The Best Offense is a Good Defense: 2017-2018 Wesleyan Men’s Basketball Season Preview

Wesleyan Cardinals

2016-2017 Record: 19-7 (8-5 conference)

The Cardinals started their season with 11 straight wins before being slowed down by the grind of the NESCAC conference schedule. They lost to Trinity in the NESCAC quarters, before ending their season against Union (NY) in the first round of the NCAA tourney.

Projected 2017-2018 Record: 18-6 (7-6 conference)

Amherst gets some redemption this season against a Wesleyan squad that beat them twice last winter.

Key Losses

Harry Rafferty (13 PPG, 2.2 AST/G, 38% 3FG) –

A veteran guard who started every game his senior season, and 77 of his 103 collegiate appearances, the Cardinals will most definitely miss his floor presence and lifetime 40% shooting.

Joseph Kuo (11.8 PPG, 7.2 REB/G, 49% FG) –

Wesleyan will be missing their paint beast in Kuo. Though his numbers aren’t astounding – Kuo averaged just over 7 rebounds and 12 points a game – he started essentially every game for the past 3 seasons, and any team can’t but miss such a reliable presence, especially in a paint protector like Kuo. The Cardinals do, however, have another veteran down low, in senior Nathan Krill, and, as the 6-7 vet JR Bascom has stepped in to fill Kuo’s shoes, Wesleyan looks to continue their streak of solid defense from last year.

Projected Starting Lineup:

Thanks to an endless streak of midterms and papers in the green mountains, this writer has the benefit of Wesleyan’s having already played in, and won, the Herb Kenny Tip-Off tournament. So my starting lineup predictions have some, albeit limited, historical basis.

F JR Bascom ’18 (4.7 PPG, 3.4 REB/G, 53.8% FG)

JR Bascom
JR Bascom ’18 (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)

Though he played just 9 minutes against Mitchell, Bascom has the benefit of a rather guard-heavy Wesleyan roster. He’s had the career trajectory of a player who’s had to earn his minutes, and this season the waiting looks to pay off. Bascom played in 26 games last season, but started only one. This year he’s charged taking over for the graduated Joseph Kuo, so look for Bascom in the introductions this year. He’s 7-8 shooting so far this young season, and looks to be playing with the poise and confidence afforded to a man of his experience.

F Nathan Krill ’18 (9.6 PPG, 6.2 REB/G, 0.9 BLK/G)

Nathan Krill
Four years, four different hairstyles for Nathan Krill ’18. (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)

The 6-7 senior and chief contender for the annual “Feels Like He’s Been Here for 35 Years” award is off to hot start to the year. After an 11-point, 8 rebound performance to start the year against Anna Maria, Krill dropped 22 on 9-14 shooting against Mitchell on Saturday. He capped his 20-minute double-double with 16 boards, earning Krill the Herb Kenny Tip-Off Tournament MVP. Krill was in and out of the starting lineup last season, but any forward who takes 9 threes in 27 minutes is feeling mighty confident. If Krill keeps playing with the confidence he absolutely deserves to be playing with, look for him to step into the role of a real impact player this season.

G Austin Hutcherson ’21 (N/A)

Austin Hutcherson
Austin Hutcherson ’21 (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)

The freshman played his way into a starting spot after the season opener against Anna Maria, where he scored 9 points on 11 attempts from the field. Look for the Jersey Boy Hutcherson and senior Jordan Sears to both be in and out of the starting 5, but I put my money on Hutcherson, who’s a lanky 6-6, winning the position battle. In Wesleyan’s 107-64 romping of Mitchell, Hutcherson had 13 points on 6-13 shooting. The biggest struggle for any freshman is adjusting to the speed and increased physicality of the college game. It often means a hit to the confidence early on, but clearly Hutcherson’s deflected the confidence blow, because he’s shooting the ball plenty, and doing it successfully.

G/F Jordan Bonner ’19 (12.8 PPG, 5.2 REB/G)

Jordan Bonner
Jordan Bonner ’19

Bonner is Wesleyan’s go-to man. The 6-4 junior guard emerged as a big-time scorer last season for the Cardinals, hitting a buzzer beater against Amherst to send the game, one he sealed with a pair of clutch free-throws, to overtime. He averaged 13 points a game last season, and though his 5.2 rebounds a game is middling, Bonner has bounce, and is capable of producing double-double performances. Though he’s a more than capable scorer, and will be looked to as such, look for Bonner to crank it up a notch this season on the glass in big time conference games this year.

G Kevin O’Brien ’19 (8.3 PPG, 6.5 REB/G, 4.3 AST/G, 1.5 STL/G)

Kevin O'Brien
Kevin O’Brien ’19 (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)

O’Brien will run Wesleyan’s offense from the point. The 6-5 junior is a supersized point guard, and uses it to bully smaller players. He averaged  nearly 7 rebounds per game last season in his 26 starts, and also uses his height to see over the defense to make tough passes. But his most important job is kickstarting Wesleyan’s notorious D. O’Brien averaged 1.5 steals a game last year, and is an absolute menace in the pick and roll, due again to his size. O’Brien can legitimately switch onto any position and not give up too much size. You can tell from the stats above that O’Brien is one of the best all around players in the league. But in the absence of shooter Harry Rafferty, O’Brien will be looked at more and more to put up points. He’s certainly capable of it. He scored consistently last season, and was 8-8 with 16 points against Mitchell last weekend. Look for O’Brien as Wesleyan’s lock-down man and floor general this year.

Breakout Player: Austin Hutcherson ’21

The beauty of Wesleyan’s team this year is that almost every stud, or even starter, was, by the end of the year last year, someone coach Joe Reilly looked to consistently and with confidence. Austin Hutcherson is the lone complete newcomer to the floor, and it’s a position that hasn’t appeared to intimidate him in the slightest. Through Wes’s 2-0 start to the season, Hutcherson has shot 4-11 and 6-13 respectively. It’s a volume that tells me he’s playing with the earnest fire of a newcomer to NESCAC hoops, but also with the confidence of someone who’s played at Wesleyan’s level before. I think 2 or 3 more games are all that’s needed to cement Hutcherson’s swagger, and after that, watch out.

Everything Else:

As always, the key to this Wesleyan lineup is their defense. Wesleyan may be the closest team in the league to the new NBA ideal of a position-less, switch heavy lineup. Forwards Nathan Krill and JR Bascom are highly skilled and have very quick feet, and their guards Bonner, Hutcherson and O’ Brien run 6’4″, 6’5″ and 6’6″ respectively. Welseyan’s lineup is supersized and quick, making pick and rolls against them tremendously difficult. Their guards are tall enough to guard bigs in the post, and the bigs are quick enough to not get killed by guards on the perimeter. Wesleyan has the personnel to be an elite defensive unit.

Wesleyan’s defense has always been their calling card, this season maybe most of all.

Offense is far more of a question mark. They lost their best shooter in Rafferty, and their go to scorer on the block in Kuo. They are left with a lot of defensive players who haven’t proven themselves as scorers. Bonner is the only returning player who was a reliable scoring threat last season. This is one of the reasons that O’Brien is so important. He showed great vision last season, and should turn that vision to more scoring this year. The early returns on O’Brien and Hutcherson are encouraging, but the season doesn’t start until league play anyways.

Final Hot Take:

Hot or not so hot I’m not sure, but Wesleyan’s always deep field of talent this year is both filled with earnestness and experience. They’ve got the talent to score a TON, and if they defend consistently, I see Wesleyan playing deep into both the NESCAC and national tournaments this winter.

 

And Then There Were 64: Tufts and Wesleyan NCAA Opening Previews

Pete previewed the opening rounds for Amherst and Middlebury this morning, so I will do my best to follow in his footsteps with some intel on Tufts and Wesleyan. Both teams earned at-large bids despite earlier than expected exits from the NESCAC tournament, a testament to their consistency and the strength of the conference. Let’s see what each team’s chances to escape their pod are like.

 

#14 Tufts (20-6, 9-3)

(Courtesy of Tufts Athletics)

While they slipped towards the end of the season, particularly in their unimpressive performance in the NESCAC semis, Tufts is in a fine spot. They didn’t earn the top seed in the NESCAC tournament by accident. In fact, aside from Middlebury, I would say that Tufts has the best chance to make a deep run in the tournament because of their depth, especially on the perimeter. If not for the dominance of the Tufts Women’s Basketball Team, the men would be hosting the opening round this weekend instead of St. John Fisher, so don’t sleep on the Jumbos for that reason. Tom Palleschi should be in better health this weekend than he was against Williams last weekend (he logged just 8 minutes), which definitely bodes well for Tufts.

 

How They Got Here

Like I mentioned above, Tufts’ depth is what they hang their hats on. They generally play 9-10 deep, allowing Coach Sheldon to see who has the hot hand that day and alter the minute distribution accordingly. In the second half, KJ Garrett and Everett Dayton have really taken the reigns offensively in the absence of Palleschi, and Second Team All-NESCAC selection Tarik Smith has continued his steady production from the point guard slot. The spurtability of Eric Savage, Ethan Feldman and Thomas Lapham has been a big boost for the ‘Bos off the bench. Vinny Pace has been a tad inconsistent this year, but his potential to explode offensively is a constant threat for opposing defenses. Given their athletic, guard-heavy lineup, the Jumbos play best when they get out in transition. They are maybe the best team in the league at converting quick hitters off an opposing team basket due to their ability to handle the ball and push the tempo at 1-4, and sometimes even 1-5 when they go small with Garrett at the 5-position.

 

How They Lose

The biggest area of focus for Tufts should be on the boards and in the paint. Without Palleschi, they have lost their best rebounder, often forcing Ben Engvall and KJ Garrett to match up with much bigger players. While the two are very solid rebounding guards, Pat Racy and Drew Madsen are both smaller than Palleschi, leaving the Tufts lineup at a disadvantage due to the overall lack of size they are rolling out there. Additionally, Palleschi is the biggest shot blocking presence on the roster, and even if he is feeling better this weekend than last, I doubt that his knee will be healthy enough for him to impact shots in the paint the same way that he used to. We saw Williams take advantage of this last weekend, especially Kyle Scadlock, who had 20 and 11 in that semifinal game. Williams outscored Tufts 32-8 in the paint, which points to another vulnerability of the Jumbos – their halfcourt offense. Tufts is SO much better when they can get fastbreak points. They are deep enough that fatigue is not a factor, and it leaves them with many more open threes. The three-pointers that the Jumbos generate out of their halfcourt offense are often forced, leading to low shooting percentages and poor offensive displays. It all starts with the Jumbos controlling the paint – if they can force jumpers out of their opponents, then they will have more opportunities to get out and run.

