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.
Middlebury C Matt Daley ’16
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.
Middlebury Basketball 2016 NESCAC CHAMPS pic.twitter.com/tQBKRodtan
— Henry Pendergast (@henrypendergast) February 28, 2016
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.
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.
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.