Williams (22-8, 7-6) at Middlebury (27-3, 11-2): Pepin Gymnasium, Middlebury, VT 7:00 P.M.
What this means:
Throw out all of the statistics, the strength of schedule numbers, the bad losses, and the blowout wins. This is the Elite Eight and no matter how Williams and Middlebury got to this point in the season, they are in the NCAA quarterfinals on the road to the glory of a national championship. Expect a battle in Pepin tonight.
Williams and Midd are 1-1 against each other this year, and as Pete mentioned yesterday, the unwritten rules of pickup basketball dictate that there must be a rubber match. This is THE rubber match of all games. Both teams are coming off of relatively easy wins where they outmatched their opponents and haven’t been tested to this point in the tournament. These teams are a great match up for one another as Williams shot out of this world back in regular season NESCAC play to beat the Panthers, and Middlebury returned the favor to bring home the championship in Medford two weeks ago.
How They Got Here:
Coming off of stellar shooting performances from both Matt St. Amour ’17 and Jake Brown ’17, Middlebury looks to be firing on all cylinders as they head into the final stretch of the season. Their 4/5 rotations between Nick Tarantino ’18, Adisa Majors ’18, Matt Folger ’20, and Eric McCord ’19 has left other teams scrambling not knowing what combination of big men they are facing. McCord plays an aggressive, (sometimes out of control) game and Majors has a beautiful mid-range jumper and led the NESCAC in FG%, Tarantino is great at finishing near the rim and gets his share of offensive boards, and Folger has joined St. Amour and Brown as a splash brother with his ability to drain the long range shot. Middlebury has toppled Farmingdale St., Lycoming, and now Endicott, looking like a much better team than all three of their competitors. The closest game was surprisingly against Farmingdale as they won by just nine points after St. Amour shot just 5-18 from the field. He still added 18 points, but didn’t quite lock down the game like he did so well in both the rounds of 32 and Sweet 16. St. Amour has been playing out of this world, making Lycoming’s coaches exchange glances and shake their heads in disbelief after several of his plays. Against Lycoming, entering as the #15 team in the country, St. Amour was headed for the media table after forcing a turnover, scooped the ball with his left hand and threw it behind his back around the Warrior defender, hitting Jack Daly perfectly in stride for an and-1 basket, summing up the ridiculous nature of his senior season. The rest of the Panthers helped St. Amour out last night, shooting 41.9% from deep last night as a team. When they shoot that well, they are unstoppable.
Williams has several players who are threats from both long and short range. They have up and down shooting days but have been playing much closer to their season average recently, a big part of the process that
has led to their deep run into the tournament. Mike Greenman was lights out last night, showing off his handles and draining contested threes all night, dishing it out to Kyle Scadlock and Daniel Aronowitz throughout the whole game. Aronowitz said after the game against Susquehanna that “when I was getting down low in the first half, my teammates were getting open on the perimeter,” showing how Susquehanna couldn’t stop the Ephs on both fronts of offense. Kyle Scadlock started getting more aggressive down low when Susquehanna’s center got into foul trouble, smartly recognizing the weakness that the big man was put into, unable to contest Scadlock’s shots. The entire Susquehanna defense was centered around stopping Scadlock, who added a triumphant turn around dunk in the second half. Despite the added attention Scadlock faced, he dropped 22 points for the Ephs. Williams offense has become multi-dimensional in this tournament.
What to Expect:
Williams survived some below average shooting numbers against Susquehanna (36.8% FG and 31.0% from deep.) Those numbers will have to improve tonight. Atypically for them, it was their defense that won them last night’s game. Ephs coach Kevin App said their defensive game plan last night was to stop the “back-breaking threes” from Susquehanna’s star point guard Steven Weidlich, who is comparable in style to Midd’s St. Amour. Now, I do believe that St. Amour has an edge over Weidlich, but the way St. Amour plays as a part of the Middlebury teams is similar to the way Weidlich played for his. Williams mixed up the man on man defense on the point guard all night, mixing in both big and small players, throwing Weidlich out of rhythm and unable to heat up from deep and
keep his team in the game late. The Ephs should use a similar strategy tonight, putting pressure on Jake Brown and Jack Daly to step up in place of the NESCAC POY. St. Amour is impossible to defend if he makes the contested shots like he did against Lycoming, but it’s better than leaving him open.
Middlebury took a 48-24 lead over Endicott to enter half time, and then came out on a 16-3 run to start the second half, finding a lead of 41 points at one point. They really weren’t tested at all in the round of 16, but did lose to Endicott earlier in the year after they were up 12 at the half on November 27th. This shows that not only did they make an adjustment this time around, but were just a far better team. Jake Brown scored 19 points last night, getting hot and attempting a few heat check threes from well beyond the arc, using the Middlebury crowd well as a momentum push for his team. The Middlebury crowds have been intimidating these past few weeks, and I wouldn’t want to be Williams heading into Pepin after having an easy go at it in terms of crowds last night. Williams brought a good fan section in their own right, not comparable to the home team, but should bring some good clean college back-and-forth banter throughout the night as the NESCAC final rematch takes place with bigger stakes this time—a ticket to the final four in Salem, VA on the line.
Every pickup basketball player knows the importance of the rubber match. If a team wins one game, and the opposing team wins the next one, it is a cardinal sin to not play that third game to determine the outright winner. No matter if you have work, class, or a hamstring that is closer to snapping than my mom when I forget to bring my dishes upstairs, you have to play the rubber match. This is the case in higher levels of basketball as well. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson met in the NBA Finals three times, with Magic taking the rubber match in 1987. Many NBA fans are praying that Lebron and the Cavs meet Steph and the Warriors for a rubber match this season. And on a smaller scale, Williams and Middlebury have a chance this weekend for a rubber match of their own. If they both win on Friday, they would match up in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, with bragging rights and a trip to Salem on the line.
Middlebury (26-3, 11-2, Beat Williams in the NESCAC Final)
Friday Opponent: Endicott (24-6, 15-3, lost in their Conference Final)
Middlebury has the rare chance this weekend to avenge two of their three losses. Williams of course blew out Middlebury in league play, but Endicott also bested the Panthers before league play. And the Gulls have the added honor of their win being in Pepin Gymnasium, a feat only they have accomplished in the last two years. Endicott was able to beat the Panthers at their own game; namely, guard play. Like Middlebury, the Gulls boast one of the best backcourts in the country. Max Matroni ‘17 and Kamahl Walker ‘17 combine for 32 points a game on the season, and have combined for 99 points in their two NCAA games. Against Middlebury Walker put up 28 and forced both Jack Daly ‘17 and Jake Brown ‘17 into foul trouble. Endicott is one of the only teams in the country who has a backcourt that can give Middlebury guards a run for the money. Expect them to go at Daly and Brown (who will likely start the game on Walker and Matroni) early and attempt to again get them on the bench with fouls.
Endicott also attacked Middlebury on the glass. Daquan Sampson ‘17 was able to roast the Middlebury big men to the tune on 19 points and 14 rebounds. The Gulls outrebounded the Panthers overall 40-31 and had 12 offensive rebounds. Endicott matches up well with Middlebury because their team is constructed in a similar way. They have an excellent backcourt who drive the team on both ends of the floor, and the big men are effective role players who benefit a great deal from terrific guard play.
X-Factor: Eric McCord ‘19 (and the new big men)
Middlebury’s biggest improvement since that loss to Endicott is in the front court.When the two teams last met, Zach Baines and Adisa Majors ‘18 dominated the minutes at the two forward spots. Eric McCord ‘19 and Nick Tarantino ‘18 combined to play 19 minutes and went 1-6 from the floor. Baines’ transfer has allowed McCord and Tarantino (as well as Matt Folger ‘20 and Majors off the bench) to flourish into one of the deepest frontcourt rotations in the country. McCord in particular has blossomed, and should play a pivotal role in Middlebury’s game plan. Sampson and the rest of Endicott’s bigs are long, but they are not extremely strong, and Sampson in particular spends a considerable amount of time on the perimeter. McCord has become an effective scorer and passer in the paint, both playing off of a two man game with one of the guards or one-on-one. There is mismatch on the block that the Panthers didn’t have the personnel to exploit earlier this season. But the team is constructed differently now, and is far better suited to beat the Gulls down low if the guards play each other to a draw.
How They Lose:
We already have a blueprint for how Middlebury loses this game. Daly and Brown get into foul trouble, forcing St. Amour to expend more energy on defense chasing around either Matroni or Walker. Matroni or Walker take
advantage of this and go off. And the Endicott bigs use their length and athleticism to terrorize the Middlebury bigs on the boards. Sampson also uses his quickness to draw McCord or Tarantino out of the paint and create driving lanes and putback opportunities. Both teams have seen that this can happen. We will see on Friday if Middlebury’s new look will prevent it from happening again.
Williams (21-8, 7-6, lost to Middlebury in the NESCAC Final)
Friday Opponent: Susquehanna (23-5, 11-3, lost in Conference Semifinals)
The rare team to make the Sweet Sixteen after not even making their conference championship, the River Hawks have been on something of a Cinderella run here in the NCAA tournament. They beat Eastern Connecticut State 72-67 in the round of t32, a team that beat Trinity and Amherst earlier in the season. Susquehanna is top heavy scoring wise, as the duo of Steven Weidlich ‘17 and Ryan Traub ‘18 combine to average 38 points per game (21 and 17 respectively.) No one else on their team averages more than seven. Weidlich is a Matt St. Amour type perimeter threat. A dangerous outside shooter, he connects on 39.5% of his threes and 45% of his field goals overall. However, he is also very versatile, averaging 5.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. Daniel Aronowitz ‘17 is Williams best perimeter defender (as well as best everything else) and will likely start the game on Weidlich. If he gets in foul trouble, the Ephs can be left with very few guys who create their own shots.
Traub is a very effective frontcourt partner for Weidlich. At 6’7” and 230 pounds, he is a load underneath and creates match up problems for
Williams’ series of skinny big men. He is also tremendous around the rim, shooting 57.4% from the field. He can step outside the arc (40% in a limited sample size,) and anchors a defense that only allows 41% shooting to opponents on the season. Williams three point heavy attack is not conducive to defensive struggles, therefore Susquehanna matches up well with the Ephs. Weidlich and Traub will try to occupy Aronowitz and Kyle Scadlock ‘19, while the rest of the River Hawks run the Ephs off of the three point line.