 

The Competition

Salem State (17-10, 9-3)

Shaquan Murray (Courtesy of Salem State Athletics)

The Vikings boast a three-pronged attack that features guard Shaquan Murray (15.9 PPG), center Marcus Faison (15.1 PPG) and guard Alex Santos (11.8 PPG). Murray is a premier ball handler who excels at getting to the basket. He is small and quick, and knows how to maneuver in the paint to get good shots. Faison is the Salem State post presence, but he is listed at just 6’5”/215, something the Jumbos NEED to take advantage of. However, thinking back to UMass Boston and Sam Freeman, undersized bigs seem to do well against Tufts, and Faison’s 11.1 rebounds per game seems to indicate that he is primed for a big game tonight. Finally, Santos is the shooter of the bunch. He is a bit bigger than Murray, but he’ll be smaller than most of the Tufts guards. If Tufts can get a hand in Santos’ face, they should be able to keep him in check.

 

St. John Fisher (22-5, 15-1)

Keegan Ryan (Courtesy of St. John Fisher Athletics)

St. John Fisher put together nearly a flawless conference season, losing just one game en route to the Empire 8 championship crown. As has been the case all season, one of their two studs took over and brought the Cardinals to victory in the finals. Tyler English dropped 21 points on Stevens in that game, and he poses a similar threat to Tufts because of his length on the perimeter. However, it’s Cardinal big man and leading scorer Keegan Ryan that should scare the Jumbos the most if the two match up in the round of 32. At 6’8”/235 and average 18.6 points/8.7 rebounds, Ryan is geared to expose Tufts where they have the least depth. Fortunately for Tufts, St. John Fisher does not shoot well from the perimeter. Given their size and athleticism amongst their guards, Tufts definitely holds the advantage in this regard. Nonetheless, Ryan has proven that he can change games single handedly, and if they match up, Tufts could be on upset alert.

 

St. Lawrence (20-6, 13-3)

Riley Naclerio (Courtesy of St. Lawrence Athletics)

Despite a first round exit in the Liberty League conference tournament, St. Lawrence is a solid team. Their conference features two other NCAA tournament teams in Union and Skidmore, so St. Lawrence is tested against good competition. The Saints love to run, and the spread out their scoring very nicely. Led by 6’8” forward Riley Naclerio, who scores 19.1 PPG, the Saints have a formidable counter to St. John Fisher’s big man. To complement Naclerio, Kyle Edwards scores 16.8 PPG, yet Edwards does much of his damage from deep. He’s a 40% three-point shooter who has proven time and again that he is willing to take the big shot for the Saints. St. Lawrence also has two other double-digit scorers that help balance their offense, and given their versatility, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Saints pull off an upset in tonight’s game.

 

Wesleyan (19-6, 6-5)

(Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)

The Cardinals slide into the tournament after a conference season that did not live up to the hype that they generated in the first half of their season. 11-1 heading into their first NESCAC game, Wesleyan seemed to be overlooked. However, that opening weekend resulted in two back-to-back blowout losses coming at the hands of Middlebury and Hamilton. The Cardinals turned things around, at that point, winning 8 of their last 11 with all three of their losses coming by 4 points or less. Wesleyan, like Tufts, is a very balanced team. They are led by Second Team All-NESCAC guard Harry Rafferty, who is one of four Cardinals to average 10+ PPG. Unfortunately for Wesleyan, they were missing one of their studs, Jordan Bonner, for a large part of the middle of their season. Luckily, he returned for their last 9 games, and he performed exceptionally well down the stretch. Injury struck again late in the season when Salim Green missed 5 games, but he returned in time for the playoffs. Unfortunately, he was not his old self, logging a scoreless 17 minutes of action. Wesleyan is a very, very good team, but they haven’t been fully healthy in quite some time. We’ll see if they can get back to their standard form soon.

 

How They Got Here

Unlike Tufts, Wesleyan is not a team that is going to push the tempo, at least not to the same extent as the Jumbos. The Cardinals enjoy success when they are able to get the ball into the post to Joseph Kuo. Kuo is a fully capable scorer with his back to the basket, but he is also a solid passer. Because of his size, teams sometimes try to collapse into the paint to clog up the middle. When Rafferty, Bonner, and Nathan Krill all shoot pretty well from beyond the arc, and when the Cards take care of the ball and take smart shots, their offense runs very smoothly. That being said, this is a defense-first team. Wesleyan is in my eyes the grittiest team in the NESCAC, led by Krill in this regard. He is the scrappiest forward in the league, willing to do anything to get his team a W. Allowing just 65.8 PPG, Wesleyan thrives when they are disciplined defensively. It’s games where they get in foul trouble or fail to stop opposing fast breaks that Wesleyan struggles. Luckily for them, that doesn’t happen very often.

 

How They Lose

When Wesleyan is stagnant offensively, it’s because they are not moving the ball enough. They are prone to falling victim to an overload of one-on-one offense at times, and when they do, their shot selection suffers. Effective penetration turns into drives into traffic; open threes turn into contested ones; drive and kicks turn into forced 10-12 footers. This can’t happen if Wesleyan hopes to advance far in this tournament. Luckily for the Cardinals, they did a pretty good job of limiting these lapses over the course of the season, but the NCAA tournament, the margin of error is always slimmer.

 

The Competition

Union (16-10,10-6)

Deshon Burgess (Courtesy of Union Athletics)

After finishing behind both Skidmore and St. Lawrence in the Liberty League regular season standings, the Dutchmen pretty much had to win their conference tournament in order to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Well, Union did just that. They won 110-108 in double OT against St. Lawrence in the conference semifinals, and then came back three days later to post another win against Hobart on their way to the conference title. They’re led by Deshon Burgess, who was named to the D3hoops.com Naitonal Team of the Week last week, scored 34 points (including the game-winning three with 0.9 seconds left in the second overtime period against St. Lawrence, only to follow it up with 33 points in the finals. He leads the team with 19.8 PPG, and is clearly stepping up when his team needs it most. Wesleyan needs to look out for Burgess if they hope to make it out of round one.

 

#13 Rochester (21-4, 10-4)

Sam Borst-Smith (Courtesy of Rochester Athletics)

Despite posting a better overall record than in-conference foe Washington (Mo.), the Yellow Jackets faltered at the very end of their season, posting back-to-back losses, allowing WashU to take the conference crown. Rochester has three primary weapons, but it’s Sam Borst-Smith that leads the way offensively. A 41% three-point shooter, Borst-Smith scores 16.0 PPG, good enough to take home the UAA MVP trophy this season. Mack Montague and Zach Ayers are the other two biggest producers on the offensive end for Rochester, averaging 15.6 and 12.0 PPG respectively. However, Rochester seems like a very top-heavy lineup. That’s not to say it hasn’t worked for them this year, but in the NCAA tournament, depth is generally what breeds success. Don’t be surprised if Rochester is upset in the opening weekend.

 

Albertus Mangus (23-4, 16-2)

Jaqhawn Walters (Courtesy of Albertus Mangus Athletics)

Winners of their last nine, Albertus Mangus is coming into the tournament scorching hot. However, the GNAC isn’t necessarily the most impressive basketball conference in the country. The Falcons won the GNAC Championship handily against a mediocre Lesley squad, but it was their slimmest margin of victory in the GNAC tournament – just 18 points. Their run and gun offense is led by Jaqhawn Walters and Grant Ellis, who score 20.7 and 19.4 PPG respectively. Because of the lack of competition in their conference, it’s tough to gauge how good Albertus Mangus actually is, but they certainly have some competent scorers.

It’s Not Too Late for the Stock Report: 2/10

Jayde Dawson ’18 drives to the hoop (Courtesy of Amherst Athletics).It’

I know, I know, I’ve been slacking this week and it’s about time I got around to writing the stock report. The truth is, the job search is no joke, and so I’ve let my NESCAC basketball writing fall behind a bit. However, that does not mean that this past weekend was uneventful. There was movement at the top of the ‘CAC as well as the bottom, and while many of the matchups seemed to be shaping up to be barn burners, only a couple games actually ended up coming down to the wire.

I’m gonna do this stock report a little differently this week in order to incorporate some sort of rankings as well. No individual players are going to be snagging ‘stock up’ or ‘stock down’ mentions, but instead each projected playoff team (projections are being made by me, and me alone) will be given its own stock report. Then we will put out a pre-tournament power rankings next week. I will give each team’s stock report in order of last week’s power rankings, so don’t read too deeply into the order of teams listed. No playoff seed is yet set, so predicting which seed each team will get seems a bit futile at this point.

 

#17 Tufts (18-5, 7-2)Stock down

Friday was actually a pretty surprising win out of the Jumbos in my eyes. Down to just a pair of big men, I anticipated that the Jumbos would struggle with Ed Ogundeko ‘17 and as a result would struggle overall. Well, I was half right – Ogundeko dummied the ‘Bos to the tune of 23 points and 21 rebounds, largely due to the foul trouble that Drew Madsen ‘17 found himself in, forcing Coach Sheldon to roll out some pretty small lineups, but a foursome of solid performances by Tarik Smith ‘17, Vinny Pace ‘18, Eric Savage ‘20 and KJ Garrett ‘18 allowed Tufts to withstand the Bantam attack. However, they did not play very well, and while they ended up winning in overtime, their 61% shooting from the free throw line was concerning to say the least. Tufts failed to take advantage of a number of opportunities to close out the game, and this carried into Saturday’s game when Amherst punished Tufts for poor decision making. The lack of Tom Palleschi ‘17 is concerning to say the least, not just because of the threat that he provides when the ball is in his hands, but also because of the way that he opens up the floor for his teammates. Tufts needs a big bounceback performance against Williams or they could be in trouble come NESCAC tournament time.

