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Road to Salem Part 8: The Road Ahead

The final episode of the Road to Salem reflects on the freshmen seasons of Matt St. Amour and Jake Brown while looking ahead to the future of the program.

Road to Salem Part 7: The End of the Road

Part 7 of the Road to Salem focuses on the team’s NESCAC tournament run from Middlebury’s victory over Hamilton to the week of preparation for the championship weekend and a trip to Amherst, Mass. The final episode will be released next week.

To Play on Sunday

At the beginning of conference play, every team shared the same goal: play on the final Sunday of NESCAC play. Four teams — Trinity, Middlebury, Williams and Amherst — have a chance to do that with a win today.

#5 TRINITY @ #1 AMHERST

In perhaps the best NESCAC game of the year so far, Trinity beat Bowdoin 71-67 in triple overtime in the NESCAC Quarterfinals a week ago to secure a place in the final four. Jaquann Starks led the Bantams with 21 points on 8-14 shooting (4-8 from beyond the arc) and Shay Ajayi and George Papadeas both logged double doubles en route to a wild victory. Trinity held Bowdoin below 34 percent from the field and, more critically, 6-34 (17.6 percent) shooting from beyond the arc. The Bantams will need a similar defensive effort and performance from Starks, as well as a considerable edge on the offensive glass — only Bates pulled down more offensive rebounds — to pull off a major upset of the Lord Jeffs today. Amherst, meanwhile, survived another scare from Colby, pulling away down the stretch, but needed the better part of 35 minutes to separate themselves from the Mules. Amherst’s wings Tom Killian and Connor Green led the way offensively, combining to score 40 points between them. Freshman center David Green had one of the best performances of his young career, scoring 10 points while pulling down 15 rebounds and blocking four shots. Aaron Toomey, meanwhile, struggled from the floor shooting just 3-14 (1-7 from three) and picked up four fouls. Depth continues to be an issue for the Lord Jeffs, who received just six points off the bench.

Last Time Around: Amherst 67-Trinity 61, Hartford, January 25
Trinity provided the mold for beating Amherst the first time the teams met, though Amherst ultimately won the game. The Bantams held the Lord Jeffs below 40 percent shooting from the floor while running them off the three-point line (7-22) and forcing David Hixon’s bench to log more minutes than he would prefer. Amherst’s talented forward Ben Pollack, who will miss the rest of the season with an injury, played 22 minutes off the bench in that game as Toomey and Kalema both got in foul trouble, limiting them to 24 and 25 minutes, respectively. On the other end, Starks and Ajayi carried the Bantam offense, combining for 35 points on 27 shots. As a team, Trinity shot just 32.8 percent from the floor, but augmented that by shooting 35 percent from beyond the arc and 76 percent from the line.

Keys to Playing on Sunday:
Trinity, the league’s most physical team, will have to knock the Lord Jeffs out of rhythm and off their spots offensively. The Bantams play to the whistle on both ends of the floor and the physical nature of their play often dictates how the game will be officiated. If Trinity can frustrate Amherst into mistakes and early foul trouble, Trinity can hang with the Lord Jeffs to the wire. The Bantams will need efficient offensive performances from Starks and Ajayi and to make plays down the stretch. For Amherst, staying out of foul trouble with a thin bench and back-to-back games will be especially important, but as long as they are close the Lord Jeffs will know that one of their patented runs at home can throttle an opponent. They’ve done it enough times before that even if Trinity controls this game most of the way, Amherst will likely have the final say.

#3 MIDDLEBURY vs. #2 WILLIAMS

The Panthers and Ephs meet for the fifth consecutive NESCAC tournament today. Both teams endured scares in the quarterfinal round, Middlebury nearly forfeiting a 22-point lead to Hamilton in the second half, while Williams came a Hunter Sabety free throw from going one-and-done in the tournament and needed overtime to overcome the Jumbos last week. For Middlebury, Hunter Merryman had 17 points on 5-6 shooting, while Joey Kizel added 14 points, four assists and six rebounds. The Panthers scored 46 first-half points while shooting 59 percent from the floor and came firing out of the gates in the second half to open a 22-point advantage off a thunderous Kizel-to-Dylan-Sinnickson alley-oop. But then Middlebury appeared to become complacent and nearly allowed the Continentals to make an historic comeback. A big and-one from Jack Roberts and Kizel free throws eventually put the game out of reach, but playing 40 minutes has consistently been a problem for the Panthers.

Last Time They Met: Williams 64-Middlebury 61, Middlebury, January 31
Middlebury dominated Williams out of the gates, shooting 50 percent from the floor while holding the Ephs to 34 percent shooting to take a 41-25 halftime lead. The Panthers extended the lead to 18 early in the second half, but then watched as Williams chipped away at the lead, ultimately taking its first lead with 39 seconds left as Middlebury failed to execute down the stretch. Part of Middlebury’s struggles were due to a shift defensively from the Ephs, who played their patented 2-3 zone in the first half, but switched to man in the second half and had far more success slowing down Middlebury’s offense. Joey Kizel struggled uncharacteristically, going 1-9 from the floor and Taylor Epley scored 11 second-half points to spur the Ephs’ comeback.