X Factor: Mike Greenman ‘17
As I mentioned above, Aronowitz and Scadlock, Williams’ two most important players, will both likely have difficult defensive assignments. Therefor Williams will at times need someone else to create shots for themselves and others. That is where Greenman comes in. The senior point guard can be an electric scorer (see his 7-9 three point shooting performance against Becker in the first round,) and can be an effective passer (11 assists last round against Scranton.) If Susquehanna tries to slow the game down and pound the ball into Traub, Greenman will be largely responsible for keeping Williams’ pace and energy up without turning the ball over. He has played two of the best games of his career in this tournament, largely explaining Williams impressive blowout wins in the first two rounds. He will be just as important in this game, and maybe even more so.
How They Lose:
NESCAC fans have seen throughout the season how Williams loses. If they are not hitting threes, they generally don’t win. The three point shot is the key to everything the Ephs try to do on offense. It opens up driving lanes for Aronowitz and Scadlock, post ups for big men off the bench like Michael Kempton ‘19, and it forces defenders to overplay on the perimeter, opening up the backdoor cuts that killed Middlebury during their regular season loss to Williams. The Ephs simply don’t have enough shot creators to overcome a shooting slump. Aronowitz is a terrific player but his burden is at times too great, and Scadlock is prone to disappearing in big spots. Their game becomes something of a “Chuck and Run” style, with contested threes being taken too quickly. Williams lives by the three and dies by the three, and living has been very good lately. Let’s hope it continues into Saturday, because, as all basketball fans know, there’s nothing better than a rubber match.
Fans of NESCAC basketball have enjoyed a level of talent this season that has possibly never been matched in the history of the league. And on Monday, the NCAA selection committee rewarded the league with four at large bids, in addition to Middlebury’s guaranteed spot for winning the conference tournament. Amherst, Williams, Wesleyan and Tufts join the Panthers, giving the ‘CAC one of the strongest showings of any conference in the country. Over the course of today and tomorrow we’ll be giving you the lowdown on where each team finds themselves in their quest for a national title.
#6 Middlebury (24-3, 11-2)
As the number one seed and outright winner of the conference, Middlebury is in a terrific position to make a deep tournament run. The Panthers should be hosting (as long as they keep winning) until the tournament shifts to Salem. However, the Panthers certainly shouldn’t be looking ahead, as they have a tough opening weekend to contend with. They open on Friday against Farmingdale State, a team that tries to run the floor in much the same way that Middlebury does. And Lycoming and Cabrini, the two other teams in the bracket, are strong teams with tournament pedigree.
How They Got Here:
Middlebury is of course driven by their three guards. Matt St. Amour ‘17 was recently crowned NESCAC Player of the Year after averaging 22 points per game in the season and almost 25 per game in league play. His midrange game, once a major weakness, has become positively deadly, and he has carried Middlebury through a late season injury to Jake Brown ‘17. Speaking of Brown, the recently named All NESCAC Second Team point guard is the key to Middlebury’s fast paced offense and defense. He has also made himself into a key outside threat for Middlebury, shooting 37% from three. And Jack Daly ‘18 had been flying under the radar until Brown went down. But stepping up and running the offense in Brown’s absence has given viewers a newfound appreciation for Daly. If there’s a play that shifts the game in Middlebury’s favor, the odds are good that Jack Daly is involved.
How They Lose
Middlebury’s guards are pretty much locks to get their numbers. The Panthers struggle when their big men aren’t involved in the offense and when the other team gets hot from three. If Eric McCord ‘19 and Nick Tarantino ‘18 aren’t threats on the offensive end, then teams can focus on the guards and force Middlebury to play halfcourt, perimeter-oriented basketball. Farmingdale State is a fast break team, but they don’t shoot very well from three (33.5% on the year.) However, they do rebound very well thanks to big men George Reifenstahl ‘19 and Wendell Irvine ‘17, both of whom average over 9 rebounds per game. Therefore the Middlebury big men will have to do a good job on the boards and also assert themselves on offense, not just against Farmingdale but (ideally) throughout the tournament.
Farmingdale State (19-7, 14-2)
Farmingdale has overcome a strong start to really control their league. They won their tournament on a game winner from Reifenstahl, who along with Irvine and guard Ali Mableton ‘19 earned all conference honors. The Rams look to run, but can be careless on offense, shooting only 43% from the field and turning the ball over a whopping 18 times per game. Middlebury should be able to exploit this carelessness, and will need to work on shutting down Reifenstahl and Irvine.
#15 Lycoming (23-4, 13-3)
Lycoming and Middlebury would be a fascinating Saturday match-up. The Warriors have been ranked in the top 25 pretty much all year and now sit at 15 heading into tournament play. They are led by David Johnson ‘17 who, despite being 5’9,” averages 14 points per game and shoots an amazing 48.7% from three. Lycoming overall shoots threes very well (37% as a team,) so Middlebury will have to run them off the line much like they did in the second half against Williams in the NESCAC final.
Cabrini (19-7, 15-3)
Cabrini is led by junior center Tyheim Monroe, who is two spots ahead of Matt St. Amour in scoring in the nation (23rd, at 22.1 points per game) and leads the nation in rebounds per game at 15.7. Monroe plays 36 minutes a game, and the vast majority of their offensive sets run through him. Middlebury will probably employ a similar swarming defensive strategy that they used on Ed Ogundeko to beat Trinity in the quarterfinals. But Monroe is the type of player who could carry a team to an upset against the Panthers.
Amherst (17-7, 8-4)
After starting the season as the number one team in the country, Amherst enters tournament play outside the national rankings. This is due to inconsistent play all season, culminating in a quarterfinal loss to hated rival Williams. Therefore, Amherst has a tough road to travel if they hope to redeem their disappointing NESCAC season with a long tournament run.
How They Got Here
As most readers of this blog probably know, Amherst is led by their excellent backcourt. Jayde Dawson ‘18 and Johnny McCarthy ‘18 were Second and First Team All NESCAC selections respectively, and combined to average over 33 points per game. Additionally, junior guard Michael Riopel averages 10 points per game and shoots 48% from three, giving Amherst a needed outside threat to take some pressure off of Dawson and McCarthy. The Purple and White are at their best when Dawson and McCarthy are dominating the opposing backcourt, giving Riopel open looks.
How They Lose
Unfortunately Amherst has little else outside of their backcourt. They struggle to get contributions from any forwards, and Riopel and even McCarthy can be too passive. This forces Dawson to play hero ball, and he can shoot Amherst out of games when he does that. In their loss to Williams, Dawson shot 3-19, while Riopel and McCarthy combined to take only 16 shots. It’s hard to figure out how to divide up blame in that situation (is Dawson playing selfishly or do the other players need to be more assertive?), but either way Amherst has some serious problems. They ultimately seem to lack the necessary depth to compete against elite competition.
Keene State (19-9, 10-4)
The Owls, who knocked Middlebury out last year, had something of a Cinderella run to the final of their conference tournament before losing 72-70 to Eastern Connecticut. They have two First Team All Conference performers in Matt Ozzella ‘17 and Ty Nichols ‘19, but also have three other players scoring in double figures. This is the kind of depth that could give top-heavy Amherst fits, particularly in the front court. Amherst plays the Owls tonight at 5:30.
Misericordia (20-7, 9-5)
A contender for the “College Whose Name Sounds Most Like a Song From Les Miserables” award, Misericordia won their conference tournament and has a lot of momentum heading into the NCAAs. They are led by terrific all around guard Jason Kenny ‘19, who put up a 21/4/4 line on nearly 50% shooting from the field and 41% from three. But the Cougars have three other double figure scorers and shoot the three at 37% as a team. Again, this is the kind of depth that Amherst really struggles with, especially since they have some, uh, disinterested defenders on their roster.
#5 Ramapo (25-2, 16-2)
The host team and number 5 team in the country, Ramapo is certainly the favorite to come out of this weekend. They are led in scoring by Thomas Boncum ‘18 (17.7 ppg,) but they are a terrific team top to bottom. They shoot 50.7 from the field and 41% from three as a team, which point to a tremendously efficient offensive strategy. Their average margin of victory is a whopping 14.4 points per game, and they out-rebound opponents by 7 boards per game, an area in which Amherst tends to struggle. Ramapo is a legit title contender, and Amherst may not be able to run with them even if they survive Keene State tonight.
Going into last Sunday’s Williams-Bates game, Middlebury had a chance to play Bates, Williams or possibly Hamilton depending on the outcome. Bates drew the short straw, dropping the game 65-62 and now has to play maybe the hottest team in the country. And what’s worse, the Panthers will be at home with all the students back. In order to have a chance in this game, Bates will need to slow Middlebury down, get terrific performances from both Delpeches and their perimeter players, and also catch Middlebury on an off-shooting night (something they haven’t truly had since they lost to Williams.) It’s a tall order, but stranger things have happened.
Middlebury X-Factor: Bryan Jones ‘18
Jones has been one of the biggest surprises of league play, averaging nearly 10 points per game. His 53% shooting from three leads the league during NESCAC play. He has given the Panthers backcourt, already extremely lethal, another weapon. His deadeye shooting has made it impossible for teams to load up on Matt St. Amour ‘17 on the perimeter, opening up driving lanes for him and also Jack Daly ‘18 and Jake Brown ‘17. It is due in large part to Jones being a threat that all the Middlebury guards’ stats have jumped up in league play.
However, Jones struggled on Tuesday against Plattsburgh State. Starting in place of Jake Brown, Jones shot 2-11 from the field and 0-5 from three. It was a surprising return to the inconsistency that has dogged Jones throughout his career, and inconvenient timing for its reappearance at that. If Brown misses more time, Middlebury can’t afford to give stronger defensive teams than Plattsburgh the ability to trap St. Amour on the perimeter, taking away his three point shots and much-improved mid-range game. While Jack Daly ‘18 is more than capable of handling point guard responsibilities in Brown’s absence (by “more than capable,” I mean “flirts with a triple-double”) he is not quite a three point threat. Jones doesn’t have to be white hot, but he needs to give Bates a reason to guard him or else the Panthers could be in for a long night.
