Caution: Unfiltered Middlebury Adulation Ahead: Stock Report 3/1

Middlebury is the NESCAC Champion for the third time. (Courtesy of
Middlebury is the NESCAC Champion for the third time. (Courtesy of

Amherst College is an athletic powerhouse, and that fact is as evident in basketball as anywhere else. Both the men’s and women’s teams advanced to their respective NESCAC Championships yesterday. On the men’s side, it was the program’s 14 appearance in the title game in 17 opportunities. That’s not a misprint. Amherst has competed in 82 percent of all of the NESCAC Championship games in history, and until yesterday had a winning record: 7-6. Yesterday, though, it was not the Purple and White cutting down the nets, but the fourth-seeded Middlebury Panthers. Middlebury limped to a 3-5 start to the season, albeit against a challenging schedule, all on the road, but that slog seemed to prepare Middlebury well for conference play. They still fell short in a couple of games that should have been locks, though, specifically on the road at Conn College and Hamilton, which put the Panthers in a do-or-die situation. Capture the NESCAC crown, or hang up the sneaks until next year. They did just what they had to do on Sunday, punching their NCAA ticket by edging Amherst 81-79 in an all-time classic that featured 23 lead changes and one game-changing call that will haunt Amherst players forever. And because of that, this is going to be a very Middlebury-heavy stock report today. My favorite.

Stock Up

Middlebury C Matt Daley ’16

(Courtesy of Jeff Patterson)
Matt Daley ’16 looked like the force this weekend that so many Panthers fans have long hoped he could be. (Courtesy of Jeff Patterson)

Cue the preamble about the double-double prognostications and oodles of talent. We all know that already. Let’s focus on his performance during the NESCAC tournament. After getting just five minutes against Wesleyan, Daley must have gotten really pissed, because he played great this weekend. Daley started both games against some of the best defensive centers in the league in Ed Ogundeko ’17 and David George ’17, played 27.5 minutes per game (huge considering that he averaged 17.7 minutes per NESCAC game this season), scored 34 points on 14-18 (77.8 percent) shooting, ripped down 11 boards, had three blocks, and helped hold Ogundeko, George and Eric Conklin ’17 to 20 points on 7-18 (38.9 percent) shooting. The Panthers are a completely different team with Daley playing like he did this weekend, and truly are good enough to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament.

Middlebury Head Coach Jeff Brown

Coach Brown received the best gift any coach could ever ask for back in 2007 – a program-changing player. It was not because of his talent alone that Mike Walsh, class of 2008, was a game changer. After a 6-18 freshman campaign and 12-12 sophomore year, Walsh and the Panthers made to the NESCAC tournament in 2007 but finished 15-10. With one more season to play, Walsh and co-captain Andrew Harris ’08 went to Brown and laid out their plan for changing the Middlebury basketball program. From that moment on, Middlebury basketball has been a powerhouse with a winning attitude and unbelievable work ethic, playing in eight of nine NESCAC tournaments since then and making making NCAA appearances. Add in a string of phenomenal, All-American caliber players in guys like Ben Rudin ’09, Tim Edwards ’10, Andrew Locke ’11, Ryan Sharry ’12 and Joey Kizel ’13, among others, and the job becomes a lot easier for someone in Brown’s position. This season has been different, though. There are some very solid players on the Middlebury team, but no superstars. They weren’t even a playoff team a year ago. And Jeff Brown was able to rally his team after a 3-5 start, after an 0-2 showing on the last weekend of the regular season, and yesterday with Amherst leading by 11 midway through the first half. Strategically this weekend, Brown employed the zone well against Trinity, limiting their ability to make outside shots, and Sunday was just a gritty performance that really culminates the effort this team has put in all year. Kudos to Coach Brown for probably his best coaching performance.

Amherst Guard Michael Riopel ’18

Let’s give a little love to a non-Panther. Riopel had the best weekend of his NESCAC life over the past two days. Having averaged 7.0 points per game this season, Riopel lit it up for 11 and 17 in Amherst’s two games, and burned the nets from deep, making six out of seven three point attempts. It’s actually sort of shocking that Middlebury held on yesterday considering that Amherst shot 45.9 percent from the field and 44.8 percent from deep, including Riopel’s 4-5 performance. I expect Riopel will step into the place of Connor Green ’16 in the starting lineup next season, because he’s a dynamic offensive player at times.

