Before we get to the Williams Final Four preview, a couple thoughts on Middlebury’s terrific season, and the legendary careers of Jake Brown ‘17, Matt St. Amour ‘17, Bryan Jones ‘17 and NbN’s own Liam Naughton ’17. One of the hardest things about writing this blog is simply remembering that the players are students. The players that we laud, criticize and analyze every week have classes and friends and social stresses and just general college things going on in addition to the sports that we value so highly. I personally can’t imagine adding an intense sports schedule to my busy academic schedule (blogging, playing video games and eating onion rings,) and we have the responsibility to remind ourselves of that while writing.
But that is also one of the best things about writing this blog. NESCAC sports are a very tight knit community (as are NESCAC colleges in general) and it’s a thrill to write about people who are also your classmates and friends. This experience has been especially real for me in the last four years. I feel very blessed to have entered Middlebury at the same time as Matt, Jake, Bryan, and Liam even more blessed now to write about them, and simply to know them.
I want to single out Liam for a second. Like Bryan, he had the misfortune of entering in an incredibly strong guard class, and didn’t get a ton of minutes over the course of his first three seasons. But he never once let it get him down. He continued to work hard in practice, and was an incredible teammate for his whole career (his bench celebrations were a source of great joy for fans in the seats.) And this season he was able to provide valuable minutes off the bench when Middlebury’s guard rotation shortened up. Every team needs stars to win, but teammates like Liam are just as, if not more important.
The accolades for St. Amour and Brown have rolled in, and are deserved tenfold. Indeed, I can’t even open up my Facebook feed without seeing an article about a new award that Matt has won. But their success goes beyond awards. For four years they, along with Bryan (who had the bad luck of being in the best guard class in the country; he starts on every other NESCAC team) and Liam have represented Middlebury with flair, joy, and class. It’s been my pleasure to watch them and cover them, and it is my continued pleasure to know them.
*wipes a single tear from my eye*
Alright, on to the Ephs…Williams (23-8, 7-6, lost in NESCAC Final)
Turns out the Ephs’ blowout win over Middlebury in the regular season was not as much of a fluke as we thought. After losing to the Panthers in the NESCAC final, the Ephs took the rubber match last weekend in a game that showed just how much they have grown as a team throughout the year. Williams has always been a good shooting team, but early in the season if they weren’t hot from three, their defense wasn’t good enough to get them a win over a quality opponent. But that Williams team is long gone. Williams shot very well against Middlebury (49%, 40% from three,) but it was their defense that got them the ticket to Salem. The Ephs held Brown and St. Amour to 10-26 shooting (1-12 from three,) and held the Panthers to as a team to their lowest home scoring output of the season. Against Middlebury, Williams showed that they have everything firing on all cylinders, and are a real threat to win the National Championship.
Final Four Opponent: Augustana College Vikings (23-8, 11-5, lost in conference final)
The Vikings are similar to Williams in that they have peaked in the NCAA tournament. Neither team won their conference final, but they both have put everything together to make a Final Four run. Augustana is led by their backcourt, with guards James Johnston ‘17, Chrishawn Orange ‘19 and Dylan Sortillo ‘18 leading the team in scoring. They seem to play at a very slow pace, only averaging 77 points on only 12.3 assists per game. The Vikings shoot a very high percentage from the field (48.5%) but don’t take many shots, and therefore have low rebounding numbers. Their team leader in rebounding is Johnston at 5.4, and the next highest number is 3.6. This is good news for Williams, as rebounding is their biggest weakness (the Panthers had 20 offensive rebounds last weekend, keeping them in the game.) Williams also defends the perimeter very well, so facing another team that relies heavily on their guards should be music to their ears.
Johnston seems to be the player to watch for Augustana. At 6’5” and 190 pounds, he has terrific size at the guard position. He is their leading rebounder and second leading scorer (5.4 and 12.7 respectively,) and certainly is the best match-up on paper for Daniel Aronowitz ‘17, Williams go-to scorer. With his size and rebounding ability, he will also play a critical role in stopping Kyle Scadlock ‘19, Williams’ best big man. Johnston will be the key to Augustana’s gameplan.
X Factor: Forward Kyle Scadlock ‘19
Speaking of Scadlock, he is the most important player for the Ephs tonight. Augustana, as every team must do against Williams, will try to run them off the three point line, and their slower pace could throw the Ephs off their rhythm. Additionally, they are a very deep team on the perimeter, giving them a lot of defenders to throw at Aronowitz, Cole Teal ‘17 and Bobby Casey ‘19. They do not have many defenders to throw at Scadlock. The Vikings are pretty big (they have four players over 6’7”) but not many of them play big minutes. And very few teams in the country have the versatility to keep up with Scadlock’s combination of size, quickness and skills. Scadlock’s assertiveness on offense has been a key to Williams’ run. He is averaging 17 points per game in their last seven, and his threatening inside presence opens up driving lanes and three point attempts for the guards. It is when he disappears and doesn’t look for his shot that Williams struggles. Scadlock has a great matchup tonight; if he shows up for it, Augustana is in trouble.
Other Teams in the Final Four:
#1 Whitman College Blues (31-0, 16-0, Won Conference Championship): vs Babson, 5:00 PM
As you can probably tell from their record, the Blues are the favorite to come out of this weekend as national champions. They are one of the most dynamic offenses in the country, averaging 91.8 points per game on 48% shooting. They seems to just be loaded up and down the roster with great scorers, rather than doing it with ball movement. They only average 12.5 assists per game, a shockingly low number for such a dynamic offense. They are led in scoring by National POY Candidate Tim Howell ‘18, who averages 20.4 points per game. Howell is an electric one on one scorer, and his skill off the dribble opens things up for his teammates. And they take advantage of those opportunities. Four other Whitman players score in double figures, including Jack Stewart ‘19, who shoots 42.3% from three. If you had to point to a weakness for the Blues it would be on the boards and at the foul line. Their rebound margin is only +1, a low number for such a dominant team, and they only shoot 64% from the line. But for 31 games in a row, neither of those things have mattered.
#3 Babson College Beavers (29-2, 14-1, lost to MIT in Conference Final): vs Whitman at 5:00 PM
Babson spent much of the season as the number one team in the country before dropping due to their conference final loss. But like Stella, they’ve gotten their groove back in the NCAA tournament. They scored 102 points in their Elite Eight win over Keene State, shooting 61% from the field. Stopping Babson begins and nearly ends with stopping senior guard Joey Flannery ‘17. At 6’5” and 215 pounds, Flannery has the size to score inside, but is also a deadly outside shooter and ball handler. He averages 23.4 points per game and has proven himself to rise to the occasion in big games. He had 38 in their Sweet Sixteen win over Tufts. And as if that wasn’t enough, Flannery also averages 7.1 rebounds per game. But Babson isn’t a one man show. Junior guard Nick Comenale ‘18 averages 16 points per game on 42% shooting from three, and big man Isaiah Nelson ‘17 provides a valuable post scoring threat. Babson is one of the most well-rounded teams in the country. The Babson and Whitman game at 5:00 tonight should be a classic, I recommend checking it out before tuning in to Williams to support the NESCAC family.
Williams (22-8, 7-6) at Middlebury (27-3, 11-2): Pepin Gymnasium, Middlebury, VT 7:00 P.M.
What this means:
Throw out all of the statistics, the strength of schedule numbers, the bad losses, and the blowout wins. This is the Elite Eight and no matter how Williams and Middlebury got to this point in the season, they are in the NCAA quarterfinals on the road to the glory of a national championship. Expect a battle in Pepin tonight.
Williams and Midd are 1-1 against each other this year, and as Pete mentioned yesterday, the unwritten rules of pickup basketball dictate that there must be a rubber match. This is THE rubber match of all games. Both teams are coming off of relatively easy wins where they outmatched their opponents and haven’t been tested to this point in the tournament. These teams are a great match up for one another as Williams shot out of this world back in regular season NESCAC play to beat the Panthers, and Middlebury returned the favor to bring home the championship in Medford two weeks ago.
How They Got Here:
Coming off of stellar shooting performances from both Matt St. Amour ’17 and Jake Brown ’17, Middlebury looks to be firing on all cylinders as they head into the final stretch of the season. Their 4/5 rotations between Nick Tarantino ’18, Adisa Majors ’18, Matt Folger ’20, and Eric McCord ’19 has left other teams scrambling not knowing what combination of big men they are facing. McCord plays an aggressive, (sometimes out of control) game and Majors has a beautiful mid-range jumper and led the NESCAC in FG%, Tarantino is great at finishing near the rim and gets his share of offensive boards, and Folger has joined St. Amour and Brown as a splash brother with his ability to drain the long range shot. Middlebury has toppled Farmingdale St., Lycoming, and now Endicott, looking like a much better team than all three of their competitors. The closest game was surprisingly against Farmingdale as they won by just nine points after St. Amour shot just 5-18 from the field. He still added 18 points, but didn’t quite lock down the game like he did so well in both the rounds of 32 and Sweet 16. St. Amour has been playing out of this world, making Lycoming’s coaches exchange glances and shake their heads in disbelief after several of his plays. Against Lycoming, entering as the #15 team in the country, St. Amour was headed for the media table after forcing a turnover, scooped the ball with his left hand and threw it behind his back around the Warrior defender, hitting Jack Daly perfectly in stride for an and-1 basket, summing up the ridiculous nature of his senior season. The rest of the Panthers helped St. Amour out last night, shooting 41.9% from deep last night as a team. When they shoot that well, they are unstoppable.
