At 4 pm Saturday Middlebury (24-3) will tip off against Ithaca (21-8) in the Sweet 16 at Pepin Gymnasium. Ithaca comes into the game having won back-to-back tournament games on the road, first with an 89-77 victory at Springfield and then a 70-68 upset of Rochester at the buzzer. With eight losses during the regular season, Ithaca doesn’t look like most Sweet 16 teams. Then again, neither did Scranton a year ago (more on this later), and Middlebury fans remember well how that ended.
Looking beyond wins and losses
Ithaca lost two of its first three games of the season, and from what we’ve heard, the Bombers came together — think Coach Carter only way less dramatic — after a 17-point loss at Cortland. Ithaca doesn’t lack talent — the team features Sean Rossi, the all-time assist leader in Division III basketball history and Travis Warech, a St. Michaels transfer who scored more than 1,000 points in just three seasons in Division II. Warech, Rossi, and senior Andrei Oztemel have scored 1,385, 1,137, and 1,244 points in their respective careers. Warech leads the team with 16 points per game, but has been even better over the past two months, averaging 20.8 points in his last 14 games. Over the last three games (road wins over three tournament teams), Warech is averaging 22.3 points per game and 11.3 rebounds per game. Rossi, meanwhile, averages 7.1 assists per game, good for fourth in the nation. There were some bad losses (and wins) along the way for the Bombers, but some of that can be mitigated by injuries and tough last possession losses, to which Middlebury is no stranger. Further, Ithaca enters the game playing its best basketball of the season with three consecutive wins over tournament teams under win-or-go-home circumstances. The Bombers received an automatic bid to the tournament (their only way in) with a 70-55 win over Stevens in the finals of the Empire Eight tournament. They then reeled off wins at Springfield and Rochester. Regardless of their struggles earlier in the year, the Bombers are playing their best basketball of the season right now, and, as they showed when they beat a superior Rochester team, that matters far more than what was accomplished or missing during the regular season.
The Xs and Os
Coaches make big decisions before every game: how will you matchup with certain players? Will you hedge on ball screens or just switch on all screens? Do you implement a new play during the week? At the risk of sounding cliché, the coaches of both teams will have an even bigger impact on this game than usual. Jeff Brown has to determine who Nolan Thompson will guard and how the Panthers will defend the high ball screens that Ithaca continually runs on the perimeter. Warech and Rossi each present different challenges, and there are good reasons for believing Thompson will guard either. Warech seems like the obvious choice, and for good reason. He leads the team in scoring, is Thompson’s height, has carried the Bombers’ offense of late and has the versatility to beat defenders in a variety of different ways. Moreover, matching Thompson up with the shorter Rossi would leave height mismatches at the other positions, as Ithaca’s next five minutes-getters are 6’2″, 6’3″, 6’4″, 6’6″ and 6’9″, respectively. Despite Warech being the natural first choice, the more we look at Sean Rossi’s abilities, the more we are convinced it will be a tougher decision for Coach Brown. Rossi’s 950 career assists speak loudly: he is an offensive creator the likes of which Middlebury has never seen. During the tournament, he has accounted for 77% of the team’s assists. Rossi is a capable scorer, averaging 10.2 points per game on 41% field goal shooting over his career. His scoring numbers coupled with his unrivaled ability to distribute the ball may make him Ithaca’s most dangerous offensive weapon. If that is the case, Jeff Brown may elect to put Thompson on Rossi in the hope that if the NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year can slow down Rossi, Middlebury can stall the entire Ithaca offense. Coach Brown has been in a similar conundrum earlier this year against both Williams and Amherst. Against the Ephs, Thompson matched up exclusively with Williams’ leading scorer Taylor Epley. And while Thompson was able to nullify Epley the first time the teams played, Ephs’ point guard Nate Robertson, also a pass-first, pass-second, shoot-if-he-has-to player who thrives on penetration and distributing from the middle of the defense picked the Panthers apart down the stretch, consistently getting into the lane and finding open shooters on the perimeter, or players cutting to the basket. In the second game, against Amherst, Brown opted to play Thompson on Aaron Toomey to start the game, hoping to stymie the Lord Jeffs’ offense from its inception. Though Toomey struggled, Willy Workman wreaked havoc in Amherst’s half-court sets and the Middlebury coaching staff adjusted accordingly, switching Thompson onto Workman down the stretch. We would not be surprised if Middlebury chooses to do the same today, starting Thompson on either Warech or Rossi, but making the adjustment if/when necessary.
The second decision for Brown is how his team will defend Ithaca’s perimeter action, which involves a lot of high ball-screens and initiates Ithaca’s offense. While Thompson is impeccable at slipping through ball screens, Ithaca runs a number of different sets including a high double-ball screen at the top of the key (and will adjust the ball-handler based on Thompson’s matchup), which could force Middlebury to switch often. This game, more than any other, will test Middlebury defenders’ ability to rotate, communicate and avoid mismatches. Because Ithaca runs this high-screen offense so well, it might dictate Middlebury’s defensive switches anyway, and the Panthers could look to go to their 3-2 zone for stretches against the Bombers. Among their core rotation players, only Oztemel has made more than 33 treys on the season, though as a team, Ithaca shoots a respectable 36% from deep. Middlebury has had a week to prepare for the nuanced sets of this Ithaca offense, and we expect them to be ready with several defensive sets to employ as the situation commands.