Stock Down

Amherst Defense

Granted, they faced two pretty potent offenses in Tufts and Middlebury, but the Purple and White did not do a good job of getting stops this weekend, allowing 83 points to the Jumbos and 81 to Middlebury. Vinny Pace ’18 was just a dominant force for Tufts, and on Sunday it was a combination of Matt St. Amour ’17 and Daley doing the work for the Panthers. So basically Amherst was ineffective at stopping opponents in both the front and back court. In NESCAC games, Amherst had a league-best 69.4 points per game allowed, so this may just be a blip on the radar.

Trinity Offense

The secret might just be out on how to slow down the Bantams. Against Middlebury, Trinity shot just 32.8 percent from the field and in their first half against Colby last weekend Trinity scored just 19 points (of course, they exploded for 52 second half points and won by 11, so maybe the point is moot). What Middlebury did well, and what the Mules did well for the first half, was switch ball screens and pressure the Trinity shooters. Easier said than done, but definitely a key in defeating the Bantams. Teams with length in the backcourt are a tough matchup for the Bants, and St. Amour, Jack Daly ’18 and Zach Baines ’19 are pretty tough to shoot over when they have a hand up. Luke Westman ’16 and Ryan Jann ’16 fall into that category, as well. In six of Trinity’s seven losses this season they’ve shot 31.6 percent or less from deep. Stop the three, stop the Bantams.

Handicapping the Player of the Year Race

Photo Courtesy of the Williams Record
Photo Courtesy of the Williams Record

There are just two conference weekends left, and while athletes, coaches and fans are focused on the battle for seeding in the NESCAC tournament, individual performances over the final two weeks will play a major role in determining to whom the end-of-year awards are given.

Conference play is weighted heavily when looking at these awards because that is when the voting members, aka NESCAC coaches, get a first hand look at the candidates. Therefore it is necessary to look at matchups over the next few games in order to split hairs between all the great players in this league.

The race will be tight, and is still wide open, especially with preseason favorite Chris Hudnut ’16 succumbing to a season-ending knee injury on Jan. 24. In the five conference games that Hudnut was able to play, he averaged 21.8 points and 10.0 rebounds per game, numbers that would put him second and third respectively in conference games. Other players with high expectations, such as Hunter Sabety ’17 and Hayden Rooke-Ley ’15 have shown flashes of brilliance when on the court, but injuries will ultimately stop them from getting enough minutes to be true contenders. With Hudnut going down, the picture became a lot less clear. Below we handicap the Player of the Year race as it stands today.

C John Swords ’15

Odds: 50:1

As the guy who ought to be the hands-down Defensive Player of the Year, he should be in the discussion for overall Player of the Year as well. He probably won’t do enough on the offensive end to be seriously considered for the award, but his defensive impact is unquantifiable. Beyond the 17 blocks (1st) and 65 rebounds (2nd) that he has in seven conference games, he is undeniably the best rim protector in the NESCAC, and the main reason why opponents jack up more treys against the Polar Bears than anyone else.

PG Joseph Lin ’15

Odds: 30:1

Lin’s transformation has been a hot topic this season. The senior is the third-leading scorer in NESCAC games and the league’s top assist man by a wide margin. On a winning team his odds would be much better. While the POY award isn’t necessarily the best player on the best team, it often seems that way. Aaron Toomey’s ’14 Jeffs won the NESCAC tournament in both years that he was given the award, Ryan Sharry ’12 and the runner-up Panthers finished 26-4 that season. Troy Whittington ’10 and Williams went 29-3 in 2010-11. You get the idea. With no clear cut dominant team in the NESCAC this season the award could go to a player on a middle of the pack team, but not one who isn’t in the NESCAC playoffs.

SG Lucas Hausman ’16

Odds: 25:1

Another Bowdoin guy, and another that has elevated his game to a new level this season. Hausman has been an animal in conference play, averaging 23.7 points per game. He’s somewhat one dimensional; he loves to cut to the hoop, especially in transition, and force off-balance shots in traffic. But hey, it works for him. He is shooting 44.9 percent from the field in conference games and he is arguably the league’s best free throw shooter, which is good because he gets to the stripe more than anyone. As unfair as it is, his class might hurt Hausman somewhat in this chase. If it comes down to him and a senior who seem like a toss-up, the award will probably land in the elder’s hands. But a strong tournament run could quickly and significantly improve Hausman’s odds.

