Defense Wins Championships: Wesleyan @ Amherst Men’s Basketball Semifinal Preview

Wesleyan (20-5, 7-3, #5 Seed) @ Amherst (17-8, 7-3 #1 Seed), 5:30 PM, Amherst, MA

Overview:

As opposed to the offense heavy three point barrage we expect in the Tufts-Hamilton game (detailed beautifully by Colby here,) this should be a gritty, defensive battle. Both these teams pride themselves on their defense. Amherst’s most impressive win of the season was a 75-49 drubbing of Hamilton in which they held the Continentals to 29.4% shooting. That game was the jumping off point for their run to the number one seed. Since then, they are 7-2 and have won their last three games, including wins over Middlebury and Williams. But their most exciting win of this hot stretch was the last one, a thrilling 71-70 win over Bowdoin in the quarterfinals. In that game, Amherst overcame a rough game from Michael Riopel ‘18 thanks to a First Team level performance from Johnny McCarthy ‘18 (22 points) and contributions from several bench players, most notably Josh Chery ‘20, who scored 11 points and hit the game winning layup with 3.4 seconds left. What this Amherst team lacks in star power they make up for in depth and heart.

Amherst’s defense is the key to their recent success.

Of course, the same can be said for Wesleyan. One of Amherst’s losses since that shellacking of Hamilton is to the Cardinals, a 71-57 road loss in which McCarthy and Riopel went 3-20 from the field. Wesleyan’s season is littered with these types of games. The dominate defensively, shut down what the opponent does best, and the offense does just enough to get by. Their quarterfinal game against Middlebury was another great example. While Jack Daly ’18 did have a nice game (20 points and six assists,) the Cardinals stifled Middlebury’s inside game, holding the dangerous forward combo of Nick Tarantino ’18, Eric McCord ’19 and Adisa Majors ’18 to 6-19 shooting. Jordan Sears ’19 had 8 blocks, and with Kevin O’Brien ’19 and his army of tall, long-armed guards on the perimeter, it is nearly impossible to get into the paint and score against Wesleyan. Amherst will have to hit some threes to spread the Cardinals defense. And Wesleyan will have to do the same against Amherst. 

Key Player For Amherst: F Josh Chery ’20

Josh Chery ’20
(Courtesy of Amherst Athletics)

As I said earlier, Chery was the hero against Bowdoin. With 5 seconds left on the clock, Chery got the ball on the right wing, drove to the rim, and finished a tough layup with 3.4 seconds left. Chery certainly wasn’t the first option,as Johnny McCarthy was lighting it up at that point, but he wasn’t the last one either. Chery has been one of the major keys to Amherst’s recent hot streak. He’s gone over double figures three times in the last four games, and has averaged 25 minutes per game over that stretch after going over 20 minutes just once all season up to that point. At 6’4″ and 215 pounds, he is big and strong enough to guard multiple positions, a huge plus against Wesleyan due to the size of the Cardinal guards. He makes a huge difference on the defensive end, grabbing four steals against Williams and pulling down eight rebounds against Middlebury. And ask Bowdoin how he is finishing at the rim. One thing to watch for is his foul shooting: he’s 0-7 in the last two games. Chery is the ideal player to have on the court against Wesleyan, and, since Wesleyan has proven themselves capable of locking up Riopel and McCarthy, Chery and the rest of the bench mob are the keys to Amherst’s chances.

Key Player for Wesleyan: F Nathan Krill ‘18

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

The starting power forward on the “Feels Like They’ve Been in College for 2o Years” All Stars, Krill has been in this position before. However, he has never been as important to the team’s offense. Of course, they won last weekend with him only having three points, but they won’t be able to rely on Antone ’21 Walker putting up 11 off the bench and Kevin O’ Brien ’19 scoring 17. Walker is a great talent, but he is streaky, and O’Brien isn’t really a go to scorer. Krill is Wesleyan’s most dangerous pick and roll finisher. He can step behind the three point line and hit, or he can use his quickness and ball handling skills to finish at the rim. Throughout Krill’s career, this combination of skills has made him one of the hardest players to guard in the league when he’s hot. Key word: “when.” Krill has always been incredibly streaky (see his 24 points against Bowdoin versus 3 the next game against Bowdoin.) Krill only had four points in Wesleyan’s win over Amherst during the regular season, but this a whole new Amherst team. Wesleyan needs their stars to shine bright on Saturday, starting with Krill.

Final Thoughts:

Bowdoin was certainly far more skilled than your average eight seed, but Amherst still should have been able to put them away earlier. The Mammoths were uncharacteristically bad defending the three, allowing Bowdoin to shoot 10-28 from outside (and many of those misses were open looks.)  Much of Wesleyan’s offense relies on three point shooting, particularly from Jordan Bonner ’19 and Hutcherson. Amherst will have to do a better job running those two off of the three point lie than they did with Bowdoin’s Jack Simonds ’19 and Liam Farley ’19. They will also have to contend with pick and rolls featuring either Bonner or Hutcherson and Krill. Since each of those players are dangerous shooters, the slightest defensive mistake can lead to an open three pointer. Amherst’s best defense here would be an aggressive hedge with their big men and then not switching. A switch would mean that one of Amherst’s big men would be stuck on , a mismatch in favor of Wesleyan. This is why Chery should see big minutes on Saturday, he is big enough to handle Krill and fast enough to handle Hutcherson or Bonner.

If Jordan Bonner ’19 gets hot, Amherst could be in for a long day.

In general, this game is not the best matchup for Amherst’s big men. Joseph Schneider ’19 is skilled inside, but he might get swallowed by the athleticism of Wesleyan’s front court. And with Eric Sellew ’20 out, Amherst’s big men rotation is very thin. This presents a big problem on the glass. Amherst simply must win the rebounding battle in this game. These are the two best rebounding teams in the league based on rebounding margin, and both are at their most dangerous when they get open shots off of offensive rebounds. Both these teams will be battling fiercely for rebounds, but it is more important for Amherst because they have fewer weapons on the offensive end. More of their offense is based on second chances.

All the signs point to Wesleyan in this game. They’ve had a more successful regular season, they have more weapons, and they played better in their first round game. But the game is in Amherst, and crazy things happen down there. The Mammoths are 10-2 at home this season, and have an almost supernatural knack for pulling out close games in their gym. I think most loyal readers will know how much it kills me to do this, but I have to go Amherst. Let no one call me biased again.