 

Wesleyan (17-5, 4-4)Stock down

The Cardinals had just one conference game this weekend and they dropped the ball. Concerning performance from Joseph Kuo ‘17, Kevin O’Brien ‘17, and Nathan Krill ‘18 could not be outdone by the stellar play of Harry Rafferty ‘17, and the absence of Salim Green ‘19 also hurt quite a bit. Wesleyan played pretty well defensively besides demonstrating that they are prone to foul trouble, but their own poor offensive play resulted in a tough L against the Ephs. Unfortunately, Wesleyan’s better game since last week came in a non-conference game against Amherst in which they eked out a 73-72 victory in OT. The whole starting lineup played a bit better and the scoring was much more well rounded. Still, Wesleyan simply hasn’t been shooting the ball well as of late, and they are going to need to find a way to get better shots moving forward or they could see a disappointing finish.

 

#13 Middlebury (18-3, 6-2)Stock unchanged

I am not saying that Middlebury did nothing well this weekend, but it should not exactly come as a surprise that they blew out Colby and Bowdoin. Middlebury has been one of if not the most consistent team in the league this year, and the Panthers should be considered the best team in the NESCAC at the moment. Now, the rankings change like the breeze in NESCAC basketball, but whether or not they end up with the #1 seed in the conference tournament, Middlebury has to be considered the favorite right now. Tonight’s matchup with Amherst will say tell us a lot about the Panthers, but they are in very good shape right now.

 

#8 Amherst (16-5, 6-2)Stock up

Despite the Tuesday loss to Wesleyan, Amherst’s performance this weekend is much more important. A nine-point victory against Bates was expected but still impressive, and on senior day, the ex-LJs showed Tufts who is the boss with a commanding 13-point victory. Despite it being senior day, however, it was the juniors who pave the way against the Jumbos. Jayde Dawson ‘18, Johnny McCarthy ‘18 and Michael Riopel ‘18 all poured in double-digits points to lead the way for Amherst and give them a very good chance to grab the #1 seed in NESCACs this weekend. Riopel was especially impressive from the outside, and he has been arguably the best 6th man in the ‘CAC all season long. Amherst looks to be back, folks. A win at Middlebury would confirm that.

 

Trinity (14-8, 5-3)Stock up

Though Trinity lost a game that Tufts was desperately trying to hand them on Friday, they bounced back on Sunday and dominated the Bobcats with their highest-scoring game in conference play this year. Defensively, there is no one I’d be more scared of the Trinity right now, and if not for an egregious amount of fouls on Friday (30 total, resulting in 41 free throws for Tufts), the Bantams might have walked away with two wins this weekend. Offensively, Trinity definitely relies a little too heavily on Ogundeko, but they are so much better when they can get production from a number of other guys. Widespread offensive firepower has to be the focus for the Bantams this weekend and in the playoffs. Their seeding is completely determined by their performances at Hamilton and Middlebury this weekend, but if Trinity can walk away 2-0 they would be in phenomenal shape in the NESCACS.

 

Bates (15-8, 4-5)Stock down

Bates laid an egg this weekend, and it got worse and worse as the weekend went on. While Marcus Delpeche ‘17 has emerged as the clear star of the team, his teammates have not quite been able to pull the rest of the weight. Defensively, you just can’t let Jayde Dawson get to the free throw line 14 times in a game. It’s simply not a recipe for success. The Bates guards just need to do a better job of stopping penetration, which has been a common theme for them all year long. Then, to follow up a subpar defensive performance, the Bobcats allowed Trinity to put up their highest point total of the year? Not good. Bates needs to be hitting their stride at this point in the year, not regressing, and what they showed this weekend is not quite ideal. Bates has a great chance to bounce back against Williams on Sunday, but it will be their ability to guard the arc, not the paint necessarily, that determines the outcome against the Ephs.

 

Hamilton (15-6, 4-4)Stock down

Hamilton had a great opportunity to gain some ground in the NESCAC standing this past weekend. Though they didn’t exactly shoot themselves in the foot, they also didn’t quite take advantage of a weekend where they played Bowdoin and Colby, who were the two bottom teams in the ‘CAC heading into the weekend. Bowdoin guard Jack Bors ‘19 had a heck of a game against the Continentals, abusing the Hamilton backcourt and exposing some real holes in the Hamilton defense in the process.  On the positive side, Hamilton freshman Kena Gilmour ‘20 had a very strong performance as he has done consistently throughout NESCAC play. The freshman had another solid game against Colby and is my prediction for Rookie of the Year at this point. As a whole, the Continentals bounced back well against Colby, especially in terms of forcing Colby into difficult shots, but their erratic performance on the defensive side of the ball worries me heading into the playoffs next weekend.

 

Williams (16-6, 4-4) Stock up

After a gritty win against Wesleyan on Friday night, Williams brought in reinforcements and put a BEATDOWN on Conn College on Sunday, 100-piecing them in a 37-point victory. The Conn victory was led by the three-point attack of the Ephs, as they drained 15-34 from deep in the game. More importantly, however, Williams outrebounded Conn by 15, which gave them many more scoring opportunities throughout the contest. Given that they did pretty much everything right on Sunday, let’s focus on the Wesleyan game. Williams did not shoot the ball particularly well from three against Wesleyan, hitting just 6-29 from deep. What the did do well, however, was attack the paint and get to the foul line much more consistently than the Cardinals. Dan Aronowitz ‘17 came to play in this one, and the Ephs are going to need him to do so again in Medford tomorrow when they take on the Jumbos.

 

Conn College (12-9, 2-6), Colby (10-12, 1-7), Bowdoin (11-10, 2-6)

Things could change for either Conn College or Bowdoin this weekend, but as of now, Colby is mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Conn and Bowdoin both need to sweep the weekend, but they also match up on Saturday, so only one of two really has a shot. They need one of the current 4-win teams to lose out, and even then, the tiebreakers might not play out in their favor. I suspect that the eight other teams will be in the NESCAC playoffs this year, not Conn, not Colby, and not Bowdoin.

Hitting the Home Stretch: Weekend Preview 2/3

Every NESCAC game is important. That is the nature of the league; since every team (give or take a couple outliers) can get hot and pull off an upset at any time, there are few opportunities to take a game off. And as we wind down the 2016-2017 regular season, the games become even more crucial. This weekend and next, one loss can be the difference between hosting a playoff or going on the road. For some teams, it can even be the difference between making the playoffs or getting a chance to catch up on their homework. The Friday night games kick off a critical weekend, and there are some very important match-ups to keep an eye on, particularly Tufts’ game against Trinity and Bates game in Amherst.

GAME OF THE WEEK: Tufts @ Trinity, 7:00 PM, Hartford, CT

Overview

Although they’re still the top team in NESCAC record-wise, Tufts has some real work to do if they want to stay there. The loss of starting center and team leader Tom Palleschi ‘17 has the Jumbos reeling on both sides of the ball. Against Bates, they weren’t able to stop Marcus Delpeche ‘17, who destroyed them to the tune of 28 points on 10/16 shooting. They also settled for jumpshots, leading to a low shooting percentage (36.1%.) They then came out flat against Umass-Dartmouth, losing 91-82. Again, interior defense was a problem, as the Jumbos allowed 14 offensive rebounds and couldn’t get stops down the stretch to support their Vincent Pace-led comeback. Although it was not a league game, the Umass-Dartmouth loss in conjunction with the Bates loss point to deep problems for Tufts. They need to find a way to defend at a high level without Palleschi.

Unfortunately, Trinity is not the best team to play if interior defense is your issue. Ed Ogundeko ‘17 has shown himself to be fully capable of ending a game himself if a team doesn’t have a post presence to match him (see his 20/20 game against Bowdoin earlier this year.) Marcus Delpeche proved that Tufts is vulnerable to big performances from dominant inside players. However, Trinity doesn’t exactly come into this one firing on all cylinders either. They only put up 53 points on 32% shooting against Amherst, and that’s including 19 on 8/11 shooting from Ogundeko. The rest of the team shot 11/48 from the field, which is about the same percentage that I shoot when I throw paper at my recycling bin from my bed. Both teams enter this game needing to prove themselves if they hope to contend for top spots come playoffs.

Tufts X-Factor: Guard Rebounding

With Palleschi out, Tufts has a `very large hole in the middle of their defense. To fill that hole, the Jumbos will need help from up and down the roster. Of course new starter Drew Madsen ‘17 has the biggest job (particularly this weekend when he matches up with Ogundeko) but he can’t do it alone. Tufts’ guards have to take some of the rebounding load off of the suddenly-thin Tufts frontcourt. Vincent Pace ‘18 has always been adept at this, averaging 5.7 rebounds per game, but he holds too much offensive responsibility to spend all his time battling Ogundeko in the paint. KJ Garrett ‘18 and Ben Engvall ‘18 will have to use their size and strength to crash the boards, freeing up Pace to carry the offense and taking pressure off Tufts’ untested big men.

Trinity X-Factor: Anyone Besides Ogundeko

Eric Gendron
Eric Gendron ’18 (Courtesy of Trinity Athletics)

I apologize for sounding like a broken record here, but Trinity needs a second scoring option. Amherst was able to basically dare anyone else on the Bantams roster to beat them, and no one else could. Chris Turnbull ‘17 has shot well from three on the year at 43%, but has a tendency to disappear in big games and struggles to score inside. The same goes for Jeremy Arthur ‘19, who has struggled in league play. Eric Gendron ‘18 represents another candidate to be the Christopher to Ogundeko’s Tony Soprano. Gendron has averaged 11.2 points per game on 43% shooting in league play. To knock off Tufts, Trinity will need solid games from at least one (and more likely two or three) of those possible second bananas.

Final Thoughts

From a playoff seeding standpoint, Trinity probably needs this game more. At 4-2, they are currently mired in the swamp of teams behind Tufts. Furthermore, they have one of the toughest remaining schedules of any of those teams. After Tufts they still have Hamilton, Middlebury and Bates, all of whom will be battling hard for the best possible playoff spot. I could see Trinity playing very well in these last four games and setting themselves up for a long playoff run. However, I could also see them falling back in the face of this tough schedule. This game is a terrific chance for them to kick this tough stretch off right.
Tufts hasn’t clinched anything either. Although they’re 6-1 now, Middlebury has been playing better than them lately, and Amherst always seems one strong game away from returning to the top. Both those teams have a chance of winning out, and therefore could take the top spot away from Tufts. The Jumbos need to figure out a way to survive without Palleschi, or their season could end disappointingly early. And unfortunately for Tufts, I don’t think this is the game in which they figure it out.