G/F Connor Green ’16

Odds: 18:1

After a fantastic sophomore campaign in which Green became the Lord Jeffs’ second option to Toomey, Green had a bit of a slow start to 2014-15. Through his first two games of January (10 total), Green was averaging 13.2 PPG. In the subsequent 10 games? 18.0 points per game. And in the last five, since the changing of the guard occurred at the point, Green has topped 30 points twice, including 33 against Bowdoin on Jan. 31, a record for the junior against D-III opponents (Green dropped 42 against D-II Nova Southeastern in a 105-101 loss last season). With more strong games against Conn. College and Wesleyan this weekend, followed by a big game against Middlebury next weekend, Green could leap frog those with better odds and steal this award. That last game in particular will be huge, as Green will probably have to deal with the size, speed and strength of Dylan Sinnickson ’15. A win in that head-to-head matchup, much like the one earned by our POY favorite, will go a long way towards winning over the votes of the NESCAC coaches.

PG Graham Safford ’15

Odds: 9:1

Safford fits the POY mold; senior leader, battle-tested, big moments on his resume, leading scorer, fills up the stat sheet and almost never leaves the court. Like Toomey in the last two years, Safford is the type of court general without whom his team would fall apart. Let’s compare the stat lines of Toomey from ’13-’14 and Safford from this year:

Safford: 36.6 MPG, 15.7 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 6.1 APG, 2.3 SPG, 1.5 A/TO, 39.2 FG%, 31.2 3PT%, 78.3 FT%

Toomey: 34.6 MPG, 19.9 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 6.4 APG, 2.0 SPG, 2.5 A/TO, 46.4 FG%, 40.2 3PT%, 91.2 FT%

The glaring difference doesn’t appear until you start looking at the percentages. Toomey was a more prolific scorer and he did it in a more efficient way, but Safford is comparable to Toomey across the board in other categories. The most important thing in favor of Safford’s campaign is that Bates rides or dies with the point guard’s play. If he can take them to the NESCAC Championship game he might convince the coaches that he is worthy of the award.

F Dylan Sinnickson ’15

Odds: 5:1

What a great story this kid is. As a freshman on Middlebury’s best team ever he played just over 10 minutes per game, averaged 5.7 PPG and shot just two, that’s right, two, three-pointers. Then he had to sit out his entire sophomore campaign because of a broken arm. Last year he returned and was a revelation, running the pick and roll to perfection with Joey Kizel ’14 and spreading the floor, dropping 43 percent of his attempts from long range, including a couple of game winners. He’s past the injury that took away his sophomore season, he’s returned with a vengeance from the personal break that he took from the game last season, and he’s completely reinvented his game. He’s possibly the most athletic guy in the NESCAC in any sport. He runs like the wind. On the baseball diamond he’s known for beating out routine grounders to shortstop. He jumps through the roof. And when he grows that hair out people often refer to him around campus as “That kid that looks like Jesus”.

The numbers bear out the praise. Sinnickson has racked up 18.7 PPG (4th in NESCAC), 11.1 RPG (1st), and does so with good percentages, 48.0 percent from the field and 35.0 percent from deep. On the other end of the floor, he often draws the opponent’s trickiest matchups. Hamilton’s Ajani Santos ’16 and Conn’s Zuri Pavlin ’17 can tell you just how much of a menace Sinnickson can be. The only reason he isn’t tops on this list is because in his toughest head-to-head matchup of the season Sinnickson was bested by our POY favorite.

G/F Dan Wohl ’15

Odds: 3:1

Against Middlebury last Friday night, Wohl went 5-10 from the field and 7-7 from the stripe for 18 points while also shutting down Sinnickson, who went 3-11 from the field for seven points. Wohl has been consistently great, but he has truly been incredible since a December 6 matchup with Springfield. Amidst all the change of the offseason, there seemed to be a transition period for this Williams team at the beginning of the season, and while they are still working out some of the kinks, Wohl seems to have gotten very comfortable. In the span of 28 seconds near the end of that Springfield game, Wohl completed an and-1 and flushed another lay up to put the Ephs up nine and score what would end up as the winning basket. He added a steal and two more free throws in the final two minutes to seal the victory, finishing with 20 points and seven boards. Since that game, Wohl has averaged 22.1 PPG.