Writer’s Prediction: Amherst 63, Wesleyan 60 

Grit N’ Grind: Middlebury @ Wesleyan Men’s Basketball Quarterfinal Preview

#13 Middlebury (19-5, 7-3, 5th Seed) @ Wesleyan (19-5, 7-3, 4th Seed,) February 17th, 3:00 PM, Middletown, CT

Overview:

This certainly isn’t the matchup the Panthers were expecting heading into last weekend. Before their demoralizing pair of road losses to Hamilton and Amherst, Middlebury was alone at the top of the league and needed just one win to secure at least the two seed. But after those losses, Middlebury sits in the fifth position and now has to go on the road to play a team to which they already lost. It was a perfect storm of bad news for the Panthers last weekend, and their road to a third straight NESCAC title is now the hardest one yet.

However, this is not an ideal matchup for Wesleyan either. The 13th ranked team in the country is a pretty steep task for the quarterfinals, no matter how badly they played the weekend before. Wesleyan lucked out schedule-wise in the last weekend, winning home games over Bowdoin and Colby to enter the gauntlet of 7-3 teams. This was by far the easiest weekend of any of the teams. And, although they beat the Panthers early in league play 80-70 (although it was closer than that score suggests,)  they have been inconsistent this season, especially on offense. Their worst loss of the season came to Trinity, a 73-60 debacle that made plain all of Wesleyan’s flaws. Offensively, they rely on different players every night, and lack a consistent go-to scorer. Even Jordan Bonner ‘19 has proven himself to be shaky at times. When they lose, it is simply because they cannot score.

Jordan Bonner ’19 has been a go to scorer at times for the Cardinals, but he is very streaky.

Obviously, these problems are similar to those that Middlebury has faced all season. These teams are similar in style. Both teams rely on a very strong perimeter defense and dominating the boards, leading to turnovers by their opponent and second chance points that make up for inconsistent outside shooting. Last weekend, Middlebury’s offense wasn’t exactly the problem against Hamilton. They put up 83 points and were able to score in the paint pretty easily. Unfortunately, Hamilton’s outside shooting was too much for Middlebury. It’s difficult to match three pointers with two pointers. And then against Amherst, Middlebury couldn’t get anything going offensively, much like Wesleyan against Trinity. This should be a low scoring, defensive battle. Whichever team can grind out enough baskets will win.

Key Player for Middlebury: G Jack Farrell ‘21

Jack Farrell
jack Farrell ’21 (Courtesy of Middlebury College Athletics)

Farrell was a lone bright spot for Middlebury over the weekend. He drove the ball to the basket with incredible confidence, scoring 11 against Hamilton and a career high 22 the next night against Amherst. Farrell has started every game this season, and has proved himself to be a valuable secondary ball handler and defender. Coach Brown has used him, along with fellow first year Griffin Kornaker ‘21, to give Jack Daly ‘18 the occaisional rest. However, for much of the season neither has been a consistent enough scoring option to allow Daly to be off the floor for long. But Farrell changed that last weekend. When Farrell is scoring consistently, it means he is getting to the basket, as he is still not a great outside shooter. This draws defenses into the paint, and opens up outside shots and offensive rebounding chances for the Panthers. A strong performance from Farrell would also allow Daly to ease off the throttle a bit. Daly looked exhausted against Amherst, and was trying to do too much in order to make up for the struggles of his teammates. Middlebury needs better performances across the board on Friday, especially from Daly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean scoring. He needs to score efficiently, but Middlebury’s best possible offense features Daly setting everything up and others finishing. Farrell is one of those finishers.

Key Player for Wesleyan: F Jordan Sears ‘19

We gave Sears a little love in the Awards article, but he’s a dominant defender both on the perimeter and in the paint. He is the only player in the league in the top five in the league in steals and blocks, and Wesleyan’s defense (one of the best in the league) centers around his ability to guard all five positions. In fact, an apology may be in order for us not picking him for DPOY. Sears’ versatility will be even more important against Middlebury than it usually is for the Cardinals, because of how differently the Panthers are constituted now than they were when these teams first met. In that first game, the Panthers were trying to be a high octane, run and gun offense. It was one of Eric McCord’s first games back from injury, and the Panthers weren’t nearly as focused on owning the paint, preferring perimeter attacks. In essence, they played right into Wesleyan’s hands. Middlebury over the course of the season has shifted their focus to rebounding and scoring in the paint. Sears will be crucial in defending that area. Instead of using him on the perimeter, Wesleyan may put him on McCord or Adisa Majors ’18 to limit Middlebury’s post up game. Either way, Sears will be all over the court this game, and could be MVP without scoring a single basket.

Jordan Sears had 2 steals and 4 blocks last time these two teams met, including this one on Jack Daly.

X Factor: Offensive Rebounding

There are going to be a lot of missed shots in this game. Middlebury has struggled shooting the ball from three for so long that one can’t even really call it a “slump” anymore: that’s just how they shoot. And Wesleyan is very streaky from three as well, and has a tendency to settle for them when the rest of their offense isn’t flowing. A lot of missed shots lead to a lot of offensive rebounds. Middlebury has dominated the boards for much of the season, and had 21 offensive rebounds the first time these two teams met. Wesleyan had only 11, but of course, they also shot a much higher percentage from the field. These are two excellent defensive teams, so the ability to get easy layups on open jump shots off of offensive rebounds could turn the tide.

Final Thoughts:

In the first meeting between these two teams, Wesleyan shot 35 foul shots and Middlebury only shot 7. Needless to say, that isn’t a very sustainable way for Middlebury to play. And even more amazingly, Jack Daly was the only Panther to attempt a foul shot. That will change on Saturday. Eric McCord ’19 is a far larger part of Middlebury’s offense now, and the team as a whole is far more focused on attacking the rim. Middlebury has to even out those free throw numbers, as that was the difference in the last game.

As we’ve noted several times throughout this season, Middlebury struggles most against teams who attack the glass as ferociously as they do, and feature multiple three point threats. Middlebury likes to play an aggressive zone defense, allowing their pesky guards like Daly, Farrell and Griffin Kornaker ’21 to really pressure the ball and create turnovers. But as Hamilton proved, teams that can put three or four outside threats on the court at once can destroy that zone with quick passes to open threes. Wesleyan is certainly able to battle Middlebury on the glass; they are second in the league in rebounding differential (Middlebury is third.) But the Cardinals can’t space the floor like Hamilton can. Austin Hutcherson ’21 is a truly dangerous sharp shooter, hitting 41% of his threes on the year (although he was 2-14 over the weekend.) Jordan Bonner ’19 is at 36% but has struggled in league play, and Nathan Krill ’18 is at 39%. Those are Wesleyan’s only real three point threats, and Krill and Bonner are both notoriously streaky. Middlebury will be able to leave non shooters, such as Sears, Kevin O’ Brien ’19 and JR Bascom, to attack those shooters off of the catch, and that zone defense should be workable, since Wesleyan doesn’t bring shooters off the bench. Middlebury would obviously prefer to be a higher seed and play at home, but this is actually a pretty good matchup for them.