Bates X-Factor: Jeff Spellman ‘20
Spellman, a transfer who arrived shortly before league play began, is a similar player to Jones but has recently been trending in a different direction. He sits third in the league overall in three point percentage at 41.7%, but has only shot 30.8% in league play. Against Williams he shot just 4-11 from the field and 1-7 from three. He did add 7 assists, but without his jumpshot Bates has very little offense outside of post-ups from the Delpeches. Pounding the ball into the post is an effective way to slow down the game, which is certainly the impulse when game-planning against Middlebury. But if Bates doesn’t have any outside shooting threats around their Twin Peaks (reboot 2017 let’s goooooo), the Panthers will do just what they did to Ed Ogundeko – swarm them whenever they get the ball, creating turnovers and forced, empty possessions. Spellman will be the key in taking away this part of Middlebury’s defensive gameplan.
How Bates Can Win:
They need to find someway to keep the score low. Middlebury is averaging 99 points per game in league play at home, and put up 97 against Trinity even without Brown. The natural way to do this would be to pound the ball on offense, taking time off the shot clock and preventing Middlebury’s offense from getting the ball. They have the ability to do this thanks to the Delpeches. Having two big men who are threats to score on the block prevents Middlebury from doubling big-to-big, and should create open threes or one-on-one post-ups. Bates will have to be raining fire from outside to make this strategy work, or else Middlebury’s offense is certainly fast enough to make up for lost time.
On defense, Bates will have to take away the three point shot. By jumping Matt St. Amour on the perimeter, they will take away his three-pointer and funnel him towards the Delpeches, who are both dangerous shot blockers. With Jack Daly, they will most likely leave him alone from three. However, it will be imperative to guard him one-on-one. St Amour will of course require double teams, but leaving a man open when Daly has the ball is asking for a bucket. He’s too good a passer, and Middlebury’s big men are getting too good at finishing at the rim to be left alone. Daly beating men off the dribble also creates open three-point shots. If Bates can take away those threes and funnel drives towards the Delpeches (particularly Malcolm), that leaves Middlebury pull-up, midrange jump-shots. These are inefficient shots, and will allow the Delpeches to own the boards. Bates is certainly an underdog here, but there’s a thin path to victory for them.
How Middlebury Can Win
I’m having trouble finding an answer for this other than “continue doing exactly what they’ve been doing.” Middlebury’s offense has reached a level lately that few NESCAC teams have ever achieved, but their defense on the interior has finally caught up. Middlebury is always going to give up points because of their fast paced offense (quick shots=long rebounds, fast breaks for the other team) but they have quietly gotten very good in the half court. The guards have of course always been excellent, but the big men have improved leaps and bounds, especially Eric McCord ‘19. McCord has become very quick on rotations and hedging the pick and roll, and provides a nice fundamental counterpart to Nick Tarantino’s athleticism. Interior defense will be the key to Middlebury’s strategy in this game, as the Delpeches are the key to Bates’ offense. I expect Middlebury to double heavily on either Delpeche from the perimeter on defense, and dare Bates’ guards to make threes. On offense, all the Panthers need to do is more of the same. Run, hit shots and move the ball around the perimeter until a lane opens up.
Although Bryan Jones and Jeff Spellman are undoubtedly the lead guards off the bench for their respective teams, the other members of the bench mobs deserve credit. Crowd favorite (and NbN writer, no big deal) Liam Naughton has clawed his way into the rotation as a steadying senior presence on the court, as well as a three point threat. He will be important in the tournament, as the other two guards off the bench are freshmen Joey Leighton and Perry Delorenzo, neither of whom are quite ready for tournament time. On Bates’ side, the most obvious next threat is Jerome Darling ’17, who has demonstrated his explosiveness scoring the rock a handful of times this season. His biggest performance of the year came in the upset of Tufts, in which Darling 4-9 three-pointers en route to 21 points. Bates could definitely use another superhero performance from Darling this weekend. Elsewhere, the Bobcats will look to Quinlan Leary ‘17 ( a summer camp teammate of yours truly), who has recently moved into the starting lineup to replace Nick Gilpin ‘20, giving Bates more experience and strength on the perimeter. In addition to the need for threes from Spellman, Bates will need Leary, Gilpin, or other guards like Shawn Strickland ‘18 or Justin Zukowski ‘18 to give them surprise firepower off the bench. Basically, everything needs to go right for Bates to have a chance, while Middlebury just needs to keep playing their game.
Almost four years to the day from Friday, Middlebury and Amherst faced off in a very similar situation.
The two teams entered the game in contention for the top seed in the conference tournament, and as two of the top 15 teams in the country. Amherst was still led by two elite guards in Willy Workman and Aaron Toomey, and Middlebury still relied on terrific backcourt depth, with Nolan Thompson, Joey Kizel and Jake Wolfin leading the Panthers to several NCAA berths in a row. The game featured a double digit comeback from the Panthers, a game-tying three off an intentional missed free throw for Amherst, three overtimes and an alien invasion (okay not the last one.) The then-Lord Jeffs emerged victorious 104-101 after the third overtime, having combined with Middlebury to produce one of the all-time classics in NESCAC basketball history. And as if that wasn’t enough history, get this: I wasn’t at the game because I had a high school game…AGAINST MATT ST. AMOUR. Spooky right?
Middlebury and Amherst have played several other terrific games, both in the regular season and the tournament. So it’s certainly fair to expect a tightly contested game in Pepin Gymnasium on tonight. However, both teams have weaknesses that the other side could use to win the game running away. This game is a quintessential game of the week because it should be a classic on paper, but either side could come out on fire and put the game away before it even starts.
Amherst’s Biggest Weakness: Frontcourt Production
This game may well feature the two best backcourts in the country. But both teams, and particularly Amherst, feature frontcourts that often struggle to keep up. Throughout this season Amherst has struggled to find an effective scoring option outside of Jayde Dawson ‘18 and Johnny McCarthy ‘18, and forwards have been the main culprit in that lack of production. Senior David George ‘17 is too often a non-factor on offense, allowing the opposing center to clog the driving lanes that Dawson and McCarthy love to exploit. Jacob Nabatoff ‘17 has been inconsistent, shooting under 40% from the field. It has generally been Eric Conklin ‘17 who has provided a frontcourt spark for Amherst, averaging 8 points per game on 60% shooting. Middlebury defends very well on the perimeter, so this is a game in which Amherst will need some production out of these big men to take the pressure off of McCarthy and Dawson.
Middlebury’s Biggest Weakness: Shot Blocking
The Panthers play with breakneck pace on both offense and defense. This means that the Panthers look to force a lot of turnovers on the perimeter, but give up some points as a result of gambling for steals. That’s okay as long as the offense is picking up the slack, but if Middlebury isn’t hitting early they can give up points in a hurry (see the first half of their game against Tufts.) This tendency to give up big runs is caused partially by this fast paced style, but it is also due to a lack of intimidating interior defense. Big man Eric McCord ‘19 has improved leaps and bounds as the season has gone on in terms of moving his feet on pick and rolls, but he simply is not atheltic enough to be a shot blocking threat. Nick Tarantino ‘18 is a terrific athlete, but his timing on block attempts is a little off, and his rebounding responsibilities draw him away from the shot. Matt Folger ‘20 is Middlebury’s only dangerous shot blocker, but he makes too many freshman mistakes in terms of help rotations and silly fouls to play big minutes in crucial games like this one. Teams that have slowed Middlebury down, like Williams and more recently Colby, have had success in limiting Middlebury’s offense. If Amherst tries to slow down Middlebury on both ends of the ball, the Panthers will need to guard inside as well as on the perimeter, and that means blocking some shots.
Amherst’s Biggest Strength: Clutch Play
Amherst only scores 73 points per game during league play, which is sixth best in the conference. Throughout the season they have struggled to score efficiently, and have several times found themselves in the position where they need a game-tying or winning shot. Enter Jayde Dawson. Dawson has game-winners against Babson (#2 in the country at the time and Amherst’s most impressive win thus far) and Bowdoin, and is arguably the best in the league at taking over a game when his team needs him the most. But Johnny McCarthy also has a couple big shots under his belt, including a ludicrous 28 footer to tie the game against Bowdoin, setting up Dawson’s game winner. If the recent history between these teams holds true, this game will come down to the wire. Amherst must like their personnel in that eventuality.
Middlebury’s Biggest Strength: Ball Movement and Security
As you may have heard me say once, twice or thirty times, the only better guards than Middlebury’s trio in America are the Power Rangers. Jake Brown ‘17, Matt St. Amour ‘17 and Jack Daly ‘18 have the Panthers leading the league in assists.
But more impressive than that is their turnover ranking. Middlebury has the third fewest turnovers in the league, which is amazing considering how fast they play and how much they look to move the ball. At their peak, there’s no team in the league that can stop the Panther offense due to how well they move the ball and shoot from the perimeter. When they struggle, it is because they have stopped whipping the ball around on the perimeter and are settling for jump shots. Middlebury must have confidence in their ball movement, as Amherst will certainly attempt to slow them down and force them to play half court offense.
Amherst X-Factor: Michel Riopel ‘18
Middlebury is too good a team for Dawson and McCarthy to drag Amherst to victory like Murthaugh and Riggs in Lethal Weapon. They’ll need some back-up, and Riopel is the perfect candidate. A 48% three point shooter, Riopel is deadly from outside. But he is more than just a three point specialist. Earlier this week in a loss to Wesleyan, Riopel put up 16 points and 9 rebounds on just 8 shots. This efficiency is what makes him such an effective third option alongside Dawson and McCarthy, both of whom have the tendency to become volume scorers when they, and the team, are struggling. However, Riopel will need to become more aggressive in this game. Middlebury is well equipped to handle Dawson and McCarthy, which means Riopel should have some opportunities to create for himself. Eight shots will be too few for him in this game.
Middlebury X-Factor: Zone Defense
Middlebury’s defensive strategy can be likened to the Joker’s strategy for taking over Gotham in The Dark Knight: sew chaos and discord wherever they can. One of the ways that Middlebury toys with opposing offenses is by switching from man defense to zone with little warning. The Panthers don’t need a timeout to set up the offense, they can do it as the other team brings the ball up. This can really shake an opposing offense, forcing them to switch their game plan on the fly. Middlebury’s perimeter players are excellent zone defenders, as Brown and St. Amour are adept at playing passing lanes while Daly hounds whoever has the ball. The big men in the back are getting better at challenging shots at the rim without fouling, particularly McCord. Amherst is not a tremendously threatening three point shooting team, save Riopel and McCarthy, so a zone might be a good strategy for Middlebury employ. If they can shut down McCarthy and Dawson’s lanes to the rim, Amherst will have great difficulty finding other ways to score.
