Whatever the schedule makers did this season, they should do it every year. This has the potential to be one of the most exciting NESCAC weekends I can remember. Almost every game has major playoff ramifications. On Friday, Williams and Amherst match up with Williams needing a win to keep their hopes of hosting alive, and Trinity travels to Lewiston in a game that could pretty much decide the final playoff spot. And on Saturday, Wesleyan and Bowdoin battle for their playoff lives, and Amherst plays Middlebury in a game that they will probably need to win in order to ensure an NCAA bid. But the biggest game is on Friday night, as Middlebury travels to Hamilton in a matchup of the top two teams in the regional rankings.
#5 Middlebury (18-3, 7-1) @ #15 Hamilton (19-2, 6-2), 7:00 PM, Clinton, NY
If Middlebury pulls this game out, they will pretty much clinch the number one seed and hosting duties in the NESCAC tournament. They will be the only team with one loss, and even if they drop their Saturday matchup with Amherst and end up at 8-2, they will hold the tie breaker with both Williams and Hamilton. If Hamilton wins, their Saturday game with Williams becomes enormous, as they could host themselves due to the tie breaker over Middlebury. But If Williams wins, Middlebury would still host, providing Williams beat Amherst on Friday and Middlebury beats Amherst on Saturday. *Exhales.* Clearly this is a huge weekend in which every game has playoff ramifications, making it a very difficult weekend in which to pick a Game of Week. In fact, there are so many great games that there is a little rivalry game on Friday and it still isn’t the GOTW. But it’s not often that the top two teams in the regional rankings have a chance to decide the number one seed.
This game is fascinating for more than just rankings. It is a matchup between two teams that love to play fast. Middlebury has struggled shooting the ball at times, but owns the boards and dominates on defense. Hamilton, on the other hand, is the top three point shooting team and scoring offense in the league. Middlebury relies heavily on POY frontrunner Jack Daly ‘18 for pretty much everything, on both sides of the ball. The senior star will most likely guard Hamilton’s leading scorer and future of the league Kena Gilmour ‘20. As we outlined in the Stock Report, the Continentals have been playing well despite recent struggles from Gilmour, but against the elite teams they will play this weekend (Middlebury and then Williams,) they will need someone to get them a clutch bucket. That has to be Gilmour. This game may well be the biggest in the history of the Hamilton basketball program, and could put them on the map. Now how’s that for a hype machine?
Middlebury X-Factor: F Matt Folger ‘20
This is not my most inventive pick (that honor would have to go to Max Bosco ‘21,) but Folger’s versatility is will be absolutely critical in this game. Even though Hamilton’s offense has slumped slightly in league play, they are still dangerous, especially from the outside. Surprisingly close games against Bates and Bowdoin (and a scary almost comeback by Williams) has shown that Middlebury is susceptible to teams that shoot well from the outside. Middlebury hasn’t hit many threes of their own lately, and basic math tells us that it’s hard to match threes with twos. Middlebury has to hit at least a couple threes of their own to match any runs by Hamilton, and Folger is one of the guys who is supposed to do it. He has struggled mightily from outside in league play, shooting under 30% from downtown. Jack Daly will be somewhat occupied while he chases around Gilmour, so Middlebury will need their second option to be available to create offense.
As important as Folger’s shooting will be, his defense may be even more so. Folger is the most dangerous shot blocker in the league, and his quickness and athleticism makes him valuable on the perimeter as well. Against Bowdoin, he did an excellent job locking down Jack Simonds ‘19, and helped out Daly quite a bit on Tufts’ Vincent Pace as well. However, Middlebury has struggled this season when faced with athletic power forwards, a position that Hamilton is loaded at. In addition to Gilmour, Hamilton’s top scorers are Peter Hoffmann ‘19 and Michael Grassey ‘19, two athletic forwards who excel in the paint.. Folger will probably switch off between those players when he is in the game and needs to do a good job on them, because Middlebury doesn’t have an answer other than him. His rebounding will also be valuable. This is a game in which Middlebury should own the boards, and Folger, at 7.3 per game, is one of the Panthers best rebounders. It’s playoff time in the NESCAC, and in the playoffs stars wins. Folger has the skills to be a star: time to start playing like one.
Hamilton X-Factor: F Andrew Groll ‘19
As I mentioned earlier, the blueprint for beating Middlebury is to hit threes and win (or at least not lose embarrassingly) the rebounding battle. Hamilton has plenty of three point shooting. Guards Tim Doyle ‘19 and Joe Pucci ‘18 both shoot nearly 40%, and F Michael Grassey ‘19 is one of the more underrated scorers in the league, putting up 15 points per game on 51/41/80 shooting. The rebounding is where Hamilton has more work to do, and where Groll comes in. At 6’8”, Groll is the only true big in Hamilton’s rotation, and is an elite rebounder in limited minutes. He’s averaging 6.3 rebounds per game in just over 15 minutes. And, more importantly for this matchup, 2.3 of those rebounds are offensive. Hamilton will need people to mix it up underneath with Middlebury’s big men, especially Eric McCord ‘19, who has been eating rebounds for breakfast lately. The way that Middlebury wins is by getting teams that like offense (such as Williams) to play ugly, and they are certainly good enough to do that to Hamilton. The Continentals have to be ready to match them, and Groll is their best bet.
Hamilton’s defense can be just as explosive as their offense. Hamilton leads the league in steals at 8.9 per game, and their fast paced offense means that those turnovers become points almost immediately. This activity, particularly on the part of Hamilton’s guards, means they are well suited to handle Jack Daly. Like Wesleyan did earlier this year, Hamilton has the ability to throw multiple long, athletic defenders at Daly, which will make his operations in the paint difficult. One of these guards is Joe Pucci ‘18. If I were to pick a second X-Factor for Hamilton, it would be Pucci. At 6’7”, he is one of the biggest guards in the league, and will spend a great deal of time on the Middlebury star. Gilmour is the best matchup athletically, but Hamilton would be smart to try to keep him fresh for the offensive end, and will probably hide try to hide him on G Jack Farrell ‘21.
This means that Farrell’s activity will be important. We know Hamilton will make Jack Daly play defense, but Middlebury must do the same to Gilmour. Farrell had a breakout game against Trinity (16 points,) but overall has not been very threatening to opposing defenses. He is a better ball handler and defender than any of the guards off the bench, but if this game gets higher scoring than Middlebury would like, Joey Leighton ‘20 might be a better option, to ensure that Gilmour has to play defense.
Last season, Hamilton came in to Middlebury’s gym with a lot of hype (mostly from us) as “the next big thing” in the league. Then the Panthers ran them out of the gym 115-82, and the Continentals never recovered, losing in the first round of the tournament. Hamilton is now even more obviously “the next big thing” in the league: Pucci is the only senior in their rotation. But Middlebury is still “the big thing,” and they match up very well with Hamilton. The Panthers will bring Hamilton’s high octane attack down to their gritty level, and end up hosting the NESCAC tournament.
Writer’s Prediction: 77-73 Middlebury
Other Friday Games:
# 8 Williams (18-4, 6-2) @ Amherst (14-8, 5-3), 7:00 PM
Connecticut College (6-15, 0-8) @ Bowdoin (14-7, 3-5), 7:00 PM
Wesleyan (17-5, 5-3) @ Colby (10-12, 1-7), 7:00 PM
Trinity (15-7, 4-4) @ Bates (11-12, 3-6), 7:00 PM