#6 Williams (17-7, 5-5) at #3 Amherst (17-6, 7-3), Saturday, February 18, 2:00 PM, Amherst, Massachusetts
It is so, so, so fitting that the Amherst-Williams rivalry gets to play out in the first round of the NESCAC tournament this weekend. As a little kid, I grew up attending Amherst basketball games. I idolized the likes of Andrew Olson ‘08 and Dan Wheeler ‘07 while I demonized the dreaded Williams squad and their silly cow mascot. I think I still have a shirt at home (far too small at this point) that reads “Eph, it’s what’s for dinner” with a picture of an Eph on the end of a fork. Yes, I grew up hating Williams, but since I arrived at Tufts I’ve lacked that ‘rival’ feeling for the Ephs and have flipped the script on my feelings for Amherst. That being said, real recognize real – Amherst is very, very good, especially when it comes time for the NESCAC basketball tournament. Given recent history and this season as a whole, this is a TOUGH match-up for Williams. Then again, Williams has had quite a bit of success in the NESCAC tournament as well, and the NESCAC trophy is no stranger to Williamstown.
Dating back to 2001, Amherst has won the most NESCAC championships: seven. Second place? Williams, who has four. However, Williams’ success comes earlier in the 21st century – the Ephs actually haven’t won the conference championship since 2010, and the last two times they were in the finals (2013, 2014), they lost to none other than Amherst. Over the past 16 years, in fact, Amherst has only failed to move past the semifinals three times. This means that if Amherst makes the finals, they are more likely to win the title game than to lose it. If Williams wants to reverse the direction of the rivalry, today is a good place to start.
Amherst X-Factor: Guard Michael Riopel ‘18
If there was a 6th Man of the Year award, I would vote for Riopel 11 times out of 10. At 6’5”, his ability to come off the bench and either shoot the trey ball or get to the rack puts a lot of pressure on smaller and bigger guards alike that draw the short straw and have to match up with him. The junior has been fine against Williams this year, but I’m still waiting for him to light it up. He will likely be faced with a combination of Aronowitz, Teal, and Chris Galvin ‘18, all of whom he can take advantage of in different ways. After his two great performances against Williams, I would suspect that the Ephs will be in a crazy help defense to neutralize Dawson’s drives to the hoop. If this is the case, look for Rio to drain a few from downtown.
Williams X-Factor: Guard Cole Teal ‘18
Williams needs a strong performance from Teal today, end of story. I don’t know if it was due to injury or something, but the nine minutes that Teal played in game two of the season series left the Williams offense in quite the rut. The way that the Ephs jack up threes, they can’t afford to be without their purest shooter, and Teal needs to show up. If he can get one or two to drop early, Amherst will have a much harder time staying in front of Casey and Aronowitz. It will also give sophomore Kyle Scadlock more room to work down in the post on Amherst’s Jacob Nabatoff ‘17. Defensively, however, Teal needs to be just as much of a workhorse. The Ephs cannot withstand strong performances from all three of Amherst’s top scorers – Dawson, McCarthy and Riopel – so Teal is going to need to play lockdown D on one of the latter two. Even if McCarthy or Riopel gets their points, as long as Teal makes it tough for them, he’s doing his job. Amherst isn’t the most selective team offensively, so if Teal can even make it a tad more difficult for them, Williams has a shot to pull of the upset. That being said, he can’t just play one side of the court – Teal needs to show up on both offense and defense if the Ephs are to have a chance.
Both of the Amherst-Williams matchups this year have ended in eight-point victories for Amherst. The first, a non-conference tilt played in Williamstown, was a tale of two very different teams. Amherst spread the floor and spread their scoring, taking the pressure off of Jayde Dawson ‘18 and Johnny McCarthy ‘18 for a change (though the two still scored 19 and 15 respectively). Coach Hixon only sent eight different players out on the floor for Amherst, but it was enough, and after a run to begin the second half, Amherst was able to maintain their lead and hold off the admirable efforts out of Cole Teal ‘18 and Dan Aronowitz ‘17. The two studs from Williams went off, netting 26 and 21 respectively, but unfortunately the rest of their team left their offense in the locker room. The Williams bigs struggled, resulting in a 80-72 loss for the Ephs.
In round two of this historic rivalry, the Purple and White hosted the Ephs in Amherst, this time ending in a 72-64 Amherst W. While Aronowitz again stepped up to the challenge, Teal barely saw the floor, and the Ephs just didn’t have enough firepower to match the Amherst attack. Bobby Casey ‘19 had an inefficient 11 points, and freshman Matt Karpowicz (who I am saying will undoubtedly be an All-NESCAC performer is junior year, if not next year), had a solid game with 12 points of his own. Unfortunately for Williams, that was it offensively, and Amherst walked away with a 2-0 lead in the season series after another strong performance from Dawson.
This is a big mismatch at first glance, but these two teams are actually fairly similar. They both place a great deal of their offense in the hands of two terrific perimeter players (McCarthy and Dawson for Amherst and Aronowitz and Teal for WIlliams.) And they both lack consistent scoring inside, as their frontcourt rotations are filled with young players who haven’t stepped up to this point.
Williams matches up fairly well with Amherst defensively. Teal and Aronowitz are both long, rangy defenders who can give problems to Dawson and McCarthy. However, what I think will doom Williams in this game is a lack of depth. Aronowitz and Teal have proven themselves capable of playing great games on both sides of the ball against Amherst, but it they’re busy chasing around Dawson and McCarthy all day, who else is going to score for the Ephs? Amherst is also too reliant on their two best players, but Riopel and Eric Conklin ’17 are ready to take some pressure off. Williams will need to have another game like they did against Middlebury, in which every player is cooking from three. It’s happened before, but I don’t see it happening again.
Writer’s Pick: Amherst