Keys to Playing Sunday:
Middlebury has executed its sets very effectively against the zone, particularly when Dylan Sinnickson is on the floor and can get good looks from beyond the arc. The first time these teams played, Middlebury was coming off an eight-day layoff and Jeff Brown got creative attacking the Ephs zone. Coach Brown consistently placed point guard Jake Brown in the middle of the 2-3 at the foul line, where the freshman would catch, draw defenders and then dish to his teammates on the perimeter for open looks from  beyond the arc. Brown played 21 minutes off the bench and scored seven points to go along with five rebounds and five assists. Sinnickson and Merryman were the main beneficiaries of the move, which gave them open looks in rhythm from deep. On the other end, Middlebury was consistently victimized by the Ephs’ range as Williams shot 6-11 from beyond the arc in the second half. The Panthers were particularly susceptible off of out of bounds plays in the 3-2 zone. The zone (which a lot of teams employ defensively with the ball under their own basket) is designed to allow opposing teams to catch away from the hoop, but to stop easy layups off of well-run screens in the paint. Against Williams, layups would have been preferable as the Ephs found Epley and Duncan Robertson as the safety man — and admittedly a good distance behind the three-point arc — who would use the space to get a clean look from three. When Middlebury did effectively close out on the first pass, Williams employed good ball movement to get looks for Epley, Robinson and Mike Greenman anyway.

Matchups to Watch
The Ephs and Panthers have a number of interesting head-to-head matchups on both ends of the floor. Michael Mayer and Jack Roberts have squared off a number of times with mixed results. Roberts has enjoyed the best season of his career on both ends of the floor and will have a chance to go one-on-one with Mayer, at least to begin the game. On the perimeter, James Jensen will likely guard Robinson once again. Alongside Tom Killian, Jensen is perhaps the only natural defender for a guy like Duncan Robinson and demonstrated so the first time these teams played, limiting Robinson to just four shots, blanketing him across the court. Robinson still managed to score 10 points, a testament to his tremendous shooting range and absurd efficiency, but Jensen is as good an antidote to the freshman phenom as there is. Another battle to keep an eye on is former high school teammates and good friends Merryman and Daniel Wohl. Merryman got the better of Wohl the last time these teams played, but Wohl and Williams have beaten the Panthers three straight times, including last year’s NESCAC semifinals when Wohl burned Middlebury for 19 points off the bench shortly after returning from illness. Finally, Middlebury and Williams have a pair of electric guards in Greenman and Brown who have made big contributions as the season has progressed and could spend a considerable amount of time going head-to-head in this game. The return of Hayden Rooke-Ley will diminish some of Greenman’s minutes, but there was no bigger player for the Ephs down the stretch against Tufts as Greenman made back-to-back baskets to give Williams a lead in the final minute.

It May Come Down To: Which team has to play more zone
Both of these teams were burned when they played zone in late January and for Middlebury, going zone would likely mean that Roberts picks up early fouls or struggles to contain Mayer without help. The Panthers were effective earlier in the year playing their extended zone  against teams, but Williams has too much firepower offensively from the perimeter to consistently close out on shooters. On the other end, Dylan Sinnickson has proven to be a one-man zone-breaker all season long, but the Panthers have executed especially well of late against the zone and had their best half of the season against the Ephs — and a similar performance against Bowdoin — when they tried to slow Middlebury with the zone. While both boast an arsenal of perimeter weapons, the Roberts-Mayer matchup on the block will set the tone for everything that happens around it. If Roberts takes the upper hand on both ends, Middlebury will find themselves playing on Sunday.

Gone Fishin’: A Look at the Teams Watching from Home

We’re down to the final four, and while this weekend will be about the excitement and drama going down in LeFrak, it’s always fun to take a moment to reflect on how we got here.  Seven teams (unless Bowdoin gets an at-large bid) have played their last game this season, and here’s a recap of each team’s journey.

#11 BATES (11-13, 1-9)

Boy, did things look good out of the gate for the Bobcats. Bates won six of its first seven, including a non-league game on the road at Colby, and eight of its first 12, the last being a buzzer-beating victory over Middlebury, who’s still alive. As it turned out, that win would be Bates’ only in the conference and the Bobcats ended the year with four consecutive losses.

MVP: Graham Safford, Senior
The captain started every game, played 33.0 minutes per contest, and led the team in scoring and assists. Sophomore guard Mike Boornazian also had a very impressive season, but Safford was the team’s heartbeat, and hit the big shot in the team’s biggest win of the season. Speaking of which…

High Point: Win at Middlebury 64-61
Looking back on the conference season’s opening weekend, this game seemed to confirm the worries of many a Panther fan who thought that the departures of Jake Wolfin, Nolan Thompson and Peter Lynch would spell the end of the era of Panther dominance, and lifted Bates to the top of the list of candidates for surprise team of the year. The next weekend Bates lost both games by a combined 26 points, and Middlebury is preparing for a semifinals tilt. Be wary of jumping to conclusions.

Most Impressive Newcomer(s): The Delpeche Brothers
Malcolm played more minutes than Marcus and poured it in at a 63.7 percent clip, but both had solid first seasons. Bates fans hope that these two will continue to develop together, pushing one another and using the chemistry that they have no doubt been fostering their entire lives. They should be a force for the next three years.

#10 CONNECTICUT COLLEGE (9-14, 2-8)
Despite an abysmal season, the Camels were actually still alive heading into the final weekend of NESCAC play. Then they got blown out by Williams (the Ephs were up 17 with 2:14 to play) and Hamilton (who won by 17). It was the Matt Vadas show all season, as it has been for years now. The senior guard became the Camels’ all-time leading scorer in the penultimate game against Williams and also holds the record for most three pointers in school history.

