicely and is dangerous inside the arc as well. Johnny McCarthy ‘18 has had a fascinating career arc, and has reinvented himself again as a gritty paint presence and dominant rebounder. But the key to Amherst’s success (and failure early in the season) is their supporting cast. When Amherst wins, it is because guys like Grant Robinson ‘21, Eric Sellew ‘20 and Fru Che ‘21 are all contributing. Amherst needs the help, and lately they have been getting it. However, they still have yet to play Middlebury, Wesleyan or Williams in league play, so we may well be writing a different article about them in a couple weeks.

Stock Down

The NbN Curse

It’s starting to look like the best thing for a team’s chances this year is to not be hyped up by this blog. We put Hamilton at number one in the Power Rankings when they were 15-0 and demolishing all comers like Darth Maul, and since then they’ve lost two league games and needed overtime to beat Colby. Their vaunted offense has produced 71 PPG on under 40% shooting in the last four games, and they still have to play Tufts, Williams and Middlebury. Hamilton could fall out of the top 5, and it might all our fault. And as if hamstringing Hamilton wasn’t enough, we did a whole Game of the Week about how Bates was making a move, and then they went out and got cracked by a struggling Wesleyan team 68-50. They shot 33% from the field and 25% from three, and didn’t look especially like a team ready to make a move. If they don’t grab one upset this weekend (either Hamilton or Amherst,) they might not make it to the postseason at all. We apologize in advance to anyone who we write about this week.

Bates got bodied by Wesleyan last weekend, and it’s all our fault.

Middlebury F Matt Folger ‘20 (on offense)

One of the reasons for Jack Daly’s insane amount of responsibility on offense is that Folger, Middlebury’s best scorer (better than Daly even when he’s got it all working) has been really struggling shooting the ball. In league play, Folger is shooting just 36% from the field and 25% from three. Sophomores often struggle to maintain their improvement over their first season into NESCAC play (Matt St. Amour is a good recent example for Middlebury) and Folger is certainly having trouble dealing with increased defensive attention. The emergence of Eric McCord ‘19 as a dominant post scorer has forced Folger to try and create more on the perimeter, a place where he is still not very comfortable. However, he is also simply missing good looks. They will start to fall. And Folger deserves commendation, even during this slump, for his defensive intensity. His case for DPOY has only gotten stronger during the NESCAC season. He is second in the league in blocks and ninth in rebounds during league play, and his versatility has been the key to Middlebury’s seven game winning streak despite a team wide shooting slump. Against Williams, Middlebury’s biggest win of the year, Folger had four blocks and a steal, including an earth-shattering rejection on Matt Karpowicz that I still think about every night before bed. Folger will start hitting shots, and when he puts that together with his defensive dominance, watch out.

(Editor’s Note: Folger broke out a little bit last night against Keene State, putting up 22 points on 8-12 shooting, although still just 1-4 from three.)

A Mammoth Shakeup: 2017-2018 Amherst Men’s Basketball Season Preview

Amherst College Mammoths

2016-2017 Record: 17-8, 7-3, lost to Williams in first round of NESCAC Tournament, earned NCAA Berth (lost to Keene State)

2017-2018 Projected Record: 18-6, 5-5

Key Losses:

G Jayde Dawson (19.1 PPG, 2.6 AST/G, 1.2 STL/G)

F Eric Conklin (8.3 PPG, 59% FG, 4.7 REB/G)

F David George (6.2 PPG, 6.6 REB/G, 2.2 BLK/G)

Introduction:

It’s hard to even write the phrase “Amherst might be down this year,” but it could be true. In an offseason marked by the graduation of one of the best senior classes in recent league history, Jayde Dawson’s loss looms very large. Dawson, for better or worse, carried Amherst last year, finishing second in the league in scoring and closing out several games with clutch shots. Of course, he also shot them out of some close games, to the chagrin of Mammoth fans. But Amherst has the perimeter scoring to replace Dawson. Johnny McCarthy has long looked ready to be a number one option, and Michael Riopel may be the best outside shooter in the league. The losses that will hurt the Mammoths more are in the frontcourt. Eric Conklin was an excellent post scorer who gave Amherst the opportunity to play inside-out with him and Riopel, and George, for all his offensive liabilities, anchored a solid defense. In a league in which two of the three pre-season top teams (Middlebury and Williams) have supersized lineups, losing your two best big men isn’t a great recipe for success.  Add in solid point guard Reid Berman and stretch four Jacob Nabatoff, and Amherst is faced with replacing four starters and a sixth man. Coach David Hixon (who is closing in  has been known for his ability to reload quickly, and Amherst again has one of the best recruiting classes in the conference, but this year will be a challenge even for him.

Projected Starters:

G Vic Sinopoli ’19 (1.2 PPG, 4.8 MIN/G, 3:1 A/TO)

Vic Sinopoli
Vic Sinopoli ’19 (Courtesy of Amherst Athletics)

This spot is a huge question mark for Amherst. Last year, Reid Berman offered a steady hand at the position, but ball handling and creating duties were pretty much  handled by Dawson or McCarthy. As Amherst’s early exit in the playoffs showed, this is not a particularly sustainable method. Sinopoli played very few minutes as a sophomore last season, but runs the offense well and has the experience that Coach Hixon always prizes. However, first year Grant Robinson ’20 is chomping at the bit for this spot. Robinson offers a higher ceiling than Sinopoli. A speed demon with great court vision, he could take ball handling duties away from McCarthy and bring the Amherst offense to a more organic level than they reached last season. Their tournament this weekend will be a fascinating chance to see who impresses the most at the one.