Writer’s Pick: Trinity

Hamilton @ Bowdoin, 7:00 PM, Brunswick, ME

Although Hamilton is certainly loaded with talent, they are very young. Middlebury showed the rest of the league just how much that matters last weekend. The Panthers threw up a cool 115 points against the Continentals, and pressured them into 19 turnovers. Hamilton is 0-3 on the road in league play, a stat which makes sense considering that the vast majority of their rotation is composed of sophomores (and freshman Kena Gilmour ‘20.) Hamilton has to grow up fast this year if they want to keep any hope of hosting a playoff game.

Bowdoin comes off giving Colby their first win last weekend in a surprisingly thrilling game. Bowdoin fell 87-82, despite 24 points off the bench from Jack Bors ‘19.Jack Simonds ‘19 has fallen from the league lead in scoring. This may be good for Bowdoin’s offense, as it now looks considerably more balanced than it did early on, but they need to be able to rely on Simond to get them a bucket when needed. I don’t see the Polar Bears being able to catch up to Hamilton like Middlebury did.

Writer’s Pick: Hamilton

Middlebury @ Colby, 7:00 PM, Waterville, ME

Image result for jake brown middlebury
Jake Brown is the best point guard in the league and if you disagree you can FIGHT ME.

Middlebury was unrecognizable against Hamilton and Keene if you watched their performance against Williams. Middlebury’s offense has been balanced and deadly, leading the league in points, field goal percentage and three-point shooting percentage during league play. The Panthers have particularly benefited from the play of Jake Brown ‘17. Longtime readers will know that my lifelong conquest has been to get Jake Brown on the First Team, and if it doesn’t happen this year I’ll have to take my battle straight to the Supreme Court. Brown leads the league in assists and averages 11.7 points per game, developing a deadly pull up jump shot which has added a whole new dimension to his game and the Middlebury offense. With Matt St. Amour leading the league in scoring, Brown hitting his jump shots and Jack Daly doing pretty much everything else, the Panthers might well be the best team in the league in the wake of Tufts’ struggles.

Image result for patrick stewart green room
“Green Room” is a movie that Patrick Stewart was in. That’s the joke!

Colby also enters this game with momentum. They picked up an emotional first win of the season against Bowdoin. They owe the win primarily to Patrick Stewart ‘17, who went Green Room on the Polar Bearswith 28 points on 8/14 shooting. Colby will most likely try to follow Williams’ formula for beating the Panthers. They will shoot a lot of threes and stack the paint, daring the Panthers to match them from outside. Unfortunately, they’re not good enough from three or on defense to make that strategy work for them. Middlebury should take this one easily.

Writer’s Pick: Middlebury

Bates @ Amherst, 7:00 PM, Amherst, MA

This is another game which has major playoff implications. Amherst has been inconsistent this season, but the existentially depressing fact remains that they’re 4-2 and are within striking distance of the top spot thanks to Palleschi’s injury. Amherst still has offensive struggles, but they have quietly developed an excellent defense to make up for it. They gave up under 70 points to both Trinity and Williams last weekend, and can still rely on Jayde Dawson ‘18 to bail them out in close games. Amherst is not pretty this year, but if they can keep winning it could work out for them. Also important to note; they are 12-0 at home this season.

Bates is not pretty either, but they are well equipped to give Amherst’s offense fits. The Delpeche brothers are adept at clogging up driving lanes, which should limit the amount of space that Dawson and Johnny McCarthy ‘18 have to score. And on offense, Bates has lately been hitting just enough threes to give the Delpeche brothers some help. Amherst doesn’t exactly have a stable of big men to throw at Malcolm and Marcus, so I see the Bobcats upsetting Amherst at home.

Writer’s Pick: Bates

Wesleyan @ Williams, 7:00 PM, Williamstown, MA

Wesleyan beat Williams earlier in the season, thanks in large part to the contributions of Nathan Krill ’18.

Wesleyan appears to be peaking at exactly the right time. They put up maybe their best offensive performance of the season against Connecticut College, scoring 85 points on 48.3% shooting. The Cardinals have been experimenting with different starting lineups, and brought Joseph Kuo ‘17 off the bench against the Camels. They had tried this with Nathan Krill ‘18 earlier. This gives Kuo the freedom to beat up on second unit big men and gives them the freedom to play a more mobile starting lineup with Jordan Sears ‘18 acting as a small ball, defensive-minded center. With Williams perimeter-oriented big men, watch for this lineup change to continue.

Williams hasn’t played a league game since their shellacking of Middlebury, but dropped a non-league matchup to Amherst last week. In that game, they got 26 from Daniel Aronowitz ‘17, but little else, losing 72-64. The Ephs have yet to replicate the shooting display they presented Middlebury, and the top field goal percentage defense in the country isn’t a great team to get hot against . This should be a low scoring matchup, with Wesleyan slowing down the pace and pounding the ball into Kuo and Nathan Krill ‘18. Wesleyan is simply better at winning low-scoring, ugly games.

Writer’s Pick: Wesleyan

Fight Night: Wesleyan v. Connecticut College Preview

Wesleyan (15-4, 3-3) @ Connecticut College (11-7, 2-4), New London, CT 3:00 PM, Saturday, January 28th

Overview:

Image result for the stepford wives
The original ‘Battle for Connecticut.’

The “Battle for Connecticut” is not, as I originally thought, a sci-fi movie about 30-foot tall white families duking it out in Hartford. It is instead this game, which features two teams sitting in precarious positions in the league rankings. Connecticut College has a couple impressive wins under their belt, an overtime thriller over Amherst, and a demolition of Bates in Alumni Gym. But they also have four losses and have shown an inability to score against elite defenses (see their 70-52 loss to Trinity.) And Wesleyan is certainly an elite defense. It has been that side of the ball that allowed them to recover from their 0-2 start. The Cardinals are now 3-3, and gave Tufts their toughest test of league play so far in a 77-73 loss. They only allow opponents to shoot 34.7% from the field, which is among the national leaders and leads the conference by a considerable margin. The Camels will need to prove that they can score against the best in order to have a chance in this game.

Wesleyan X-Factor: Jordan Sears ‘18

Jordan Sears
Jordan Sears ’18 (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)
It’s not a coincidence that Wesleyan has won both the league games that Sears has started. At 6’5″ and 200 pounds, Sears is defensive and rebounding menace, averaging 1.2 blocks and 4.6 rebounds per game despite only playing 17 minutes. He has started against Trinity and Bates, who boast the two best big men in the league in Ed Ogundeko and Malcolm Delpeche respectively. Sears was the key to not letting those stars own the paint against Wesleyan. I would expect him to play a similar role against Zuri Pavlin ‘17 and Daniel Janel ‘17, Connecticut College’s two excellent forwards.
Sears’ starting spot has another benefit for the Cardinals in that it pushes Nathan Krill ‘18 to the bench. That may read like a jab at Krill, but let me explain. Krill may well be Wesleyan’s best offensive player, but his volatile temper makes it difficult for him to remain on the floor at times. Bringing him off the bench makes it easier for Coach Reilly to control his star forward. It also gives the often-dead Wesleyan second unit some needed scoring punch, and allows Krill to beat up on slower second unit players. Sears starting has been a key to Wesleyan’s turnaround.

 

Connecticut College X-Factor: Isaiah Robinson ‘18

Isaiah Robinson
Not to start another NESCAC man-crush, but Isaiah Robinson ’18 has a TERRIFIC smile. (Courtesy of Connecticut College Athletics)
Wesleyan is a team that will try to beat you up, particularly in the paint. Connecticut College is well equipped to hit back, but they will also need to hit from the perimeter, as Wesleyan has shown themselves to not be able to keep up in a faster paced offensive game. Robinson combines those two responsibilities. Robinson is 6’5” and built like a linebacker, giving him more than enough strength to push back when Krill and Joseph Kuo ‘17 try to body him in the paint. But he also has quick feet and can stretch the floor, shooting 38.6% from three. Robinson will need to be an offensive threat in this game to pull the Wesleyan big men away from the basket and open things up for Pavlin and Janel to do their work inside. And he may also draw the critical task of getting in Nathan Krill’s head and forcing him into foul trouble.

 

Who Needs it More:

Wesleyan has done a terrific job climbing back into the upper half of the league, and of course needs to continue playing well in order to stay there. This is a crucial game for them, as they travel to Williams and Amherst next weekend. They need the freedom to lose one of those games and still be in contention for a high seed. But Connecticut College still needs this one more. In the ever-shifting NESCAC landscape, the difference between 3-4 and 2-5 is difficult to overstate. The Camels have done great work getting over the…barrier (not going to make the “hump” pun again) and being relevant this season, but this game is the key to them remaining there.

Final Thoughts:

Starting Jordan Sears has freed up Nathan Krill and strengthened Wesleyan’s defense in the paint against elite big men, but it also puts more pressure on the perimeter players in the starting lineup. Sears is aggressively non-threatening on offense, allowing opposing teams to sag off on him and double the primary ball handlers Salim Green ‘19 and Harry Rafferty ‘17. This has forced Kevin O’Brien ‘19 to step up as a scoring threat. He has done this admirably at times, scoring 20 and 19 back-to-back against Hamilton and Amherst. When teams leave Sears alone and key in on Green and Rafferty, O’Brien has to be ready to step up and be a scoring threat, or else Wesleyan simply doesn’t have enough offense.

Connecticut College will need shooters like Colin Pascoe ’17 to hit threes in order to pull off the upset.

Three point shooting will be the most important stat for Connecticut College in this game. They can’t beat Wesleyan in bar-room brawl  in the paint, the Cardinals’ win over Trinity proved that no one can. They need to stretch the floor and speed the Wesleyan up. They have showed the tendency to make mistakes on offense and defense when they are forced the play faster than their preferred pace. Lee Messier ‘18 will need to shoot a little better than his 33% yearly rate, and Robinson and David Labossiere ‘19 will also need to knock a couple down.

The Prediction:

Wesleyan comes into this game with all the momentum, and would probably be favored in Vegas if bookies out there cared about NESCAC sports at all. But Connecticut College matches up very well with the Cardinals. They have outside threats to spread out the Wesleyan defense, and forwards who can bang with the Special K’s (Kuo and Krill.) This should be hard fought, low scoring battle, featuring a lot of rebounds and fouls. In other words, a terrific viewing experience, and Wesleyan’s specialty. I think the Cardinals pull it out.

Writer’s Pick: Wesleyan

The Plot Thickens: Power Rankings 1/25

Everett Dayton ’18 willed Tufts to victory on Saturday with 25 points and 8 assists (Courtesy of Tufts Athletics).

