The NESCAC is arguably the top conference in all of Division III basketball (combined 71% winning percentage vs. non-conference opponents over the last two seasons), and this year the top tier of the conference goes deeper than any year in recent memory. We wouldn’t be surprised to see any of Amherst, Middlebury, Wesleyan, Tufts or Williams spend some time ranked in the top 25 nationally this season.
During the last four years, Middlebury has undeniably been the class of the conference, picking up two conference championships, two second-place finishes, and putting up a winning record against every opposing school (including a 38-0 record against non-Williams/Amherst opponents). The Panthers’ championship game streak is in serious jeopardy this season, however, as they will face tough matchups throughout the season.
Here is our breakdown of Middlebury’s NESCAC schedule (last year’s record in parentheses):
Jan. 4: BATES (13-13, 5-5)
Details: Friday, 6:00pm (at Bates)
Last year: Middlebury 79-57
Though now without star forward John Squires, Bates is returning three of its top four players, led by 6’6” senior center Ed Bogdanovich (10.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg). The Bobcats boast two of the top young guards in the conference in junior Luke Matarazzo (8.1 ppg) and sophomore Graham Safford (6.8 ppg). This will be a tough atmosphere for Middlebury, as Bates is known for their home-court advantage, and the Panthers will have played only one game in the previous four weeks heading into this contest. That said, Middlebury matches up very well against this team. Nolan Thompson can shut down their top outside scorer, whether that be Matarazzo, Safford, or senior guard Mark Brust, and Pete Lynch has the strength to defend Bogdonavich down low.
Prediction: W (1-0)
Jan. 5: TUFTS (16-9, 6-4)
Details: Saturday, 2:00 pm (at Tufts)
Last year: Middlebury 82-69
Tufts’ stable of young talented guards will make Middlebury wish they were back in Lewiston, Maine. The Jumbos’ trio of sophomore C.J. Moss (7.2 ppg), junior Kwame Firempong (9.7 ppg), and sophomore Ben Ferris (9.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg) are all highly skilled and likely to grow together significantly this season. Ben Ferris put up Kizelian numbers in conference, shooting 55% from the field and 54% from three on his way to the NESCAC Rookie of the Year award. It’s easy to get distracted by the up-and-coming guards, but the leading scorer on this team last year was forward Scott Anderson (12.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg). Anderson is complemented by 6’7” junior Tom Folliard (6.9 ppg) in the frontcourt. This team is going to upset at least one of the big four (Williams, Amherst, Middlebury, Wesleyan) this season, and we think it will come early against a potentially-rusty Panthers team that will have only played two games in four weeks.
Prediction: L (1-1)
Jan. 11: CONNECTICUT COLLEGE (1-9, 8-16)
Date: Friday, 6:00 pm (at Middlebury)
Last year: Middlebury 72-56
Connecticut College is likely to spend the year in the basement of the NESCAC. Aside from junior star Matt Vadas, their rotation is inexperience and untalented. Vadas would need to have a career night for his team to have a shot at winning this one, and his 5-24 career FG shooting against Middlebury (See: “The Thompson Effect”) does not bode well for him or the Camels.
Prediction: W (2-1)
Jan. 12: WESLEYAN (20-6, 7-3)
Details: Saturday, 2:00 pm (at Wesleyan)
Last year: Middlebury 65-62, Middlebury 74-52 (NESCAC Tournament)
Wesleyan is primed to make a run this year as seniors Shasha Brown (17.1 ppg), Mike Callaghan (12.6 ppg) and Derick Beresford (11.7 ppg) look to cap off their impressive careers on a high note. Brown and Beresford, both undersized guards, make for the best slashing-scoring duo in the conference, and Callaghan is a consistent force in the paint with good touch in the mid-range game, as well. But while Brown is considered by many to be one of the best players in the conference (and better than Middlebury’s Joey Kizel), he shot a lackluster 10-25 from the field in their two matchups last season, and in both games he looked outmatched. Wesleyan’s middle-of-the-conference point differential from last season is another reason to think they may be overrated headed into 2012-13. As long as Middlebury can limit Callaghan with Lynch, Jensen, Roberts, and co., the Panthers should get the win on their homecourt.
Prediction: W (3-1)
Jan. 18: HAMILTON (15-10, 4-6)
Details: Friday, 6:00 pm (at Middlebury)
Last year: Middlebury 76-64
Hamilton lost top scorer Pat Sullivan and will have a hard time making up for his absence, but will look to rely on their tall senior big men, 6’6” Eric Benvenuti (7.2 ppg) and 6’8” Ken Click (7.1 ppg). Jack Roberts will be called upon to shut down Click, and from what we have seen in his man defense against bigs, he will come through. Guard Greg Newton is their top returning sorer, but his .488/.361/.833 splits from last year are unimpressive. This game also comes at about the time of the year when Middlebury students start to really fill out Pepin gymnasium in J-term, so Hamilton could be in for a thrashing.