Wohl is the second-leading scorer in conference games while also snagging 8.5 RPG in those games, and is among the league’s best defenders, swiping 1.3 SPG while playing lock-down defense. Williams still has to play Bates, Tufts, Conn and Wesleyan before the season is out. All of those teams except Conn are in the top half of the NESCAC in scoring defense, meaning that it will be a challenge for Wohl to keep up his scoring production down the stretch. But if he can score 18 on Middlebury, Wohl should be up for the challenge.

Composite Power Rankings 1/9

Hunter Merryman '15 and Middlebury are the cream of the crop, for now. (Courtesy of Middlebury Athletics)
Hunter Merryman ’15 and Middlebury are the cream of the crop, for now. (Courtesy of Middlebury Athletics)

As NESCAC season swiftly approaches tonight, we decided to get some of our staff members involved in this week’s power rankings. Everyone should feel pretty comfortable about the top team, but after that there was a huge amount of disagreement through the middle of the ranks which, I believe, is a testament to the depth in the league this season. On the other hand, it is probably also a result of a lot of impressive records against mediocre competition. That being said, the NESCAC continues to be one of the best Division-III hoops leagues in the nation, and we don’t see that changing any time soon.

Team Average AD SM AL JM PL
Midd 1.4 2 2 1 1 1
Amherst 2.6 1 1 4 5 2
Bates 3.4 6 3 3 2 3
Williams 4.2 3 6 2 4 6
Trinity 5.2 5 4 7 6 4
Wesleyan 5.6 4 5 5 7 7
Bowdoin 6.8 9 8 6 3 8
Hamilton 7.4 7 7 9 9 5
Colby 8.6 8 10 8 8 9
Conn 10 10 9 11 10 10
Tufts 10.8 11 11 10 11 11

(Contributors to the rankings: AD = Adam Dulsky; SM = Sean Meekins; AL = Adam Lamont; PL = Pete Lindholm)

1. Middlebury (9-0)

Adam, Pete, and I agree that the Panthers appear to be the class of the ‘CAC this season. Has this team returned to the level that the program was at from 2008-2013 when it lost 18 games over the course of five seasons? Probably not. I think that if Ryan Sharry, Andrew Locke, Nolan Thompson and the rest of the 2010-11 squad walked into Pepin in their prime they would dispatch the current edition of the Panthers with relative ease. But this team is no pushover, and in what appears to be a slightly down year for the usual suspects in Amherst and Williams, Middlebury could just grab its third NESCAC title.

For me personally, this ranking was less about the 9-0 record than the fact that I’ve felt since the preseason that this was a championship-worthy roster, and with the promising early season play of a few youngsters and the recent return of Matt Daley ’16, this team is only getting stronger.

2. Amherst (8-2)

Amherst and Williams will always gain respect just based on the name, but this team looks pretty good on the floor in its own right. In watching Amherst back in early December, we had some concerns about their perimeter defense.

Amherst is still allowing too many points per game (eighth in the NESCAC with 67.2), but NESCAC Rookie of the Year candidate Johnny McCarthy ’18 is a defensive force, leading the NESCAC in steals per game to date, and David George ’17 is still fantastic at discouraging points at the rim, so it’s curious that the Lord Jeffs have allowed so many points. What they are great at, though, is scoring. When they match up with our number one team, Middlebury, it will be a must-watch just for the ability of everyone involved to put the ball in the hoop.

3. Bates (9-2)

I like Bates more than most at this point in the season. Am I just jumping on the hype train? Maybe. But it seems like senior leader Graham Safford ’15 has elevated his game both on the stat sheet and in terms of his intangibles, and has really become a Kizel/Toomey type of transcendent player. In terms of numbers, he has improved on his field goal and three point percentages while also racking up almost two more assists per game. I think Safford leads the Bobcats deep into the NESCAC tournament.

4. Williams (9-3)

I know Ephs’ fans are sick of hearing it, but imagine if they still had Duncan Robinson. That would be scary. Even without Robinson, Hayden Rooke-Ley ’15 and Dan Wohl ’15 are just filling it up. Both are above 19.0 points per game. Rooke-Ley is like Ray Allen from the line right now, which you should read more about here. Wohl is not only one of the league’s best sharp shooters, but the 6’6″ guard/forward leads the league in defensive rebounds. The one thing this team lacks is depth, as six players chew up most of the minutes for first-year coach Kevin App. Perhaps to say that the team lacks depth is the wrong way to word it, because a lot of those bench guys could get big minutes elsewhere around the league, but it could cause a problem if one of the Ephs’ stars were to go down with an injury because his replacement would lack experience. Take Rooke-Ley for example, who was only able to play 10 minutes in Williams’ last game against Endicott because of a minor injury. Unfortunately, Rooke-Ley has a long injury history at Williams, so we have to hope that nothing more serious materializes for the senior.