MVP: Zuri Pavlin, First-year
Tradition says that you give the MVP to your senior captain and all-time points leader, but I think Pavlin was actually more productive. Vadas was a 40 percent shooter. Good, but not great. Meanwhile, the 6’5” Pavlin shot 46 percent on the year and, get this, set the school’s single season rebounding record. As a first-year. The guy averaged a double-double (10.5, 10.8). Now if only he could fly, he’d be amazing.

High Point: Breaking Records
I hate to belabor the point, but this team wasn’t good, and the only thing that really stood out were some great individual seasons, namely that of Vadas and Pavlin. But, three of the team’s top five point-scorers will be back next year, one being first-year Alex Hall who played only 15.6 minutes per game, so things may be looking up for the Camels.

Most Improved: Mason Lopez, Senior
Lopez didn’t start at all last year and only played in 14 games, averaging 7.2 points per game. This season Lopez started 18 games and played 29.5 minutes per game, becoming a three-point threat and chipping in with a few boards and assists per game.

#9 WESLEYAN (11-13, 4-6)

The Cardinals were a playoff team last year at 4-6 in the NESCAC. This season they weren’t so lucky, and they needed to beat Williams on the season’s final day to get in, but weren’t up to the challenge. Wesleyan was competitive against everyone in the league except Amherst and Williams, and got the majority of its minutes from underclassmen, seeing as there were only two seniors on the roster. Following the departure of Shasha Brown, Derrick Beresford and Mike Callaghan — all of them 1,000-point scorers — head coach Joe Reilly should be pleased with the competitiveness of this young, developing group.

MVP: Rashid Epps, Sophomore
This is a tough one, because a lot of guys were really close statistically, but Epps provided the only real inside presence for Wesleyan. The sophomore was a very efficient scorer and snagged 9.2 rebounds per game. The 6’5” Harlem native should only get better with a talented young group around him.

High Point: Four-Game Winning Streak between January and February
Between Jan. 25 and Feb. 4., the Cardinals got three of their four conferences victories and squeaked out a win against in-state rival Eastern Connecticut. The team lit it up from deep over that stretch (45 percent) and gave themselves a shot at the NESCAC tournament.

Most Impressive Newcomer: Harry Rafferty
I said that the Cardinals will bring back a young core, but the team’s two through five scorers were all sophomores this season. Wesleyan’s top scorer was freshman point guard Harry Rafferty, off a post-grad year at Philips Exeter. Rafferty put up a 12.6, 3.9, 2.4 line, one of the best first-year performances in the conference.

(Another newcomer to take note of is Joseph Kuo, a 6’8” New Yorker who got limited playing time, but swatted a shot per game. There’s not a ton of 6’8” bodies in this league, maybe one per team. It will be interesting to see what he becomes.)

#8 COLBY (14-11, 4-6)

Much like the Cardinals, Colby will go into next season with high hopes while bringing back almost everyone. The Mules will graduate three seniors, none of whom played more than 4.3 minutes per game. The top five scorers for Colby were all sophomores, and five players (four sophomores, one junior) accounted for 95 percent of the starts, a sign of the team’s consistency and usually a good sign for a young core growing up together.

MVP: Chris Hudnut, Sophomore
An offense-first player, the 6’8” Hudnut is a true center with a good mid-range jump shot and nice touch around the basket. He runs the floor pretty well for a big guy, but he’s a killer in the halfcourt. Not afraid to shoot, he took 14.2 shots per game on his way to averaging 17.5 points per game. The sophomore big shot just 46.5 percent from the field, but given his range and developing three-point shot (29 percent on 2.5 attempts per game) his comparatively low efficiency numbers are buoyed somewhat. He’s also a good free throw shooter (78.3 percent), which is always a question mark when you’re talking about big guys. He can also rebound his position, averaging 8.4 rebounds per game, the fourth most in the conference. Finally, he’s an effective passer out of the paint, tallying 2.5 assists per game (and an eye-popping 3.4 in conference play, the 10th most in the NESCAC).

High Point: 80-75 Win vs. Amherst, January 31, 2014
The Lord Jeffs, the top seed in the NESCAC and number one in the most recent Northeast Regional Rankings, lost just three games this season. One was to a D-II school, Nova Southeastern, one was a shocker at Emerson (13-13) and the third as a conference defeat in Waterville on the last day of January, snapping a 25-game conference winning streak for Amherst. How did the Mules do it? It was a strange game in that only one player from each bench reached double digit minutes. Aaron Toomey scored 26 for the Lord Jeffs, but he was nearly matched by Colby’s Patrick Stewart who had 25. Amherst handily won the rebounding battle, turnovers were even at seven a-piece and three-point shooting was comparable. The factors in favor of Colby were assists (Colby had 23 to Amherst’s 10, evidence of great ball movement) and overall field goal percentage. Amherst shot 38.9 percent, but Colby converted at a 50.8 percent clip. Though the Lord Jeffs got their revenge in the first round of the NESCAC playoffs, this game was proof that Colby’s impressive young roster can compete with the league’s best.