G Michael Riopel ’18 (10.2 PPG, 47.4% 3FG, 0.8 STL/G)

Michael Riopel
Michael Riopel ’18 (Courtesy of Amherst Athletics)

There’s more on Riopel below in the Breakout Player section, but you can see from his stat line above what he brings to this team; shooting. Riopel is as consistent a shooter as there is in the league. But he is far from a one trick pony. At 6’5,” he can guard multiple positions, and rebounds very well (3.9 REB/G last season despite varying minutes.) Riopel is freed up this season, and a huge breakout is possible.

G/F Johnny McCarthy ’18 (14.2 PPG, 8.0 REB/G, 46% FG, 34% 3FG)

Johnny McCarthy
Johnny McCarthy ’18 (Courtesy of Amherst Athletics)

For much of his career, people have discussed McCarthy like he was the victim of some horrible tragedy. “Poor McCarthy, he’ll never get the touches he deserves playing next to Jayde Dawson.” This was a dumb take. Never mind that the defensive attention Dawson drew made much of McCarthy’s drives to the rim far more open than they will be this year, but McCarthy still got twelve shots and six threes per game. But nevertheless, this year McCarthy gets his chance to be a solo act. He should be aided by a starting role and more minutes for Riopel (more on him later,) whose outside shooting should keep driving lanes open. But McCarthy hasn’t shown himself to be a great passer yet in his career. He only averaged two assists against 1.8 turnovers last year. If Amherst hopes to have a more ball movement-centric offense this season without Dawson’s one-on-one skills, that will have to start with McCarthy, their best player and, finally, their go-to-guy.

F Eric Sellew ’20 (2.5 PPG, 9.3 MIN/G)

Eric Sellew
Eric Sellew ’20 (Courtesy of Amherst Athletics)

Sellew is another player who didn’t get many minutes last season due to Amherst’s short rotation. But with George and Conklin gone, Sellow is set to have his moment in the sun. A prototypical stretch four, Sellow has been working this off-season at stretching his range behind the arc, a prerequisite for this spot in Amherst’s perimeter-based offense. As a regular contributor last season, Sellew has a clear first crack at this starting spot, but he is not without competition. Junior Dylan Groff ’19 has made tremendous strides during training camp, and Fru Che, a first year, has impressed as well. Sellew has to be an offensive threat for the Mammoths to have enough firepower to keep up with Williams, Tufts and Middlebury.

C Joseph Schneider ’19 (2.1 PPG, 4.6 MIN/G)

Joseph Schneider
Joseph Schneider ’19 (Courtesy of Amherst Athletics)

Schneider is a fascinating player, and could be the key to Amherst making the jump from “fine” to “good” or even from “good” to “great.” At 6’10” and with a tremendous wingspan, Schneider is one of the biggest players in the league, and offers a nice centerpiece to what is a very long Amherst lineup. He got little to no playing time last year behind George, Conklin and Nabatoff, but projects as a key cog in the offense this season. He has good footwork and hands, and his size alone should make him something of a shot-blocking threat. Amherst has succeeded in the past with four perimeter players and a traditional center, so the lack of outside from shooting from him and backup CJ Bachman ’19 shouldn’t be too much of an issue. If Schneider can be a real threat the way Conklin was last year, Amherst could be in business.

Breakout Player: G Michael Riopel ’18 

As I mentioned above, Riopel is a deadeye shooter. But he won’t be able to rely the constant double teaming of McCarthy and Dawson this season. Of course, McCarthy will still demand a great deal of defensive attention, but teams will still make sure to leave a good defender on Riopel. If he is going to make a leap, it will have to be as a ball handler and driver. He showed signs of being able to that last season, shooting nearly 50% from two point land overall. But during league play, he made only one non-three pointer per game. He needs to at least develop a midrange pull-up game to contend with players running him off the three point line. And with his height, he has the potential to finish at the rim too. Amherst’s offense last season was often stagnant, with far too much one on one play. The loss of Dawson should improve that, but scoring will be a problem, and Riopel is crucial to solving it.

Michael Riopel ’18 will need to become more of an all around threat to make up for the loss of Dawson.

Everything Else:

I hesitate to use the term “rebuilding year” for the Mammoths. They still have McCarthy, one of the three or four most skilled players in the league, as well as Riopel. A better term might be “retooling.” Amherst is faced with the task of changing their entire style of play. Although much of the criticism of Jayde Dawson was alarmist, he did force the Mammoths to play a slower style of basketball than they would like. This season, the Mammoths look poised to play a ball movement-heavy, 3-and-D type of game that should at least be more fun to watch, and possibly more successful as well. Riopel and McCarthy are the key to this offense, but the retooling has occurred mostly in their supporting cast. Sellow and Groll are stretch fours whom Amherst will use mostly on the perimeter. And G Tommy Mobley ’20, after barely playing during his first year, will get serious minutes and three point looks.

This new, aggressive style should apply on defense as well. After relying largely on David George to make up for gambling on the perimeter, Amherst is now playing a switchier lineup, with a focus on the perimeter. Riopel and McCarthy have elite size and length for their position, as does Sinopoli. And of course, Schneider is one of the bigger players in the league. He will be a key. If he is a liability in the pick and roll, teams like Middlebury and Williams will be able to roast him with their skilled perimeter bigs. But if they play a smaller player, they will severely lack rim protection. There’s a chance that Amherst’s off-season losses hurt them on defense more than offense.

Amherst has retooled with Williams in mind, as every team in the league has had to do this off-season.

Amherst is one of the harder teams in the league to project. They lost an almost impossibly high percentage of their scoring and minutes in the off-season. For any other team, this would be a death sentence, and this preview would be about them looking towards 2018-2019. But this is Amherst we’re talking about. They always seem to find a way to be there at the end of the season. And, with a far more sustainable (and young) offense, Amherst is in a position to be there in the future as well.