December 8, 2013 Middlebury (5-2) @ Skidmore (3-1)
A year ago, the Thoroughbreds traveled to Middlebury and ran with the Panthers in the first half, shooting 52 percent from the field behind the play of 6’4” point guard Aldin Medunjanin, who provided as tough an individual matchup as Middlebury saw in nonconference play in 2012. Nolan Thompson struggled to keep Medunjanin from getting into the lane in the first half, but sagged off him considerably in the second half when Skidmore mustered just four field goals total as Middlebury cruised to what would be an eventual 19-point victory.
The game this year could look very different with Middlebury traveling to Saratoga, which has been a challenging place for the Panthers to get results in the past.. Also, sophomore Tanner Brooks, who finished last season as the Thoroughbreds’ second leading scorer did not face Middlebury a season ago. A 6’0” guard, Brooks provides another dynamic (if inefficient) scoring weapon in the backcourt for Skidmore. In the front court, Vermont native Connor Merril leads the way averaging 18 points per game on 57/56/77 shooting splits and scored 15 points on 6-12 shooting when he matched up with Middlebury last season. Playing alongside him is 6’5” sophomore (the Thoroughbreds class of ’16 is loaded) Erik Sanders who enters the game averaging 16.8 points per game. The starters—and really the rotation—are rounded out by Perun Kovacevic, a 6’6” forward, who did not play in Skidmore’s most recent win over SUNY Potsdam, but has averaged 9.3 points in three games this season.
Kovacevic’s availability will be something worth noting in this game because the Thoroughbreds, while talented, are as thin a team as you’ll find right now. Head coach Joe Burke leans heavily on his starters—Brooks, Medunjanin, Merrill and Sanders all average between 38 and 32 minutes per game—and only six players on the team are averaging more than 8 minutes per contest. The scoring disparity is even more concerning for the Thoroughbreds, who do not have a reserve player averaging more than 2 points per game.
Middlebury, which has placed a much greater emphasis this season on pushing the basketball in transition, will have opportunities to run against the Thoroughbreds, who shoot just 43 percent from the floor as a team and 34 percent from beyond the arc and are not a threat on the glass. Skidmore has limited its turnovers to a respectable rate (14.25 per game) but they have not been able to force many turnovers on the defensive end, likely because they cannot afford to risk their starters getting into foul trouble.
This is where Middlebury has a distinct advantage. James Jensen, Joey Kizel and Matt St. Amour have all been excellent at drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line so far this season and we would expect the Panthers to attack the heart of the Skidmore defense from the start and look to get out in transition as often as possible. Again, given the Thoroughbreds’ lack of depth and their poor rebounding statistics—they’ve been outrebounded on the season by some vertically challenged teams—it seems likely that they predominantly play zone on the defensive end.
If that is the case, Middlebury done a pretty good job so far this season against the zone, using good ball movement to find open shots. One area of concern, however, has been the Panthers’ three-point shooting woes. As a a team, Middlebury has made just 36 percent of the threes they have taken so far this season. Heading into the season what we thought would be a great strength of this team has actually been a puzzling weakness so far as Kizel and St. Amour in particular have gotten off to slow starts from beyond the arc.
Defensively, Middlebury can throw a number of different looks at Skidmore, both in man and zone. Skidmore plays predominantly with three front court players in the game, but does not boast any size that will concern the Panthers (6’10” freshman Larry Cermak is one to watch for the future though). The Thoroughbreds’ lack of size will allow Jeff Brown to mix and match lineups throughout the course of the game, which is something we’ve seen him do a lot during Middlebury’s first six games this season. Because Skidmore typically lines up with three “bigs” (though at 6’5” or 6’6” that’s a stretch), Jack Roberts should be able to matchup on a player (likely either Kovacevic or Brian Moore, who started the last game) who isn’t a real offensive threat, allowing Roberts to give backside help, which is where the majority of his blocks come from. Matching up around him will probably be a little more complicated as Jensen will likely draw Medunjanin to start the game. Kizel will likely guard Brooks, but the question then is whether St. Amour and Merryman can guard Merrill and Sanders. We’ve rarely seen Jeff Brown open a game in zone, but the matchups are such that, if he wants Jensen to guard Medunjanin, there may be a different starting lineup or some intriguing matchups to start this game.
Regardless of how the teams lineup, however, Middlebury’s depth and attacking offensive style should cause considerable problems for Skidmore, who have yet to play a team that can give as many diverse looks as Middlebury. If the Panthers can force the Thoroughbreds into turning the ball over and control the glass, the final score of the game could look similar to last year’s final. And yet Middlebury has not made things easy for themselves, particularly on the road. Whether the Panthers can execute their game plan and exploit some of the glaring weaknesses of a talented, but limited Skidmore team will say a lot about how far this team has progressed, seven games into the season.