Wesleyan (20-5, 7-3, #5 Seed) @ Amherst (17-8, 7-3 #1 Seed), 5:30 PM, Amherst, MA
As opposed to the offense heavy three point barrage we expect in the Tufts-Hamilton game (detailed beautifully by Colby here,) this should be a gritty, defensive battle. Both these teams pride themselves on their defense. Amherst’s most impressive win of the season was a 75-49 drubbing of Hamilton in which they held the Continentals to 29.4% shooting. That game was the jumping off point for their run to the number one seed. Since then, they are 7-2 and have won their last three games, including wins over Middlebury and Williams. But their most exciting win of this hot stretch was the last one, a thrilling 71-70 win over Bowdoin in the quarterfinals. In that game, Amherst overcame a rough game from Michael Riopel ‘18 thanks to a First Team level performance from Johnny McCarthy ‘18 (22 points) and contributions from several bench players, most notably Josh Chery ‘20, who scored 11 points and hit the game winning layup with 3.4 seconds left. What this Amherst team lacks in star power they make up for in depth and heart.
Of course, the same can be said for Wesleyan. One of Amherst’s losses since that shellacking of Hamilton is to the Cardinals, a 71-57 road loss in which McCarthy and Riopel went 3-20 from the field. Wesleyan’s season is littered with these types of games. The dominate defensively, shut down what the opponent does best, and the offense does just enough to get by. Their quarterfinal game against Middlebury was another great example. While Jack Daly ’18 did have a nice game (20 points and six assists,) the Cardinals stifled Middlebury’s inside game, holding the dangerous forward combo of Nick Tarantino ’18, Eric McCord ’19 and Adisa Majors ’18 to 6-19 shooting. Jordan Sears ’19 had 8 blocks, and with Kevin O’Brien ’19 and his army of tall, long-armed guards on the perimeter, it is nearly impossible to get into the paint and score against Wesleyan. Amherst will have to hit some threes to spread the Cardinals defense. And Wesleyan will have to do the same against Amherst.
Key Player For Amherst: F Josh Chery ’20
As I said earlier, Chery was the hero against Bowdoin. With 5 seconds left on the clock, Chery got the ball on the right wing, drove to the rim, and finished a tough layup with 3.4 seconds left. Chery certainly wasn’t the first option,as Johnny McCarthy was lighting it up at that point, but he wasn’t the last one either. Chery has been one of the major keys to Amherst’s recent hot streak. He’s gone over double figures three times in the last four games, and has averaged 25 minutes per game over that stretch after going over 20 minutes just once all season up to that point. At 6’4″ and 215 pounds, he is big and strong enough to guard multiple positions, a huge plus against Wesleyan due to the size of the Cardinal guards. He makes a huge difference on the defensive end, grabbing four steals against Williams and pulling down eight rebounds against Middlebury. And ask Bowdoin how he is finishing at the rim. One thing to watch for is his foul shooting: he’s 0-7 in the last two games. Chery is the ideal player to have on the court against Wesleyan, and, since Wesleyan has proven themselves capable of locking up Riopel and McCarthy, Chery and the rest of the bench mob are the keys to Amherst’s chances.
Key Player for Wesleyan: F Nathan Krill ‘18
The starting power forward on the “Feels Like They’ve Been in College for 2o Years” All Stars, Krill has been in this position before. However, he has never been as important to the team’s offense. Of course, they won last weekend with him only having three points, but they won’t be able to rely on Antone ’21 Walker putting up 11 off the bench and Kevin O’ Brien ’19 scoring 17. Walker is a great talent, but he is streaky, and O’Brien isn’t really a go to scorer. Krill is Wesleyan’s most dangerous pick and roll finisher. He can step behind the three point line and hit, or he can use his quickness and ball handling skills to finish at the rim. Throughout Krill’s career, this combination of skills has made him one of the hardest players to guard in the league when he’s hot. Key word: “when.” Krill has always been incredibly streaky (see his 24 points against Bowdoin versus 3 the next game against Bowdoin.) Krill only had four points in Wesleyan’s win over Amherst during the regular season, but this a whole new Amherst team. Wesleyan needs their stars to shine bright on Saturday, starting with Krill.
Bowdoin was certainly far more skilled than your average eight seed, but Amherst still should have been able to put them away earlier. The Mammoths were uncharacteristically bad defending the three, allowing Bowdoin to shoot 10-28 from outside (and many of those misses were open looks.) Much of Wesleyan’s offense relies on three point shooting, particularly from Jordan Bonner ’19 and Hutcherson. Amherst will have to do a better job running those two off of the three point lie than they did with Bowdoin’s Jack Simonds ’19 and Liam Farley ’19. They will also have to contend with pick and rolls featuring either Bonner or Hutcherson and Krill. Since each of those players are dangerous shooters, the slightest defensive mistake can lead to an open three pointer. Amherst’s best defense here would be an aggressive hedge with their big men and then not switching. A switch would mean that one of Amherst’s big men would be stuck on , a mismatch in favor of Wesleyan. This is why Chery should see big minutes on Saturday, he is big enough to handle Krill and fast enough to handle Hutcherson or Bonner.
In general, this game is not the best matchup for Amherst’s big men. Joseph Schneider ’19 is skilled inside, but he might get swallowed by the athleticism of Wesleyan’s front court. And with Eric Sellew ’20 out, Amherst’s big men rotation is very thin. This presents a big problem on the glass. Amherst simply must win the rebounding battle in this game. These are the two best rebounding teams in the league based on rebounding margin, and both are at their most dangerous when they get open shots off of offensive rebounds. Both these teams will be battling fiercely for rebounds, but it is more important for Amherst because they have fewer weapons on the offensive end. More of their offense is based on second chances.
All the signs point to Wesleyan in this game. They’ve had a more successful regular season, they have more weapons, and they played better in their first round game. But the game is in Amherst, and crazy things happen down there. The Mammoths are 10-2 at home this season, and have an almost supernatural knack for pulling out close games in their gym. I think most loyal readers will know how much it kills me to do this, but I have to go Amherst. Let no one call me biased again.
Writer’s Prediction: Amherst 63, Wesleyan 60