Williams has several players who are threats from both long and short range. They have up and down shooting days but have been playing much closer to their season average recently, a big part of the process that
has led to their deep run into the tournament. Mike Greenman was lights out last night, showing off his handles and draining contested threes all night, dishing it out to Kyle Scadlock and Daniel Aronowitz throughout the whole game. Aronowitz said after the game against Susquehanna that “when I was getting down low in the first half, my teammates were getting open on the perimeter,” showing how Susquehanna couldn’t stop the Ephs on both fronts of offense. Kyle Scadlock started getting more aggressive down low when Susquehanna’s center got into foul trouble, smartly recognizing the weakness that the big man was put into, unable to contest Scadlock’s shots. The entire Susquehanna defense was centered around stopping Scadlock, who added a triumphant turn around dunk in the second half. Despite the added attention Scadlock faced, he dropped 22 points for the Ephs. Williams offense has become multi-dimensional in this tournament.
What to Expect:
Williams survived some below average shooting numbers against Susquehanna (36.8% FG and 31.0% from deep.) Those numbers will have to improve tonight. Atypically for them, it was their defense that won them last night’s game. Ephs coach Kevin App said their defensive game plan last night was to stop the “back-breaking threes” from Susquehanna’s star point guard Steven Weidlich, who is comparable in style to Midd’s St. Amour. Now, I do believe that St. Amour has an edge over Weidlich, but the way St. Amour plays as a part of the Middlebury teams is similar to the way Weidlich played for his. Williams mixed up the man on man defense on the point guard all night, mixing in both big and small players, throwing Weidlich out of rhythm and unable to heat up from deep and
keep his team in the game late. The Ephs should use a similar strategy tonight, putting pressure on Jake Brown and Jack Daly to step up in place of the NESCAC POY. St. Amour is impossible to defend if he makes the contested shots like he did against Lycoming, but it’s better than leaving him open.
Middlebury took a 48-24 lead over Endicott to enter half time, and then came out on a 16-3 run to start the second half, finding a lead of 41 points at one point. They really weren’t tested at all in the round of 16, but did lose to Endicott earlier in the year after they were up 12 at the half on November 27th. This shows that not only did they make an adjustment this time around, but were just a far better team. Jake Brown scored 19 points last night, getting hot and attempting a few heat check threes from well beyond the arc, using the Middlebury crowd well as a momentum push for his team. The Middlebury crowds have been intimidating these past few weeks, and I wouldn’t want to be Williams heading into Pepin after having an easy go at it in terms of crowds last night. Williams brought a good fan section in their own right, not comparable to the home team, but should bring some good clean college back-and-forth banter throughout the night as the NESCAC final rematch takes place with bigger stakes this time—a ticket to the final four in Salem, VA on the line.
Every pickup basketball player knows the importance of the rubber match. If a team wins one game, and the opposing team wins the next one, it is a cardinal sin to not play that third game to determine the outright winner. No matter if you have work, class, or a hamstring that is closer to snapping than my mom when I forget to bring my dishes upstairs, you have to play the rubber match. This is the case in higher levels of basketball as well. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson met in the NBA Finals three times, with Magic taking the rubber match in 1987. Many NBA fans are praying that Lebron and the Cavs meet Steph and the Warriors for a rubber match this season. And on a smaller scale, Williams and Middlebury have a chance this weekend for a rubber match of their own. If they both win on Friday, they would match up in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, with bragging rights and a trip to Salem on the line.
Middlebury (26-3, 11-2, Beat Williams in the NESCAC Final)
Friday Opponent: Endicott (24-6, 15-3, lost in their Conference Final)
Middlebury has the rare chance this weekend to avenge two of their three losses. Williams of course blew out Middlebury in league play, but Endicott also bested the Panthers before league play. And the Gulls have the added honor of their win being in Pepin Gymnasium, a feat only they have accomplished in the last two years. Endicott was able to beat the Panthers at their own game; namely, guard play. Like Middlebury, the Gulls boast one of the best backcourts in the country. Max Matroni ‘17 and Kamahl Walker ‘17 combine for 32 points a game on the season, and have combined for 99 points in their two NCAA games. Against Middlebury Walker put up 28 and forced both Jack Daly ‘17 and Jake Brown ‘17 into foul trouble. Endicott is one of the only teams in the country who has a backcourt that can give Middlebury guards a run for the money. Expect them to go at Daly and Brown (who will likely start the game on Walker and Matroni) early and attempt to again get them on the bench with fouls.
Endicott also attacked Middlebury on the glass. Daquan Sampson ‘17 was able to roast the Middlebury big men to the tune on 19 points and 14 rebounds. The Gulls outrebounded the Panthers overall 40-31 and had 12 offensive rebounds. Endicott matches up well with Middlebury because their team is constructed in a similar way. They have an excellent backcourt who drive the team on both ends of the floor, and the big men are effective role players who benefit a great deal from terrific guard play.
X-Factor: Eric McCord ‘19 (and the new big men)
Middlebury’s biggest improvement since that loss to Endicott is in the front court.When the two teams last met, Zach Baines and Adisa Majors ‘18 dominated the minutes at the two forward spots. Eric McCord ‘19 and Nick Tarantino ‘18 combined to play 19 minutes and went 1-6 from the floor. Baines’ transfer has allowed McCord and Tarantino (as well as Matt Folger ‘20 and Majors off the bench) to flourish into one of the deepest frontcourt rotations in the country. McCord in particular has blossomed, and should play a pivotal role in Middlebury’s game plan. Sampson and the rest of Endicott’s bigs are long, but they are not extremely strong, and Sampson in particular spends a considerable amount of time on the perimeter. McCord has become an effective scorer and passer in the paint, both playing off of a two man game with one of the guards or one-on-one. There is mismatch on the block that the Panthers didn’t have the personnel to exploit earlier this season. But the team is constructed differently now, and is far better suited to beat the Gulls down low if the guards play each other to a draw.
How They Lose:
We already have a blueprint for how Middlebury loses this game. Daly and Brown get into foul trouble, forcing St. Amour to expend more energy on defense chasing around either Matroni or Walker. Matroni or Walker take
advantage of this and go off. And the Endicott bigs use their length and athleticism to terrorize the Middlebury bigs on the boards. Sampson also uses his quickness to draw McCord or Tarantino out of the paint and create driving lanes and putback opportunities. Both teams have seen that this can happen. We will see on Friday if Middlebury’s new look will prevent it from happening again.
Williams (21-8, 7-6, lost to Middlebury in the NESCAC Final)
Friday Opponent: Susquehanna (23-5, 11-3, lost in Conference Semifinals)
The rare team to make the Sweet Sixteen after not even making their conference championship, the River Hawks have been on something of a Cinderella run here in the NCAA tournament. They beat Eastern Connecticut State 72-67 in the round of t32, a team that beat Trinity and Amherst earlier in the season. Susquehanna is top heavy scoring wise, as the duo of Steven Weidlich ‘17 and Ryan Traub ‘18 combine to average 38 points per game (21 and 17 respectively.) No one else on their team averages more than seven. Weidlich is a Matt St. Amour type perimeter threat. A dangerous outside shooter, he connects on 39.5% of his threes and 45% of his field goals overall. However, he is also very versatile, averaging 5.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. Daniel Aronowitz ‘17 is Williams best perimeter defender (as well as best everything else) and will likely start the game on Weidlich. If he gets in foul trouble, the Ephs can be left with very few guys who create their own shots.
Traub is a very effective frontcourt partner for Weidlich. At 6’7” and 230 pounds, he is a load underneath and creates match up problems for
Williams’ series of skinny big men. He is also tremendous around the rim, shooting 57.4% from the field. He can step outside the arc (40% in a limited sample size,) and anchors a defense that only allows 41% shooting to opponents on the season. Williams three point heavy attack is not conducive to defensive struggles, therefore Susquehanna matches up well with the Ephs. Weidlich and Traub will try to occupy Aronowitz and Kyle Scadlock ‘19, while the rest of the River Hawks run the Ephs off of the three point line.
X Factor: Mike Greenman ‘17
As I mentioned above, Aronowitz and Scadlock, Williams’ two most important players, will both likely have difficult defensive assignments. Therefor Williams will at times need someone else to create shots for themselves and others. That is where Greenman comes in. The senior point guard can be an electric scorer (see his 7-9 three point shooting performance against Becker in the first round,) and can be an effective passer (11 assists last round against Scranton.) If Susquehanna tries to slow the game down and pound the ball into Traub, Greenman will be largely responsible for keeping Williams’ pace and energy up without turning the ball over. He has played two of the best games of his career in this tournament, largely explaining Williams impressive blowout wins in the first two rounds. He will be just as important in this game, and maybe even more so.
How They Lose:
NESCAC fans have seen throughout the season how Williams loses. If they are not hitting threes, they generally don’t win. The three point shot is the key to everything the Ephs try to do on offense. It opens up driving lanes for Aronowitz and Scadlock, post ups for big men off the bench like Michael Kempton ‘19, and it forces defenders to overplay on the perimeter, opening up the backdoor cuts that killed Middlebury during their regular season loss to Williams. The Ephs simply don’t have enough shot creators to overcome a shooting slump. Aronowitz is a terrific player but his burden is at times too great, and Scadlock is prone to disappearing in big spots. Their game becomes something of a “Chuck and Run” style, with contested threes being taken too quickly. Williams lives by the three and dies by the three, and living has been very good lately. Let’s hope it continues into Saturday, because, as all basketball fans know, there’s nothing better than a rubber match.