Prediction: W (4-1)
Jan. 26: WILLIAMS (5-5, 17-8)
Details: Saturday, January 26, 2012, 2:00 pm (at Williams)
Last year: Middlebury 80-79, Middlebury 73-61
It seems like a lot of NESCAC observers are down on Williams this year and we aren’t really sure why. We saw this team play twice last season and they are bringing back a lot of talent. Michael Mayer, the Ephs’ 6’9” junior center, is an absolute stud. His 13.6 points in 20.2 minutes per game last year were the best scoring numbers of any NESCAC big man after Ryan Sharry, and his athleticism and post game put him in a position to take a big leap going forward. He will be joined by the best frontcourt supporting cast in the NESCAC: 6’4” junior Taylor Epley (11.0 ppg) and 6’7” sophomore Boston College transfer Ryan Kilcullen. The fact that these three will develop for another year together in the forward-starved NESCAC should terrify opposing coaches. And while the frontcourt has talent, the backcourt has experience in senior guards Nate Robertson (9.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.2 apg) and James Klemm (12.4 ppg, 65 3pm). In order to win this game, Middlebury will need Roberts, Lynch, and Jensen to play elite defense, with Kizel scoring at will on the other end of the court. We’ll take the Ephs in what could easily be the first not-close Middlebury loss in over two seasons.
Prediction: L (4-2)
Feb. 1: BOWDOIN (5-5, 17-8)
Details: Friday, 6:00 pm (at Bowdoin)
Last year: Middlebury 79-76
Outside of Middlebury’s Ryan Sharry and Joey Kizel, Bowdoin had the best scoring duo in the conference in Will Hanley (18.4 ppg) and Ryan O’Connell (14.2 ppg). Unfortunately for the Polar Bears, both have graduated, and there seems to be a lack of talent behind them. Junior guard Andrew Madinger (9.7 ppg), sophomore guard Bryan Hurley (6.5 ppg) and 7’0” sophomore center John Swords (3.9 ppg, 0.9 bpg) look to be a year away from bringing this team back to relevance. Their season is likely to be a disappointment and a visit from the Panthers will make it even worse.
Prediction: W (5-2)
Feb. 2: COLBY (7-17, 1-9)
Details: Saturday, 2:00 pm (at Colby)
Last year: Middlebury 72-53
After losing leading-scorer Ben Foreman, Colby is likely to spend another season at the bottom of the NESCAC. They are touting their freshman class on their website, sort of like an MLB cellar-dweller that shows promotions of its farm system because there aren’t any stars in the majors. Colby will have a tough time putting up more than 50 points and Middlebury should head home from Maine with two wins in the books.
Prediction: W (6-2)
Feb. 8: TRINITY (10-14, 2-8)
Details: Friday, 6:00 pm (at Middlebury)
Last year: Middlebury 76-47
Trinity returns a very young core from last season, but will be without its top two freshmen from last season, Varum Ram (7.8 ppg) and Carter Trent (7.1 ppg). Those losses will hurt a Trinity team that looked to have the pieces in place for the rebuilding process, and might set back their plan for another year. Expect this one to be about as close as last year’s as Middlebury’s starters get a rest before a much anticipated re-match against the Lord Jeffs the next day.
Prediction: W (7-2)
Feb. 9: AMHERST (26-3, 10-0)
Details: Saturday, 2:00 pm (at Middlebury)
Last year: Amherst 77-75 (OT), Amherst 71-69
If you could take any NESCAC team’s top three players to build around, you would take the Lord Jeffs’ Aaron Toomey (17.9 ppg, 4.8 apg), Willy Workman (11.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 50 stl, 30 blk), and Peter Kaasila (6.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg). The inside-out skills of these three guys, on both offense and defense, form the strongest core of any team in the conference. Amherst lost sharpshooter Taylor Barrise (10.5 ppg, 47% 3FG%) and forward Jeff Holmes (8.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and will rely on a group of young talented reserves to fill those roles. In both matchups between these teams last season, Middlebury came out flat and waited too long to turn things around. Although the Panthers were able to tie each game up at the end, the Lord Jeffs made the game-winning shot in both. This year, the Panthers won’t be able to afford allowing Amherst to get off to a hot start if they want to have a shot to win at the end of the game. That said, Middlebury is going to push the tempo against these guys from the start and will have the advantage if they dictate the pace from the beginning. While Toomey is talented and will put up phenomenal numbers this season, Joey Kizel has elevated his game to otherworldly levels when his team has needed him most, leading comebacks, hitting clutch shots, and making game-changing plays unlike any other NESCAC player in recent memory. The magnitude of this game will bring out the best in Kizel, and his team will follow suit. When the going gets tough for Amherst, we are not sure if they will be able to change the pace of the game or rely on their role players to step up and fill the void. Middlebury wins if they dial it in.
Prediction: W (8-2)
PREDICTED FINAL NESCAC STANDINGS
1. Williams (9-1)
2. Middlebury (8-2)
3. Amherst (8-2)
4. Tufts (7-3)
5. Wesleyan (7-3)
6. Bates (5-5)
7. Hamilton (4-6)
8. Connecticut College (3-7)
9. Bowdoin (3-7)
10. Trinity (1-9)
11. Colby (0-10)