Kevin O’ Brien ’19 is the point of Wesleyan’s defense on Daly.

Speaking of O ‘Brien, he is still recovering from an illness that caused him to miss much of the NESCAC season. When he’s at 100%, he is crucial to Wesleyan’s success as a floor general (5.7 AST/G) and perimeter defender. However, he is not a great shooter to begin with, and his rust has made him even less of a scoring threat. He was a huge factor in guarding Jack Daly when these two teams first played, and if he is not 100%, the Panthers should be able to attack him on both offense and defense. They can stash a defender on him, and since he isn’t an outside threat, whoever that is, be it Farrell, Matt Folger ’20 or Hilal Dahleh ’19, will be free to double Bonner and Hutcherson and play free safety for blocks and steals. Wesleyan needs O’Brien, and they need him healthy.

This is a hard game to predict, because these two teams share a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses. Inconsistent scoring and three point shooting, strong rebounding and defense. Wesleyan is certainly coming into the game on a better note, but they had such an easy weekend that they might be feeling a little complacent, whereas Middlebury is most likely pretty ticked off. It shouldn’t be forgotten in the wake of Middlebury’s 0-2 finish to the year that for much of the season they were the clear best team in the league, and entered last weekend fifth in the entire country. Despite their struggles and Wesleyan’s defense, I think Middlebury makes use of this week off to hammer out some issues, and regains their championship level form, taking a low scoring battle in Middletown.

Writer’s Prediction: Middlebury 70-Wesleyan 65

Playoff Time: Men’s Basketball Stock Report 1/13

I may sound like I’m beating a dead horse when I say, yet again, that the NESCAC is crazy and anyone can beat anyone. Parity has been a recurring theme in NESCAC basketball over the years, and we love to talk about how exciting this makes the league. Well, the regular season has come to a close, and this parity reared its ugly head after this weekend when the dust settled and there were five teams tied for first place. Yes you read that right. The top FIVE teams finished at 7-3 in conference, and the only thing worse than having to deal with that is the fact that Amherst came out on top. Coach Hixon and the Mammoths grabbing the #1 seed feels a lot like Nick Saban and his Crimson Tide receiving the #1 seed – literally no one wants them to win besides them and their fans, yet here they are again. Not to say that they didn’t deserve it – the Mammoths had the best record against teams tied for the top spot – but this team hasn’t been the same type of dominant that past #1 Amherst teams have been. The lack of a true standout team is sure to make the postseason as exciting as ever, so let’s see who’s trending in the right direction as we move into playoff time:

Stock Up

Amherst

I’ll start with the obvious one: the Mammoths had two HUGE victories at home this weekend in convincing fashion that ultimately gave them the top spot in the league. Michael Riopel ’18 looked every bit the star they need to make a run in the postseason. He exploded for 19 points and 8 rebounds in the rivalry win over Williams, and followed that up with a 17-point, 7-rebound effort in which he went 9-9 from the line. Johnny McCarthy ’18 also continued his dominance as a rebounder, posting 8 and 14 boards respectively. This duo will have to continue to lead the way, providing experience to an otherwise unproven lineup. The key for Amherst, however, has been their defense. They stymied two of the league’s premier offenses, holding the Ephs to a jaw-dropping 57 points and keeping the Panthers at just 68. They lack the firepower to win a shootout, so their defense has to remain strong if they want to make a run, beginning this weekend when Bowdoin comes to town.

Wesleyan

Austin Hutcherson ’21 and Jordan Bonner ’18 have Wesleyan firing on all cylinders heading into the playoffs.

Defeating Bowdoin and Colby isn’t a particularly impressive weekend, but the Cardinals did what a good team should do. The reason they fall in the “stock up” column this week is because it appears as though things are coming together at the right time in Middletown. After the loss to Trinity on February 2, Wesleyan was graced with the return of point guard Kevin O’Brien ’19, who had been out for almost a month with illness. They proceeded to dominate Amherst 71-57 in what was technically a non-conference affair, and then had convincing victories over the weaker teams in the league. Nathan Krill ’18 has been a force, delivering a 17-point, 10-rebound double double against Colby and dropping 24 points on Bowdoin. First year standout Austin Hutcherson has also stepped up his game in a big way, and he looks to continue to make an impact sharing the ball, as he posted 8 assists in each of their weekend matchup. Wesleyan hosts Middlebury in the 4-5 matchup of the NESCAC tournament. The Cardinals took down the Panthers in the regular season, but this is definitely a matchup to highlight for the weekend.

Williams G Bobby Casey ’19

I’ve talked about two of the Little Three schools, so why not mention the third? It seems that every week we find either James Heskett ’19 or Bobby Casey ’19, who have taken over as the dominant scorers in Williamstown. Well, this week it’s Casey’s turn. He seemed to be the lone bright spot in the loss at Amherst, putting up 22 points on 8-16 shooting. The next day in the big win over Hamilton, Casey went off for 31 points on 8-14, including 7-10 from behind the arc. When Casey gets hot, there is seemingly no way to stop him. The good news for Williams is that they also have Heskett ’19 who has a similar effect. If they’re both off, then the Ephs are in trouble. If they’re both on, then the rest of the league needs to watch out. They should have no trouble with Trinity in their first round matchup, but you never know because things can get crazy come tourney time.

When he’s hot, Bobby Casey ’19 is an absolute nightmare from downtown.

Stock Down

Middlebury

Heading into the weekend, Middlebury controlled their own destiny, needing a win to secure the top seed. They came up empty, with two somewhat demoralizing losses to Hamilton (102-83) and Amherst (80-68). The Panthers have been one of the top scoring teams in the conference all season, but their shots simply weren’t falling this weekend. They were ice cold from beyond the three-point line, and they now find themselves last in the NESCAC in three-point shooting percentage at 31%. The scoring drought needs to come to an end if the Panthers want to have any shot at winning their matchup with the tough Wesleyan defense this weekend. It starts with the leadership of Jack Daly ’18 and Matt Folger ’20, who are the team’s leading scorers. They were both average against Hamilton, and neither cracked double digits in the scoring column against Amherst. Middlebury is picking a bad time to go cold, but we’ll see if they can turn things around this weekend in their quarterfinal matchup.