New year, new nickname, different roster, same result.
Amherst is back in the Final Four for the third time in just four seasons after a one year hiatus and looking to claim the program’s third national title. More than their previous two trips, this year’s journey to the Final Four was considered a long shot. In 2014 the Purple & White entered the tournament ranked No. 7 at 24-3, and in 2013, when they won the whole shabang, they were 25-2 and ranked second in the country. This year, Amherst ranked No. 16 coming into the tournament, and squeaked through the first weekend with two wins by a total of three points. Then, Amherst controlled the game against Babson in the Sweet 16, but the contest with Tufts was knotted up with under four minutes to play before Amherst finished on a 13-0 run.
No matter how it happened, Amherst is here now with a chance at the title. But, they have to take on, arguably, the best team in the country in undefeated Benedictine University.
It’s hard to find a weakness in the Eagles’ game as they play in their first Final Four. They are lead by two juniors, both from Naperville, Illinois, just a 10 minute ride from the Benedictine campus. Luke Johnson ’17 is an elite talent for the D-III level. He’s taken a circuitous route to get here – playing at two other schools and spending some time earlier in his career at Benedictine, too – but he certainly appears comfortable at last. The 6’9″, 235 lbs center averages 14.5 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 3.2 apg and, here’s the whopper, 3.0 bpg. That’s Tom Palleschi status. Johnson was named the All-Central Region Co-Player of the Year by D3Hooops.com. His fellow Napervillian, Michael “Blasé” Blaszczyk ’17 (I just came up with that nickname), leads the team with 14.6 ppg and contributes across the board with 4.8 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.1 spg and 0.7 bpg. Blaszczyk also brings size to the table at 6’3″, 190 lbs, and has ratched it up in the tournament, scoring 63 points over four games to lead his team. The third key Eagle to watch out for is PG Tahron Harvey ’17. Harvey is a D3Hoops.com All-Central Third Teamer averaging 13.5 ppg, 5.0 apg and 2.2 spg.
The key for Benedictine is that they have shooters all over the floor. Their rotation runs nine deep, and everyone but bruising sixth man Tim Reamer ’16 (6’5″ 240 lbs) can knock down the triple. (Reamer, by the way, was awarded the Elite 90 Award as the athlete at the Final Four with the highest cumulative GPA.) Seven of those nine shoot over 30 percent from deep, including Johnson, which presents a match up nightmare for Amherst. The Eagles will look to feed the big man on the block and let him distribute to their shooters. Furthermore, Benedictine is tenacious on the boards, outrebounding their opponents by 14.7 boards per game. Johnson is a big reason for that, but everyone in the lineup can get after the boards.
Amherst X-factor: Close Out Defense
I’m not going with one player here, but rather a philosophy. And, it’s a philosophy that Amherst has employed quite well so far this season. Amherst has the best three-point percentage defense in the country, and it’s not just because they present great length. To allow only 27.7 percent of opponents’ three pointers to drop, you have to be very good at closing out. I expect Head Coach Dave Hixon to instruct his players to double down on Johnson when he gets the ball in the post, which means it will be even more difficult for Amherst to close out on shooters. If they leave the Eagles’ shooters open it’s going to be a long day for Amherst, but if they can force Benedictine to try to make tough shots in traffic against the size that Amherst’s starting five provides, that could be a recipe for success.
Benedictine X-factor: C Luke Johnson
Johnson is obviously a great all-around player, but he’s an X-factor in this one not because of his scoring, but his propensity to rebound. Amherst has a pretty mediocre rebounding team, grabbing just 3.2 more rebounds per game than their opponents. Recall that Benedictine averages +14.7 boards per game. They also have a great defensive unit. Eagles’ opponents only score at a 37.8 percent clip from the field. That means buckets will be hard to come by for Amherst, and there won’t be many second chances with Johnson cleaning up the boards.
What to Expect:
It’s always so difficult to project NESCAC teams against out-of-region squads. From what I’ve seen over the past four years, the NESCAC is easily the best conference east of Wisconsin. They top-to-bottom quality of teams just can’t be beat, and I think you can look at the number of NESCAC teams that get into the NCAA Tournament, their success, and the success of even mid-tier and lower-tier NESCAC teams against high-quality out-of-conference opponents as proof of that statement. Therefore, and not because of favoritism, I often lean towards NESCAC squads. Even Benedictine can be questioned for the quality of their opponents. Their strength of schedule as of the last NCAA Regional Rankings, which come out before conference tournament play, was an average 0.524. Amherst had a .558 SOS at that time. Since then, however, Benedictine has beaten #10 Ohio Wesleyan and #13 Alma in the NCAA Tournament, so they’ve proven their mettle, and you don’t go 30-0 without having one heck of a roster.
On the Amherst side, the biggest question for me is always the point guard play. Jayde Dawson ’18 is great at times, and at other times gets pulled for Reid Berman ’17, who’s a very good player but has completely gone one-dimensional this year offensively, scoring just 2.1 ppg. One or the other will have to have a big game distributing, because with Benedictine’s defense the worst case scenario for Amherst is that they lose their offensive flow and start trying to go one-on-one on every possession. At the five spot, David George ’17 will see big minutes while trying to defend Johnson, which means less minutes for Eric Conklin ’17, George’s offensive counterpart. If Coach Hixon has to go with a lineup of Berman, Connor Green ’16, Johnny McCarthy ’18, Jeff Racy ’17 and George for extended stretches then they lose some significant offensive punch.
Whoever sees big minutes at the point for Amherst, though, expect this game to be played in the high 70’s and possibly 80’s. Amherst can score in bunches with the best of them, and the Eagles have tallied an outrageous 88.1 ppg this season. With two great, tough defenses though, don’t expect those points to come easy. We might have a uniquely fast-paced game on our hands with lots of misses, few offensive boards, and quick transitions.
As well as I believe the NESCAC prepares its teams for postseason play, I don’t see a chink in the Benedictine armor. The last game they won by less than nine points came on December 30. That’s almost three months ago. Amherst will have to play a perfect game in order to win. I don’t think they can pull it off. They may come close, and a hot night from Racy and Green beyond the arc could push the Purple & White over the top, but Benedictine has the lengthy defenders to stop that and I don’t see it happening.
If this Tufts team hasn’t signed and sent a thank you card to the Amherst College women’s team yet, they better get on that, because without them, Tufts wouldn’t be hosting this weekend. Due to the NCAA Division-III rules, if both the men’s and women’s team from a school are set to host, the men’s team gets priority to host the first weekend of the tournament and the Women’s team gets priority to host the second weekend (it alternates every year). The Amherst men’s team would be hosting, but because their women’s team also advanced to the Sweet 16, Tufts got backdoor home court advantage. That leaves us with Amherst playing Babson at 5:30 pm tonight and Tufts playing Johnson & Wales at 7:30 pm. Here’s what to expect from the second game.
Perhaps the biggest story leading up to this game is Tufts’ loss of Vinny Pace ’18. On the first play of the game last Friday, Pace drove to the paint. There was some contact, which was certainly legal, but it sent Pace’s upper body in one direction and his lower body in the other. When Pace landed, he immediately grabbed his leg – more specifically, his knee – while writhing in pain on the floor. Pace exited the game in under 30 seconds and did not return all weekend. As of now, it’s unclear what Pace’s status is exactly, but I’d be surprised if he’s back this weekend based on his immediate reaction.
So where does that leave the Jumbos? Based on their play last weekend, I’d say nothing changes from a strategy standpoint. It was a “next man up” mentality, reminiscent of this season’s New England Patriots, as Ethan Feldman ’19 stepped in to play 11 minutes on Friday and 17 minutes on Saturday. Feldman scored 10 points and 14 points respectively, and showed off his supreme ability to stretch the floor for the Jumbos, going 6-9 from the three-point line on the weekend. On Friday, Coach Bob Sheldon was a bit more tentative to play Feldman, but the freshman clearly gained his trust, evident by his increased minutes on Saturday. So where did all the minutes go on Friday? Well, the rest of the starting five (excluding Pace) played the following number of minutes against Southern Vermont: Tom Palleschi ’17, 34; Ryan Spadaford ’16, 34; Tarik Smith ’17, 37; Stephen Haladyna ’16, 38. That’s pretty wild. Haladyna continued his late-season surge, going for a game-high 24 points, which also counted for his career-high. In his last six games, Haladyna is averaging 17.5 ppg, which barely tops Palleschi’s 17.3 ppg over the same stretch. Palleschi has also been red-hot, evidenced by his 17 points Friday night and 19 points on Saturday night. However, Palleschi’s impact hasn’t just been on the offensive end – over the weekend, Palleschi totaled 13 (!!) blocked shots. That’s insane. Though the scoring was more evenly spread out on Saturday against Skidmore, it is clear that Haladyna and Palleschi, two of the longest tenured players on the roster, are willing this team through. The resilience and desire of these two captains has allowed guys like their co-captain Spadaford and their junior point guard Smith to play with less pressure, while allowing younger players like Feldman, Ben Engvall ’18, and Everett Dayton ’18 to step in and play big minutes. The fact that these freshmen and sophomores can step in seamlessly in the biggest games of the season is a very encouraging sign for the Jumbos.