The Robin Award (i.e. Batman and Robin): Luke Westman, Sophomore
While Hudnut is a score-first player, Westman is the type that makes everyone around him better, and is already extremely polished. Westman shot 65.2 percent from the field, far and away the best number among guards in the NESCAC, and second overall in conference behind seven footer John Swords. Westman started every game for the Mules and played high-volume minutes (30.5 mpg). He’s steady from the line (77.6 percent), a good rebounder for a guard (4.7 rebounds per game) and a solid playmaker (4.3 assists per game, 1.8 assist:turnover). When watching Colby play, it’s easy to miss the sophomore’s brilliance. He might never get First Team All-NESCAC consideration because he will likely always defer to Hudnut, Stewart and Ryan Jann, but he’s an integral cog in what this team can accomplish in the next two seasons.

#7 TUFTS (13-12, 4-6)

Some, myself included, had tufts pegged as this season’s breakout team. The Jumbos went 7-3 in the NESCAC last season and hosted a playoff game. Despite the loss of 2013 Rookie of the Year, Tom Palleschi to injury and the graduation of All-NESCAC Scott Anderson, the arrival of one of the league’s most talented first-years in forward Hunter Sabety and the return of productive guards Ben Ferris, Stephen Haladyna, Kwame Firempong and Oliver Cohen boded well for a step forward in 2014. Unfortunately, injuries to Ferris and Haladyna stopped Tufts from getting in a rhythm early in the year. Though Sabety was everything coach Bob Sheldon could have hoped for and senior forward Tommy Folliard took a large step forward, the Jumbos could not replace Palleschi and endured a disappointing campaign. Tufts will graduate Cohen, but a healthy core of Ferris, Haladyna and Sabety could make some noise next season.

MVP: Stephen Haladyna, Sophomore
This was another tough call. Ferris, a former Rookie of the Year himself, played only 14 games. Oliver Cohen did his job well, which meant distributing the basketball, racking up 4.9 assists per game, but his struggles from the field (37.2 percent) were too great to ignore. Coach Sheldon had to be pleased with the performance of senior guard Kwame Firempong, who tallied 11.9 points per game, but he, too, was inefficient from the floor (39.2 percent) and was a negative when he tried to shoot threes (32.2 percent). Sabety was, at times, dominant. We continue to reference the first half against Middlebury when Sabety went 8-8 and made it look easy. But that reminds us of the second half, and how Matt Daley was able to get into the first-year’s head. Sabety was limited to 22.9 mpg, partially because of his repeated bouts with foul trouble. And so the honor falls, almost by default, to Haladyna. The guard played and started 21 games, was second on the team in scoring, shot 42.9 percent, 81.6 percent from the line, and added 3.6 rebounds per game and 1.0 assists per game. Those numbers might not jump off the page, but he was consistent, which is something that can’t be said for many of the Jumbos this season.

High Point: NESCAC Quarterfinals Loss at Williams, 87-77 (OT)
It may be hard to justify a loss as a high point in the season, but bear with me. This season was a frustrating one for the Jumbos, one in which they failed to rack up any signature victories. It was the type of season where one must take solace in the dreaded ‘moral victory’. But honestly, for a team that lost by 23 to Williams two weeks before, they have to be proud of the fact that they took a top-10 team to overtime on its home floor in a playoff game. One might argue that the previous weekend, in which the Jumbos won two games to get into the tournament, including besting Bowdoin 66-62, was the high point for Tufts. But I don’t think anyone at Tufts started the season with the goal being to squeak into the playoffs as the seventh seed. They thought they could win it all. That won’t happen this year, but Tufts will look to rebound next year and make another run.

Most Impressive Newcomer: Hunter Sabety
We’ve talked about the super-talented first-year quite a bit. He just looks extremely athletic. At 6’8” 240lbs, he’s also pretty big. He knows how to use his body already on offense, and he is a force on defense as well, leading the league in blocked shots with 2.8 per game. He could contribute more consistently on the boards (6.6 rebounds per game), but he’s another guy that’s very efficient, scoring at a 65 percent clip, good for third in the NESCAC. The 2017 class could be one of the Jumbos’ beset in recent years. Point guard Tarik Smith played in every game this year and should replace Cohen in 2014-15. The last member of the class, forward Drew Madsen, was slightly disappointing, but he, too, looks like an athlete, and showed flashes. That trio, alongside Ferris and Haladyna, should form the beginning of a competitive rotation for the Jumbos.

#6 HAMILTON (14-11, 5-5)

Hamilton’s best player (spoiler alert) was sophomore guard Matt Hart. The only problem? As Hart went, so went the Continentals. Hamilton ranked fourth in the conference in ppg, but dead last in points allowed, combining for a differential of +2.3. Hamilton had no second scoring threat after Hart, and all in all lacked size. Nevertheless, they finished in the middle of the NESCAC, a testament to just how effective the offense could be.

MVP: Matt Hart, sophomore
Hart was the conference’s leading scorer at 20.6 ppg. In conference, that average went up to 21.0 ppg. In wins and losses he scored nearly the same number of points, but in Hamilton’s wins he hit shots at a 53.3 percent clip while he was a 41.1 percent shooter in defeat. The latter number isn’t terrible, but goes to show that there was no one to pick up the slack when Hart struggled. Hart had some big games in the NESCAC: 27 vs. Bowdoin, 30 vs. Middlebury, 29 at Conn. College. But Hart struggled in the Continentals playoff rematch with Middlebury. He notched just 11 points, most coming at the very end while the contest was slipping out of reach.

