Let’s begin at the beginning.
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
Feels great to be a champion ?
— JPD (@lildales5) February 28, 2016
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.