On the Johnson & Wales side of the court, the story is pretty different. Both teams play about seven deep, but that’s where the similarities end. Tufts is a team that spreads the scoring around to lots of different guys (and different players on different nights) … let’s just say Johnson & Wales does not do that. Seriously though, two guys account for 53.7 percent of the J&W scoring, and when you add the third highest scorer, that percentage jumps to 64.8 percent of the team’s average. To put this in perspective, Tufts’ top two score 37.6 percent of their points, and the top three score 51.8 percent. J&W lives and dies by seniors Quarry Greenaway ’16 and Tom Garrick ’16. J&W has played 30 games this year. Either Greenaway or Garrick has led the team in points in every single game, and in just five of games have one of these two players been outscored by another player on the team. I think I have to chalk the first game of the season as either a fluke or just a lack of togetherness, because J&W is a better team than Linfield in every single way, so I’m not going to address that loss. In their only other loss of the season (J&W is 28-2 overall, 28-1 in conference), the Wildcats were carried by Greenaway’s 35 points, but Garrick really struggled shooting the ball, going just 6-20 from the field. It’s not that weird for a star player to have an off game – this is college basketball after all – that kind of stuff happens, right? Well, not at J&W it doesn’t. In their loss to Albertus Magnus on February 13, Garrick’s 13 points put him behind Greenaway, Jarell Lawson ’18 (18 points) and Robert Lewis ’16 (15 points). That was the only time this season that Garrick or Greenaway was below third in scoring on their team. Maybe it’s coincidence, but what I’m suggesting is this: if you want to beat Johnson & Wales, you just need to shut down one of these two guys. Maybe forcing foul trouble can do it; Greenaway plays 34.5 mpg, while Garrick plays 34.2 mpg; forcing a bench player to take one of their spots could work, but both of them have shown the ability to go off for 30+ when the other is struggling, so you never know. J&W doesn’t play the hardest schedule in the country, evidenced by an average margin of victory that sits at 25.2 ppg, but the consistency of these margins of victory shows that they always play at a high level. Last weekend, J&W was definitely challenged – just look at the turnover numbers. On average, J&W wins the turnover battle by just under eight per game (average margin is -7.7 to/g). In their two NCAA games, J&W turned the ball over two more times than their opponents did (J&W, 32 turnovers; opponents, 30 turnovers). This huge swing in turnovers shows that J&W definitely struggles against better defenses.
Tufts X-factor: Center Tom Palleschi
Arguably the most important part of this game is going to be the ability of Tufts to break the Johnson & Wales press – the key to doing that is Tom Palleschi. The Wildcats play a five-guard lineup. No one on the J&W roster is over 6’5”, and pretty much everybody who gets minutes is listed as a guard except for Michael Kiser ’18, their 6’2” center. Their press works because of how quick the Wildcats are and how hard they attack ball handlers with the pressure. The huge advantage that Tufts has is that Palleschi is 6’8”. This size advantage is why Palleschi is so important in this game. If Palleschi can flash to the middle and receive the ball during the press, the Jumbos will be able to advance the ball down the floor much more easily than if they try to dribble their way through it. I’ve always thought that Palleschi is one of the best passing centers in the NESCAC, and his ball fakes are next-level (to be honest, he fools me with them half the time). If Palleschi can help break the J&W press, Tufts will get very good looks on the offensive end. Breaking the press will lead to a lot of quick, easy shots for the Jumbos, but if they slow up into a half-court game, Palleschi will once again be of great importance. He should be able to dominate down low, but expect that the Wildcats will double down when he touches the ball in the post, which will give the big boy a chance to kick it out to shooters.
Johnson & Wales X-factor: Guard Tom Garrick ‘16
As I outlined above, J&W relies pretty substantially on two players: Tom Garrick and Quarry Greenaway. Out of the two, Greenaway is the more consistent, but Garrick still averages over 20 a game so he’s by no means an inconsistent player. Garrick is a slightly worse shooter from the field and from beyond the arc, but he excels at getting to the rim. As a whole, the Great Northeast Athletic Conference does not roll out a ton of really tall big men, which is why I’m pegging Garrick as the X-factor. Johnson & Wales has not seen a shot blocker like Palleschi, who is second in the country in blocks per game. This past weekend, Palleschi eclipsed 100 blocks on the season, and the way he was throwing shots out of bounds suggested that non-conference teams are just not quite as adjusted to his shot-blocking ability as NESCAC teams are. Garrick has shown the ability to shoot a decent midrange jump shot, but the 6’5” guard could struggle in the paint going up against the 6’8” center. I think Garrick’s success scoring the ball could definitely depend on his ability to hit jump shots, and if he’s not doing that, then guys like Anthony Jernigan ’17 or Jarell Lawson ’18 are going to have to step up.
1.) Can Tufts break the press?
As I mentioned above, Johnson & Wales presses all the time. I haven’t seen a press stump Tufts all year long, but I also haven’t seen them face a good press, so there’s very little to base an analysis off of in that regard. However, look at the Tufts ball handlers. Smith is obviously very competent with the ball in his hands, and I think Engvall does a great job of moving north/south with the ball in his hands rather than just east/west. Dayton has been a solid point guard behind Smith all year long and looks like he’s in control when he’s leading the Tufts offense, and Thomas Lapham ’18, though his minutes have been down this year, has plenty of game experience as he split time starting with Smith last year. However, Smith is really the only Tufts guard who has seen intense pressure on a regular basis this season, there is definitely a question mark against these other Tufts guards. The key is getting the ball to Palleschi in the middle, who can then look over the top of the defense and find the open man. Drew Madsen ’17 is going to play a big role on the press when Palleschi heads to the bench. If Madsen and Palleschi can serve as reliable outlets for the Tufts guards, I think they’ll be fine with the press.
2.) Can Tufts stop Greenaway and Garrick?
Tufts has showed that they can stop teams with just one premier scorer this season. For example, when they played Bowdoin in the opening weekend of NESCAC play, the Jumbos held Lucas Hausman ’16 to just 11 points on 3-10 shooting. However, when they played Amherst in the regular season, who has a much more balanced attack, they struggled a bit to stop Connor Green ’16, who put up 28 on the Jumbos. However, that same game, Jeff Racy ’17 didn’t hit a shot. On the flip side, they played Amherst in the NESCAC semifinals at Trinity and six Amherst players scored in double digits on their way to bouncing Tufts from the conference tournament. It’s games like this that the Jumbos struggle in – games where the opponents spread out their scoring among numerous players. In all their losses, Tufts allowed numerous players to beat them. The more one-dimensional teams struggle against the Tufts defense, specifically Haladyna, who has shown the ability to lock down premier scorers and shooters. So I realize that I’ve gotten away from the question a bit, but to put it simply, I think that Tufts can at least slow down the attack of J&W’s two studs. Sure, Greenaway and Garrick may carry the load, but I think J&W is going to have the most success if they get a couple other guys involved in the scoring. This will open up space for the two senior Wildcats to get buckets.
3.) Who steps up for the Jumbos on the offensive end?
Without Pace last weekend, and with Stefan Duvivier ’18 out with the flu, Tufts went a bit deeper than normal in terms of bench minutes. I believe Duvivier will be back this weekend, but it’s pretty tough to get your wind back following a sickness. That means the increased minutes that Dayton, Engvall and Feldman all saw will probably stay the same. So who steps up to score for the Jumbos this weekend? Last weekend, Palleschi and Haladyna led the way, as has been the case for Tufts over most of the last couple weeks. Feldman stepped up with some cold-blooded shooting last weekend – can he do that again? Will Spadaford get to the line and knock down five or six free throws like last weekend? How about Smith? The theme that has developed down the stretch is that the entire starting lineup needs to be involved for Tufts to play well. When the scoring is spread out, their shooting percentages are all way up and the defense has a hard time guarding everybody. In theory, Palleschi should have a high-scoring game based on his size advantage, but the fast pace of this one may limit his ability to get into the paint and go to work. I’m sensing a big game out of Engvall. He’s a great, tough finisher around the rim, especially on the break, and without the presence of a true big, there’s really nothing stopping him from getting those shots off in the paint.
I think that two of the most important parts of this game are the first five minutes of each half. If the frantic Johnson & Wales throws off Tufts early, Johnson & Wales could jump out to a big lead. Ultimately, Tufts will get some easy hoops off the press, but they’re also bound to make some mistakes in their attempts to break it. The biggest battle of the first half lies in Tufts keeping it close or taking a lead out of the gate. J&W really hasn’t trailed too much this year, so this is the easiest way for Tufts to force the Wildcats out of their comfort zone. In the beginning of the second half, I assume that J&W will try to spark a run once again with their press, so it’s vital for Tufts that they stay calm and take care of the ball. Last year when these two met, Tufts shot the ball very, very poorly. They were 19-60 from the field, 4-16 from deep, and 10-20 from the free throw line. That’s horrible. It was close for a while, but about midway through the second half Tufts’ shooting caught up with them and J&W went on a big run. If Tufts allows runs like this from the Wildcats, they are going to have a tough time bouncing back with runs of their own. Then again, the Jumbos are much more apt to handle the five-guard J&W attack this year, as Tufts sports a four-guard attack of their own. I think Tufts has to play really, really well to win this one. They need to minimize mistakes, while J&W needs to force mistakes and then capitalize off of them. Tufts handled the ball very well last weekend – they had just 19 turnovers between the two games – and I think they will do this again. It’s going to take a really strong shooting performance, but I think Tufts pulls this one off at the end.