High Point: Wins vs. Middlebury, Bates and Tufts, Feb. 2-8
The Continentals rattled off three straight conference wins at home in early February, the first by a combined four points before torching Bates by 24. That stretch propelled Hamilton firmly into the playoffs. Unfortunately, all of those wins came at home, where the Continentals earned four of their five conference wins, and when playoff time rolled around, Hamilton looked outmatched on the road in Pepin.

Who’s Next?: Jack Donnelly, Sophomore
Slightly different approach here with Hamilton. Given that no one else really stood out consistently, I decided to predict who will step up next year and give Hart some support. Donnelly is just 6’0”, and not particularly athletic, but he’s a very efficient shooter at 45.2 percent from the floor and 46.3 percent from deep, and takes good care of the basketball with a 2.4 assist-to-turnover ratio. His starting spot next year is not guaranteed. Senior Greg Newton will graduate, but junior guard Joseph Lin and freshman guard Kyle Pitman each played in 25 games this year, so there will be competition.

#5 BOWDOIN (19-5, 6-4)

The final NCAA Northeast Regional Rankings have Bowdoin at number seven, on the bubble for an at-large bid. At one point the Polar Bears looked like a lock for the postseason. They lost one game before February, but then went just 3-3 in the lead up to Selection Monday. They continually played to the level of their competition, losing by a total of 8 to Williams and Amherst but beating Bates by just three in early December in a non-conference game. At their best, Bowdoin could beat anyone in the NESCAC, but they became increasingly inconsistent over the course of the year, and failed to lock down a signature win, losing close games to the NESCAC’s top three seeds. Not having a healthy Bryan Hurley (9.4 points per game 4.0 rebounds per game, 8.3 assists per game in 2012-13) hurt, too.

MVP: John Swords, Junior
You can’t teach height. The tallest player in the NESCAC was dominant this year. Swords led the league in field goal percentage at 68.7 percent and was second to Pavlin in rebounds per game with 9.5, while tying with Middlebury’s Jack Roberts for second with 2.5 blocks per game while anchoring the NESCAC’s toughest defense. The drawbacks? Swords drew 2.9 fouls per game, limiting the conference’s best two-way big man to just 28 minutes per game. Additionally, teams could employ the hack-a-Swords technique if need be down the stretch and put the 53.3 percent foul shooter on the line. Offensively, one would expect someone so big and efficient to score more points, but Swords often looked to pass out of the post. I expect him to take over the game more next season with another year of experience under his belt.

High Point: 12-0 Start
Bowdoin had never before gone 5-0, so the hot start was something special for the Polar Bears. Even if their season is done, 19 wins would tie for the second-most victories in school history (22-7 in 2007-08), and represent a huge step forward from last year’s 14-10 finish.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Andrew Madlinger, Senior; Matt Mathias, Senior; Grant White, Senior
Bowdoin went with the same starting five every game this season, including Swords, fellow junior Keegan Pieri and the above trio of seniors. Madlinger was second on the Polar Bears with 12.1 points per game. Both he and White snagged more than four rebounds per game, though neither is taller than 6’4”. Mathias was a great distributor, handing out 3.8 assists per game, while making 43.0 percent of his threes. This season, these three helped Gilbride get his 400th victory (one of two active NESCAC coaches to reach that milestone) and entered the Bowdoin College record books with their flawless start to the season. Over the course of their careers, the seniors went 64-33 (.660).

 

NESCAC Quarterfinal Previews

This post is the cumulative work of our team at Panther Nation. Peter Lindholm previewed Colby-Amherst, Joe MacDonald covered Tufts-Williams, Damon Hatheway wrote Hamilton-Middlebury and Adam Lamont previewed Trinity-Bowdoin.

THE MATCHUP: #8 COLBY at #1 AMHERST
When: Saturday, Feb. 22, 4 PM

How They Got Here: The defending national champion Lord Jeffs would have run the table for the third consecutive time in the NESCAC had it not been for an 80-75 loss at Colby in late January. Even with that blemish, however, the Lord Jeffs have been the class of the conference once again, finishing 9-1 with the conference’s top seed. Colby, on the other hand, set themselves up in the final weekend for a chance to be as high as the five seed, only to lose a seedings-flipping loss to Tufts, dropping the Mules to the eight seed and giving the Jumbos postseason life.

Last Time They Met: 80-75 Colby (January 31, Waterville, Maine)
The Mules of Colby College pulled off easily the biggest upset of this NESCAC season, beating the defending national champions, Amherst. It was Amherst’s first league loss since 2011, and remains their only NESCAC loss of the season.  It took a nearly perfect performance from Colby, and they got it. The Mules shot 50.8 percent from the floor, highlighted by a 25-point, 5-10 from three showing from Patrick Stewart.

What’s Changed: Amherst is Amherst.
Amherst appears to have recovered fully from the “Thrill in Waterville,” winning their last five games by an average margin of 16 points a game. Colby has continued their momentum, winning 4 of their last 6, including an impressive win over Bates in Lewiston. As is the case in maybe every game Amherst plays, they are the heavy favorite, but Colby has proven that they have a formula to pull off another upset.

The Lord Jeffs have another set of nets they'd like to cut down.

The Lord Jeffs have another set of nets they’d like to cut down.