Trinity

Jeremy Arthur ’19 is one of Trinity’s only consistent offensive threats.

The Bantams are one of the streakiest teams out there. They’ve taken down Amherst and Wesleyan, but they’ve also lost to Bates and Colby. They struggled mightily this weekend, getting trounced by Bates, then dropping a tight contest to Tufts. They certainly lack a true star player, although Jeremy Arthur ’19 and Eric Gendron ’18 provide most of the scoring. There isn’t much to say about Trinity other than that they’re a scary first round matchup. If the shots are falling, they are very tough to beat because they play exceptional defense at times. They are essentially a giant question mark, but are definitely not to be taken lightly as they are capable of stealing a win in Williamstown.

Maine Schools

Well, it was a tough year for the three Maine schools who finished 7th, 9th, and 10th respectively. Bowdoin still has a chance to make a run, but all in all, the NESCAC’s northernmost schools were as cold as their weather. That said, these schools have shown promise. Bowdoin made the playoffs, and their best players are David Reynolds ’20, Jack Simonds ’19, Hugh O’Neil ’19, Jack Bors, and Zavier Rucker ’21. Bates narrowly missed a playoff birth, losing the three-way tie with Trinity and Bowdoin, and they are lead by Jeff Spellman ’20, Nick Gilpin ’20, Kody Greenhalgh ’20, Nick Lynch ’19, Tom Coyne ’20, and James Mortimer ’21. Colby only has two seniors (neither of whom play a huge amount of minutes) and two juniors (only one of whom plays a decent amount of minutes), so there are also lead by breakout underclassmen Sam Jefferson ’20, Dean Weiner ’19, Matt Hanna ’21, and Ethan Schlager ’20. Things looked a bit bleak this year, but this could potentially just be the calm before the storm for the CBB Consortium.

Bowdoin is the only Maine school in the tournament.

2017 NESCAC Championship Repeat? Power Rankings 2/1

While Pete was quick to point out my recent whiffs in predictions, he neglected to say how when I put Hamilton at the top of the power rankings two weeks ago, they were still undefeated and coming off of a win against a strong Wesleyan team. Did I account for the fact that Kevin O’Brien contracted an illness making him unable to play? No. They still had an undefeated record in mid-January, and despite their lack of credible opponents, I became a believer. I am not so certain anymore. Also, I talked about how Bates was a sneaky threat to compete against Wesleyan. After a big win against Tufts and some close games against other top teams, their arsenal of players had a shot to run the table. But I jinxed them. While my credibility is certainly in doubt at the moment, made clear thanks to some familial disloyalty on the website, here are this week’s rankings—Take ‘em or leave ‘em:

1. #6 Middlebury (16-3, 5-1)

Last Week: 87-81 W @ Trinity

This Week: vs. Bowdoin; vs. Colby

While Midd’s shooting has been a question as late as they are waiting for F Matt Folger ’20 to heat back up, Jack Daly ’18 has continued his dinking and dunking (not actual dunking) to grind out wins for the Panthers. While they lack a consistent outside shooting presence, Folger has shown signs of life of late in mid-week games, and Joey Leighton has been a diamond in the rough who came in as the player of the game against Williams a few weeks ago. This weekend provides a limited test in a Bowdoin team hot after knocking off the struggling continentals, followed by what should be a guaranteed win against Colby. They are hot and haven’t lost since the first conference weekend against Wesleyan and have earned this spot with quality wins and a reliable defense.

2. #13 Williams (16-4, 4-2)

Last Week: 75-58 W @ Trinity

This Week: vs. Colby; vs. Bowdoin

Following a valiant comeback effort against Middlebury two weeks ago, the Ephs took care of business against a struggling Trinity team—in more convincing fashion than the Panthers. James Heskett has emerged as a monster, valiantly replacing Kyle Scadlock, pitting him in the middle of the NESCAC POY race. He shot 12-15 against the Bantams, dropping 34 points to go along with four steals. He dominated the floor and made up for poor shooting from Bobby Casey  (4-15 FG). Henry Feinberg stepped in for Mike Greenman (out with injury) in the starting lineup this week and played well in the wake of a solid bench performance against Middlebury. Williams now has a big and athletic lineup that has impressive depth. Look for them to continue winning if Heskett keeps shooting like Steph Curry.

James Heskett ’19 may be the frontrunner for POY.

3. #17 Wesleyan (16-4, 5-2)

Last Week: 60-52 W vs. Tufts, 68-50 W vs. Bates

This Week: @ Trinity

Losing Kevin O’Brien to an illness has surely hurt the Cardinals’ starting lineup recently, but should feature its PG again soon. Two easy wins against Tufts and Bates—unranked mid-tier NESCAC teams, but not exactly chumps—leave them with a spot alone in second place in the standings with just three games to go. Jordan Bonner is starting to find his shot again, and the trio of Nathan Krill, JR Bascom, and Jordan Sears have been putting around 25 points and 25 rebounds per game, a balanced and deep defensive and supportive scoring effort that leaves Wesleyan in a great spot with a light weekend against Trinity. Look for them to climb back up the rankings when they get O’Brien back.

4. Amherst (13-6, 4-2)

Last Week: 75-60 W vs. Bowdoin; 82-77 W @ Colby

This Week: @ Tufts; @ Bates

Amherst is starting to roll late in the regular season as they put up a nice undefeated weekend against a Bowdoin team that looked great against Hamilton. This team also blew Hamilton out. Four of their starters scored double-digit points against the Polar Bears, ending the night at a 50.8 FG%, enough to win against any team. They have now shot at 47% FG or higher in their last three NESCAC games, which shows that are hot and ready to take on the Jumbos and Bobcats this weekend. The Mammoths are slowly returning to their former form, led by Johnny McCarthy ‘18, Grant Robinson ’21, and Michael Riopel ’18. The young and the old are slowly leading this team towards the top of the rankings and standings. Watch out up top.

5. #21 Hamilton (17-2, 4-2)

Last Week: 76-67 W @ Colby OT; 68-72 L @ Bowdoin

This Week: @ Bates; @ Tufts

I would like apologize to Hamilton fans for putting the pressure of the #1 spot in the power rankings in their court. They couldn’t handle it. Back to back losses to Bowdoin and Amherst (75-49!) are showing that perhaps these continentals aren’t as strong as their record appears. I’m not discounting their body of work in its entirety—they are still ranked 21st in the nation. They were simply outplayed against Bowdoin, shooting 36.5% from the field compared to Bowdoin’s impressive 45.2% clip. They also went to OT vs. Colby which is much more of a red flag than either of their losses. Their star, Kena Gilmour, went just 6-20 in the game shooting and is 9-31 in his last two conference games, not exactly carrying the team to victory. Tim Doyle, Michael Grassey, and Peter Hoffmann all have the ability to put up big games though, making their starting five deadly when they get hot. Time for a gut check.