Tufts 80 – Johnson & Wales 79
Eye on Saturday
Amherst and Babson are two pretty evenly matched teams had to play two overtime periods to determine a winner back in December. Amherst ended up winning that game 103-96, primarily because Connor Green dropped 39 points on the Beavers. Joey Flannery ’17 is easily the best player on the Babson roster. He’s averaging 24.2 ppg this year, and actually recently became the leading scorer in Babson men’s basketball history. Oh yeah, he’s just a junior. Unfortunately for Babson, Flannery went down with an ankle injury last weekend. I’m guessing he’s going to at least try to play this weekend, which is a huge boost for the Beavers. Amherst benefits from a less than fully health Flannery, and I think the ex-Lord Jeffs are going to roll in this one. NESCAC teams have been Babson’s kryptonite this year: Babson lost five total games, and four were against NESCAC teams (they didn’t beat any NESCAC teams either). Babson does ride into this one with a 13-game winning streak, but I think Amherst will advance to Saturday.
That leaves us with a rubber match between Tufts and Amherst based on my predictions, which would be pretty incredible. Tufts beat Amherst by 11 earlier this year in Medford, and then Amherst got their revenge in the NESCAC semi-finals when they edged Tufts by three points. The two keys to this game (if it happens) will be Palleschi’s matchup with Eric Conklin ’17 and the ability of Tufts to slow down Green, who absolutely dominates in Cousens Gym. I have no idea what would happen in this game, because the two matchups between Tufts and Amherst this year have been completely different games. All I can say is this: a NESCAC matchup in the Elite Eight would be pretty epic, and I am definitely rooting for that to happen.
This game is going to be a barn-burner. Amherst is ranked 15th and Babson is 16th. They already played each other early in the season on Dec. 10, and it was a wild double-OT, 103-96 finish in favor of the NESCAC squad. These teams have been deep in the NCAAs before, have seasoned coaches, big time players, and championship aspirations. Babson lost in the Final Four last year and the year before that, Amherst won it all. These teams are used to playing good teams in big time situations and that’s why its going to be one of the best games we have seen all season. The last time these two saw each other, Amherst’s Connor Green ’16 went off for 39 points, way above his 14.9 ppg average on the season, and Babson shot just 21-32 (65.6 percent) from the free throw line, not making their free baskets when it counted. The overtime periods were completely different contests as three Amherst starters, David George ’17, Jayde Dawson ’18, and Johnny McCarthy ’18, all fouled out while Isaiah Nelsen ’17 also reached five fouls for Babson. While it was undeniably a close game, many things could change for each team in this game, so who is going to do what it takes to come out on top?
Amherst is a familiar opponent for the Babson Beavers. Babson has played four contests against the NESCAC which have accounted for four of their five total losses. It would be easy to say that the Beavers can’t handle this conference. After talking with Coach Stephen Brennan, 2016 NEWMAC Coach of the Year, I am not going to say that they are going to roll over so easily. First off, the fact that they played so many NESCAC teams shows that they have a tough schedule and play strong non-conference teams. Their overall strength of schedule this year at the time of the last public NCAA Regional Rankings was an impressive 0.539. Amherst’s wasn’t much higher – 0.558. Last year against NESCAC teams, Babson only lost to Bates, perhaps showing that this year’s record might have been a bit of an anomaly. In their game against Tufts, the opposition’s Ryan Spadaford ’16 made a 30-foot shot as time ran out to win the game, something that probably wouldn’t happen again if they played later this weekend. As far as personnel goes, Joey Flannery ’17, averaging 24.2 ppg and 6.9 rpg, and Nelsen, averaging 16.1 ppg and 8.6 rpg, are the clear leaders for the Beavers, both All-ECAC honorees. However, Flannery missed Babson’s Second Round game with a sprained ankle, and without him the Beavers are a much weaker team. The recent emergence of Nick Comenale ’18 has really helped Babson down the stretch. Comenale was averaging 3.4 ppg on January 24, the day he got his first start for Babson. Since then, he’s averaged 13.1 ppg and Amherst Coach Dave Hixon says “He really stretches other teams out.” Also, the potential of Bradley Jacks ’18 is something to watch out for as he averages 12.0 ppg but dropped 30 against Bowdoin earlier this year.
Amherst X-Factor: Guard/Forward Connor Green
Last time against Babson, Green scored 39 points in 41 minutes, accounting for basically 40 percent of Amherst’s points. While Amherst does have a balanced team with four players averaging over 10 points and nine players averaging over 10 minutes, clearly Green’s outburst helped them win. On top of that, as Amherst’s top scorer, he will be going back and forth scoring with Flannery who was injured last game, creating a potential deviation between their productivity. Green could easily give his team an edge.
Babson X-Factor: Free Throw Shooting
While Amherst’s Coach Dave Hixon doesn’t think that Babson’s poor free throw shooting was a huge reason for his team’s win in their previous meeting, Babson Coach Stephen Brennan thinks differently. In a call with him, he emphasized how important accuracy from the charity stripe was going to be for his Beavers and how if not for a low 65 percent from the line last time, his team could’ve very well have pulled out the win.
1. Does the presence of Comenale make a difference?
Yes. He didn’t play last time the two teams met, and at the time, wouldn’t have had a huge impact, but since then he has become a starter, reaching double digit points almost every game and grabbing over four rebounds a game since he began receiving significant minutes. Also, this will change around the lineup that Amherst saw last time, making their last meeting less of an indication of how this game could go.
2. Will Flannery be ready to go for Babson?
He’s probably going to play, but we have no way of knowing exactly how ready and mobile he will be after a sprained ankle. I’m sure that he will play hard in this pivotal game for his Beavers, but without him, I am not sure how well they would compete against Amherst. Without his 24.2 ppg, Babson won’t have much room for error, as they barely won their last game 70-67 against #19 Susquehanna. So he better be ready to go.
3. Who is the predicted favorite?
Even though Amherst won the only meeting these two teams had earlier this season, as both coaches put it, each team is much different than they were when they last played. As previously mentioned, Comenale is a new starter, averaging big minutes, and each team has played a season’s worth of games, developing as a unit, especially with each team’s transfer students as “it takes a while for them to settle in,” according to Coach Hixon. This is going to be a close contest and since Amherst won before and is still higher ranked, it looks like they are the favorite on paper, but not by much.
What to Expect
Babson is not going to go away lightly. Learning from a double OT loss before, they know that this game is going to be a dog fight. Amherst likes to shoot a lot of threes and is certainly good at it, racking up 37.3 percent of the long shots this year. McCarthy and Michael Riopel ’18 are going to need to defend Nelsen, Flannery and the rest of Babson well as they average 81.6 ppg (the same ppg as Amherst). The site of this game will also be impactful as the last meeting was at Babson and this is at a neutral site. Ah, the beauty of the D-III tournament. Amherst deserved the regional more than anyone else left, but Tufts is more centralized for all four teams (the last being Johnson & Wales of Providence, RI) and the Amherst women are hosting on the No Mascots’ campus this weekend. Instead of a home crowd decked out in Purple and White, Amherst will probably be met by more Beaver fans. Even though Flannery was injured for Babson against Susquehanna, they were still able to win their 13th straight game against the #19 ranked school in the country. Amherst on the other hand lost a close game to Middlebury in the NESCAC championship while their team was pretty beat up. Each team at this point in the season is going to be a bit injured, but that shouldn’t give one team too much of an advantage over the other. Overall, Babson has more momentum, but Amherst won’t be lacking confidence after beating them earlier in the year. Bottom line is both teams deserve to be here. If Flannery was 100 percent healthy, I think Babson pulls this game out, but since he is hobbled with the ankle injury, Amherst looks primed to outlast the Beavers in a back-and-forth game.
Like many first round match ups, Southern Vermont and Tufts took very different roads to reach the NCAA tournament. Southern Vermont lost two of their first three games to Salisbury and St. Thomas (MN), both in the Hoopsville National Invitational Classic hosted by Stevenson University. Neither of these losses can be considered bad ones: Salisbury and St. Thomas are both tournament teams, and are ranked at #24 and #8 in the country, respectively. These two close losses actually seemed to help SVM, as the Mountaineers went 23-1 the rest of the way, including winning their last 16 games, all of which were against conference opponents. Sure, the NECC is not loaded with talent (no other NECC team received an NCAA bid), but conference games are conference games no matter how you slice it. SVM accumulated some quality wins against Regis and Becker en route to their conference tournament title, and also won a close game at Bates just before the winter break. I know Bates didn’t have a very good year, but no matter who you are, playing in that small gym is not easy thanks to the rowdy student section, so this is a good win. Unfortunately for SVM, the only three tournament teams they played are their three losses, with the third being Middlebury. When SVM visited the Panthers, Middlebury blew them out by 18 points. SVM couldn’t shut down Matt St. Amour ’17, and strong contributions from Matt Daley ’16 and Jack Daly ’18 helped to put away the Mountaineers early. With all this in mind, riding a 16-game win streak into the NCAA tournament is not something to turn your nose up at. After receiving two straight NECC Coach of the Year honors, SVM Head Coach Dan Engelstad has shown that he knows how to win. SVM doesn’t play down to their competition, evidenced by their average margin of victory of 17.1 ppg. I don’t care who they’ve played; SVM has showed they are dangerous.