Both Middlebury and Amherst are in contention for the top seed in the league tournament. However, Tufts is also in the mix, but it is Amherst who controls their own destiny in terms of attaining the number one seed. If Amherst wins both, they get the top seed. If Tufts wins and Amherst loses at least one, then it will be the Jumbos who have home court advantage throughout the playoffs. Finally, if Middlebury wins both and Tufts loses tonight, then Middlebury will be top dawg in the NESCAC tournament. In order to control their destiny for the the number one seed in the league tournament, everyone needs to win tonight. Then we’ll seed what happens tomorrow.
Middlebury matches up very well with Amherst on paper. In Daly, Brown and St. Amour, the Panthers have the perimeter depth needed to hang with Dawson and McCarthy. However, McCarthy’s size and strength presents something of a matchup issue. Daly is probably best-suited to match McCarthy, leaving St. Amour or Brown to guard Dawson. Dawson’s hard-driving style creates the worry that he will get Brown or St. Amour in foul trouble, which would hinder Middlebury’s offense tremendously. This is why I could see the Panthers playing a great deal of zone in this game.
Middlebury is tremendous at home, but they have the misfortune of catching the campus during a break, so the student section won’t be quite as rowdy as one might imagine for such a crucial matchup. However, the home court advantage is still going to be crucial. Amherst has had an absurd home/road split this season (15 home/6 road) and are only 2-4 away from LeFrak this year. Middlebury has shown themselves to be a team that rises to the occasion at home, and I see them doing it again on Friday night.
It’s a big weekend around the ‘CAC, and Friday’s games will have a pretty big impact on the way Saturday’s games go. Bates, Hamilton, Middlebury and Tufts all have the pleasure of playing each other (except Bates does not play Tufts, and Hamilton does not play Middlebury), which will mean the number of undefeated NESCAC teams will dwindle to a maximum of three this weekend. On the other end of the standings, Williams, Bowdoin, and Colby are all winless in conference play, and face only other winless squads, meaning at least one of them will walk away feeling a little better about themselves this weekend. Then, there is the scrum in the middle, where Amherst, Conn, Trinity and Wesleyan will face off, with Amherst and Trin looking to jump to 3-0 while Conn and Wes are hoping to right their ships. With all that in mind, momentum is a big factor this weekend. A win Friday night bodes very well moving into Saturday’s games, while a loss could steer some teams toward panic mode. Here’s what we’ve got for Saturday’s action:
Hamilton (10-2, 2-0) at #6 Tufts (11-2, 2-0), Medford, MA, 2:00 PM
Like I said, momentum is supremely important this weekend, especially in this game. Hamilton and Tufts will either be feeling good after a big Friday night win against another solid squad, or they will be disappointed with their first NESCAC loss of the season. That’s why no matter the result, it is extremely important to get out to a hot start in this game. I strongly believe that whichever team asserts their dominance early will win the game, especially if they are 3-0 while their opponent is 2-1 at tipoff. For the visiting Continentals, the key to victory is on the defensive end. Their obvious disadvantage is on the block, where Palleschi has a massive size advantage over the tall but lankier Andrew Groll ‘19. However, Palleschi alone cannot defeat the Continentals, so their focus on the defensive end should be on preventing penetration from Tarik Smith ‘17, Vinny Pace ‘18 and Everett Dayton ‘18, all of whom are very good at getting to the hooping and dishing to open shooters. Hamilton has shown that they know how to put the ball in the hoop, so it is not their offense that they should be worried about (though I do think the length of Tufts could be a bit tricky for the Hamilton guards), but rather how they are going to keep Tufts from scoring. This is going to be a big game for Peter Hoffmann ’19, who has the best combination of size and scoring ability on the Continentals’ roster, and as he goes the Hamilton offense will go. I believe that the Jumbos will get to the hoop as they usually do, but because of their size advantage across the board, I expect Hamilton to sag into the paint quite a bit. For this reason, I will warn Hamilton: do not sleep on Tufts sharpshooter Ethan Feldman ‘19. He could be deadly on Saturday.
On paper, this game looks close. The teams have similar records and have opposite strengths, which gives each team a different advantage. Middlebury’s guards are clearly their strength, while it is the post play of the Bobcats that propels them. However, I do not think this game will be nearly as close as some might project. To be honest, I’m predicting that Middlebury will roll. While Bates as the advantage down low with the Delpeche twins, these two have consistently struggled in league play throughout their NESCAC careers. While the pair has improved each season, they have not flashed the ability to take over games very often, and against an experienced Middlebury team I just don’t think this will be one of the rare occasions where they do. While the departure of Baines certainly hurts the Panthers, Nick Tarantino ‘18 is an admirable replacement, and I think he will lock down whichever Bobcat big he is matched up against. If that holds true, maybe the other Delpeche twin can go to work, but the Bobcats are going to need production out of their guards and the stingy defense of Jake Brown ‘17 and Jack Daly ‘18 doesn’t lead me to believe that we will see that. Middlebury should be able to keep the Bates guards in check, and if they do, the Panthers will climb onto Matt St. Amour’s back and show the Bobcats who is higher up in the feline hierarchy.
Writer’s Pick: Middlebury
#5 Amherst (10-2, 1-0) vs. Conn College (8-4, 2-0), New London, CT, 3:00 PM
This matchup is interesting. As Pete mentioned in his earlier article, the Purple and White (who by the way, might be called the Amherst Hamsters soon enough since hamster is an anagram of Amherst) have lost two of their last four. This couldn’t matter less to me in terms of their performance this weekend. Amherst is always one of the top couple teams in the NESCAC – they pretty much always have been with Dave Hixon at the helm. They are a very tough team to beat, but they are also generally prone to complete melts where they lose focus and lose to teams worse than them. Take last year, for example: Amherst played Wesleyan in an out-of-conference tilt and lost by 27 after beating them by 24 just three days earlier. Did this mean Wesleyan and Amherst were even teams, or that Wesleyan was better? No. It just meant that on certain nights, Amherst takes the night off. That’s what I would say happened against Springfield College in December. I have been watching Amherst College basketball my entire life. I used to wreak absolute havoc in Alumni Gymnasium, and I would watch every Amherst game. I still remember standing in the front of the Amherst student section with a couple of my friends as a 12-ish year old as Amherst took down Tufts in OT. Through the years, I have learned that you must take Amherst one game at a time. So, in this matchup, here’s what should you look for:
The matchup between Tyler Rowe ‘19 and Jayde Dawson ‘18 is the one that immediately jumps out to me. These are the two stars of their respective teams this season, and whoever wins this matchup will likely give his team what it needs to win. If I were a betting man (which I’m not, because that would be an NCAA violation), I would say that Dawson wins this battle. He is just as athletic as Rowe, but he has such a size advantage that it is tough to pick against him in this one. Dawson has 4 inches on Rowe, and though Conn does not list their weights, I would guess there is also about a 25 pound disparity between the two of them. I think Amherst would be silly not to post up Dawson at least a few times to take advantage of this mismatch. I do think Zuri Pavlin ‘17 will have a great game for the Camels, as he is much more mobile than Amherst’s David George ‘17, but I don’t think it will be enough to deal with the size advantage that Amherst possesses all over the perimeter. Between Dawson, Johnny McCarthy ‘18, Michael Riopel ‘18 and Jeff Racy ‘17, Conn will struggle to match up.
Trinity looked good against Williams last weekend, and Ed Ogundeko ‘17 looked VERY good. His stat line speaks for itself, but Ogundeko’s physicality is what sets him apart from other big men in this league, which is why I think he will have a solid day against Joseph Kuo ‘17 of the Cardinals. However, I do not think he will have the same type of day that he did against Williams, as Kuo is a very solid big man in his own right. This will be a back and forth matchup on the low block, which is why I am cancelling out these two when making my prediction. This game will be won by the perimeter players. As always, Trinity will slow the game down and work out of the halfcourt set primarily, which means Wesleyan’s discipline and communication on defense is key. Trinity turns the ball over more than anyone else in the league, so if Wes can turn TOs into points, they will be in very good shape. However, that means they will have to take care of the ball themselves – Wesleyan turns the ball over the second most. Offensively, Wesleyan should try to get into the paint more often, and stop hucking up threes. As they learned last weekend, three-point shots are not their strength, getting into the paint is. Wesleyan is a lot deeper at the guard spots than Trinity, so if they can get to the rack and force the Bantams to foul, the Cardinals are in good shape. However, if they fall into the trap of shooting a million threes again, then Trinity will be able to contain the weapons of the Wesleyan offense. This game is a toss up, as I think the two are very evenly matched and a lot of how this game plays out depends on gameplan, but I think Wesleyan edges Trinity in a tight one.
Writer’s Pick: Wesleyan
Williams (11-3, 0-2) at Bowdoin (8-6, 0-2), Brunswick, ME, 6:00 PM
The rare NESCAC Saturday night game holds an interesting matchup between the Ephs and the Polar Bears, one which Williams must win if they want a shot at finishing in the top half of playoff teams in the NESCAC this year. However, early in the season it is also a pretty crucial game for Bowdoin if they want to crack the playoffs this year. With what appears to be the rise of Hamilton and Bates, Bowdoin needs to beat some playoff-caliber teams, and Williams would definitely be a nice win to write home about. However, I think this is a tough matchup for the Polar Bears for a few reasons. First of all, Bowdoin is best when Jack Simonds ‘19 has a mismatch. Williams doesn’t give him that, because Kyle Scadlock ‘19 is every bit as big and is every bit as athletic, so this is not going to be a game where Simonds completely takes over. Secondly, the weakness is Williams is down low, and unfortunately for Bowdoin, that is also their weakness. I will say, sophomore Hugh O’Neil has done a nice job under the hoop for the Polar Bears this year, but he is not going to single-handedly lead his team to a win. Thirdly, Williams has a stronger and deeper cast of guards than Bowdoin. Bobby Casey ‘19, Cole Teal ‘18, and Dan Aronowitz ‘17 provide a plethora of options for the Ephs offensively, and they are complemented by forward Scadlock. The matchups will be interesting, and I think the Ephs can exploit them no matter how Bowdoin chooses to play it. Assume Simonds guards Aronowitz – that leaves Scadlock with a huge mismatch down low, and doesn’t really slow down Aronowitz that much either. Assume Simonds guards Scadlock – Scadlock still outsizes Simonds, and Aronowitz has an even more favorable matchup on the perimeter. I don’t really see a way that Bowdoin can slow down the Williams attack in this one, which is why I think Williams should win pretty handily.
