We have attached an extended addendum to our preseason preview of the game. We went a little long, appropriate for the magnitude of today’s game. Note the discrepancy in dates is a result of the game being rescheduled due to weather complications from winter storm Nemo.
Feb. 9: AMHERST (26-3, 10-0)
Details: Saturday, 2:00 pm (at Middlebury)
Last year: Amherst 77-75 (OT), Amherst 71-69 (NESCAC Final)
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.
FEBRUARY 12 EXTENDED ADDENDUM
Much of what we wrote in our preseason preview of this matchup three months ago remains true going into the regular season finale today. There has been no better triumvirate of teammates this season in the conference than Toomey, Workman and Kaasila, while Williamson, Kalema, Killian and Green have rounded out the best seven man rotation in the NESCAC. Before we break down the matchup, a quick note on the conference implications riding on this game. If Amherst wins, the Lord Jeffs would finish 10-0 in the NESCAC and host the conference tournament at LeFrak Gymnasium. Middlebury at 8-2 would finish third in the conference, regardless of what Williams (8-1) does at home against Trinity, due to the tiebreaker. If Middlebury wins and Williams loses (unlikely, but possible) Middlebury would host the conference tournament, Amherst would be the two seed and Williams would finish third. If both Middlebury and Williams win, there will be a three-way tie at the top of the NESCAC and each team will have a win and a loss against the other two, resulting in a coin toss (or drawing a name out of the hat in this case) to determine which school would host the NESCAC Tournament. Now that’s done, let’s get to the matchup.
Not the Same Amherst
Following an inefficient sophomore season during which Toomey was a volume shooter and scorer, the North Carolina native has played up to his preseason All-American status during his junior campaign. While his shooting numbers have improved across the board (.466/.445/.936), the greatest improvement in his game has come from beyond the arc. While teams often played off Toomey and dared him to shoot the three last season (he made just 34.2% of his attempts beyond the arc), the same strategy has been far less successful this season with Toomey making 44.5 percent of the treys he’s attempted in 2012-13. In fact, Amherst’s three-point shooting as a team has improved dramatically despite graduating Taylor Barrise and David Waller, the only two players who shot better than 35% from beyond the arc last season (minimum of 30 attempts, one per game). Consider for a moment that Barrise and Waller combined to make more than half of the team’s threes (110 of 207) last season and that the ’11-’12 Lord Jeffs, excluding Barrise and Waller, shot a putrid 30% (97-323) from the three-point line. With the team’s two best long-range shooters graduating, it would be fair to assume that Amherst would struggle to make threes — something that has been a big part of the Lord Jeffs’ game — at an efficient clip. Instead, David Hixon’s team leads the conference in three-point scoring, both in shooting percentage and made baskets. While the addition of sharpshooter Connor Green (40.4% from three) has helped, he is barely eclipsing the team average (40.1%). Rather, drastic improvements have come from Workman (25.4% vs. 40.8%), Allen Williamson (1-5 in ’11-’12, 8-23 in ’12-’13) and most notably from David Kalema who somehow morphed from a 21.9% (7-32) three-point shooter last season into a 44.2% (23-52) three-point shooter this season. While individual players will see considerable improvement in their three-point shooting from one season to the next (Nolan Thompson is a great example of this), others, like Joey Kizel and Jake Wolfin will fall on hard times. For a team to improve its shooting at every position the way Amherst has, despite losing its best three-point shooters from a season ago is an incredible feat. (On a side note this kind of jump is likely unsustainable and that the Lord Jeffs’s three-point shooting will regress next season).
Toomey and Kaasila on Fire
Nonetheless, Amherst enters the game as the number two team nationally and playing better basketball than anyone in the country. Aaron Toomey is the frontrunner for NESCAC Player of the Year and if he continues his play of late will deserve consideration for the Division III Player of the Year. Before the win over Williams Saturday, Toomey put together a six-game stretch where he averaged 26.3 points per game, 5.33 assists per game, 5.33 rebounds per game and 2.33 steals per game, while compiling .600/.550/.952 splits. It’s hard to imagine that anyone else in Division III basketball will put together those kinds of numbers over a six game stretch. Again, however, the great play has not been limited to Toomey. In the nine games prior to playing Williams Saturday, Pete Kaasila averaged 18 points and 6.7 rebounds per game and shot 69.9% (72-103) from the floor. While the Amherst big struggled mightily against Williams(1-8 from the floor), his offensive game is vastly improved this season (13 points per game on 63.6% field goal shooting).