On the other side of the court are the Tufts Jumbos. The Jumbos are a streaky team, so their loss last weekend to Amherst in the NESCAC semi-finals could be either good or bad. Following losses, the Jumbos have done won the following number of games before their next loss: one, eight, one, four, and four. This leaves it completely up for speculation what the Jumbos will do following this most recent loss. One thing Tufts has shown is that they do not lose two games in a row. Even after a poor game against Trinity at home, Tufts bounced back the next day and beat Amherst with relative ease. The tough schedule Tufts plays has battled tested them, and I think they’re in great shape to make a run in the tournament. The big wins for the Jumbos came against Amherst at home, and at two neutral sites against #11 Whitman and #16 Babson. In conference, Tufts beat every bottom half team, but lost to all four of the other top five teams, Trinity, Amherst, Middlebury and Wesleyan. Their other two losses were against solid teams in MIT and WPI, but WPI blew out the Jumbos by 15, accounting for Tufts’ worst loss of the season. One thing to take note of is that four of these losses, excluding Wesleyan and MIT, came against tournament teams, and two losses (Wesleyan and Middlebury) came in overtime. Tufts is a strong, strong team, and their six losses are deceiving because of the extremely tough schedule they play.
Despite their different paths to the big dance, these two teams are very evenly matched. They scored at about the same clip on nearly the same number of attempts: SVM 85.1 ppg on 65.4 FGA/game; Tufts 86.1 ppg on 65.3 FGA/game. They hit pretty evenly from deep too: SVM hits 8.0 3PT/game while Tufts drains 8.2 3PT/game, but SVM shoots a tad more consistently at 37.4 percent rather than Tufts’ 35.1 percent. Both teams rely on their rebounding, and are very even in this category as well: each team averages 12.7 offensive rpg, but SVM averages 43.0 overall rpg as opposed to Tufts’ 42.5 rpg. Clearly, the teams match up in a shooting and rebounding, so where do they differ? There is one main answer to that question: defense. While they score at about the same rate, Tufts allows 77.6 ppg vs. SVM’s 68.0 ppg. This makes the Tufts defense look much worse than SVM’s, but I think this gap can be attributed to the difference in strength of schedule. Since Tufts is playing better teams, it makes complete sense that they give up more points. I’m not saying SVM doesn’t play good defense, but there is certainly a difference in the level of competition day in and day out.
Southern Vermont X-factor: Forward Deshawn Hamlet ‘16
Deshawn Hamlet is hands down the best player on the Mountaineers roster. As a junior, Deshawn was the NECC player of the year, and he followed that up with First Team All-NECC recognition. Though the scoring is pretty spread out for Southern Vermont, this team thrives when Hamlet puts the ball in the basket. He has been held under 10 points just four times this season, and each of those times, Hamlet got into foul trouble. He leads the team in scoring and rebounding at 14.7 ppg and 8.2 rpg, each of which is driven by his strength and tenacity. Hamlet can shoot the ball from the perimeter pretty accurately, but he is very selective on his outside shots. Hamlet’s best when he uses his big body to power his way through smaller wings. At 6’4”, Hamlet is one of SVM’s tallest players, but he is very nimble for what I would guess is a 220-225ish lbs. forward (SVM’s website doesn’t list the weight of their players). Hamlet will likely be matched up with Stephen Haladyna ’16 or Vinny Pace ’18, which plays in his favor since these two are listed at just 180lbs. and 185lbs., respectively. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more minutes out of Stefan Duvivier ’18 as a defensive stopper on Hamlet, as he is a much bigger yet extremely athletic wing. I’m excited to see what Coach Bob Sheldon does defensively to deal with Hamlet.
Tufts X-factor: Center Tom Palleschi ‘17
Like Hamlet, Palleschi was just named to his all-conference first team, and he is bound to have a big game for the Jumbos. There isn’t a player on the SVM roster listed over 6’6”, and on a short team I wouldn’t be surprised if Casey Hall ’16 was given the 6’6” listing out of generosity. Palleschi was on fire during the last six regular season games, and though he cooled off a bit in the NESCAC tournament, his presence alone is a huge advantage for the Jumbos. He averaged 18.7 ppg in the month of February, and with such a size advantage and the variety of post moves Palleschi has in his arsenal, he is either going to eat up his one-on-one matchup or he is going to open shooters up for wide open threes when SVM collapses into the paint. I don’t think Tufts needs Palleschi to score 15ish points to win, but it certainly bodes well for the home team if he does.
1.) Will SVM be able to stop Palleschi?
I could very well be wrong (I’ve never seen Southern Vermont play after all), but I don’t see any way that they stop Palleschi. He has shown over and over again that he is a dynamic scorer down low, especially against undersized centers. The big man struggles the most against Eric Conklin ’17-type post players, aka the very solid, very wide centers. To reiterate, I’ve never seen SVM play, and I could very well be underestimating the width of Casey Hall, but if I’m right, he looks like he’s a lankier center than he is a big bruiser. Palleschi should take advantage of this matchup, and he is a good enough passer that it should negate the effect of SVM doubling down on him.
2.) Who steps up as the secondary scorer for SVM?
Over the course of the season, Hall has been the secondary scorer behind Hamlet, but with Palleschi’s stifling defense down low, I am not quite sure he’ll be able to get his normal 10-12 points. I’m looking at Will Bromirski ’16 to step up for the Mountaineers. At just 5’11”, it could be tough for Bromirski to get his shots off against the taller wings of Tufts, but if Hamlet demands as much attention as I expect he will, Bromirski will be open to shoot from the perimeter.
3.) What will SVM do about Tufts’ fast pace?
I have to assume that SVM is a pretty fast-paced team based on their guard heavy lineup and lack of size. Coach Sheldon stressed to me that Tufts is still going to try to play their game: “We want to do what we’ve been doing all year. We’re not going to change for the NCAA tournament. We’re doing what got us here.” So basically, Tufts is still going to try to get out and run. If SVM can play solid transition defense, they can force Tufts into a half court offense, but that gives Palleschi more opportunities to work down low. I don’t know which SVM would prefer, speeding Tufts up or slowing them down. This strategy decision will likely decide the game for SVM.
If Southern Vermont wants to win this one, they have to hope that they can find a way to slow down Palleschi. Make other people beat you, make Pace recreate his 33-point performance that he had last weekend when Palleschi struggled from the field, make Ryan Spadaford ’16 hit shots from deep, make Haladyna shoot 10 or 15 shots. The Mountaineers have to do something besides allow Tufts to pound the ball into the post. Deshawn Hamlet is also going to have to have a crazy game offensively. I expect him to score around 20 points, but SVM relies on a very balanced attack that I just don’t see scoring the ball like they did in conference play. Cousens Gym has gotten louder and louder as the year has gone on and the Jumbos have continued to win, and Tufts feeds off the energy of their crowd. I think Tufts is going to have a small lead going into halftime, but as the game wears on and Palleschi forces the Mountaineers into foul trouble, the Jumbos will have a good chance to run away with this one.
Prediction: Tufts 84 – Southern Vermont 72
Eye on Saturday
If Tufts wins this one like I think they will, they’re going to play the winner of Franklin & Marshall vs. Skidmore. At 18-8 in a relatively weak conference, it’s clear that Skidmore is in the tournament because they won their conference tournament. This is not to say that Skidmore doesn’t deserve to be here – they won the regular season in the Liberty League as well – but they have been inconsistent. They blew out Plattsburgh State and beat Middlebury by five, both of whom are tournament teams, but they have some bad losses. Franklin & Marshall also won their conference tournament, but at 22-5, they have showed that they know how to win just a bit better than Skidmore does. I think F&M is definitely a better and more consistent team, with a history of postseason success, but Skidmore has shown the ability to explode offensively, and I think that they’ll do that tonight and upset F&M.
This brings us to tomorrow. Skidmore is led by freshman phenom Edvinas Rupkus ’19, who is averaging 16.7 ppg from the guard spot. At 6’4”, 205 lbs., Rupkus could have a size advantage over some of the Tufts guards, but after dealing with Hamlet tonight, it might feel like Rupkus is actually a smaller guard. Skidmore has a couple big boys that measure in at 6’8”, but they don’t play very many minutes, and once again, I think Palleschi will have an opportunity to dominate inside. The ability of Tufts to knock down open shots on kick outs from Palleschi will determine the outcome of this one, but I’m expecting Tufts to move on to the Sweet 16 after a couple big wins at home. Maybe I’m a bit biased in favor of the NESCAC teams, but I keep coming back to the toughness of the Tufts schedule in giving them the edge. They have been tested, and I think that they’re ready to get a couple wins this weekend.