I say this knowing my reputation as a writer prone to hyperbole, but this may well have been the most difficult Power Rankings I’ve ever written. Aside from Tufts at the top and Colby at the bottom, there are literally no spots on this list about which I’m totally confident, and I’ve changed my mind on each of the middle nine teams approximately 750 times. Williams’ demolition of Middlebury threw the rankings (and my mood over the weekend) into disarray, as did Wesleyan’s continued come-up and Amherst’s shaky performance against Bowdoin. All this serves to say that I’m CERTAINLY wrong about at least 5 of these spots, and I know you readers will let me know which ones.

1.) #4 Tufts (15-2, 6-0)

It’s become very clear at this point that Tufts has some kind of “Angels in the Outfield” type mojo going on. After dealing with junior guard Vincent Pace’s inconsistency following a return from injury, star center Tom Palleschi ‘17 went down with a knee injury. Now obviously this blow knocked Tufts

FLAMING hot take: This movie is as good, if not better than “Field of Dreams.”

off pace (pun 100% intended) right? Wrong. The Jumbos didn’t miss a beat over the weekend, taking care of Wesleyan and Connecticut College in two very impressive performances. They were able to match Wesleyan’s defensive intensity even following Palleschi’s injury, winning 77-73 in a hard fought game. And then they ran the Camels out of the gym, putting up 100 points on 58.5% shooting in a game where Tarik Smith ’17 only played 6 minutes (the reason why is unknown to us at this point).  Tufts has everything working right now, and may well be able to survive their series of injuries, but three straight road matchups in league play will be a very tough test for the Jumbos. We’ll see how these rankings look in two weeks.

2.) #25 Wesleyan (15-4, 3-3)

Nathan Krill
Nathan Krill ’18 (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)

Now here’s where it gets complicated. Wesleyan was dead in the water after the first weekend, but has gone 3-1 since. What sets them apart from the many other teams in the running for this spot is the quality of those wins. They beat Amherst and Trinity back to back last weekend, and then Bates in Lewiston on Saturday. They also played very well in a 77-73 loss to Tufts. The Cardinals still struggle to string together solid offensive possessions, but it seems that every game they get just enough of an offensive spark to let their defense carry them. They have received more consistent play from Nathan Krill ‘18, a terrific offensive player who often has trouble staying on the floor due to his struggles to control himself (he received a tech and eventually fouled out against Tufts). Krill wasn’t a weapon in their early loss to Middlebury, but if he is able to remain on the court during league play, the Cardinals could send a message in the coming weeks.

3.) Hamilton (13-4, 3-2)

The Continentals also benefit a great deal in these rankings from Williams’ performance against Middlebury. Hamilton pasted Williams at home last Saturday 94-76, getting 22 and 21 from Kena Gilmour ‘20 and Peter Hoffmann ‘19. Hoffmann was also a terror defensively, adding 3 blocks and 3 steals. Hamilton is a dynamic offensive team with a variety of weapons, but they can lag on the defensive end, as they did in their losses to Tufts and Bates. They still don’t have a quality road win on their resume, but they have the chance to pick one up this Saturday in Middlebury.

Kena Gilmour '20 (Michael P. Doherty photo)
Kena Gilmour ’20 had 22 points against Williams last weekend.

4.) #22 Middlebury (14-3, 3-2)

Speaking of the Panthers, their drive to a second straight championship hit a classic New England frost heave in Williamstown this weekend. The Ephs took it to the Panthers 89-65, in one of the more surprising results of the season. Middlebury simply had nothing working. Interestingly, they got a nice performance out of Matt St. Amour (24 on 9/18 shooting.) But the depth problems that we all feared when Zach Baines transferred reared their heads for the first time, as the rest of the team shot under 35% from the field. Defense was also a major problem for the Panthers, as they were repeatedly a step slow closing out on Williams’ legion of shooters. The Ephs exposed many of Middlebury’s flaws, and they have a lot of work to do in order to maintain a spot in the top tier of the league.

5.) Trinity (13-6, 4-1)

The Bantams sit at second in the league, having started off at 4-1 despite having only scored over 70 points twice over the course of league play. This of course has a lot to do with their terrific defense, anchored by possible Player of the Year AND Defensive Player of the Year winner Ed Ogundeko ‘17. But it also has something to do with the quality of their competition. Their four wins have come over the four bottom teams in the league, record-wise (although Williams’ performance against Middlebury makes that win much more impressive.) Trinity still struggles to find consistent secondary scoring options to lessen the burden on Ogundeko. They have the toughest weekend coming up by far, traveling to Amherst on Friday before playing Tufts on Saturday. Both games offer them the chance to pick up the signature win that they still lack.

6.) #14 Amherst (13-4, 3-2)

Amherst was offered the chance to recover from their 0-2 performance two weekends ago with a relatively easy slate. They had home games against Bowdoin and Colby, two teams that have struggled this year. And yet, they failed to truly recover their pre-league play form. They were trailing Bowdoin by double digits pretty much the whole way, needing another takeover from Jayde Dawson ‘18 and a buzzer-beating 30-footer from Johnny McCarthy ‘18 to survive 66-64. They took care of business the next night against Colby, but the fact remains that Amherst has lacked depth and consistent effort so far in NESCAC play.

7.) Williams (13-6, 2-4)

Pretty intimidating bunch of thirteen year-olds here.

Yes, Williams made Middlebury look like my U-12 AAU team on Saturday (Wildcats for life, baby.) But the question remains as to whether that game says more about Williams or about Middlebury. The Ephs 3-and-D style finally paid off for them, as they went 13-27 from three and held the vaunted Panther offense to just 65 points, their lowest scoring output of the season. They also finally received production from the frontcourt, as Marcos Soto ‘19 and James Heskett ‘19 combined for 38 points on 7-10 shooting from three. This is an unsustainable amount of production, but the confidence boost could lead to good numbers for the rest of the year for those two. Another performance like this one tonight against Amherst would put the Ephs fully back on track.

8.) Connecticut College (11-7, 2-4)

At 2-4 in the league, the Camels aren’t in a great spot. But they have played a little better than that record would indicate. They have a win over Amherst under their belt, and have played four of their six games on the road, including a very tough Hamilton/Middlebury combo on the opening weekend. They now have three of their last four games at home. All four are winnable games, as they play three of the four lowest teams in the league record-wise and Wesleyan at home. The Camels still have a chance to get over the hump.

9.) Bates (13-6, 3-3)

The vaunted home court advantage that Bates has enjoyed over the last few years seems to have vanished. The Bobcats have lost three in a row in league play, all at home. They have gotten very little offensive production in those games, averaging under 65 points per game. They simply have not surrounded the Delpeche brothers with enough perimeter production to discourage teams from doubling whichever one of them has the ball. Bates still boasts an elite defense and has the chance to make a huge statement this coming Saturday when they host Tufts, but they seem to be in serious trouble, as they still have to play Tufts, Amherst and Trinity.

10.) Bowdoin (1-4, 9-8)

The Polar Bears’ early win over Williams is now a signature performance, and they had another against Amherst well within their reach last weekend. But Jayde Dawson happened, and now Bowdoin sits at 1-4 in a league in which a comeback is very difficult. Their offense is pretty much entirely predicated on how well Jack Simonds ‘19 (the leading scorer in the league) plays, but their biggest flaw is on the boards. Bowdoin is the only team in the league that averages less rebounds per game than their opponent, a weakness that Ed Ogundeko exploited to the tune of 22 points and 20 rebounds last weekend in Bowdoin’s loss to Trinity. The Polar Bears don’t seem to have quite enough scoring or rebounding to compete in the league this year.

11.) Colby (0-5, 8-9)

0-5 in league play is not quite where the Mules wanted to be at this point in the season. They simply do not have enough offense to compete with the rest of the teams. Patrick Stewart ‘17 is an excellent stretch four (and also was terrific with Ian McKellan in “Waiting for Godot”), but he carries too large an offensive burden, leading to poor shooting percentages and efficiency numbers. I’m sure they’ll be able to grab a win or two somewhere, it’s just that kind of year in NESCAC. But at this point it’s hard to imagine them in the the tournament.

NESCAC the Third: Weekend Preview Part Two

Tyler Rowe ’19 is going to need to keep up his hot streak this weekend for the Camels (Courtesy of Conn College Athletics).

As Rory pointed out in the Friday preview, the third weekend is often a pivotal one for playoff chances. An 0-2 weekend this late in the season can be damning for post-season hopes, and that is only exacerbated by how strong the league is this year. Teams like Williams, Colby and yes, even Amherst need strong weekends to keep their playoff hopes alive, or reassert their place at the top of the league.

 

GAME OF THE WEEK – SUNDAY: Middlebury (13-2, 3-1) at Williams (12-4, 1-3): Sunday, 1/22, Williamstown, MA, 2:00 PM

Overview:

Will I choose Middlebury as the Game of the Week in every preview? Probably. But this game deserves must-watch status. Not only is it a rivalry game pitting two of the most successful teams of the last decade against each other, it features two of the best scorers in the league in Matt St. Amour ‘17 and Daniel Aronowitz ‘17. And it should end before the Patriots game starts, so no worries there.

Middlebury and Williams enter the game on very different footing in the league. Middlebury is 3-1, and was very close to pulling out a win at Tufts. Williams, on the other hand, comes in at 1-3 and has looked like one of the bottom teams in the league. For much of the post-Michael Mayer era, Williams has been a highly dangerous and successful 3-and-D team, relying on outside shooting and strong perimeter defense to remain a contender in the NESCAC. But the Ephs haven’t been able to put together those two components of their machine yet this year. Despite taking the most three point shots in the league by a considerable margin, they have the third-lowest percentage. The defense is still strong from a numbers standpoint, but they have been exploitable by patient offenses, allowing the third-highest shooting percentage to their opponents in the league. Williams might not have the personnel to continue playing their patented style, but they could prove that idea very wrong with a win over the Panthers.

 

X-Factors:

Eric McCord is a BODY down low, and the Panthers have really enjoyed his recent success (Courtesy of Middlebury Athletics).

