Middlebury enters the NESCAC Semifinals 22-2 and ranked 4th in the country. Very few teams that boast the Panthers’ resumé, however, have faced as daunting a slate of potential opponents in a conference tournament as Middlebury does this weekend. Saturday, Jeff Brown’s squad plays 7th-ranked Williams, the team that ended his team’s streak of 16 straight wins to start the season. Should they beat the Eps, the Panthers will advance to play hosts Amherst, who outlasted them in a 3OT thriller 10 days ago, or fourth-seeded Tufts, which missed an opportunity to knock off Middlebury at the buzzer when the two teams played in Medford in early January.
Getting in the zone
How well Middlebury attacks and executes against the Ephs’ 2-3 zone will be a huge factor in which team wins this game. Joey Kizel told us that the team was caught off guard by the zone the first time these teams played. While the Panthers got out to a 9-point lead late in the first half, their success came largely because they were able to get stops during a 14-2 run and find looks early in the shot clock before the Ephs’ zone was in place. And though transition points will be important again for Middlebury, consistently executing in the half court set will be paramount. The Panthers cannot endure another stretch late in the game where they fail to score. Despite poor perimeter shooting — Middlebury shot 3-17 from beyond the arc — Peter Lynch and James Jensen attacked the soft spots in the middle of the Williams zone, often going right at Ephs big man Michael Mayer. Lynch and Jensen combined to score 28 points on 11 of 17 shooting. Lynch was particularly effective on the floor, scoring 16 points in just 16 minutes of play as he was limited due to foul trouble and eventually fouled out of the game. Excessive play on the defensive end cannot limit his offensive performance again today; Lynch is far too valuable in this game to spend extended time on the bench due to foul trouble. If he does, however, Middlebury’s guards will have to knock down shots, particularly when they get open looks. The Panthers failed to make big shots from the perimeter down the stretch and lacked options inside when Lynch fouled out, leaving Jensen to do much of the work inside. In this game, Hunter Merryman and Jake Wolfin are the two to watch. Wolfin struggled with his jump shot for much of the season, but has regained his old form of late while Merryman’s season has been the reverse. After opening the season as the best 3-point shooter on the team at around 64%, the California native has gone cold, making just 3 of his last 16 three point attempts. Both will get good looks from three against the zone today and if they’re knocking down long range shots while also getting good looks inside, Middlebury will be tough to beat.
Don’t overlook the Ephs
Williams, meanwhile, is being overlooked by many. Perhaps because Amherst and Middlebury seem destined to meet again after what transpired at Pepin on February 12, people have discounted the Ephs as a serious contender in this tournament. After hitting a late-season slump offensively, the Ephs have been re-ignited by the emergence of Nate Robertson (19 points in each of his last two games) and the energy of John Weinheimer, stepping in to replace a sick Daniel Wohl. Williams can score in so many different ways, first and foremost inside with Michael Mayer, the best big man in the conference, and a NESCAC Player of the Year candidate. As Alex Popp told us on our radio show, defending Mayer is difficult on its own, but because he is surrounded by three-point shooters, teams often have to defend him without helping or doubling off of guys like Taylor Epley and James Klemm.
Guarding Mayer on an island is an incredibly difficult thing to do, but Jack Roberts, who has enjoyed a strong second half of the season, leading the NESCAC in blocked shots, has done it before. In Middlebury’s 73-61 win over Williams in the NESCAC quarterfinals last year Roberts blocked 5 shots in 17 minutes, bothering Mayer with his length inside. While stopping Mayer altogether will be impossible, if Roberts can limit Mayer and make him work for his shots without picking up early fouls, he will free up his perimeter defenders.
Chief among them is Nolan Thompson, who will most likely guard Taylor Epley, Williams’ talented, 6’4” forward. Thompson held Epley to just four points on one made field goal earlier this season, when Epley was among the leading candidates for conference player of the year. While Epley hasn’t been as big a threat late in the season, his offense most often comes by running off of off-ball screens, and Thompson is by far and away the best Panther player to defend that kind of action.
While it’s a safe bet that Nolan will match up with Epley again, he may also spend time guarding the slippery Nate Robertson, who was tremendous down the stretch in the regular season meeting, scoring or assisting 7 of the Ephs’ final 11 baskets of the game. Staying in front of Robertson will be tremendously important in this game, and it would be surprising if Middlebury doesn’t give Robertson a number of different looks.
Which is where James Jensen comes into the picture. Jensen has been a force defensively this season, and should emerge as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate next season. Jensen has guarded every position this year, including a stint versus Mayer. He’s an aggressive defender with great fundamentals, with the strength and smarts to guard 5s and the foot speed to defend point guards. With Wohl out or limited after coming down with mononucleosis less than a month ago, Jensen is free to match up with a number of different players and seems like an ideal candidate to draw Robertson down the stretch.
The Final Word(s)
Middlebury will need to exploit the Williams zone and find easy baskets inside for its bigs. In practice this week the team emphasized getting the ball into the heart of the defense, just inside the foul line where Lynch, Roberts and Jensen can either pull up for short jumpers, attack the rim, or find open shooters on the perimeter when the defense collapses. Merryman could be the X-Factor in this game as his minutes will be closely monitored by the coaching staff. If he knocks down a couple of shots early, he could extend the Ephs’ zone and find driving lanes for Kizel, Wolfin and Thompson. Defensively, Roberts will determine much of the game plan for the Panthers. If he limits Mayer and stays on the floor, Middlebury will have an ideal opportunity to take Williams out of their offense. If Roberts gets in foul trouble, however, the Panthers will have to use some combination of Chris Churchill, Lynch and Jensen to defend the star big man, giving the team suboptimal matchups on the perimeter.