Keys to the Game:
Maybe the most important thing Colby has to do to have a chance is to feed sophomore big man Chris Hudnut early and often. In the first half of their game against Amherst, Middlebury was able to exploit a size advantage inside against the Lord Jeffs, and the Panthers certainly don’t have an inside threat on par with Hudnut, who’s averaging 18 points and 9 rebounds per game this year. If Hudnut’s presence is established early, Amherst will be forced to double him, which will open up outside shots for Stewart and Ryan Jann (44- and 37-percent shooters from three, respectively).

Then there’s the Aaron Toomey problem.  Toomey is clearly a great scorer, probably the best in NESCAC, but he is arguably more dangerous when he is involving his other electric teammates, like Tom Killian, David Kalema and Conner Green. If Toomey’s other teammates are well covered, he has tendency to force shots to overcompensate, primarily deep threes. If Colby can handle the other three primary scoring options, and force Toomey to be trigger happy off the dribble, they have a chance to pull off a rare double upset.

As for Amherst, all they really have to do is be Amherst. The Lord Jeffs have so much more talent than the Mules, that if they play close to their full strength, this shouldn’t be much of a contest.

Prediction: 80-65 Amherst
As Luke Skywalker proved in A New Hope, and Colby confirmed on January 31, anything is possible. Beating Amherst once in a season has proven to be an enormous task the past three years. Beating the Lord Jeffs twice in the same season would seem to be impossible. Colby has a sophomore class that will haunt teams in the year(s) to come, but they don’t appear to be ready to go toe-to-toe with Amherst in LeFrak just yet.

THE MATCHUP: #7 TUFTS at #2 WILLIAMS
When: Saturday, Feb. 22, 3 PM

How They Got Here:
The Jumbos squeezed their way into the playoffs last weekend by the slimmest of margins. Tufts, Colby and Wesleyan all finished 4-6 in conference play, having gone all 1-1 against each other. Therefore, in order to decide which two of those three would move on to the playoffs, it came down to records against the conference’s top-four teams (Amherst, Williams, Middlebury and Bowdoin). Wesleyan threw up a fat oh-fer against the top tier, while Colby upset Amherst in Waterville at the end of January and Tufts surprised the Polar Bears in Medord in the teams’ regular-season finale. From there, the Jumbos were given the nod for the seventh seed based on their overtime victory over Colby last Friday night. The Jumbos’ reward? A first-round playoff matchup on the road with the ninth-ranked team in the nation.

Aside from the season-opening, jaw-dropping loss at what turned out to be a neutral site against Southern Vermont, Williams has only lost once in Williamstown this year — to top-seeded Amherst. As the Pepin-faithful witnessed on that miserable Friday evening in January, this team knows how to win. They came storming back from a 16-point halftime deficit to beat the Panthers by three on the road, and rest assured they will not be surprised in the game’s first 20 minutes like they were against the Panthers.

Last Time They Met: Williams 93-Tufts 70 (February 8, Williamstown, Mass.)
Tufts was in the game on the Ephs’ Senior Night for about 15 minutes. The teams were tied with 5:33 to play in the first half at 23-23. From that point on, the Ephs outscored Tufts 21-2 to close out the first half up 44-25. The Jumbos trailed by 30 at one point in the second half, and never got closer than 16. And all this was done without Williams’ senior Taylor Epley.

Duncan Robinson had 25 points and 10 rebounds the first time these teams met.

Duncan Robinson had 25 points and 10 rebounds the first time these teams met.

First-year Duncan Robinson, the conference’s most efficient scorer, had a monster game, scoring 25 points and grabbing 10 boards for the Ephs. Senior Michael Mayer had an almost equally dominant night, scoring 23 and snagging 10 boards. The Ephs played zone for 40 minutes and forced the Jumbos to shoot over their 2-3 look. The strategy was effective for Williams, as Tufts shot 9-32 from deep, good for 28 percent, equal to the Jumbos’ three-point-shooting percentage in conference. The zone helped to neutralize Tufts’ first-year big man Hunter Sabety, who scored eight on 3-7 shooting and had only four rebounds. Sabety, Tufts’ top scorer, would be worth of Rookie of the Year honors were it not for the incredible season of Robinson. But as with many talented young players, Sabety sometimes faded in big moments. Aside from the beat down against Williams, Sabety scored 10 on 3-10 shooting in the regular season finale, a game that Tufts needed to win to make the tournament, and Middlebury fans saw both sides of the talented big man in Pepin when he went 8-8 from the field in the first half and had his way with the Panthers’ big men and then went quiet in the second half as Middlebury fronted him.

The Williams’ zone, with Mayer at the heart, dominated the paint. The Ephs had 50 rebounds to the Jumbos 44, and scored an amazing 52 points in the paint compared to just 22 for Tufts.

What’s changed: The return of Taylor Epley.
The big difference in this game will be the presence of Taylor Epley. Epley is a key factor for Williams, although with their depth the Ephs didn’t miss a beat last time against Tufts. Epley played in 21 games this year, starting 20 and averaged 13.5 points per game. Last year, Epley led the Ephs with 18.5 points per game, and for his career has 1,336 points, good for 12th on Williams’ all-time list. In Epley’s absence, Robinson has more than filled the void, but his return will just add another weapon for Williams.