We’ve been writing a great deal lately about how the forward rotation of Matt Folger ‘20, Nick Tarantino ‘18 and Eric McCord ‘19 has given the Panthers an interior presence that many felt they’d be lacking this year. But in this game, I see the guards off the bench as being a crucial factor in Middlebury’s game plan. Williams will undoubtedly attempt to use the three point shot as a way to counteract Middlebury’s quick-strike offense. And if they’re hitting those shots, the Panthers may need some firepower from the outside to match them. That’s where the guards come in. The primary outside threat off the bench for Middlebury is Bryan Jones ‘17, who played some nice minutes early in the season but has shot just 5-18 in conference play. Recently, freshman guard Joey Leighton ‘20 has shot very well, entering the rotation just before league play and hitting 44% of his three pointers. Senior Liam Naughton and freshman Perry Delorenzo are also options, but haven’t played much in tight spots. Middlebury may need Jones and Leighton in particular to be scoring threats to open the floor for the three starting guards and the post players.

Williams’ big man rotation is a key for them as well. It is very telling that in Williams’ only NESCAC win thus far, a 72-66 road win over Colby, they got 33 points from their four forwards. In the other games, Williams has received a shocking lack of production from the frontcourt, on both sides of the ball. Williams is the second worst rebounding team in the league, and neither James Heskett ‘19 nor Matt Karpowicz ‘20 nor Marcos Soto ‘19 has been nearly consistent enough offensively to worry opposing teams. If Williams is to match Middlebury’s newfound interior presence, they will need good production from at least two of those bench players, as well as starters Kyle Scadlock ‘19 and Michael Kempton ‘19.

 

Final Thoughts:

This is a critical game for Williams, who is drifting dangerously close to falling out of contention for a top four seed. They have traditionally enjoyed a huge home court advantage, and have beaten Middlebury in some classics in Williamstown over the last few seasons, particularly in tournament play. But they need more than history on their side on Sunday. They need their role players like Cole Teal ‘17 and Heskett to hit some threes, and they need Dan Aronowitz ‘17 and Scadlock to play like stars. Aronowitz in particular should be key, as he will probably be matching St. Amour for much of the game. He has to at least play him to a draw if the Ephs have a shot.

Middlebury wins this one on paper. They have far more offensive weapons on the perimeter, and should be able to crash the boards against Williams’ frontcourt. However, Williams’ style of play is by nature unpredictable. If they are hitting threes, they can hang with anyone in the country, and it will be Middlebury’s job to run them off the line and into the paint, where they are far less proficient at finishing over size.

 

Writer’s Pick: Middlebury

 

Connecticut College (10-5, 1-3) at Tufts (13-2, 4-0): Medford, MA, 3:00 PM

Basking in the glow of their new standing at the top of the Power Rankings, Tufts has taken the league by storm, winning their first four NESCAC games. They still haven’t quite gotten POY-level production from Vincent Pace ‘18, but KJ Garrett averaged 15 PPG over the two games last weekend, giving them a valuable offensive weapon off the bench. The Jumbos still have problems in the post, as Tom Palleschi ‘17 has struggled offensively for much of the season. That said, Tufts has plenty of weapons ready to pick up the slack.

Connecticut College has a lot of momentum entering this weekend. They shocked Amherst last Sunday, owning the paint en route to an 83-76 OT win. The Camels were able to lock down Jayde Dawson ‘18 as well as any team has this year, holding him to 9 points on 4-10 shooting. That suggests that they should be well-equipped to handle Pace, who showed signs against Middlebury that he’s rounding back into form. They also got 40 points and 18 rebounds collectively from senior forwards Zuri Pavlin ‘17 and Daniel Janel ‘17. Tufts showed against Middlebury that strong post players can give them problems, as Eric McCord emerged against them with 22 points. Therefore, Connecticut College has the tools to pull off another upset, but I don’t see it happening.

 

Writer’s Pick: Tufts

 

Wesleyan (14-3, 2-2) at Bates (12-4, 3-1): Lewiston, ME, 3:00 PM

Salim Green ’19 rises up for a jump shot over an opposing defender (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics).

I’m setting the over/under for total points in this game at 105, as arguably the two best defenses (and least consistent offenses) in the league square off in what may come to be known as “The Battle of the Bricks.” Wesleyan looked to be nearly dead after starting off 0-2, but roared back with two straight wins over Amherst and Trinity. Wesleyan’s elite defense was on full display in both games, holding the two teams to an average of 60 PPG. They finally received some offensive firepower from Kevin O’ Brien ‘19, and Harry Rafferty ‘17 too, an encouraging sign. To win at Bates, they will need one of those two, or Salim Green ‘19 (finally got his name right) to shoot well from the perimeter, as Bates’ interior defense is often pretty much impenetrable.

Bates has been one of the surprises of the season thus far, sitting at 3-1 with a quality home win over Hamilton under their belt. Their success has obviously been chiefly due to the Delpeche twins, who combine for 27 PPG and 19 REB/G. Additionally, Malcolm leads the league in blocks at over 3 per game. The Delpeches are the keys to Bates’ offense and defense, but freshman transfer Jeff Spellman ‘20 has been pivotal in giving the Bobcats a perimeter threat off the bench. He had 30 points over the weekend. Bates should give Wesleyan a heavy dose of both Delpeche brothers, putting a tremendous defensive burden on Nathan Krill ‘19 and Joseph Kuo ‘17. Taking Bates’ lyric little bandbox of a home court into account, I see the towering twins leading Bates to another impressive home win.

 

Writer’s Pick: Bates

 

Colby (7-7, 0-3) at Amherst (10-4, 1-2): Amherst, MA, 3:00 PM

Well if they lose this one, there’s officially a crisis in Amherst. The Purple and White have lost two in a row, both to teams that hadn’t won a game in league play entering their match-up. Amherst’s problems have been copiously and gleefully documented on this blog, but they boil down to a lack of dimensionality on offense. Johnny McCarthy ‘18 and Jayde Dawson ‘18 have too much responsibility, allowing teams like Wesleyan to load up on them and dare other players to beat them. Colby probably doesn’t have quite enough perimeter depth to make use of this gameplan, but other teams have certainly taken notes on what Wesleyan and Conn College did to Amherst last weekend.

Patrick Stewart ’17 (Courtesy of Colby Athletics).

Colby may be the only team that played worse than Amherst last weekend. At 0-3 in the league, they are carving out a niche as the bottom team in a very strong league. Colby simply doesn’t have enough weapons to hang with the top teams in the league. Patrick Stewart ‘17 is an excellent stretch four, but like McCarthy and Dawson, he often carries an unreasonable burden for the Mules, yet with less of a supporting cast around him than the two Amherst guards. Amherst should use this game to get back on track, and ideally find a little more depth on offense.

 

Writer’s Pick: Amherst

 

Bowdoin (9-6, 1-2) at Trinity (10-6, 2-1): Hartford, CT, 3:00 PM

This game is a matchup of stars. Jack Simonds ‘19 and Ed Ogundeko ‘17 would be my top two POY candidates at this point in the season, due to their importance to their respective teams. Bowdoin for the most part goes as far as Simonds can carry them, as was proven by his electric 32 point performance in their lone NESCAC win over Williams. This game will be an excellent test of Simonds’ scoring chops in league play, as Trinity boasts an elite defense anchored by, who else, Ed Ogundeko.

Ogundeko may carry an even heavier load for Trinity than Simonds does for Bowdoin. In addition to being the key to the offense, he leads the league (and by nature of the transitive property, the team as well) in rebounding, and may be the one of the most intimidating shot blockers in the league. Players are straight-up terrified of shooting layups against him, which is heavily responsible for Trinity being among the league leaders in most defensive catagories. Bowdoin, on the other hand, is the worst rebounding team in the league. This could well be another 20-20 game for Big Ed, and if that’s the case, I see Trinity taking the win at home.

 

Writer’s Pick: Trinity

Can the Baby Cardinals Fly?: Wesleyan Basketball Season Preview

Harry Rafferty '17 is looking to lead Wesleyan after the Cardinals graduated some big names last year (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)
Harry Rafferty ’17 is looking to lead Wesleyan after the Cardinals graduated some big names last year (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)

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.

Projected Record: 6-4

Wesleyan had a tremendously uneven 2015-2016 season. They entered league play at 11-1 and many experts (like Joe McDonald and I) were calling them the best team in the league. But their performance in league play told a very different story. They finished at 5-5 and lost in the quarterfinals to eventual champion Middlebury.  Over the course of NESCAC play last season, Wesleyan both beat Amherst by 27 points and lost to Colby by 9. The Cardinals enter this season looking to recover from the discouraging end to last season. However, they have an uphill battle ahead of them. Among the losses they suffered in the offseason were BJ Davis, an All League point guard who was the heart, soul, crunch-time scorer and sick tip-slam aficionado of Wesleyan’s team. They also lost starting forward and rim protector Rashid Epps, and gritty, defensively minded guards Jack Mackey and Joe Edmonds. The importance of these players, particularly Epps and Davis, cannot be overstated.  But do not by any means count out the Cardinals. They have several players waiting in the wings (so to speak), eager to prove that the new generation can improve on the old one.

2015-2016 Record: 18-7, 5-5; lost to #4 seed Middlebury in quarterfinals of NESCAC tournament

Coach: Joe Reilly, 9th season, 108-91

Starters Returning:

Forward Joseph Kuo ‘17 (11.1 PPG, 7.0 REB/G, 1.0 BLK/G)

Guard Harry Rafferty ‘17 (7.6 PPG, 1.5 AST/G, 0.8 STL/G)

Key Losses:

Guard BJ Davis ‘16, started 25/25 games (16.4 PPG, 2.7 AST/G, 1.4 STL/G)

Forward Rashid Epps ‘16, Started 25/25 games (9.5 PPG, 6.3 REB/G, 0.8 BLK/G)

Guard Jack Mackey, Started 16/25 games (8.1 PPG, 4.1 AST/G, 0.6 STL/G

Projected Starting Five

Guard Harry Rafferty ‘17

Harry Rafferty '17 (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)
Harry Rafferty ’17 (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)

Along with Kuo and forward PJ Reed ‘17, Rafferty is the senior statesman of the Wesleyan team.  A gritty defensive specialist, Rafferty paired up with Davis and Mackey to give Wesleyan one of the deepest, most experienced backcourts in the league. Now Rafferty is the only one left, and he may need to step his offensive game up this season to make up for the loss of his colleagues. Rafferty shot 39.2% last year on only six shots per game, four of which were threes. Rafferty can expect an uptick in shot attempts, and will need to make the most of those opportunities if Wesleyan wants to continue their success.