Remember early in the season when we thought the league might be less chaotic this season? We were wrong. For the first time ever, there are five NESCAC teams in the D3Hoops.com Top 25, with Middlebury (22) and Williams (25) joining Amherst (3), Tufts (8) and Wesleyan (9) after impressive tournament wins coming back from break. And as if that wasn’t complicated enough, Amherst and Wesleyan both lost on Tuesday night, throwing both the NESCAC and national rankings into a state of chaos mirrored only by the American political climate. And to add still ANOTHER layer of intrigue, four of the five ranked teams face each other on Friday night, kicking off what promises to be a spectacular season of league games. Amherst and Williams renew the biggest little rivalry in sports, and Middlebury takes on Wesleyan at home in a game that I think I might just try to attend if I’m not too busy. Oh yeah, and the other teams play too. Let’s break down those two marquee match-ups, and the rest of the games around the league.
GAME OF THE WEEK: #3 Amherst @ #25 Williams, 7:00 PM, Williamstown, Massachusetts
NESCAC’s version of the Average Joes-Globo Gym rivalry returns on Friday night, as Williams and Amherst square off in as important a game as one can hope for in the opening weekend of league play. After opening the season at #1 in the country and looking fairly unstoppable over the first couple weeks, Amherst has dropped two out of their last three. The chief reasons for their sudden mortality are on offense. They turned the ball over 17 times in their loss to Eastern Connecticut on Tuesday, and shot only 36% in a loss to Springfield last week. The depth the people raved about for Amherst early in the season is in disarray. Eric Conklin is the only bench player who has made a difference for Amherst lately, as his minutes have jumped up due to the inconsistent (to be diplomatic) play of starting center David George ‘17. Amherst has too often relied on the volume scoring of Jayde Dawson and the efficiency of Johnny McCarthy to keep them in games.
Williams comes in on almost the exact opposite track. Impressive wins over Hope and Mount Union in the Mount Union Classic vaulted the Ephs into the top 25, and they maintained their position with a (somewhat lackluster) 74-62 win over Oneonta St. on Tuesday. In a departure from the last few years, the Ephs have recently won despite poor showings from three point land. Williams is hovering around 28% in their last three games, and yet they are 3-0. This is due to an excellent team defense, and honestly, the play of sophomore forward Kyle Scadlock. After a slow start to the year, Scadlock has averaged 19 PPG in the last three, bringing to life the star leap that some projected after an impressive freshman year. Shooting struggles aside, Williams has to love the spot they’re in entering league play, and Amherst certainly shouldn’t be thrilled with theirs.
For Amherst it has to be pure, elemental anger. Yeah they’ve lost a couple games, but every team will at some point. But to be the pre-season #1 and have to hear idiot pundits like myself and even their own fans cry gloom and doom must royally tick them off. Williams is an excellent team, but this is Amherst basketball we’re talking about here. They were #1 for a reason: they have loads of good players, and they are coached by the legendary David Hixon, who is certainly capable of whipping these guys into shape. A rivalry win in the opening weekend of league play would be a delicious way to remind the league why they were at the top in the first place.
Williams has been winning without three point shooting, but that will get far more difficult to do against elite opponents like Amherst. The Ephs will have trouble getting good looks in the paint against Amherst’s length, meaning that perimeter shots will have to make up the difference. Additionally, Williams does not match up well defensively with Dawson and McCarthy, the backcourt that makes Amherst’s engines run. Therefore, Williams will have to hit some threes to keep pace. This makes Cole Teal ‘17 a major key (shout out: DJ Khaled) to this game, and to the remainder of the season. Teal is capable of insane hot streaks and insane cold streaks, but lately he has been doing far more of the latter. He was quiet in Mt. Union, shooting just 1-5 over the two games, but he bounced back with a nice night against Oneonta, tallying 15 points on 3-5 shooting from deep. Teal will need to be hot against Amherst both to score from the perimeter and open up the middle for Scadlock and Aronowitz.
Both teams have struggled to find production at the five this season. Williams has spun their “Random Center” wheel several times this season, but so far none of them have been winners. Meanwhile, David George of Amherst has been like the parents from Stranger Things: there in person, but pretty lackluster and ignores a lot of responsibilities. This should lead to a tight, high scoring game, one that I would tend to favor Williams in, as they’re at home. But Williams has no answer for McCarthy and Dawson, both of whom can swing a game themselves. It’s a toss up at this point, the best possible projection for a rivalry game of this magnitude.
Middlebury has not lost to Wesleyan since 2004. Let that sink in. The last time Middlebury lost to Wesleyan, Matt St. Amour was 10 years old. The last time Middlebury lost to Wesleyan, the greatest song of all time (and my go-to karaoke song) “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson had just been released. The last time Middlebury lost to Wesleyan, Mel Gibson was still a marketable movie star. That said, Wesleyan looked poised to break that streak until Tuesday night. After starting off 11-0 and beating #4 Marietta, Wesleyan was knocked off pace by Rhode Island College 62-55. The loss to RIC featured many of the problems that have plagued Wesleyan in league play over the last few years, namely a lack of offensive firepower and shot-making down the stretch. Standout guards Harry Rafferty ‘17 and Salim Green ‘19 combined for 2 points on 1-15 shooting, numbers that many experts have referred to as “bad.” Wesleyan will not win if they don’t get production from the perimeter, and Middlebury is arguably the best perimeter defensive team in the league. Additionally, the loss of defensive stopper PJ Reed will hurt Wesleyan’s efforts to slow down the run-and-gun Panther offense.
Middlebury enters league play with momentum, but some depth problems. Sophomore guard Hilal Dahleh remains out with a back injury, and forward Zach Baines ‘17 will likely miss the weekend as well. These are two valuable weapons that the Middlebury offense will dearly miss, particularly from a floor-spacing perspective. However, in the Staten Island Tournament of Heroes (DOPE name for a tournament by the way,) Middlebury weathered those losses and a prolonged shooting slump from Matt St. Amour ‘17 to win the championship and vault into the top 20. They owe their success to a two-game stretch of excellent defense, and the heroics of Jack Daly ‘18, who continued his low-key All-League candidacy with a buzzer beater over #17 Illinois-Wesleyan (as well as 14/7/7.5 averages.) In Staten Island, Middlebury showed the toughness to rise to the top of the loaded NESCAC, but they will need to hit outside shots more conistently to beat the elite Wesleyan defense.
While Daly and St. Amour were certainly the MVPs of Middlebury’s tournament, it was contributions from the bench that allowed the Panthers to weather tough shooting from the starters. And the stand-out player from the Middlebury bench was freshman forward Matt Folger.
Folger is an excellent shooter who had threes in both games of the tournament, but defensively was where he really set himself apart. The lanky forward had four blocks over the two games, including three in the championship. Folger’s combination of size, athleticism and timing make him the interior defensive force that Middlebury has been lacking. He and Nick Tarantino will be crucial in stopping Wesleyan’s post duo of Joseph Kuo ‘17 and Nathan Krill ‘18.
Wesleyan’s defense is far from in doubt. They are the number one field goal defense in the country, and boast a perimeter defense that is uniquely able to shut down Middlebury’s three-headed dog of excellent guards. However, Wesleyan simply has to score, and the person most responsible for that is Salim Green ‘19. Green is an exceptional defender, but Middlebury is too deep and fast for Wesleyan to pound the ball and win 55-50. Green will need to score and push the pace if Wesleyan has any hope of ending their 11 year losing streak against the Panthers.
Of all the teams in the league, Middlebury may be the best equipped to handle the indefinite losses of Dahleh and Baines. They have great chemistry and experienced leaders at the helm, as well as a deep bench that is rounding into shape at exactly the right time. But “handling” losses isn’t the same as fixing the holes they create. Middlebury is vulnerable right now, particularly in outside shooting and interior defense. These are the areas that Wesleyan will look to exploit on Friday night. However, Wesleyan has no chance if they shoot anything like the way they did on Tuesday. Someone besides Joseph Kuo needs to put the ball in the basket for the Cardinals, or else their league season will look very different from their first 12 games.
Writer’s Pick: Middlebury
#8 Tufts @ Bowdoin: 7:00 PM, Brunswick, Maine
I was going to let Rory handle this one, since according to an intrepid commenter I “hate Tufts,” but I think I’ll be able to handle it. I certainly do not hate Tufts, I just left them off the Awards Preview because none of their individual players have stood out yet from a postseason honors standpoint. That could certainly change in league play, particularly as Vincent Pace ‘18 gets healthier and healthier. Pace returned early in the season from a knee injury, and is still rounding himself back into form. When 100% he is certainly one of the best all around players in the league, capable of leading Tufts to a NESCAC title. This opening weekend will be a good test of just how ready he is to take on a heavy minutes load.
Bowdoin, on the other hand, has their star very much ready to go. Jack Simonds ‘19 is leading the league in scoring at 23.3 PPG, and the Polar Bears for the most part rise as far as he can take them. However, on Tuesday night they had a nice win over Bridgewater State despite Simonds having “only” 17. Sophomore guard Jack Bors had 23 off the bench, and forward Neil Fuller ‘17 added 15. We haven’t seen this balance from Bowdoin yet this year, and if it continues in league play, Bowdoin could definitely make some noise. Tufts has a huge edge in this game, but don’t count the Polar bears out just yet.
Writer’s Pick: Tufts
Bates @Colby: 7:00 PM, Waterville, Maine
With the Brothers Delepche manning the middle, Bates was always scary defensively. But transfer Jeff Spellman ‘20 has given the Bobcats some needed offensive punch off the bench. Spellman was a fairly sought after D1 recruit coming out of high school, and committed to Stonehill College. However, he transferred to Bates before playing at all, and immediately hurt his ankle. The 6’2” guard made his NESCAC debut against Farmingdale State on the 29th, and had 13 points off the bench on Tuesday in a big road win against Brandeis. With a terrific defense and a revitalized offense, Bates is looking a little scary.
Entering their non-conference matchup with Bates on December 10th, Colby had lost four out of five and appeared to be carving out a spot at the bottom of the league. But they pulled out a gritty win in that game, and then another in their first game back against UMaine-Farmington. Like the Starship Enterprise, Colby is led by Patrick Stewart ‘19, who averages over 16 points per game. This game might not be critical at the top of the standings come the end of the season, but it is certainly a matter of pride for the Maine rivalries, and also will help determine which of these teams (if any) make the final cut for the NESCAC playoffs.