As you can surmise, no one has matched up all that well against Amherst this season. While Middlebury will likely be the first team that Amherst has played that can equal the Lord Jeffs’ talent in the rotation, the Panthers will have difficulty, as they did a season ago, defending Amherst’s many offensive weapons. The big question, and the one which could decide the tone of the game, is whether Joey Kizel or Nolan Thompson will be the primary defender assigned to guard Toomey.Though many are hyping this game as an exhibition of Toomey’s offense vs. Thompson’s defense, that is unlikely to be the case. In each of last year’s games Kizel spent the majority of the game guarding Toomey, particularly down the stretch, with mixed results. Toomey finished with 18 points on 6-10 shooting from the floor, but Kizel made the most impressive play of the game when he picked Toomey’s pocket in the backcourt before finishing an and-one to spark Middlebury’s late run to tie the game in the final minute. We expect Kizel to draw Toomey for the majority of this game again, largely because Kalema, Williamson and Workman provide problems of their own. In last year’s NESCAC Final, Thompson spent the majority of the game guarding Workman. In this case the size differential proved too much as Workman converted 7 of his 11 shot attempts and finished the game with 16 points. With the emergence of James Jensen, who has evolved into a hyper-athletic wing who plays with a controlled aggression on both ends of the court, and has been phenomenal on the defensive end, in particular, expect to see Jensen defending Workman and vice versa for large portions of the game. This leaves Thompson to guard Williamson, a fascinating matchup in its own right, and the combination of Lynch and Roberts guarding Kaasila.
How Middlebury Wins
If the Lord Jeffs have had an achilles heel this season, it has been their lack of consistent effort on defense. Is Amherst the team that throttled Williams, holding them to just 48 points and playing strong, team defense, or is it the team that gave up 89 points at home to Tufts, allowing Scott Anderson (35 points) and Tom Palleschi (15) to torch them for a combined 50 points inside? The answer, we believe, is some combination of both. Amherst has all the players necessary to be a good-to-very-good defensive team. Toomey has great speed and quickness and has some of the fastest hands in the NESCAC; Williamson is an athletic freak and tremendously strong; Workman is the reigning NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year; and Kaasila is a 6’9”, 260-pound banger who totally disrupted Ryan Sharry inside by taking away his low-post positioning and playing with a level of physicality that Sharry hadn’t encountered that season. The flip-side to all that, however, is that Amherst can be incredibly lazy on the defensive end at times. In both losses last season Kizel got almost anywhere on the floor he wanted, setting up great shots for his teammates. With the improved shooting of Nolan Thompson, if Joey can get into the lane and knock down mid-range jumpers or find open teammates, Middlebury has a great shot of knocking off Amherst. In order to do so, Peter Lynch, who quietly leads the Panthers in scoring, will have to stay on the court and out of foul trouble. Lynch is the best low-post scorer in the NESCAC (Mayer’s offensive game is more versatile, but his low-post game is not as good as Lynch’s) and when he’s been on the floor he’s produced, even when the matchup looks unfavorable. Middlebury will also need production from Jensen and Hunter Merryman, who could both be difference makers in this game. In Middlebury’s lone loss to Williams earlier this season Jensen was the Panthers’ best offensive player, and when he takes it upon himself to play a role in the offense, he is a tough matchup. Alternatively, Merryman provides the Panthers with a great outside shooter. While he’s found shots harder to come by during NESCAC play, if Amherst is undisciplined defensively, particularly on the high pick-and-role that Merryman runs with Kizel and Thompson, he will find himself open looks and Merryman hasn’t missed many of those (he’s shooting 51.6% from beyond the arc on the season).
Defensively, Kizel and/or Thompson will have to limit Toomey’s ability to get into the lane, which is when he’s at his most dangerous. If Middlebury is constantly helping off Amherst’s perimeter players the game may get out of hand. The Middlebury coaching staff will have to be diligent to go with the best matchup possible, which might mean switching a number of different looks on Toomey, including Thompson or even Jensen, perhaps. It will be crucial, regardless of who is guarding Toomey, that Middlebury hedges well on ball screens. The Panthers did this particularly well against Shasha Brown in the first half, but lost their discipline down the stretch, allowing Brown to get into the lane, sparking the late comeback. Given Toomey’s quickness, my guess is that Middlebury will hedge hard on ball screens rather than flat hedge to slow Toomey down and keep him out of the lane — similar to the defensive approach against Brown. Jensen and Lynch are both stronger help defenders than Roberts, so we wouldn’t be surprised if Jensen gets the start and plays the majority of the game. The Panthers won’t have to be perfect to win at Pepin (where they haven’t lost a regular season game since the ’09-’10 season), but they will have to play as well as they have this season. Offensively, Amherst has evolved into a juggernaut, reaching a peak they never got to last year. Middlebury will need to feed off the energy of the crowd and outplay Amherst both physically and mentally to win this game. Finally, Jeff Brown’s team cannot disappear down the stretch. Of the 11 losses this senior class has sustained, the Panthers have led down the stretch in most of them, only to become passive and watch the lead fall away. No lead is safe against this Amherst team, and Middlebury cannot take the air out of the ball too soon if they find themselves up in the latter stages of the game.
While basketball fans love to analyze (and often exaggerate the importance of) individual matchups — we just did our fair share here — this game, like most, will be decided by who plays better team basketball. It may start with the battle on the perimeter, but it will be the team that can penetrate and get into the lane, draw defenders and find open shots — much like Aaron Toomey did in the conference final last season, penetrating and kicking to a momentarily open Taylor Barrise — that will win this game.
As always, if you can’t make the game or are reading this from a distant land, tune in to Jeff and my broadcast, either by listening to WRMC (91.1 on your radio dial) or streaming the game online.