Guard Salim Greene ‘19

Salim Green '19 (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)
Salim Green ’19 (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)

Many coaches throughout NESCAC were disappointed when Salim Greene chose Wesleyan before his freshman season.  Greene was one of the highest touted recruits in recent NESCAC memory, and drew wide interest from the league’s elite, such as Middlebury and Amherst. However, Greene’s freshman season was derailed by a concussion suffered in training camp.  He was never able to get in the rhythm of Wesleyan’s offense, and was buried behind Wesleyan’s many talented, more experienced guards.  But Greene is healthy, and much of his competition has moved into the ever-blackening, vociferous hellscape of the real world (having some senior year stresses, don’t mind me.)  Green is tremendously quick and an excellent shooter, and has the potential to be a defensive force on the perimeter.  He is the best candidate to don BJ Davis’s mantle as lead guard.

Guard Kevin O’Brien ‘19

Kevin O'Brien '19 (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)
Kevin O’Brien ’19 (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)

O’Brien was one of the pleasant surprises of the 2015-2016 season, overtaking Salim Greene as Wesleyan’s most impressive freshman.  He came on at the end of the season to start 9 games, averaging 3.8 points per game on 44% shooting in just 15 minutes per game.  At 6’5”, he has tremendous size for a guard, and showed the ability to use it to punish smaller defenders in the post and on the boards. O’Brien even showed a nice shooting stroke which should benefit from more reps this preseason.  With his size and versatility, O’Brien has the potential to be a classic NESCAC forward/guard combination in the mold of Lucas Hausman and (if I may hop in the time machine for a moment) Willy Workman from Amherst and Tim Edwards from Middlebury.

Forward Joseph Kuo ‘17

Joseph Kuo '17 (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)
Joseph Kuo ’17 (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)

Kuo enters this season with the most responsibility of any Cardinal other than the Pope. He must both take BJ Davis’s place as the leading scorer AND Rashid Epps’ place in the middle of the defense and on the boards. Kuo averaged 11 points and 7 rebounds per game last season, despite battling a torn meniscus which sapped much of his mobility on both sides of the ball.  Kuo was able to use a delicate touch and good footwork in the paint to shoot nearly 50% from the floor, and a full recovery from his knee injury should allow him to emerge as a force on both sides of the ball.  Look for Kuo as a dark horse POY candidate this season, if Wesleyan runs much of its offense through him in the post.

Forward Nathan Krill ‘18

Nathan Krill '18 (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)
Nathan Krill ’18 (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)

Krill’s contributions on the court last season mirrored his hairstyle: highly energetic and very versatile. Krill provides the Cardinals with energetic rebounding and defense, but don’t let that sell short his offensive talents.  Krill shot just under 50% from the field, many of those coming on midrange jump-shots.  With greater playing time and freedom within the offense, Krill has the talent to extend his range to the three point line, giving Wesleyan a rare forward that can stretch the floor without sacrificing interior defense.

Breakout Player: Kevin O’Brien ‘19

O’Brien looks the part of a star, particularly in NESCAC.  He is tall and lanky, with long arms that allow him to guard multiple positions and rebound as well as many forwards.  It will be a major key (bless up) for O’Brien to develop a threatening outside shot, as Wesleyan does not have a ton of three point threats on the roster.  If he can do this, O’Brien has the size and skillset to be part of the next generation of NESCAC stars.

Everything Else:

Wesleyan certainly lost a lot of talent this offseason, but this may be a blessing in disguise.  Hidden behind the talented senior class that the Cardinals lost was a deep freshman class waiting to emerge.  Salim Greene and Kevin O’Brien made minor contributions last season when they got playing time, but they are far more talented than the roughly 15 minutes per game they played last season.  The departure of BJ Davis and Jack Mackey should allow that talented young backcourt to step forward and show what they can do.

The 2016-2017 season gives Wesleyan the opportunity to remake the style they play in.  When they struggled last season, it was often because their offense slowed down and they relied too much on BJ Davis going one on five. Epps also slowed them down with his lack of offensive moves in the paint. Nathan Krill’s insertion into the starting lineup gives them a mobile big man who can run the floor along with Salim Greene and Harry Rafferty.  Kuo should be considerably more mobile now that his knee has healed, and Kevin O’Brien is both big enough to help rebound and fast enough to get out on the break. We could see a far more explosive Wesleyan team than we did last season, which will help them match up with the other offense oriented teams in NESCAC such as Middlebury and Amherst.

An area in which Wesleyan will have to exceed expectations is their bench play.  Many of the players that made Wesleyan so deep last season now must slide into starting roles to make up for graduated seniors, leaving the bench very young. PJ Reed ‘17 provides a versatile set of skills on the second unit, but he will need to be more of a threat offensively than he was last season (he shot only 34.2% from the field.) Sophomore Jordan Bonner could be a wild card. He is known throughout the conference as a tremendous athlete, but is very raw in most other areas. If he can make significant strides in the finer points of the game, he could be crucial in giving Wesleyan some explosive offense from the second unit.  

Other than those two returners, Wesleyan’s bench, much like the library on a Friday afternoon, is primarily populated by freshman. Wesleyan has a large first year class this season, all of whom have the opportunity to compete for playing time.  Elijah Wilson ‘20 is the only true guard in the freshman class, and could be valuable as a three point threat.  The Cardinals also brought in two big men in David Dixon ‘20 and Justin Bergeron ‘20, both of whom are in the running for the backup big man spot vacated by Nathan Krill. In a league as deep as the NESCAC, it is imperative to have a solid second unit, and right now Wesleyan has considerable question marks in that area.

Wesleyan, and the rest of the league as well, benefits from a potentially far more stratified NESCAC this season.  The loss of Lucas Hausman from Bowdoin and Mike Boornazian from Bates creates a defined bottom tier, comprising most likely of the Maine schools and Hamilton.  Therefore, we may see far less upsets, allowing Wesleyan to play a considerably easier schedule. But, quite simply, they are also still a very good team. Wesleyan has the tools to not just survive the departure of those senior stars, but begin a new, even more successful era of Cardinal hoops.

Home Teams Sweep Weekend: Stock Report 2/22

Connor Green '16 played like a superstar with 29 points in Amherst's Quarterfinal victory on Saturday. (Courtesy of NESCAC.com)
Connor Green ’16 played like a superstar with 29 points in Amherst’s Quarterfinal victory on Saturday. (Courtesy of NESCAC.com)

What has appeared to be a pretty chaotic NESCAC season suddenly got a lot more clear when the top four teams all pulled out wins in the NESCAC quarterfinals. It wasn’t that clear cut, considering that Colby led Trinity for a good 30 minutes of their game and Bowdoin was down three points with under six minutes to play. Still, the top four teams won, and a big reason for that is the impact of home court advantage.

Trinity, Amherst, Tufts and Middlebury combined to go 18-2 in their NESCAC home games. And those two losses both came at the hands of a fellow top four team with the Bantams knocking off the Jumbos in Medford and Amherst beating Trinity in Hartford. The biggest upsets of the regular season all came on the road: Middlebury falling to Hamilton, Colby topping Amherst, and Bowdoin getting the best of Wesleyan (not that big of an upset in hindsight but still).

Winning on the road is hard, even when there aren’t big raucous crowds to deal with. Athletes are creatures of comfort, and whether it’s the ability to have the same pregame routine or the familiarity of shooting in your home gym, teams undoubtedly do better at home at this level. As an aside, this makes Wesleyan’s championship run last year with two road and one neutral site wins all the more impressive.

Stock Up

SG Matt St. Amour ’17 and PF Adisa Majors ’18 (Middlebury)

Pepin Gymnasium was ROCKING on Saturday, and these two were supplying a lot of the fuel for the crowd to feed off of. After two subpar shooting performances last weekend, St. Amour did not hesitate from long distance early scoring 19 points in the first half as the Panthers built a substantial lead. As he cooled off in the first half, Majors took over, scoring 16 enormous second half points. Eleven of those points came in the final 5:30 of the game. After Nathan Krill ’18 pulled Wesleyan to within five points at 68-63, Majors scored the next six points for the Panthers to get the lead back up to 74-65. The difference in play from Majors this season from last year when he was a seldom used backup has been incredible. The sophomore works his butt off, has a really nice touch around the rim, and is a great mid-range shooter.

Forward Connor Green ’16 (Amherst)

Green has OWNED the Polar Bears over the past two seasons. In four games against Bowdoin, he averaged 24.0 ppg. That includes a clunker in the NESCAC semifinals last year when he had just seven points on 3-14 shooting. That didn’t matter though as Amherst won that game easily 76-56. In the other three games, Green has been sizzling hot from deep, going 19-36 (52.8 percent) on what have been very high difficulty shots. On Saturday, Green finished with 29 points, four rebounds, three assists and no turnovers. His big performance helped Amherst overcome subpar games from Jayde Dawson ’18 and Jeff Racy ’17. I have no idea how Green is going to play next weekend: he could either shoot Amherst out of the tournament or carry them to a NESCAC title. Regardless, I think that Saturday reminded us that he is still Amherst’s best scorer, and it clinched Green’s spot on the All-NESCAC First Team.

Tufts’ Offensive Balance

It is no secret that the Jumbos work their offense through Tom Palleschi ’17, but the junior center is not capable of being the scoring threat that some of the perimeter scorers in the league can be. The offense for Tufts works because all five starters are capable of creating their own shot. And even though Palleschi doesn’t shoot threes very often, he is shooting 45.5 percent from three this season. That means that every Tufts starter is also capable of hitting the three. That puts a lot of strain on a defense. On Saturday, four of the five Jumbo starters were in double figures (the other, Ryan Spadaford ’16, had 8 points), and each of them made a three pointer to boot. The downside for Tufts is that their bench has become somewhat of a non-factor down the stretch. That starting five will have to carry them next weekend.

Stock Down

Wesleyan Cardinals

What a weird season for Wesleyan. They were great against an admittedly soft non-conference schedule to rip off an 11-game winning streak heading into the conference season. Then they started 1-3 in NESCAC before winning their next five games (all vs. NESCAC teams) at home. Would it surprise you if I told you the Cardinals losses in their final three games were all on the road? Wesleyan was #7 in the last regional rankings, and it’s extremely unlikely they get an at-large bid.