Writer’s pick: Bates
Connecticut College @ Hamilton:
This game will fly under the radar due to the Middlebury-Wesleyan and Williams-Amherst games, but it is quietly a fascinating match-up that could have major ramifications at the end of the year. Connecticut College has played with tremendous balance all season. They have four players averaging over 10 points per game, including the front-runner for the made-up NESCAC Sixth Man of the Year award in Isaiah Robinson ‘18. Robinson averages 10 per game off the bench on 45.2% shooting from three. Robinson’s offense off the bench has been critical in Connecticut College’s success, as an efficient offense has masked a mediocre defense at times for the Camels.
Speaking of efficient offenses, Hamilton leads the league in points per game at 87, and is third in shooting percentage at 48.3. The Continentals are led by a trio of stellar sophomores. Peter Hoffmann, Michael Grassey and and Tim Doyle all average over 13 points a game and shoot over 50% from the field. This youth is obviously a benefit, as this core could make Hamilton a player for the next couple years at least. However, it may also hurt them during league play. These players are not used to playing meaningful minutes in league play; Hamilton was not a contender during their freshman campaign. Connecticut College is older and more experienced (though still pretty young), and that could help them if this game comes down to the wire. Additionally, Hoffmann, Hamilton’s leading scorer and best defender, is only shooting 47.2% from the foul line. If the game is close in the final minutes, Connecticut College may try to exploit this, forcing Hamilton to choose whether or not to have him on the floor.
Writer’s Pick: Hamilton
Trinity @ Pine Manor: 3:00 PM, Brookline, Massachusetts
Writing about a non-league game after all this excitement makes me a little bit tired, but I’m going to write through it because #BlogIsLife. Pine Manor has had an uneven start to the season, standing at 7-4. Their only other NESCAC matchup was an early season 97-96 loss to Colby. However, from my extensive research on their season (a cursory glance at their website,) Pine Manor looks to be a pretty tough matchup for Trinity. They play at a blinding pace, taking 81 shots per game, which is a full 22 (!) more than the infamously slow Bantams. This game looks like it will be less of a basketball game and more of an ideological debate regarding the nature of the sport.
Speaking of Trinity, they have been one of the toughest teams to figure out in the early months of the season. They started off the year losing three of four, and then a nice win over Springfield (three straight NCAA berths, has beaten Amherst and Conn College) made it appear that they had righted the ship. But they followed that up with a terrible loss to Susquehanna and another loss against a very good Eastern Connecticut team, and they were back down again. And finally, they just put up by far their best performance of the year against Plattsburgh, scoring 107 points and shooting 66% from the field. The Bantams have struggled to find any consistent perimeter scoring around center Ed Ogundeko, but against Plattsburgh they proved that they can beat anyone when they have it. This game will be a crucial final tuneup for Trinity as they look to make a run in league play.
By popular demand (Pete’s note: pretty sure I’m the only one who even requested this,) here are the first NBN power rankings of the 2016-2017 basketball season. I have finals to study for, so I’m not going to spend time on a long-winded intro. NESCAC basketball has been great so far, but I just can’t wait for January so that we can see where everyone actually stacks up. Now, here are the rankings at a point in the season that is far too early to make rankings.
1.) Amherst (8-0, 0-0)
They’re the number one team in the country, and they’re obviously the number one team in NESCAC as well. Amherst has been dominant so far this year against mostly far inferior competition, but they have also picked up the most impressive win in the country so far in a double-overtime thriller against #2 Babson last week. While Babson’s Joey Flannery ‘17 dropped 42 to put away Tufts just a few weeks prior, Amherst was able to withstand Flannery’s 41 thanks to some late-game heroics from Johnny McCarthy ‘18 and Jayde Dawson ‘17. Though it wasn’t the most efficient 32 (13-30 from the field), Dawson showed that he could put the ball in the basket when it counted. He’s now third in the league with 18.3 PPG, the leading scorer for Coach Hixon’s team. Amherst relies on Dawson and McCarthy primarily on offense, but the rest of their scoring is spread pretty evenly between the seven other players averaging 12+ minutes per game. Balance, balance, balance – that is what Amherst is about at this point in the year
2.) Wesleyan (9-0, 0-0)
Speaking of balance, Wesleyan is displaying just that through their first nine games. The Cardinals have four players averaging double-digits so far (Jordan Bonner, Salim Green, Harry Rafferty, and Joseph Kuo), and three others averaging over 7.0 PPG (Nathan Krill, Andrew Gardiner, and Kevin O’Brien). This widespread attack has given opposing defenses headaches, and these headaches have even carried over to the other end of the court. Wesleyan is allowing the fewest points per game so far this season. They’re not blocking an ungodly amount of shots, they’re not forcing a ridiculous amount of turnovers, the Cardinals are just baiting their opponents into tough shots, leading to league-bests in opponent’s FG% (34%) and opponent’s three-point FG% (28.5%). They also took down a strong Williams team at home on December 3rd, showing that the Cardinals are far from rebuilding, as we thought they might this year.
3.) Middlebury (7-1, 0-0)
If you’ve been keeping up with our sparsely posted articles, you know a lot about the Panthers since the Middlebury section takes up half of every one of Pete’s articles. Like Pete noted on Monday, the Panthers are a very solid 7-1 right now, with their lone loss coming to Endicott, who only just dropped out of the Top 25. What concerns me in the long run for Middlebury is that they allow opponents to shoot 42.5% from the field, the worst mark in the league. However, Middlebury’s own shooting percentage, 49.7%, goes for the best shooting efficiency in the league, so the Panthers will probably be alright. One reason they shoot so well is because they lead the league in assists. They are the only team in the NESCAC who can boast 20+ AST/G. If Jake Brown ‘17 and Jack Daly ‘18 remain among the ranks of the top 5 dime-droppers in the conference, Middlebury will be pretty tough to shut down offensively.
4.) Tufts (8-2, 0-0)
I’m not saying I jinxed the Jumbos in my most recent post, but I’m not not saying it. As soon as I posted about how Tufts and Amherst deserved more credit for their play, Tufts nearly gave away a game to Brandeis, they got worked by Joey Flannery and the Babson Beavers, and then lost on a buzzer beater to a far less talented UMass-Boston team. Nonetheless, Tufts bounced back against Wentworth on Saturday with a nice 15-point victory led by a four-pronged attack of Vinny Pace ‘18, Tarik Smith ‘17, Everett Dayton ‘18, and Tom Palleschi ‘17. One of the issues in their slide last week was that they relied far too heavily on Pace to bail them out, an issue that started all the way back against WPI. Well, Dayton must have realized this as well, because in the last two games he has gone for 16 and 14 points while shooting 50% from the field. If the Jumbos want to stop dropping in the rankings, Tufts is going to need Dayton to keep playing well, because so far they have lacked the consistent offensive punch in the interior that they possessed last winter.
5.) Williams (8-1, 0-0)
I feel bad putting the Ephs in the five spot since their only loss came against #22 Wesleyan, but for a very young Williams team, things are looking good so far. Dan Aronowitz ‘17 is leading the way once again for Coach App’s squad with 18.6 PPG, 2.2 AST/G, and 4.3 REB/G, and he has positioned himself nicely in the Player of the Year race as we head into winter break. Aronowitz is aided primarily by Cole Teal ‘18 and Kyle Scadlock ‘19 on the offensive end, while Bobby Casey ‘19 and James Heskett ‘19 have also chipped in quite a bit. The post is what we figured would be the weak spot for the Ephs, and in their lone loss to Wesleyan, they were outscored 34-18 in the paint. Now I know that not all points in the paint come via post players, but lack of an imposing defensive presence down low begs questions about whether Williams will be able to maintain their current success. If they can figure it out, however, the Ephs will be alright.
6.) Hamilton (6-2, 0-0)
I’ll be honest, Hamilton has been the biggest surprise for me so far this season. I know they have not been too competitive in NESCAC play in recent years, but I truly believe this is a different Continentals team than we’ve seen in awhile. The Hamilton offense is led by a very young cast: Tim Doyle ‘19 (20.0 PPG, note that Doyle has only played in three of Hamilton’s eight games), Peter Hoffman ‘19 (16.3 PPG), and Michael Grassey ‘19 (16.0 PPG) do the bulk of the damage, while Kena Gilmour ‘20 also chips in with 10.0 PPG. The Continentals are a pretty solid rebounding team, led by Grassey and Andrew Groll ‘19, who are 7th and 9th in the NESCAC respectively. Hamilton is one of the youngest teams in the league, but they were last year as well, which allowed the class of 2019 to gain valuable on-court experience. I think that Hamilton will have at least one big upset this year, but I don’t think they’re quite mature enough to topple some of the beasts at the top of the conference. I suppose we’ll see when league action begins.
7.) Conn College (7-1, 0-0)
Conn College looked pretty good at this point last season, but they fell off when NESCAC play rolled around as they were unable to finish some games the way they wanted to. However, Conn looks to be a much more cohesive unit thus far, and they’ve been scoring in bunches this year. The Camels lead the league with 86.8 PPG, and it has a full team effort on the offensive end as six (!!) different Conn players are averaging at least 11 PPG through their first eight contests. However, one cause of concern, and maybe where the challenges of NESCAC play will catch up to Conn, is that their bench is not very deep. It’s more or less a seven man rotation for Conn, which will be thin when conference action begins in January. Additionally, the Camels are fully reliant on their ability to score the ball – they are last in the league in points allowed, and as we saw against Wesleyan, when Conn doesn’t score well, they don’t play as well (Pete’s Note: Pretty sure this is how it works for most teams.) Conn looks to be a potential threat as of now, but unless they figure out their defense they will struggle in NESCAC play.
8.) Trinity (5-4, 0-0)
Very classic Trinity allowing just 64.8 PPG so far, but what’s a bit uncharacteristic is that they have not had the scoring to reward their defense. I will admit, their losses have not been the worst defeats in the history of Division III hoops – Southern Vermont was an NCAA tournament team last winter and Susquehanna is currently ranked 18th in the country, but regardless, I think the Bantams are scarily dependent on Ed Ogundeko ‘17. Trinity plays 9-10 deep, but Ogundeko is the only consistent scorer, and when he struggles, so does the team. In two of his three lowest scoring games, Trinity has lost. Their biggest issue offensively is without a doubt ball control. The Bantams are committing a dreadful 19.8 TO/G,and if this type of sloppy ball security continues, it would be hard-pressed to envision Trinity in the playoffs.