Tim Doyle and the Continentals are struggling heading into the home stretch of NESCAC play.

6. Bowdoin (14-5, 3-3)

Last Week: 72-68 W vs. Hamilton, 60-75 L vs. Amherst

This Week: @ Middlebury; @ Williams

After a big win against the Continentals and a loss against the suddenly scary Amherst team, these Polar Bears have a brutal away weekend ahead of them. They are firmly pitted in the middle of the NESCAC, likely to make the playoffs, but also likely to play their first postseason games on the road. The trio of Jack Simonds, David Reynolds, and Hugh O’Neil are dangerous and capable of going off enough to challenge these top teams in Middlebury and Williams. This could be a preview of one of the early or semifinal playoff games, giving us a peek into how much of a contender this Bowdoin team is.

7. Tufts (15-6 ,4-3)

Last Week: 52-60 L @ Wesleyan; 86-54 W @ Conn

This Week: vs. Amherst; vs. Hamilton

The Jumbos are struggling and are looking less like a championship capable team after several weekends of mediocrity. Their losses to Bates and Wesleyan drastically diminished their overall ranking and raises some serious concerns for this weekend against Amherst and Hamilton. They might lose both but need to at least split to have a shot at a home game in the first round. Their overall lack of scoring depth give them a bleak outlook against most of the top teams. Vincent Pace and Patrick Racy were the lone Jumbos to score over five points against Wesleyan, still only shooting 12-29 between them (decent, but not enough from the two top scorers). For this team to win close games, KJ Garrett is going to need to step up (1-9 shooting against Wesleyan).

Vincent Pace has been trying to keep Tufts afloat, although he was unable to do so in a crushing recent loss to Bates.

8. Bates (11-10, 3-4)

Last Week: 69-56 W @ Conn, 50-68 L @ Wesleyan

This Week: vs. Hamilton; vs. Amherst

I don’t have a whole lot of positive things to say about the Bobcats after falling flat against a Wesleyan team missing its starting PG. 19-57 shooting was not nearly enough to compete, combined with a complete lack of defense. Bates hauled in just 26 rebounds compared to 53 from Wesleyan and basically gave themselves no chance to win. Their two star players Jeff Spellman and James Mortimer shot just a combined 5-14 on the night. For Bates to have any chance to make a run at the playoffs, those two are going to need to make more of an impact.

9. Trinity (13-7, 2-4)

Last Week: 81-87 L vs. Middlebury; 58-75 L vs. Williams

This Week: vs. Wesleyan; @ Conn

While they had a strong performance against Middlebury, a big loss against Williams earlier in the weekend kind of took away any of the positives from the weekend. They couldn’t guard James Heskett and Eric Gendron was the only player with any ability to score (7-13, 18 points). Against Middlebury, although they were losing, they had a ridiculous 32 fouls, leaving the result of the game up to Jack Daly’s free throw shooting ability (he went 18-20 and iced the Bantams). They have a tough test this weekend and need to win against Wesleyan to prove they can compete (I would be shocked if they pulled it off).

10. Colby (10-10, 1-5)

Last Week: 67-76 L vs. Hamilton OT; 77-82 L vs. Amherst

This Week: @ Williams; @ Middlebury

Taking Hamilton to OT was a solid game for a team that has little hope to have a posteason. Sean Gilmore, Sam Jefferson, and Matt Hanna all scored over 15 points in the game and gave the Mules a chance to win. While these three didn’t put their squad over the edge, their youth in the starting lineup—two sophomores and two first years—bodes well for their future success. Maybe not this year, but next year, the Colby team’s stock should rise.

11. Conn College (6-14, 0-7)

Last Week: 69-56 L vs. Bates, 54-86 L vs. Tufts

This Week: @ Wesleyan; vs. Trinity

The good news is that if I don’t say anything good about the Camels, there is nothing for me to jinx. While they finally lost a NESCAC game by less than 15 points (they lost by 13 to Bates), they also had two starters score zero points in the matchup, putting all the pressure on Dan Draffan, Ben Bagnoli, and David Labossiere. A three on five matchup for a team without league leading stars is not a recipe for success.

The Rise of the Bobcats: Men’s Basketball Game of the Week Preview

Bates (9-9, 2-3) @ #14 Wesleyan (14-4, 3-2), 7:00 PM, Middletown, CT

Bates vs. Tufts was a worthy contender for game of the week, but due to Bates’ victory over the Jumbos last weekend, they are the team to beat for Wesleyan. Bates sits in ninth place in the standings, seemingly stuck in the abyss of basketball irrelevance. However, Tufts, who Bates beat 77-75, is sitting in third place at 3-2—only one game ahead of the Bobcats. Indeed, Bates is actually a huge wild card right now in terms of playoff seeding. They could spoil some better teams rankings, and if they can win this one and take down Trinity, they are assured of a playoff spot. This cramming of the standings shows the remarkable parity of the conference and how so much is left to chance with half of the regular season remaining. Not only are there solid teams sitting on the outside looking in, but there are perennial powers just one game out of the similar irrelevance that Bates is facing. This matchup puts power against bottom feeder, while the end result could completely flip the switch on their places in the standings, playoff potential, and power rankings.

Overview:

While Bates is only 2-3 in conference, they have already played Tufts, Midd, and Williams, with their only bad loss coming against Colby. Jeff Spellman ’20, Tom Coyne ’20, and Nick Lynch ’19 are all above average for the conference at their position and are threats on both sides of the ball against what has been an inconsistent Wesleyan team. Regardless of how their shooting accuracy has fluctuated recently, the Cardinals still have only lost to Williams in OT and #16 Hamilton. Therefore, they will compete independent of shooting struggles and can compete with any team in the nation, giving them a clear edge against a Bates team fighting to get into the conversation of relevance.

Wesleyan X-Factor: Passing Game

With O’ Brien out, role players like Elijah Wilson will be responsible for keeping the ball moving and keeping turnovers down against Bates.