On Saturday the fight that Wesleyan possesses was clear even though they fell short. They got a big performance from Harry Rafferty ’17 to come back in the second half. The game looked to be over with just over a minute left and Middlebury holding a nine-point lead. Then BJ Davis ’16 and Jack Mackey ’16 hit two absolutely ridiculous threes to pull the lead back to five points. However, that was as close as Wesleyan would get. The season didn’t go quite as planned for the defending champions, but you have to admit that they went down fighting.

Williams Passing

Some fans of the Ephs have been bemoaning the combined inability of Williams to get assists and not turn the ball over for much of the season. And I haven’t bought into those complaints until Saturday. In the second half, there was a stretch when Williams seemed to be turning the ball over on every possession. And when they didn’t, they weren’t able to generate any good shots. The Ephs finished the game with 15 turnovers and 10 assists. For the season, Williams finished last in the NESCAC averaging as a team 13.4 apg. The offense that Coach Kevin App runs is one predicated on constant cutting and screening, but it wasn’t great at creating good looks inside. The Ephs instead took a lot of threes, the second most in the NESCAC. The return of PG Mike Greenman ’17 from injury next season will do this offense a lot of good.

Colby Seniors

Expectations for Colby were high entering the season. The six Colby seniors were all good NESCAC players, and Chris Hudnut ’16 is one of the five best players in the league when healthy. On the other hand, all this class has to show on a NESCAC level is four consecutive eighth place finishes and subsequent first round exits. A bunch of factors held the Mules back the last two seasons, and there is no denying that Colby was a good team this year capable of knocking off anybody. On the other hand, the Mules failed to ever really deliver on their promise as a team. Now that this group of seniors is graduating, the Mules are going to be in deep trouble next season.

The game against Trinity was a microcosm of that promise. They were in control for much of the game, leading by as many as 12 points. Ultimately, the Bantams came back and enforced their will in the second half. Colby was bothered by the defensive intensity of Trinity, and on the other end they forced just one turnover from the Bantams in the half. What doomed the Mules was that Trinity went back to what works for them: being physical and getting inside. In the first half Trinity shot zero free throws (neither did Colby which is somewhat incredible). However, in the second half the Bantams got to the line 20 times and made 16 of them.

NESCAC Quarterfinal Preview: #5 Wesleyan at #4 Middlebury

The Panthers are back in the NESCAC playoffs, and looking to beat Wesleyan for the 14th straight time. (Courtesy of Michael Borenstein/Middlebury Campus)
The Panthers are back in the NESCAC playoffs, and looking to beat Wesleyan for the 14th straight time. (Courtesy of Michael Borenstein/Middlebury Campus)

The last Cardinals victory over Middlebury came on Jan. 15, 2005. That’s 13 meetings, and one other NESCAC quarterfinal. Last season’s loss to the Panthers seemed to galvanize Wesleyan on their eventual championship run. This season’s game was a huge upset to start the season, as Wesleyan was expected to be near the top of the heap and Middlebury looked like a rebuilding project. Almost two months later, it’s hard not to see the Panthers as the favorite in this game. Playing at home is nice, a new frontcourt threat has emerged (more on that later), and Wesleyan is coming off of a shocking weekend where they dropped a pair of contests to Colby and Bowdoin. Will the Cards turn the tide today? It won’t be easy.

Last time they played: Middlebury 86 – Wesleyan 76, Jan. 8 at Wesleyan

It was a disastrous start for Middlebury. The Cardinals went up 14-2 in less than five minutes. Moments later, Middlebury coach Jeff Brown swapped out a few starters for his trio of freshmen, and the game completely changed. Eric McCord ’16, Zach Baines ’16 and Hilal Dahleh ’16 stopped the bleeding and helped the Panthers clamp down defensively. When McCord subbed out six minutes later it was a 20-14 Wesleyan lead, and later back-to-back Dahleh treys tied the game at 30-apiece. The second half was a battle, but a Middlebury onslaught to the tune of a 16-5 run in the final 3:25 proved to be the difference. In the end, Matt St. Amour ’16 was the Panthers’ top scorer, which is par for the course, but the 30 points received from McCord and Dahleh absolutely changed the game. On the flip side, 17 bench points from Joe Edmonds ’16 kept Wesleyan in the game, which leads to …

Wesleyan X-factor: G Joe Edmonds

Joe Edmonds '16
Joe Edmonds ’16

Edmonds and guard Harry Rafferty ’17 have had to adjust to slightly reduced roles this season. In 2014-15, six Cardinals played over 22.0 mpg, Edmonds and Rafferty included, and that duo started more games than not. The Cardinals have a lot more depth this season, and Rafferty and Edmonds have had to work off of the bench for the most part. Edmonds hasn’t had a great, high-volume shooting night since that evening against Middlebury. He has tallied 10, 11, 10 and 11 again in a handful of games, but otherwise has only taken a few shots and been held to single digits. The Cardinals are going to get plenty of points from guards BJ Davis ’16 and Jack Mackey ’16, but can Edmonds step up and chip in double digits off the bench while stretching the floor? A year ago, that was a no-brainer. Now, the answer is up in the air. Edmonds posted a 41.1 percent mark from behind the arc a year ago; he’s at 30.1 percent this season. Which Edmonds shows up today?

Middlebury X-factor: C Matt Daley ’16

Matt Daley '16 (Courtesy of Middlebury Athletics)
Matt Daley ’16 (Courtesy of Middlebury Athletics)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Daley might be the most gifted big man in the NESCAC. He just can’t stay healthy, through no fault of his own. He’s had so many issues this season – a soft tissue strain in his groin, a foot injury, concussion symptoms, and plain old illness that kept him out last weekend. So he never turned into the 20-10 guy that pundits believed he could be. He’s still a force when he’s in there. Daley is currently sixth in the NESCAC in field goal percentage, and the defensive end/rebounding is where he really shines. The big man rips down 7.8 boards per game in under 22.0 mpg. Imagine if he was actually healthy for all of those minutes, too, not nursing injury after injury. For what it’s worth, Daley ranks 13th in the NESCAC in points per 40 minutes, which is a testament to his importance when in the game. Wesleyan has two big guys who are athletic scoring threats in Joseph Kuo ’17 and Rashid Epps ’16 and Daley will be needed in order to stifle that pair.

Three Questions

1. How will Wesleyan shoot the ball from behind the arc?

If you’ve been reading along all year, you know that I’ve been fixated on the Cardinals (in)ability to shoot the three. They’re stacked with guys with great pedigrees who have underperformed in that regard this season. Wesleyan has taken the fifth-most three point attempts in the NESCAC, but is only making 32.3 percent of them (10th in the NESCAC). There was one hilariously bad four-game stretch against Amherst twice, Trinity and Tufts when Wesleyan shot 12-80 (15 percent) from deep. They went 8-22 (36.4 percent) in the last game against Middlebury. But of course, sports is a “What have you done for me lately?” business. Still, the recent returns aren’t much better. The Cards have upped the frequency with which they’re shooting treys recently, but not making any more of them. They are 22-81 (27.2 percent) over the last three contests. Will they be able to get open threes and make them today? Maybe, but Middlebury has a lot of length on the defensive perimeter. Jack Daly ’18 will give some trouble to Davis and Mackey, as well the super-long Zach Baines ’19.

2. Who wins the frontcourt battle?

Kuo and Epps vs. Daley and Adisa Majors ’18. The Wesleyan frontcourt is skilled brings a combination of size and speed. For Middlebury, Daley has the speed and length, while Majors has the brute strength. It’s an interesting match up, because I don’t know who has the advantage. Is it the pair of well-rounded forwards? Or can Daley and Majors work together to play as one shot-rejecting, block-defending, rim-protecting super-basketball-hero? Also in the mix are Wesleyan’s Nathan Krill ’18 – high motor, good length, and a work horse – and Connor Huff ’16 – high basketball IQ, and a good shotmaker. Lastly, Middlebury’s Zach Baines is sometimes employed as a stretch-4 type. That could be extremely problematic for Wesleyan, because Epps isn’t going to be quick enough to stop him on the perimeter.

3. Can someone other than Matt St. Amour put the ball in the hoop for Middlebury?

St. Amour has been a marked man since he started the conference season so strongly, and there hasn’t been a consistent second scorer for the Panthers. Sometimes it has been Daley, recently it’s been Majors, and a few times it’s been Baines or point guard Jake Brown ’17. My worry is that everyone will look to defer too much and no one will get the job done. Baines (7.1 ppg) has never played in a NESCAC playoff game, neither has Jack Daly (7.1 ppg) or Majors (6.9 ppg). If Daley can stay on the court for 25 minutes, I think he’s going to get a lot of usage and some big buckets, and subsequently Majors might see a few less minutes, but in those minutes he should be effective as well. On the perimeter, you’re not going to get one guy scoring a lot of buckets alongside MSA. Coach Brown likes to throw everyone in in the first half and feel out the flow of the game, so Hilal Dahleh or Bryan Jones ’17 are among those who could make a surprise impact with a couple of big shots early.

What to Expect

A lot of points. It might be a bit under the radar, but Wesleyan actually has the best field goal percentage defense in the league (38.1 percent) and the third-best points per game average defensively (68.1 percent), and still the Panthers ran up 86 points in their last meeting. Especially with Middlebury playing at home, Coach Brown is going to instruct his nephew, the younger Brown, to push the pace and get Wesleyan running. Tiring out the Cardinals’ high-usage starters, i.e. Davis and Mackey, is the key to testing out that depth. The Cardinals have won plenty of high-scoring games this year, though, so it won’t be easy to run them out of the gym. I think that Wesleyan will try to beat up on Matt Daley whenever he gets the ball down low and neutralize that second scoring threat that I just talked about above, forcing the Panthers to find someone else to score the ball. And, of course, both teams will lock onto the opposing superstar: Middlebury on BJ Davis and Wesleyan on Matt St. Amour. The Panthers are usually a switching team around the perimeter, but expect Jack Daly to man up with Davis to start. On the opposite end, my guess is that youngster Kevin O’Brien ’19 is tasked with covering St. Amour. I think the height advantage that St. Amour would have over Davis or Mackey would lead to a lot of easy buckets. That means that Edmonds will also be called on to cover St. Amour off of the bench.

It’s the No. 4-No. 5 game, so it should be a close one. I, of course, have somewhat of a vested interest here, so I apologize if my prediction waxes a little fanatical.

Prediction: Middlebury 75 – Wesleyan 70