9.) Bowdoin (5-3, 0-0)
Though Bowdoin looked very pretty solid early on, it has become clear after eight games that this team is completely reliant on Jack Simonds ‘19. To a certain extent, this is fine – Simonds does lead the NESCAC in scoring after all, with 23.6 PPG – but it is to the point where Bowdoin refuses to even take him off the court. Simonds plays 35.1 minutes on average…I believe that that’s simply an unsustainable amount of playing time. What’s worse, Bowdoin doesn’t really have anyone else who can take over the scoring duties if he has an off day, and in the one game the sophomore scored less than 19 points (he scored 12), Bates handed Bowdoin their biggest loss of the season. The Polar Bears are just not that deep, and while Simonds has explosive potential on the offensive end, relying on one player is generally not the formula for success in the NESCAC.
10.) Bates (5-3, 0-0)
Marcus and Malcolm Delpeche are currently leading the Bobcats with 15.0 and 13.3 PPG respectively. Marcus is also second in the conference in rebounding (10.5 REB/G) while Malcolm is tied for fourth (9.4 REB/G), and Malcolm leads the NESCAC with 3.3 BLK/G. With all these positive signs, I can’t help but think back to previous years where the Delpeche twins have been solid during the non-conference portion of their schedules and then fallen off once January rolled around, but I’m hoping that this is the year that the two finally get over the hump and lead Bates back to the playoffs. The Bobcats did trounce Bowdoin by 14 last week, but they then suffered a devastating loss to Colby on Saturday after the Mules’ Patrick Stewart ‘17 converted an old-fashioned three-point play with 0.2 seconds left in regulation. Bates is a decent defensive team, but they rank last in points scored, so expect Bates to show off their Lewiston toughness come conference play.
11.) Colby (5-4, 0-0)
After losing what feels like a million seniors that graduated in May, the Mules are young. Really young. They only have two seniors and two juniors. They have eight (yes, eight) freshmen. So as not to leave out the class of 2019, I’ll note that there are three sophomore Mules on their roster, but I think my point is clear – this team lacks maturity, and that is one of the most important features for a NESCAC basketball team. Patrick Stewart ‘17, however, has captain(Kirk)ed Colby this season to the tune of 16.2 PPG. Unfortunately, he’s really been the only consistent threat for Colby, leading to some pretty inconsistent play. When the Mules took on Bowdoin in a nonconference matchup (who obviously know each other pretty well), Stewart was just 2-18 from the field with 7 points. Conference opponents are going to be able to shut down Stewart, so someone else is going to need to pull some of the scoring load. In each of their four losses, Colby has been outscored in the paint. That’s only happened one time when Colby has won, so they’re either going to need to figure out how to keep teams out of the paint, or they are going to have to start shooting higher than 32.8% from three-point land.
Editor’s Note: While 99% of the work on these previews is done by the writers, the projected records for all NESCAC Men’s Basketball teams were decided upon by the editors collectively, not decisions of the writers themselves. So, if you want to be mad at someone about the record projections, be mad at us.
Writer’s’ Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I love Middlebury Basketball more than I do several of my relatives. I try my best to write every article without bias, but I may slip up. Feel free to let me know if I do!
Projected Record: 8-2
Middlebury enjoyed a return to glory in 2015-2016, winning the league championship just a year after failing to make the tournament. The Panthers overcame a slow start in non-conference games (they were just 6-6 entering NESCAC play) and an insanely uneven home/road split. The Panthers only played eight home games all of last season. Eight! They were home less than Lucas’ parents in Stranger Things. Anyway, the Panthers’ success was largely due to the stellar play of senior guards Matt St. Amour ‘17 and Jake Brown ‘17, as well as the emergence of junior forward Adisa Majors ‘18. Majors and St. Amour both mirrored the Panthers’ season: they struggled early in the year before turning it on in NESCAC play. St. Amour was honored with First Team All NESCAC and Second Team All Region hardware, while Majors was content to just get his job done with very little fanfare.
Luckily for the Panthers and unluckily for the rest of the league, the Panthers return nearly all of the team that came within two points of reaching the NCAA quarterfinals. Center Matt Daley was a force in the middle for the team when he was on the court, which was not extremely often, but his absence should open up minutes for talented young forwards Zach Baines ‘19 and Eric McCord ‘19, as well as freshman Matt Folger ‘20, who has impressed in training camp. Middlebury’s strength is of course in their backcourt, where tri-captains St. Amour, Brown and Jack Daly ‘18 bring leadership, experience, defensive intensity, scoring and really any other buzzword you can think of that a basketball team needs. The Panthers are both experienced and youthful, stout defensively and explosive on offense, and should enter the season as strong candidates to repeat as league champions.
2015-2016 Record: 18-11, 6-4, won the NESCAC Championship, lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament
Coach: Jeff Brown, 20th year, 309-185
Guard Matt St. Amour ‘17 (19.5 PPG, 5.2 REB/G, 2.3 A/G, 40.1% 3PT)
Guard Jake Brown ‘17 (10.0 PPG, 5.1 A/G, 1.6 STL/G)
For most of his career, Brown has been heavily underrated among NESCAC basketball analysts (us here at NbN included) due to his lack of scoring punch. An inconsistent jump shot kept Brown’s scoring numbers down, which often plays an unfortunately large role in determining postseason accolades in the NESCAC. But any observer of the Panthers over Brown’s career will know that his ferocious on ball defense and relentless pace have pushed the Panthers to become the explosive team they are today. There have been so many times where a team’s point guard has made a few nice plays, and Brown simply turns up the intensity and makes him look like Michael J Fox BEFORE he becomes the Wolf in Teen Wolf. Crucially, his fast pace and flashy style have not translated to an excessive amount of turnovers. His 2.6 A/TO ratio was among the best in the league, which is amazing considering the risks he takes with the ball. As you will learn from any five minute conversation with Brown, he needs to average 15 PPG and 6 assists to end the year with both 1000 points and the Middlebury assists record. If he can improve his jumpshot even further, driving lanes with open up for him as defense have to play him further out. Combine this with an increase in scoring chances due to the departure of Matt Daley, and those statistics are not out of the running. And neither is his long sought after NESCAC First Team Appearance.
Guard Matt St. Amour ‘17
Quick story about Matt St. Amour: His and my respective small Vermont high schools played each other twice a year during our careers. We weren’t exactly rivals on the court (he scored over 2,000 points and I think my grand total added up to somewhere in the 30-35 range) but I always secretly enjoyed watching him, even though he had a tendency to light us up. During our senior years, my high school was enjoying a pretty solid season, while Matt’s team was riding entirely on his shoulders. We entered our game against them with total confidence that we would win. Matt tossed up a triple double with a stat line of 43-12-15 and 6 steals. And those numbers don’t even do justice to how well he shot in that game: he was throwing up shot from the top row of the bleachers and finding nothing but the net. We did not win, but we did all leave with tremendous respect for Matt St. Amour. NESCAC teams probably left last season with a similar feeling, as St. Amour averaged nearly 20 points per game, to go along with five rebounds, three assists and a league leading 2.1 steals per game. He gained a reputation as something of a streaky shooter from inside the arc, shooting only 40% from the field, but from three he was deadly at 41%. And to go beyond those numbers, he was very rarely open as the only true outside threat on the court for Middlebury. Many of his shots were heavily contested, and he showed a definite knack for making the play that turns out to win the game (or literally does, as his buzzer beater against Skidmore shows.) St. Amour belongs on a very short list for POY contenders, and I like to think that he warmed up for it by lighting up the Middlebury Tigers. You’re welcome, Matt.
Guard Jack Daly ‘18
Rounding out the trio of guards is Jack Daly. This is going to sound like I’m plagiarizing Dick Vitale when he talks about any Duke players, but Daly is truly one of the toughest, smartest guards in the league, and one of the strongest with the ball as well. Armed with an ugly (but more effective than it looks) jumpshot and a variety of tricky change-of-pace moves with the ball, Daly proved himself towards the end of the season to be effective at getting into the paint and drawing fouls or dishing out assists. He also drastically improved his finishing at the rim over the course of last season, shooting 44.5% from the field, pretty good for a guard who struggled to hit outside shots. Daly’s greatest asset to Middlebury, however, is his rebounding. He averaged 5.8 rebounds per game during the regular season, and ten per game during Middlebury’s final four playoff games (the two NESCAC tournament games and then the two in the NCAA’s.) Daly’s prowess on the boards is what allows the Panthers to get away with starting three guards, two of whom are not tremendous outside threats. Daly can play much larger than his size on defense and run the offense to perfection, making him possibly the most valuable player on the team.
Forward Zach Baines ‘19
I’m going to talk more about Baines in the next session of this preview, but here’s the lowdown: Baines has the potential this season to be one of the most destructive defensive forces in the league. Middlebury plays frantic defense that is predicated on the three guards pressuring intensely on the perimeter. A side effect of this style is that it can lead to guards breaking the pressure and getting to the basket. That’s where Baines comes in. His wingspan, athleticism and timing make him a deadly rim protector for the Panthers, which is an area that they have struggled in ever since the graduation of Ryan Sharry in 2011. He is also quick enough to switch onto guards on the pick and roll, making him a deadly defensive weapon. He is no slouch offensively either, but I will discuss that more below.
Forward Adisa Majors ‘18
At the beginning of last season, Majors was solidly glued to the to back end of the rotation. By the end of the season he was throwing up 15-10 in NESCAC playoff games and basically just bullying smaller chumps in the post a la Boogie Cousins. What happened in that space in between? Firstly, Majors quite literally worked his butt off. He didn’t lose any strength, which is the key to his game, but his physical condition improved to the point that he could chase every rebound with tremendous abandon. Secondly, he got a little lucky. Several of the forwards who began the season ahead of him on the depth chart, such as Nick Tarantino ‘18 and Eric McCord ‘20, played inconsistently enough that Majors simply ate up their playing time. Matt Daley also missed some time, giving Majors his original chance to start. Majors’s game can best described as “delicate chaos.” He careens around the paint like a bull sometimes, leaving bodies of his teammates and opponents alike in his wake. However, he also has a soft touch around the rim and from the line, shooting foul shots at a 75% clip. The center position may be something of a revolving door for the Panthers, as McCord, Tarantino and talented freshman Matt Folger will all push for minutes. But for now, Majors holds down the fort.