Wesleyan is last in the NESCAC with just 14.6 assists per game, leading to a lower shooting percentage (45.9%) than their overall record would indicate. They have had some real duds in terms of ball distribution, like against Hamilton, where they recorded just seven assists on the night, no more than one for any player. The assist numbers were similar in their narrow win over Amherst, with just 10 total assists for the team. While not a clear indication of success, more assists should correlate to better possessions and better shots which should improve the shooting percentage and limit the unusual poor performances from the star players who get caught trying to do too much. Distribution has seen a steep decline since team leader Kevin O’Brien ’19 went down with an injury, taking away 6.5 assists per contest which are heavily missed of late. Jordan Sears ’18 has been taking his place in the starting lineup, putting up five assists in a blowout win over Conn College, but otherwise not having a similar impact to O’Brien. Sears and the first year stand out Austin Hutcherson (second on the team in assists with 2.2 per contest) are going to be the keys to keeping the ball away from Bates.

Bates X-Factor: G Tom Coyne ‘20

Tom Coyne
Tom Coyne ’20 (Courtesy of Bates Athletics)

In their mid-season defining win against Tufts, Coyne came off the bench to shoot 4-5 from deep, tallying up those 12 points in just 21 minutes played. He electrified the Bobcats and will be a key piece to their performance against Wesleyan. While Jeff Spellman leads the team with 17.0 PPG, Coyne is second with 13.4 PPG. A recent move out of the starting lineup has taken a chunk out of his shot totals for game which rose as high as 20 in a non-conference game against Brandeis, but his sharp-shooting is still one of the biggest parts of the Bobcats’ success. His accuracy will be the biggest unknown of the game as he will be needed for Bates, ranked ninth in the conference in PPG at 73.3 to keep up with Wesleyan’s diverse scoring arsenal. This underdog team is also ranked 10th in 3PT shooting percentage at 32.1%, in line with Coyne’s season average, and if he didn’t shoot well above that against the Jumbos, his team would be sitting at 1-4 overall in NESCAC play. Although he moved to the bench, he still has a large stake in influencing the outcome of the game and he will need to be ready to go for the 9th place team to have a shot to win.

Final Thoughts:

Last time I previewed one of Wesleyan’s games, I highlighted Jordan Bonner’s downturn in scoring efficiency. Since then (right before their 76-70 loss to Hamilton), he has decreased his shooting attempts per game, handing more to Nathan Krill and Austin Hutcherson. While Krill and Hutcherson have both been excelling recently, combining for 33 points and 13 boards against Amherst two weekends ago, they shot poorly against Hamilton, going 5-22 combined. That weekend was the last time the Cardinals played a solid team as they easily rolled over Conn College last weekend and dominated in their non-conference games. In a game where Bates’ leading scorer Spellman could take over the scoreboard, the trio of Bonner, Krill, and Hutcherson will need to be on their A-game from the field.

Bates should be greedy to attack another top-dawg in the NESCAC after falling in the week’s Power Rankings from eighth on 1/17 to ninth after their upset of Tufts. While most of the stuff Pete writes is controversial in some way, it is hard for me to see how a team goes down after beating a team ranked above them (Editor’s Note: Rude.) Nevertheless, this is another chance for the Bobcats to prove their haters wrong with Spellman and Nick Lynch leading the way in scoring and on defense. Lynch, like Coyne, has a huge responsibility, albeit Lynch’s on defense. Lynch leads the Bates team with 8.5 boards per game with Coyne coming in behind him with just 4.2 rebounds per game. Lynch will need to matchup against Wesleyan’s Nathan Krill who hauls in over nine boards of his own. The two 6’7” bigs will be another marquee matchup in this already loaded contest. Bates is not expected to win and needs to do everything right as they did against Tufts and then some to pull it out, but if they do they immediately become a real threat to other top NESCAC teams.

Writer’s Pick: Wesleyan 77-71

Muddying the Water: Men’s Basketball Stock Report 1/16

Muddying the Water: Men’s Basketball Stock Report 1/16

This week we got everything we expect out of a weekend of NESCAC basketball: absolutely no clarity in the standings. We got no help this week trying to decide who is better than who, but this is what we love about our conference. Wesleyan looked like they were ready to make a jump to the top but has struggled recently, Middlebury is too hot and cold for us to get a read on, and we still don’t find ourselves completely sold on Hamilton. It’s still too early in the year for us to identify any major trends, and the standings don’t give us much to work with yet. I guess that leaves it up to the analysts to decide what’s really going on in the NESCAC this week:

Stock up

Middlebury F Eric McCord ‘19

Eric McCord
Eric McCord ’19 (Courtesy of Middlebury Athletics)

In a league devoid of elite big men, McCord ’19 has been a consistent force down low for the Panthers. After starting off the season injured and struggling a bit as he worked his way back into shape, McCord had a breakout weekend, particularly against Tufts.  On a team that has several perimeter scoring threats, McCord makes his living on the glass and in the paint. He had himself a huge game in a win over the Jumbos, netting 13 points and hauling in 15 rebounds. Tufts came into the game hot after taking down Williams on Friday night for their 9th straight victory, so this was a statement win by the Panthers. The big man duo of Nick Tarantino ’18 and Eric McCord ’19 certainly don’t get a ton of press  on a team with Jack Daly ’18 and Matt Folger ’20, but they understand their role, and McCord especially has them emerging as one of the most efficient front courts in the NESCAC.

Wesleyan F Nathan Krill ‘18

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

We have talked a lot this year about Jordan Bonner ’19 and Kevin O’Brien ’19 making the difference for this Cardinal squad. It’s time to talk about Nathan Krill ’18, because he is showing that Wesleyan is more than just those two players. Krill isn’t a super star by any means, but he is producing exactly at the level that he needs to be as a role player for this team. Against Hamilton, Krill netted 9 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, then followed that up with a 14-point, 10-rebound double-double in a huge win over Little Three rival Amherst. Krill has historically been a very streaky player, capable of both monster games and derailing the whole team with poor shooting and attitude. This season has seen him stay within himself more, a good sign for the Cardinals. Wesleyan needs to step it up a bit following their big win over Middlebury, and perhaps this will be fueled by Krill  expanding his role a bit, because he has shown us that he is capable of doing so.

Stock down

Wesleyan’s Ascension

A few week’s ago, I wrote about how Wesleyan had begun to prove themselves, and they looked like the class of the NESCAC. Well, here I am, doubting everything I once said. After the Cardinals defeated the mighty Ephs on the road, in overtime, when they still had Kyle Scadlock, they looked like they were ready to compete for a championship. They have still given us plenty of reasons to believe they’re legit (see Nathan Krill ’18), but it is hard to really decide where they fall amongst the NESCAC’s elite. They were able to beat Amherst and Middlebury, two very legit wins, but they also fell to Hamilton and Williams the second time in the game that counted. The Cardinals are definitely a team capable of beating anyone (as they showed against Middlebury), but they aren’t quite ready to say that they’re here to stay at the top of the league, especially with Hamilton ascending and Middlebury figuring themselves out a bit against Tufts.