Another Williams starter was on the shelf for the Ephs in their last match up with Tufts: junior point guard Hayden Rooke-Ley. It is unclear whether or not Rooke-Ley will return to the lineup this Saturday, but if he does, a full starting lineup of Daniel Wohl, Rooke-Ley, Robinson, Epley and Mayer should overpower the Jumbos.

Matchup to watch: Sabety vs. the Williams Zone
As mentioned above, the Ephs contained Sabety by playing zone all game long, winning the rebounding battle and keeping Tufts’ offense out of the paint. The only scorers in double figures for Tufts were sophomore guard Stephen Haladyna and senior guard Kwame Firempong. Both shot well against the zone and Haladyna, at 6’5”, has the height to shoot over the zone, particularly if Rooke-Ley (6’1”) and especially Mike Greenman (5’8”) are in the game. But for Tufts to have a chance, they need to get more production in the paint from Sabety with a little help from fellow first-year Drew Madsen and senior Tommy Folliard. In general, everyone on Tufts will have to play their best game, including junior Ben Ferris, a former Rookie of the Year who was hampered by injury early on and has had a disappointing season. But the Jumbos’ offense needs to get effective touches inside.

Prediction: 79-65 Williams
With the Jumbos playing the best basketball of their season, Tufts should stay competitive as they fight to play one more game. But there is too much experience and talent on the court for Williams for Tufts to handle. Mayer is what Sabety could be in a year or two, but Sabety doesn’t yet show the consistency that Mayer has. Mayer, Epley and Rooke-Ley (who will graduate in 2015 after receiving a redshirt last year), along with role players Matt McCreary, John Weinheimer and Greg Payton, have been Ephs for 112 games and have won 93 of those contests. They have been to two NCAA tournaments (and almost certainly will return this year) and experienced a Final Four their freshmen season. Add to that the incredible talent of Robinson and fellow first-year Daniel Aronowitz, and Williams boasts a well-rounded roster with experience that Tufts could not match in their first meeting, and likely will not this time around.

THE MATCHUP: #6 HAMILTON at #3 MIDDLEBURY
When: Saturday, Feb. 22, 1 PM

How They Got Here: Middlebury’s regular season play was bookended by losses, tipping off with a three-point loss to Bates at home and culminating in a 17-point loss at Amherst. In between, the Panthers went 6-2 in the NESCAC, losing back-to-back games to Williams and the Continentals by a total of five points. Middlebury’s best conference victory was a 69-66 win over Bowdoin. The Panthers also needed last-second shots to beat Wesleyan and Conn. College on the road. Hamilton, on the other hand lost four of its first six games before finishing the season 4-1 to go 5-5 in conference. The Continentals were far better at home at Scott Field House than they were on the road, which accounted for four of their five conference losses.

Last Time They Met: Hamilton 76-Middlebury 74 (February 2, Clinton, N.Y.)
Hamilton went on a 32-12 run over the final 9:46 of the first half and the first 3:59 of the second half to take a commanding 14-point lead that Middlebury needed just 6:21 to erase. But Matt Hart made too many big shots down the stretch before Greg Newton won the game for the Continentals with six seconds left, negating a 19-point second half effort from Joey Kizel. Hart had one of the best performances of his career, scoring 30 points on 10 of 21 shooting from the field.

What’s Changed: Middlebury’s health
Matt St. Amour had one of his best games in conference play the first time these teams met, scoring 12 points on 4-6 shooting. Two days later, St. Amour endured a season-ending injury at Keene State, cutting an up-and-down, but promising freshman season short. Matt Daley, who sat the first time these teams played will also watch the rest of Middlebury’s season from the bench as his attempt to return from multiple illnesses has proven unsuccessful. The Panthers therefore go into the postseason missing two of their opening-day starters due to a combination of injury and illness. Tightening the rotation hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing for the Panthers, but Middlebury has done a conspicuously good job of staying out of foul trouble and any further injuries or untimely whistles down the stretch for the Panthers will loom large.

Matt Hart, the NESCAC's leading scorer, burned the Panthers late in Hamilton's 76-74 regular season victory.

Matt Hart, the NESCAC’s leading scorer, burned the Panthers late in Hamilton’s 76-74 regular season victory.

Matchup to Watch: Matt Hart
The electric sophomore proved too much for Middlebury the first time these teams met, despite a variety of different looks from Middlebury defenders. Jeff Brown has a quartet of defenders he can throw at Hart in Kizel, Jake Brown, James Jensen and Nate Bulluck, who provide a different combination of size, speed, strength and length. Whatever the case, no single Middlebury defender will matchup with Hart as Jeff Brown mixes and matches different looks in an attempt to keep the NESCAC’s leading scorer off balance.

Prediction: Middlebury 81-Hamilton 67
The Continentals (ironically?) have struggled to win on the road this season and while Pepin Gymnasium has not provided Middlebury its traditional home-court advantage this season, the Panthers have played far better at home of late. Middlebury has not lost at home and on the road to the same team in four seasons and has won each of its last six NESCAC quarterfinal matchups. Hamilton has exceeded expectations this season and has a player in Matt Hart who has the potential to singlehandedly keep his team in games, but behind Kizel this senior class should have more than enough to come away with a win in its final game in Pepin Gymnasium.