Predicting the match up between two teams that are such polar opposites and that haven’t played each other before sure leaves room for speculation. Trinity is set to square off against #12 Johnson and Wales (26-2, 17-1) tonight at SUNY Plattsburgh. The NCAA committee selected the Bantams as an at-large team into the tournament as they amassed a 19-7 (9-1) record, earning the #1 seed in the NESCAC tournament, before being upset by Middlebury 70-58 in last weekend’s semifinals. Johnson and Wales of Rhode Island ensured their own trip to the dance as they won the Great Northwestern Athletic Conference playoffs and regular season in convincing fashion, finishing 26-2. Johnson and Wales’ Quarry Greenaway ’16 was the GNAC Player of the Year, finishing fourth in the country with 26.1 ppg, while guards Tom Garrick ’16, Anthony Jernigan ’17, and Robert Lewis ’16 also received All-GNAC honors. While the GNAC is not a strong conference, only sending one team to the NCAA tournament, the extensive honors for the Wildcats speaks to their depth and are an explanation for how they are still carrying a 21-game winning streak into Friday’s game, begging the question: Do the Bantams stand a chance?
In Trinity’s last game against Middlebury, they only shot 32.8 percent compared to 43.9 percent on the season from the field. This discrepancy could be a result of a good Panthers defense, but Trinity’s leading scorer, Shay Ajayi ’16, also the NESCAC Player of the Year, had only 11 points. While the Bantams like to spread the playing time around with 11 players averaging over 10 minutes per game, Ajayi is going to have to put up some big numbers against the explosive Johnson and Wales team.
The JWU weak schedule still leaves room for questions despite their gaudy record. Though D3Hoops.com has them ranked 14th, the Wildcats were actually four spots below Trinity in the final public regional rankings that came out before the final weekend of conference tournament games, and judging by Trinity’s positioning on the bracket in the pseudo-No. 2 slot for their pod, the NCAA committee still feels like Trinity is the stronger team. JWU had an atrocious .473 SOS as of the final public regional rankings. For comparison, Trinity’s SOS was .565. However, the two teams did play three teams in common in Elms, Anna Maria and Eastern Connecticut State. They each blew out both Elms and Anna Maria but Trinity lost the Eastern Connecticut 57-49 while Johnson and Wales won 72-59. These games were both early in the season and the 23-point margin of victory against this mutual opponent gives the Wildcats some more credibility. On top of all of that, the Wildcats are averaging 90.6 ppg and shooting a scorching 49.6 percent from the field, both statistics which Trinity can’t ignore.
Trinity X-Factor: Controlling the Ball
It was tough to pick a player here as the Bantams are going to have to do a lot of things right to keep pace with the high-scoring Johnson and Wales team. Instead I chose possession of the ball because JWU ranks in the top-20 in the nation for both scoring offense, scoring defense, and steals. So the Wildcats score the ball, don’t let their opponents score, and take the ball away when their opponents could score. On top of that Johnson and Wales’ Anthony Jernigan leads the nation with 3.8 steals per game. In other words, the Wildcats like to keep the ball and are good at scoring when they have it. To keep pace with them, the Bantams are going to need to limit their turnovers and not rush to shoot. Trinity typically plays tight, low-scoring affairs, averaging a score of 77.5 to 67.3. PG Andrew Hurd ’16 is going to have a tough task of holding the ball and managing the offense as Trinity is going to need to control the ball to keep it out of the hands of the sharp shooting Wildcats.
Johnson and Wales X-Factor: G Quarry Greenaway
This is definitely the obvious choice as Greenaway is the clear leader of the Wildcat team, averaging 26.1 ppg and 9.3 rebounds, earning GNAC Player of the Year honors. However, I chose him not for his shooting ability – he is going to score and there is nothing Trinity can do to stop him. The big question for Johnson and Wales is how will their defense fare against a consistent and deep Trinity team who’s good at shooting the ball and diversifying the points scored throughout the team. Greenaway’s rebounding ability will be put to the test against NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year Ed Ogundeko ’17 who is a big 6’6’’ and takes down 10.6 boards per contest.
1. Will Trinity center and NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year Ed Ogundeko play more than his average 22.3 minutes per game?
This is one aspect of the Trinity game that Coach James Cosgrove must have had on his mind: How can they keep Ogundeko in the game to grab all the rebounds to take the ball out of Johnson and Wales’ hands? It’s simple: four media timeouts that are a minute long each, evenly dispersed in both halves, to go along with the four timeouts that each team begins play with. This should give the big man enough rest time to stay in the game for around 30 minutes, hopefully adding a few more rebounds and a few more shots to the Bantam’s effort.
2. Is Johnson and Wales really that good?
This team has won a lot of games. It is hard to get to 26 wins (as many games as Trinity played all year) without having some talent. Their conference is bad but it looks like they are made up of a few talented players who know how to score at a high percentage rate. At the same time it is Division-III basketball, and no team is unbeatable. The bottom line is, this team certainly earned their ranking and their selection to the tournament, but upsets happen.
3. Which is better — Trinity’s defense or Johnson and Wales’ offense?
This game is going to be a high-scoring affair. Trinity scores 77.5 points per game while Johnson and Wales scores 90.6. The only way that Trinity can stand a chance is if they find a way to limit the Wildcats’ shooting and control the paint on defense. Trinity’s defense has been good all year and they need to keep the Wildcat shooting percentage close to their opponents’ season average of 38.5 percent. They can’t let the higher seed get too many offensive rebounds, as with a nearly 50 percent shooting accuracy, if Johnson and Wales misses once, it isn’t likely to happen again on the same possession.
Offense is certainly the strength of Johnson and Wales. Scoring over 90 points a game is impressive in college basketball, regardless of which level. That is a lot of points in only 40 minutes of play. Since Trinity is a defensive-minded team, they are going to need to find a way to limit the Wildcats’ top scorer Greenaway (26.2 ppg) and Tom Garrick, a 6’5’’ guard, who gets his with 22.4 ppg. Heart and hustle is the only way that the lower-ranked Bantams pull off this upset. Johnson and Wales is used to winning by over 26 points per game and isn’t accustomed to playing teams closely or teams that claw and fight until their last breath. Trinity has their intensity as a major advantage and probably the most important card up their sleeve in facing the foreign team from Rhode Island. Its going to take everything the Bantams have to avoid Johnson and Wales’ 22nd straight win.
Prediction: Johnson and Wales 84 over Trinity 73
Eye on Saturday
If Trinity manages to pull off the upset, then they will play the winner of #23 Plattsburgh State and Fitchburg State. Plattsburgh received an at-large bid while Fitchburg State had to win the MASCAC playoffs to get a bid to the tournament. It looks like Plattsburgh is a pretty clear favorite as they had a harder schedule, play in a better conference, and are ranked. At 18-9 Fitchburg likely wouldn’t have made the tournament without their conference championship win so I’m going to assume that the higher ranked team is going to take the win here. Regardless, I watched the 23rd ranked Cardinals get walked all over by Middlebury earlier this year, leading me to believe that they aren’t unbeatable by any means. The key in that game, though, was that one of Plattsburgh’s top players, guard Edward Correa ’16, didn’t play. Trinity played the Cardinals earlier this year and narrowly lost 81-73, but in that game Plattsburgh’s top scorer, Kyle Richardson ’16, didn’t play, and sixth man Jonathan Patron ’19 (14.2 ppg) was limited to 10 minutes. It will be a tall task for Trinity to get through this weekend to the Sweet 16.
The Middlebury Panthers and Salisbury Sea Gulls are both dancing, but they got here in very different ways. Middlebury finished the season 17-10, and needed an incredible run through the NESCAC tournament to get into the NCAAs. Salisbury, on the other hand, fell in heartbreaking manner in the Capital Athletic Conference championship game against No. 4 Christopher Newport. The Sea Gulls (21-6, 13-5) beat just about everyone but CNU this season, losing to the CAC conference champs three times and twice in overtime, including in the championship. They didn’t think they’d be returning to the Little Dance, one year after making it and falling to Trinity in the Second Round, but the committee was kind and Salisbury is back.
Both teams’ seasons were on almost equivalent paths until the final minutes of their respective championship games. While a shocking carry call on Amherst’s Johnny McCarthy ’18 gave Middlebury the ball and essentially iced the game, an even more mind-blowing push call against Salisbury’s Kyle Savercool ’16 at the buzzer sounded sent CNU to the foul line for the win. Check out the video here, and you decide if Savercool (#15) shoved anyone.
Anyway, enough about how they got here. As Salisbury first year coach Andrew Sachs told me, “We are in [and] that’s all that matters.” Sachs comes to Salisbury, his alma mater, after six years at Bethany College and five at Holy Cross. As our loyal readers, you’ve heard plenty about what Middlebury can and can’t do, but you must be wondering just how good Salisbury is. That’s the beauty of D-III, that teams from outside of one’s region are often a complete mystery, and that can make for some pretty exciting games.
The first thing to know about the Sea Gulls is that their best player, Wyatt Smith, has been out all season with an injury. Smith was a 14.7 ppg forward last year, shooting at 58.6 percent and tearing down almost eight board per game, and had 37 points on 16-20 shooting last year in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. According to Sachs, Smith was indisputably the best player in the CAC. Whether that’s true or not, that assessment speaks to the accomplishment of Salisbury to get to this point without such an important player. In his place forward Gordon Jeter ’17, the team’s only All-CAC honoree, has emerged as the leading scorer, but even calling Jeter a forward is a bit misleading. The Sea Gulls have been outsized pretty much every game this year. Jeter stands at a slender 6’6″, 185 lbs, and is the team’s five-man, if you insist on putting a number on it. He’s very athletic and long, and is the focal point of the Sea Gulls’ offense via the pick and roll. More on that later.