Breakout Player: Forward Zach Baines ‘18
As I mentioned above, Baines belongs high on the list of preseason contenders for Defensive Player of the Year. But all this hype about his defense shouldn’t have the effect of discounting his offensive potential. In addition to being a real threat to dunk on someone every time he gets in the paint, Baines has a very soft touch from about 15 feet and in. He shot 46.4 % from the floor last year, and his jumping ability allows him to get off shots in the paint that other players simply cannot. He also has good mechanics on his shooting stroke, suggesting that a more consistent jumpshot is in his future. If he can make steps in that direction this year, a stat line of 15/10/3 blocks and 50% shooting is a very real possibility for Baines, and that would put him squarely in the conversation for Player of the Year.
Between St. Amour, Brown and Daly, Middlebury has the best backcourt we’ve seen in recent NESCAC memory. However, one thing they do not provide in spades is outside shooting. St. Amour is obviously deadly, but neither Brown nor Daly is much of a three point threat. This is what makes Middlebury’s second unit guards so important. Sophomore Hilal Dahleh ‘19 has a sweet left handed stroke and showed excellent composure off the bench last season. He will need to be a major offensive weapon off the bench, particularly from three, if the Panthers hope to repeat as champions and make a deep NCAA run. Senior Bryan Jones has shown himself to be capable of being a major offensive force, but he needs to be more conistant in order to really make a difference. There are two intruiging freshmen who could also provide some spacing for the Panthers in Matt Folger and Perry Delorenzo ‘20. Folger is a prototypical NESCAC stretch four, except for his height. At 6’8”, he has the size to eventually be an interior force as well as a good shooter. Delorenzo is true local; his mother is legendary field hockey coach at Middlebury Katherine Delorenzo, and he has a sweet shooting stroke. Jones and Delorenzo will jockey for playing time all season, with outside shooting being the main factor that sets one above the other.
As I mentioned earlier, the “center” position is something of an unknown for Middlebury following the departure of Matt Daley. Adisa Majors played very well at the end of last season, but it is very possible that he reached his ceiling in terms of offensive production. If so, that ceiling is considerably lower than that of Nick Tarantino ‘18 or Matt Folger ‘20, both of whom are more athletic and can stretch the floor with jump shots. It is quite possible that Middlebury’s best lineup next season will be a hyper small, poor man’s version of the Golden State Warriors famed “Lineup of Death.” This would feature the starting backcourt of Brown, Daly and St. Amour, with Dahleh using his length to guard a four and Baines roaming the paint as a hyper quick five. This would obviously sacrifice a lot in terms of size, but Daly and St. Amour are both excellent rebounders as guards, as is Baines at a forward. Every position could switch adequately on pick and rolls, and the speed and ball movement on offense would be beautiful to watch. Look for the Panthers to break out this lineup in order to counteract a lack of size in comparison to Amherst and Tufts.
Middlebury’s highly uneven home/road split from last season evens out this season, as the Panthers play 13 home games and 11 road ones, rather than 9 and 15, like last season. This seems relevant, as Middlebury was 9-0 at home last season. The Panthers are a good team anywhere, but in front of the Pepin crowd they tend to reach another level. If they can play well enough during the regular season to host the NESCAC tournament, Middlebury fans could be in for a very long season, and I mean that in the best possible sense of that phrase.
The D3Hoops.com top 25 list was released last week, with Amherst opening the season at #1 and Tufts just behind them at number five. Middlebury is far down the list at #24, despite beating Amherst on the road in the NESCAC final last year. This is not an injustice per se. Amherst made the NCAA Final Four last season, and Tufts the Elite Eight. However, it does bring another example of Middlebury being slept on by the powers-that-be. Middlebury has the experience, drive and talent to end the season at number one on that poll, and no one should be surprised if they pull it off.
With the team’s top two scorers graduating from the season before, I figured that Middlebury might go through some transition time as it tried to discover its new identity. Expectations around the program were low considering the scoring exodus. Still, after a ninth-place finish in the NESCAC a season ago, and my perception that as talented as Dylan Sinnickson ’15 and Hunter Merryman ’15 were that they had a tendency to stall the offense, my sense was that there was nowhere to go but up, but in my most optimistic vision the Panthers were still packing it up after a loss in a road playoff game.
The season-opening loss to Baldwin Wallace wasn’t too upsetting. Baldwin was an 18-9 team a year ago and already had two games under its belt before meeting up with Middlebury. It was the six-point loss to lowly St. Lawrence the next night that got me worried. A week later, after getting a W against SUNY-New Paltz on a Tuesday, Middlebury faced its toughest early season opponent in then-No. 25 Oswego St. I was just hoping that the Panthers would be competitive. They were not, and lost 70-55. After a loss to Skidmore a week later that made Middlebury 3-5, with two of those wins against Johnson St., I was ready to throw in the towel. I knew it was a tough early season schedule, entirely on the road with two teams hovering near the bottom of the D3Hoops Top 25. Still, they gave me little reason to believe that a turnaround was imminent.
Apparently, all the Panthers needed to do was go home.
The next game was a 22-point win over Castleton St. Then the Panthers destroyed Plattsburgh St. 71-49, and that was the first real eye-opener. Plattsburgh finished the season ranked No. 23, and even though they weren’t ranked at the time, it was known that they were a solid team, and Middlebury blew them out. One of the Cardinals top guards was out, but that doesn’t make up for the 22-point beatdown that the Panthers laid on them. At tough battle on the road at Endicott, who finished 19-11 this year, was encouraging. Than another easy win against Southern Vermont (24-4). SVC is no team to scoff at, either. (If you don’t know about that program’s rise, you should check out how they got to where they are here.) They play an easy schedule, but they also just played Tufts to the buzzer, losing by two in the NCAA First Round.
Still, looking at the full body of work coming into conference play, Middlebury was 6-6, and they had yet to inspire a ton of confidence in anyone watching them. With the NESCAC opener set to take place against Wesleyan in early January, and the Cardinals’ BJ Davis ’16 suddenly looking like a POY candidate, Panthers’ fans weren’t feeling too great. Then Middlebury went on the road and absolutely ran away from Wesleyan in the second half after falling behind early. It wasn’t necessarily an aha! moment. The Panthers lost the next night at Conn College. From that point on, it was a constant struggle and battle to be consistent. Injuries and illness riddled the Middlebury roster throughout the season. Matt Daley ’16 was in and then out of the lineup, and at times looked like he was playing at 50 percent. The frontcourt was constantly rotating. Head Coach Jeff Brown couldn’t figure out whether his freshman trio was going to start or play 15 minutes or not play at all. The only guarantee all season long was the play of the starting backcourt. Matt St. Amour ’17, Jake Brown ’17 and Jack Daly ’18 started 86 of 87 possible games (the only one missed was Brown on Senior Night, when he came off the bench to play 34 minutes). The three could not complement each other any better, and with another year of growth ahead of them, the sky is the limit for the 2016-17 Panthers’ squad.
Highlight Moment: 81-79 win over Amherst in the NESCAC Championship, Sunday February 28
The Panthers really backed their way into a NESCAC Tournament home game. Losing – badly – to Trinity and Amherst on the last weekend of conference play should have cost Middlebury that privilege, but Wesleyan had an even worse weekend, falling to Colby and Bowdoin. So, coming into the tournament, expectations remained low for the Panthers. Even if they got by Wesleyan, the thinking went, there was no way they could upset Trinity, who hosted the tournament, and beating Amherst was a pipe dream. Somehow, though, the stars aligned. Daley had the best weekend of his career against the Bantams and No Mascots. The big man had 34 points on 14-18 (77.8 percent) shooting, and most importantly was in the game for 27 and 28 minutes, providing an imposing post presence. It took a poorly-timed carry from Johnny McCarthy ’18 in transition to really put the nail in the coffin against Amherst, but whether it was the right call or not, Middlebury was cutting the nets moments later for the third time in program history, and the one that, though he wouldn’t admit, has to be particularly sweet for Jeff Brown. Not only was it a statement performance a year after missing the NESCAC Tournament, but coaching your own nephew to a conference title has to be pretty sweet.
Team MVP: PG Jake Brown
Matt St. Amour was the leading scorer, First-Team All-NESCAC honoree and First Team All-NbN recipient; Jack Daly emerged as a great perimeter defender; I will still maintain that Matt Daley is the most talented big man in the NESCAC and he played awesome at times; Adisa Majors ’18 stepped up and proved that he’s a viable starter in this league; but despite all of that, Jake Brown was the most valuable and important player for Middlebury this season. He’s the best point guard in the NESCAC. His game is not yet complete. He struggles from the free throw line, and I think he will still make an improvement from the three-point line next season, but everything else he does is elite. The ball handling wows spectators. The defense is tenacious and frustrating for opposing guards. The transition game is nearly flawless. And he got to a new level of swagger this season that made clear why he was elected a captain by his teammates. In the Panthers’ NCAA Second Round loss, it was Brown who nailed a clutch three-pointer to give them a chance on the final play in a one-possession game. If he continues to play like this, and even makes marginal improvements next season, it will be a shame if he isn’t recognized as a NESCAC First Teamer.
Biggest Surprise: The Emergence of Forward Adisa Majors
Majors came completely out of nowhere this season to become an interior force. As a freshman, the 6’5″ 210-pounder was sparsely used, only seeing limited action in 12 games. His skills and athleticism were both far off from allowing him to play a significant role. The one thing he had going for him was some natural size, but even that seemed to work against him as he lacked the quickness necessary to be effective.
All of that changed between last season and this. Majors’ game blossomed in every facet, and physically he transformed himself. Reportedly a health nut, Majors came into the season in fantastic shape and looking much stronger. He added a 15-foot jumper to his game. And the best part about watching him play is his energy. Majors has one of those motors that never stops. The big man finished the season as the team’s fifth-leading scorer at 7.2 ppg, but it was during a stretch of six NESCAC games in February – often without a healthy Matt Daley – that Majors proved he belonged, averaging 14.0 ppg while shooting 68.6 percent and grabbing 6.3 rpg.
Most Interesting Stat: Matt St. Amour, Jake Brown and Jack Daly finished the season first, second and third in the NESCAC in steals per game.
St. Amour paced the league with 1.8 steals per game, while Brown and Daly just eked by a couple of others who averaged, when rounded, 1.6 steals per game. Middlebury’s defense was tenacious, and more than anything it was just constant effort that lead to all of those steals. Credit needs to be given to the frontcourt, as well, for tipping post feeds that the guards were able to collect. St. Amour, Brown and Daly were also great at having active hands when sinking into the paint. Having this crew coming back gives Middlebury fans hope that the Panthers can once again be productive next year.