Wesleyan has fced down NESCAC’s best, and come out with a 2-2 record. That’s good, but they’re still not a guaranteed #1.

Williams’ Big Man Battle

The Ephs had a tough weekend, falling at home to Tufts in a hard fought game before taking care of Bates the following day. The Jumbos are a very good team, and Williams isn’t in the “stock down” category for any reason other than the fact that their frontcourt situation is as confusing as the plot of Inception. Matt Karpowicz ’20 and Michael Kempton ’19 make up undoubtedly the largest big man duo in the league, with Karpowicz standing at 6’8”, 250lbs and Kempton at 6’10”, 235lbs. From an outsider’s perspective, it is a mystery why Karpowicz isn’t seeing more time. Take this past weekend for instance; Karpowicz had 9 points, 10 rebounds against Tufts and 10 points, 11 rebounds against Bates. Kempton had 4 points, 3 rebounds against Tufts and 2 points, 3 rebounds against Bates. Karpowicz shot 67%, Kempton shot 38%. These numbers were all while both Kempton and Karpowicz were playing nearly identical minutes. This weekend was a microcosm for the entire year, because Karpowicz is obviously the more athletic and talented player, yet Kempton starts and splits the minutes. Williams isn’t playing especially poorly at the moment, but it is confusing why they wouldn’t use Matt Karpowicz ’20 more to bring themselves to a higher level.

Matt Karpowicz ’20 is one of the most talented big men in the league.

Perfection on the Line: Men’s Basketball Game of the Week

#14 Wesleyan (10-2, 1-1) @ #18 Hamilton (12-o, 1-0), 7:00 PM, Clinton, NY

And as we dive into the second weekend of NESCAC play there is already a game that will test two teams’ long term capabilities. Hamilton and Wesleyan are due to square off in this marquee matchup on Friday January 12th in Clinton, NY. The home team, Hamilton, has dominated their non-conference schedule and carried that momentum into their first NESCAC game against Trinity, and Wesleyan conquered the mighty Middlebury Panthers and nearly toppled Williams in an OT loss last weekend. In what has been an obscure first conference weekend in terms of power rankings (although you can read all about how Cameron deciphered last weekend’s results in the 1/10 rankings here:) this game should help clear up what the tumultuous beginning has left unclear, and be our best evidence yet as to whether or not Hamilton is legit.

Wesleyan relies on a dominant defense and timely scoring from players like Kevin O’Brien ’19.

Overview:

Wesleyan sits at 14th and Hamilton at 18th in the national poll. One year removed from being a disappointing last seed in the NESCAC playoffs, the Continentals are living up to their incredible talent this season. With versatile scorers like Michael Grassey ’19 and Peter Hoffmann ’19 surrounding stud Kena Gilmour ’20, Hamilton has, on paper, the strongest starting five in the league. Wesleyan, who was more expected to succeed in 2018, is also deep with experienced talent and their position in 2017 as a NESCAC semifinalist and NCAA tournament team would’ve favored them in this game a month ago. However, following losses in two of the Cardinals’ last three games, the home Hamilton squad can hardly be considered an underdog. After returning all of their 2017 starters, the system is in place for Hamilton’s continued success and it shows in their balanced stat sheet and in their win over Trinity last weekend 78-55. And Trinity beat Amherst the previous day 69-63, proving that they weren’t going to just roll over. Wesleyan has weapons on all parts of the floor too, although Jordan Bonner ’19 has seemed to have lost a bit of accuracy shooting lately. Hamilton averages almost 95 points per game, but they should be limited by Wesleyan’s defense, ranking third in rebounds, turnovers, and points allowed per game (64.5) in the conference. 

Wesleyan X-Factor: G Jordan Bonner ’19

Jordan Bonner
Jodan Bonner ’19 (Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics)

I’m not trying to pick on Bonner here, as we already did that a little bit in our most recent stock report, but in the last five games (Wesleyan is 3-2 in that span, including their only losses), his shooting totals have fallen off of the table. The stock report discusses his ridiculous 10-33 performance, looking like Kobe during his retirement tour, but that isn’t the only blemish. Cumulatively in the last five games, Bonner is 22-71 from the field (31%) and 10-40 from beyond the arc (25%). He started off the year hot and owns respectable numbers from the entire season (40% FG; 33.8% 3 PT), but the league is littered with players who started off hot and then fell off the face of the earth once league play began and defenses adjusted. Sure, Wesleyan has Kevin O’Brien ’19, Nathan Krill ’18, and Austin Hutcherson ’21 who are having solid seasons, but Bonner still leads the team in points at 16.9 PPG, and if he doesn’t improve his shooting given the pure volume of attempts he takes, Hamilton’s offense will be too much to overcome.

Hamilton X-Factor: G Kena Gilmour ‘20

Kena Gilmour
Kena Gilmour ’20 (Courtesy of Hamilton Athletics)

Albeit not a particularly exciting pick, Gilmour completes the matchup to watch of this game. Likely to guard Bonner for at least part of the contest, the Continental scoring leader should have his hands full if he is to help limit the Wesleyan offense. With two blocks and eight rebounds against Trinity last weekend, Gilmour is nearly as much of a defensive force as an offensive one, leading his team with 18.5 PPG. In this breakout season, his shooting numbers have been excellent, at 37% 3 PT on the season and over 50% from the field, he is nearly a lock to score over 20 points, tipping the scales in favor of the home team. Gilmour is the catalyst of the offense that ranks ninth in the nation in points per game and will see his toughest test this weekend against a strong Wesleyan defense. This matchup should reveal just how legit Hamilton’s offense is, and if Gilmour rolls on, the team will too.

Final Thoughts:

Despite being one of only four undefeated teams remaining in all of Division 3 basketball, Hamilton still has not joined the teams that are considered the ‘real deal.’ The Continentals are top-10 in the nation in two statistical categories, including the aforementioned points, along with scoring margin (8th). And yet, they still have to prove themselves in league play. This is their chance, and boy do they have the tools. They play as a unit, and after developing together for a season, now that all of their starters are back for a second season, they should be able to maintain this success into at least a top-4 NESCAC finish. I’ve been on the Hamilton train since the beginning of the 2017 season–showing that I was a bit premature with my support–and am a believer that they are a force to be reckoned with. However, they will be heavily tested by the best teams in the conference.