THE MATCHUP: #5 TRINITY at #4 BOWDOIN
When: Saturday, Feb. 22, 4 PM

How They Got Here: Bowdoin made a strong run as the NESCAC’s dark horse team, entering conference play undefeated and playing everyone on their schedule close. The wheels fell off down the stretch, however, as Bowdoin lost at Middlebury and at Tufts to finish a middling 6-4 as the tournament’s fourth seed. The four conference losses are the Polar Bears’ only four on the year, however, and Bowdoin remains a threat to make a run in both the NESCAC and the NCAA Tournament. Trinity, meanwhile, suffocated its opponents with physical defense and just enough offense to squeeze its way into the five seed after a 5-5 slate in NESCAC play.

Last Time They Met: Bowdoin 46-Trinity 39 (January 31, Brunswick, Maine)
The teams played one of the most physical and low-scoring games in NESCAC history on January 31. The game was more like a rugby match at times and the final score was reminiscent of a JV basketball game rather than two of more competitive NESCAC teams this season. Quite literally it was a game the likes of which we haven’t seen in 65 years.  Per the Bowdoin Athletic Department, the 46 points was the lowest amount of points Bowdoin had scored in a victory since 1949 when the Polar Bears defeated the University of Maine 42-33. That game also didn’t have a three-point line and in this year’s clanger the two teams combined for 35 attempted threes, but made just five. Nobody had a game to remember with John Swords leading all scorers with 11 points. George Papadeas almost brought Trinity back with his play in the second half, posting nine points and nine rebounds. The game was close the whole time with neither team leading by more than 10 points at any point. Trinity and Bowdoin are great defensive teams that both made it impossible to get easy layups. The difference came at the free throw line where Trinity faltered, going 5-13. Bowdoin was they made their free throws when they had to and as a veteran team didn’t lose their composure when they struggled to score.

What’s Changed: Not a whole lot
Besides Bowdoin’s loss to Tufts, the two teams have won the games they were favored in and lost as underdogs. Trinity still has a balanced attack that is led by forward Shay Ajayi and point guard Jaquann Starks. They have a good frontcourt that is physical on both ends of the flor. It looked like their offense was starting to come together, but last weekend’s 45-point output against Middlebury was a definite setback. Bowdoin remains centered on the play of John Swords in the middle on both offense and defense. On the perimeter Andrew Madlinger has continued to shoot a high volume of threes. Last time the team’s played was Bryan Hurley’s second game back from injury. He played 13 minutes in that game, but did not record a single statistic besides minutes. He remained scoreless the next three games he played, but he seemed to break out against Bates last Friday playing 22 minutes and hitting three treys, including one from NBA range.  Yet the next day he only played 11 minutes, missing the only shot he took.  He can’t move as well as usual because of the brace he wears, but is still effective from downtown if he can get some open looks. There isn’t any reason to expect a very different game from the first time these teams played.

Keys to the Game:
1) Trinity three point shooting: A big reason Trinity poured 90 on Connecticut College earlier this season was that the Bantams shot 11-19 from beyond the arc. Compare that to a 1-9 performance against Middlebury last week and you start to get a sense of the feast or famine nature of their offense. Trinity does not have a pure shooter on the roster who can be counted on to make shots down the stretch. Starks attempts 4.9 field goals per game, but shoots less than 35 percent from the floor. Trinity’s two best hopes of scoring are getting John Swords into foul trouble or hitting outside shots. Even if Swords does get into foul trouble, the Trinity front court will not dominate Bowdoin’s Keegan Pieri, Matt Palecki and Neil Fuller. Bowdoin’s weakness on defense lies on the perimeter as seen by the big games Duncan Robinson, Connor Green and Stephen Haladyna enjoyed against the Polar Bears. Starks and Ajayi (11 points per game on 39/42/76 shooting) will need to make the most of the looks they get from deep. If Trinity hits some threes and shoot better than their 68 percent team average from the free throw line, their offense might have enough firepower to upset Bowdoin.

2) Rebounding Margin: Both teams are exceptional rebounding teams. People don’t concentrate on it when discussing why defenses are exceptional, but holding opponents to one shot is an extremely effective way of stopping teams. Bowdoin out-rebounds teams by 9.3 boards per game and Trinity is even better averaging 10 rebounds more than their opponents per game. In low-scoring games an extra possession carries even more importance than usual. Obviously Swords is a huge presence in terms of rebounds, but the battle will really be won by the other guys on the court like Grant White and Keegan Pieri for Bowdoin and Shay Ajayi and Edward Ogundeko for Trinity. In the first game rebounding kept the Bantams in the game as they had 17 offensive rebounds. A repeat performance of that would be huge for Trinity.

3) Lucas Hausman: He is the most effective player for Bowdoin creating his own shot. That isn’t always the most high-percentage shot, but when Hausman is on his game the Bowdoin offense is much more dynamic. He often plays in more bench-heavy lineups where his scoring is even more important given the lack of other options. His favorite move is a drive left into a spin and a fade-away jumper. Trinity plays man so even if Hausman isn’t scoring but gets into the lane and draws defenders, he could make the Bowdoin offense go.

At the 43-second mark, Hausman successfully executes the move, but then nearly travels at the 1:13 mark.

Prediction: Bowdoin 57-49
Those looking for an explosion offense will have to look elsewhere, but what this game will lack in scoring it should make up with intensity and defense. While it’s reasonable to expect both teams to make offensive adjustments, Trinity’s lack of scoring options down the stretch will continue to plague the Bantams. On the other end, the Polar Bears have won their fair share of close games and have better options late in games. Polar Bears by eight.