The second thing to know about Salisbury is that they rank second in Division-III at 60.3 ppg allowed. Salisbury will try to break the rhythms of their opponents. They will press and play zone. And they will double everything in the post. And I mean everything. If Jeter has to play man one-on-one on Matt Daley ’16, this game is going to be over quick, so quick rotations are going to be incredibly important for Salisbury.
Salisbury X-factors: G Justin May ’16 and F Chad Barcikowski ’18
I’ll be honest, in my conversation with Coach Sachs, the names May and Barcikowski didn’t come up once. May has served as the team’s sixth man all year, playing 17.1 mpg and scoring 6.7 ppg. I don’t even know what his skill set is like. The same applies to Barcikowski, who’s playing 12.2 mpg and scoring 6.0 ppg. What I do know is that the Sea Gulls have played with an eight-man rotation all season, and now one of those eight, back up Jordan Brooks ’18, is out with an injury and won’t return unless Salisbury is able to make a deep run in the tournament. The Sea Gulls will need to get some quality minutes off of the bench. The saving grace is that they might be aided some by the media timeout structure of the NCAA Tournament – timeouts after 16, 12, eight and four minutes in each half.
Middlebury X-factor: C Matt Daley ’16
Sorry, everyone, back to the well here, but honestly, if Daley goes to work this game is over. He’s got more height than anything Salisbury can throw at him, and not only can he put up double digit points, he might approach 10 assists if he can effectively pass out of those double teams in the post. Defensively, Daley will have to hedge aggressively when Jeter sets screens for the ball handler. And even against the press, Daley will be key because the Panthers will look to get the ball to him in the middle to break the pressure. Adisa Majors ’18 and Connor Huff ’16 will be just as important filling in that role when Daley takes a breather.
1. Will Salisbury get hot from deep?
The Sea Gulls shot 24.9 three pointers per game this season, right around 50th in the nation, making 9.0 per game, which ranks 48th in the country. They don’t necessarily live and die by the three, but everyone that steps on the court for them is a threat to shoot it. All five starters are in the 30-40 percent range, and May is just above 40 percent. Middlebury isn’t a big jump shooting team, and only Matt St. Amour ’17 can really get them back in a game if they fall behind, so an early barrage from Salisbury could make things difficult for the Panthers.
2. Who can take care of the ball?
As mentioned, Salisbury is great at stopping opposing offenses, and part of that is forcing turnovers, having caused 500 turnovers this season. The Panthers, with their reputation for harassing other NESCAC teams and getting steals, caused 401 turnovers. Coach Sachs is a terrific defensive coach. He’s had really good defensive teams in the past, leading the country in steals one year at Bethany. Still, Middlebury has Jake Brown ’17, whom Sachs believes is the best point guard Salisbury has faced all season. Will the Sea Gulls be able to rattle Brown?
3. Is the spotlight too big?
Middlebury assuaged my fears that they might shrink in the moment with their victory in the NESCAC tournament, but the NCAAs are, of course, a different animal. Salisbury has been here before, losing to Trinity in the Second Round a year ago. No one from Middlebury has played in the NCAA Tournament. The current seniors got to step on the court in the final seconds as North Central was laying the smack down in the Elite Eight in 2013, but that’s it. Now, it’s a neutral site, so the crowd won’t be a factor, but there’s no denying the added pressure of an NCAA Tournament game. On the flip side, for Middlebury, they weren’t even supposed to be here As Jack Daly ’18 put, “I feel like we’re playing with house money right now.”
On paper, I think Middlebury has the upper hand. They have way more size, and I think their skill in transition bodes well for breaking the Salisbury press. Sure, the Sea Gulls are athletic 1-5 and can be difficult to cover, but there are no slow, lumbering bodies in the Middlebury rotation, either. Daley is almost ideal to cover Jeter on the pick-and-roll, and Zach Baines ’19 will be a good defender off the bench to challenge three pointers. Furthermore, Middlebury played better competition in the NESCAC than Salisbury faced in the CAC. Sachs admitted as much. Still, there remains the fact that the Sea Gulls steal the ball a million times per game. They’re so disciplined defensively, and what if Daley can’t pass the ball out of the post? What if they get hot from three? What if Brown has a few ugly turnovers?
In the end, though, I’m going with the team that Dave McHugh of D3Hoops.com dubbed the Cinderella of the tournament, Middlebury. (You can check out Dave’s conversation with Jeff Brown from yesterday here at the 1:07 mark, although his dubbing of Middlebury as the Cinderella came in the midst of Monday’s four hour bracket breakdown. I dare you to listen to that whole thing.) Being so close to the team might have blinded me, but it also has made me acutely aware of how much better they are with Daley on the floor and healthy. They’re closer to a 20-7 type of team than the 17-10 team they finished the season as. I’m giving Middlebury the edge in a game that plays closer to the Salisbury pace and remains tight, but the Panthers’ experience on the road (only nine games at home this season) will pay off.
Prediction: Middlebury 69 – Salisbury 62
Eye on Saturday
Hypothetically, if Middlebury pulls out the win, they’ll be playing the winner of the host Stockton University and Keene St, whom Middlebury beat by nine back in February. I’ll be honest with you, Keene St. is a major underdog in this one, and if they pull off the upset I’m putting a hefty sum on the Panthers to cruise into the Sweet 16. However, I doubt that happens, and Middlebury would have to play the host on Saturday. The second day of the first weekend is all about heart and grit, because teams don’t have much time at all to game plan. Bates needed an overtime period to beat Stockton at the Ospreys’ gym last year in the Second Round, but only two Stockton starters from that game are back this year. The numbers actually have them pegged as a pretty similar team to Salisbury in that they shoot a lot of threes, make them at a respectable but not incredible rate, keep teams to under 65 points and force other teams to turn the ball over, but don’t have a ton of height and struggle rebounding the ball. With that being the case, I like the Panthers chances to sneak into the Sweet 16, but as is always the case in Division-III, it’s damn near impossible to predict, so let’s just enjoy the show.
Sometimes real life and other commitments get in the way of our NESCAC coverage, so we don’t have the time to put forth our usual comprehensive preview. Here’s a few brief thoughts about Friday’s action and Saturday’s matchup.
So, the Sweet 16 matchup between Trinity and Bates played out almost exactly as we had anticipated. Ugly basketball (27 turnovers combined), awful shooting (36.4 FG% combined), physical post play, foul trouble (50 combined), and a final score that would have been in the mid-sixties but for bunches of free throws at the end of the game (79-62). But damn was it entertaining. The margin didn’t stray beyond three points either way until late in the first half, when a Chris Turnbull ’17 triple started an 11-3 run for the Bants on which the half ended. Bates battled back a few times to keep it interesting, but the defense was too good and the shooting too bad for Trinity. Even though Bates went to the free throw line an astounding 42 times, they couldn’t make enough of those freebies to close the gap. Trinity now looks forward to Babson, a top-five team and the host of this Sectional, at 7 PM Saturday night.
What went wrong for Bates – The Facts
As the second half ticked away, Bates started feeling like they need to score points in bunches, but the Bobcats were unable to do that and ended up an abysmal 2-20 (10 percent) from three point range. All game long the Bobcats attacked the basket, but couldn’t hit free throws, finishing 28-42 (66.7 percent) from the stripe. Graham Safford ’15, who played much of the second half with his right knee in a wrap after coming down awkwardly – who knows how much that affected him – and Mike Boornazian ’16 shot 8-32 (25 percent) from the field. Hart Gliedman ’15 absolutely neutralized Safford in this one. We knew that the Bates guards had to play well and account for a lot of the team’s scoring if Bates was going to win. But they didn’t get much help, either. The Delpeche brothers tallied 26 points, but the rest of the team added up to just nine points (six for Billy Selmon ’15, three for Mike Newton ’16). And just like last time these two teams played, Trinity dominated the rebounding battle, grabbing 45 boards to Bates’ 32.
Looking forward to Trinity (23-6) at #4 Babson (28-2)
I’ve watched Trinity probably half a dozen times this year, and I’ve watched Babson for probably half a dozen minutes. I’m exaggerating, because I saw about a half of Babson’s game with Johns Hopkins last night, but in any case I don’t feel qualified to make a prediction of such an important game when I barely know one team. What I can say from the little bit I watched of Babson last night is that 1) they play really, really good man-to-man defense and 2) they pass the ball incredibly well.
Granted, most of that passing was against Hopkins’ 2-3 zone, so I don’t know how the Beavers will fare against Trinity’s tough man-to-man, but Babson should be used to that kind of intensity because they practice against themselves every day. Bates beat Babson earlier this season, but it would be a mistake to predict this game based off of common opponents. Trinity should still have an edge in the front court, as usual, but it’s not by much. I saw some nice moves from Babson’s 6’7″ senior forward John Wickey tonight, and I think the Beavers big men bring a much more skilled offensive game than the young Delpeche twins. On the other end, I wouldn’t be surprised if George Papadeas ’15, Alex Conaway ’15 and Ed Ogundeko ’17 account for less than 15 points combined.
I’m going to be pulling hard for the Bants tomorrow. I want to see a NESCAC squad in the Final Four. But from watching a little bit of Babson last night, I would have to say that the Beavers are favored. Again, I’m not making an official prediction. But if I were…