While I have talked plenty about Hamilton’s hot start, I need not forget that Wesleyan knocked off former national #2 Middlebury, and came dang close to doing the same against Williams. Kevin O’Brien is the most dynamic player on the court for either side in this game, averaging over six assists and rebounds per game, while also shooting at a 61.7 clip. Despite only averaging 8.4 PPG, he is certainly capable of scoring more, showing in 16 and 18 point performances earlier this year against Mitchell and Nichols, respectively, settling into a more pass happy role ever since. If Bonner continues to struggle with accuracy, look for O’Brien to pick up the intensity and bear some of the scoring burden. The Cardinals have undoubtedly played a harder schedule thus far, but despite their opponents, their 78.9 PPG average doesn’t quite keep up with the 94.8 PPG of Hamilton. So, two questions remain: Will Wesleyan’s defense be able to stifle the Hamilton offense? Do Hamilton fans understand how hot their team has started off and how to give them an edge in their home gym (this is a challenge)? I say no, and yes.

Writer’s Pick: Hamilton 86-83

Here at Last: Wesleyan vs. Middlebury Game of the Week Preview

Ah we’re finally here – the start of conference games. Despite there only being one remaining unblemished team in the NESCAC, we see four schools in the top 25, with several others just outside. Although there are only two games this weekend (Wesleyan competing in both) that feature both teams within the top 25, there are some huge games between schools traditionally viewed as “bottom-tier” looking to climb the totem pole. Getting off to a good start is vital in a conference where everyone only plays each other once, and these early season games will start to give some shape to the standings. It’s never easy to pick a game-of-the-week because they’re all  important, but the matchup between Wesleyan and Middlebury on Saturday is about as big an opening-weekend game as they come. The Cardinals play the host this time, seeking their first win over the Panthers in 13 years. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the battle for the most average mascot in the NESCAC (and the top spot in the league:)

Overview

Wesleyan enters this game at 14th in the latest national poll, despite a tough

Kevin O’Brien ’19 and Jordan Bonner ’19, seen here apparently judging someone for their shoe choice, are responsible for much of Wesleyan’s offense.

loss last week to a good, yet struggling Springfield squad after a 9-0 start to the season. They square off with Williams on Friday night in a rematch of an epic battle from before the holiday break, so the result of that will certainly give us more indication of how the Cardinals will look for their showdown with Middlebury. The win over Williams was easily their biggest win of the season so far, being that it was on the road and pre-Scadlock injury. They haven’t had a particularly challenging schedule otherwise, but they have still looked very tough nonetheless. The Cardinals distribute their scoring fairly evenly, but they have found the star power they were searching for in Jordan Bonner ’19, who has been huge in filling the scoring void left by the graduation of Joseph Kuo ’17 and Harry Rafferty ’17. However, Coach Reilly’s squad really prides themselves on their defense, only allowing 62.8 points per game, good for first in the conference. This stingy defense will be crucial in stopping a high-powered offense like that of Middlebury, so look for the Cardinals to try and slow the game down, forcing the Panthers into half court sets and making them work for every basket.

Wesleyan X-Factor: G Kevin O’Brien ’19

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

Being the fundamentally sound, defensive-minded team that they are, Kevin O’Brien ’19 is exactly what Coach Reilly could ask for. Despite only averaging 9 points per game, O’Brien shoots 63% from the field, which places him at 4th in the conference. This essentially means that he doesn’t shoot often, but when he does, it goes in. In order to keep up with an offense like Middlebury’s, he will have to continue this type of offensive efficiency. While he may not be a huge scorer, O’Brien fills out the stat sheet in nearly every other way possible. He comes in at 2nd in the NESCAC in assists per game (6.3), 8th in blocks per game (1.2), and he leads the league in steals per game (2.2). The focus for O’Brien will be on not turning the ball over, because he also leads the league with 4.4 turnovers per game. If he is able to control the ball, the efficiency that he provides will make the Cardinals very difficult to stop on the offensive end. On the other side of the ball, O’Brien’s 6’5”, 200lb frame makes him the ideal size to defend just about any position on the court. However, being one of the league’s premier defensive players, he will likely be given the task of dealing with Jack Daly, which is a very tall order. If he can stop or even slow down Daly, it will put Wesleyan in an excellent position to come out on top. A lot is going to be asked of Kevin O’Brien this weekend, but it is no secret that the Cardinals will only be able to fly as high as he can take them.

Middlebury X-Factor: F Nick Tarantino ’18

Nick Tarantino
Nick Tarantino ’18 (Courtesy of Middlebury Athletics)

While both Wesleyan and Middlebury are led by stellar backcourts, it is the play of forward Nick Tarantino ’18 that will decide the game for the Panthers. Tarantino fills out his big man duties averaging 8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game, but in order to take down the Cardinals on the road, more will be expected of him. His season average is 8.8 points per game, however he has given us glimpses of what he is capable of, putting up 17 points against Endicott and 20 versus Skidmore, both of whom were NCAA tournament teams from last season. The closest thing to a true big man that Wesleyan has is freshman Jordan James ’21, who is still learning the ins and outs of college basketball. At 6’7”, 205lbs, Tarantino isn’t considered a “center” per se, he will have to both bang around down low with James, and step outside on forward Nathan Krill ’18 who is capable of stepping back and knocking down threes. To this point, Tarantino has seen 20 minutes of action per game, but now that conference play has started, it will be important to see if he can get enough rest to play an efficient 25-30 minutes. If he can play good post defense, rebound, and score when he’s asked to in these extended minutes, it is hard to envision Wesleyan being able to slow down yet another outstanding Panther team.

Final Thoughts

This matchup will help us answer the age-old question that the Joker posed at the end of The Dark Knight – what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? The contrasting styles of these two teams could not be more obvious: Wesleyan lives by the adage that defense wins championships, whereas Middlebury employs the run-and-gun strategy that has brought them so much success over the years. My guess is that this game will get a bit higher scoring than Wesleyan would like, and they will not get to enjoy their home-court advantage to its fullest extent with no students back on campus yet. Each of these teams has a game on Friday that will factor in, with Wesleyan hosting Williams and Middlebury traveling to New London to take on Conn College. The fact that Wesleyan has a much more difficult Friday night game plays heavily to the Panthers’ advantage, as they will look to get out to a big lead over the Camels, and rest up for the next day. I believe that the star power of Jack Daly ’18 and Matt Folger ’20 will prove to be too much for the Cardinals to handle, and Wesleyan will have to wait yet another year to try and take down the mighty Panthers.

Writer’s Pick: Middlebury 82-75

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.