5. Trinity (10-2)

With the Bantams it comes down to whether or not you believe that this uptick in scoring is for real, or if they will return to their anemic offensive ways once the competition stiffens up. I think they will regress some, but Jaquann Starks ’16 is a much better offensive player than he was last year, as is Shay Ajayi ’16, someone I thought could break out for the Bantams before the season began. I think this middle of the pack prediction is pretty accurate, and I could see them stealing a game in the NESCAC tournament on the road.

6. Wesleyan (10-2)

As we mentioned a few days ago, Wesleyan is off to an historic start to the season.

Guard Harry Rafferty ’17 has become less of a distributor and more of a scorer, leading the Cardinals in points per game. He and Jack Mackey ’16 make for a scary three-point duo. Rashid Epps ’16 has continued his maturation, averaging nearly a double-double so far this season, and Joseph Kuo ’17 is a force inside, turning away more than one shot per game. There’s a lot of experience on this roster, so even though this level of success is new to this Cardinals’ roster, they should be able to stay competitive throughout conference play.

7. Bowdoin (8-3)

I ranked Bowdoin much higher than the rest of the crowd. Even Lamont, a Polar Bear himself, had Bowdoin down a few notches more than I did. But this is a team with NCAA tournament experience, and I think the presence of John Swords ’15 gives them a chance to win any game, on top of the continued strong play of point guard Bryan Hurley ’15, who I think will continue to get better and more comfortable as he gets further away from the knee surgery that kept him out for most of last season.

8. Hamilton (10-2)

Hamilton fans aren’t going to like this one. The Continentals are 10-2 and we have them ranked eighth? Well the fact of the matter is that as much as we’ve talked about soft early season schedules for NESCAC teams this year, Hamilton might take the cake. Their best win came at home by just four points to 8-5 Lycoming. Joseph Lin ’15, Peter Kazickas ’15 and Ajani Santos ’16 have all taken huge steps forward this season, but there’s not much production coming after the starting five.

9. Colby (7-5)

It will hurt me if this team fails to make the playoffs, both because they are fun to watch and I have a few personal connections to the team. But they just don’t play any defense, which is key in conference play. Opponents are shooting 41.5 percent from the floor against the Mules, and Colby has the second-worst rebounding margin in the NESCAC. They really miss power forward Patrick Stewart ’16 and the defensive presence he helped bring besides Chris Hudnut ’16. If they can’t remedy these issues then they can say good bye to their chances of playing into late February.

10. Conn College (7-4)

Conn has actually bounced back well statistically from the graduation of Matt Vadas ’14, as the Camels are averaging 71.9 points per game, actually up from last year’s 69.3 points per game. But those points aren’t coming efficiently at all, as Conn has the league’s worst shooting percentage. But be patient Camels fans. There are five first years getting double digit minutes, the team’s best player, Zuri Pavlin ’17, is but a sophomore, and Bryan Gross ’15, currently getting under 10 minutes per game, is the only senior on the roster. So there will be better times ahead.

11. Tufts (4-7)

What can we say about the Jumbos this season? Despite so much potential before the year began, exactly what we feared might happen has come to fruition. Like in years past, Tufts just can’t put the pieces together. Last year it was injuries to Tom Palleschi ’17 and Ben Ferris ’15. This year it’s simply ineffectiveness. Guys that formerly were money from beyond the arc have completely lost the ability to hit threes, Ferris looks like a shell of his Rookie of the Year Award-winning self, Palleschi is still shaking off the rust and it appears that coach Bob Sheldon can’t find a lineup he likes because almost the entire roster is getting into most games. The lone bright spot is the continued production of Hunter Sabety ’17. With him, Palleschi and guards Tarik Smith ’17, Stephen Haladyna ’16 and Vinny Pace ’18 back for 2015-16, the story will be the same next season. Loads of potential, but when will it come together for Tufts?