For the Bombers, head coach Jim Mullins has an interesting decision to make defensively. Will he employ the same triangle-and-two look that was effective in shutting down John DiBartolomeo (2 points, 0-8 shooting) a week ago? While Joey Kizel (Last five games: 20.4 ppg, 51% FG, 45% 3FG) appears to be an ideal candidate for the triangle-and-two defense (which is comprised of a three-man zone with one defender at the top of the key and two defenders at the baseline on the edge of the lane, coupled with two defenders playing man defense, face-guarding two perimeter players who present the greatest offensive threat), the extended zone around them would give considerable space for other Panther players to operate. James Jensen and Peter Lynch have been especially effective when they catch in space in the middle of the zone and can put the ball on the ground and attack the basket. Furthermore, the Bombers would be taking a considerable risk using the triangle and two when Middlebury has Kizel, Thompson and Hunter Merryman on the floor at the same time, all three of whom shoot better than 42% from beyond the arc.
On the offensive end, the Mullins will have to adjust to Middlebury’s defensive alignment. Teams have shot their way out of games by attempting to force the offense to run through a player guarded by Nolan Thompson (I’m looking at you, Wesleyan). If Thompson matches up with Warech , Rossi will be asked to contribute even more offensively, and Warech would be unwise to attempt to attack Thompson for the perimeter as Sedale Jones did two weeks ago. Furthermore, if the Panthers open in the 3-2 zone, Ithaca will be forced out of many of their high-screen-and-roll looks, and the Bombers will have to find open looks for their best three-point shooters. To some degree, Mullins might be able to dictate when the Panthers play man versus zone, as Jeff Brown goes to the zone primarily when the opposing team’s best three-point threat is off the floor. In Middlebury’s two games against Wesleyan, Brown went to the zone when Brian Bartner sat, and today he may choose to use the zone look when Andrei Otzemel — a 39.7% three-point shooter — or Eli Maravich (42.3%) go to the bench.
Given the different defensive looks both teams can use in this game, the keys to the game depend somewhat on how the two teams matchup with one another. Having said that, Middlebury will win this game if they can enter the ball into the post and get good looks for Lynch, Jensen and Jack Roberts and knock down open shots from the perimeter when the ball goes inside-out. This will be particularly important if Ithaca comes out in their triangle-and-two defense, which thrives on denying the best offensive players the ball at best, and good looks at worst, and baits other players into taking long-range shots. Given Jake Wolfin’s struggles this season from beyond the arc, if there’s a player Ithaca wants to see shooting the basketball, it’s number 5. That may be good math in theory, but tempting Wolfin into making shots and taking over a game in reality is a far more dangerous prospect. Wolfin is a big-game, big-shot player, who plays best when the spotlight is on him. Consistently giving him open looks is a high-risk, high-reward strategy, and if Ithaca chooses to go that route, the team should be ready to adjust on the fly if Wolfin knocks down open looks or uses the space given to him to get into the lane and go to the basket or drive and kick. While Nolan Thompson would likely be the other target of the Bombers’ triangle and two, Ithaca will be hard-pressed to stay in the “junk” defense when Merryman, Kizel and Thompson are on the floor at the same time. Middlebury runs a deadly pick-and-pop set with Kizel and Merryman in a high ball screen, and if Ithaca plans on face-guarding Kizel, Merryman, who has struggled with his shot of late (Last five games: 26% FG, 16% 3FG), will get open looks. We say this almost every week, but knocking down open looks from beyond the arc may decide this game for the Panthers.
On the other end, Ithaca will need to attack Middlebury inside. The Bombers have two skilled big men in Frank Mitchell and Tom Sweeney, who are 6’6” and 6’9”, respectively. Of the two, Mitchell should worry Panther fans, as the junior from Hillsborough, New Jersey averages 14.9 points per game on 51% shooting. What he does exceptionally well, however, is draw contact and get to the free throw line. Mitchell has taken 135 free throws on the season, 26 more than Kizel, who is pretty good at getting to the line himself. In a game where Peter Lynch may be especially important on the offensive end (Lynch’s season totals against Williams, which also played an extended zone: 39 points in 48 minutes on 17 of 26 shooting), keeping Middlebury’s 6’6” power forward out of foul trouble will be key. Foul trouble may be an even bigger issue for the Bombers, however, who only have six players that average more than 3.2 points per game. Ithaca is particularly thin in the front court, with only one viable option off the bench behind Mitchell and Sweeney. If the Panthers can find the holes in the triangle and two, or penetrate against the Bombers’ man defense should they defend straight up, and force Ithaca’s big men out of position and into fouling situations, coach Mullins could find himself giving big minutes to inexperienced players off of the bench.
Thinking back to yesteryear
A year and a week ago, Travis Farrell ended Middlebury’s season with a game-winning, buzzer-beating three-point shot. Over the last week a number of coaches and players have talked about how the team overlooked Scranton a season ago. The Royals locked down the Panthers in the first half, holding the hosts to just 20 first-half points. Scranton maintained a three-to-five point lead in the second half as Middlebury failed to make a substantial run to re-take the lead. Then, after a Kizel floater with 5.9 seconds remaining tied the game, Farrell weaved his way to the left corner and released a three-point shot, which splashed through the net as the buzzer sounded.
Scranton advanced to the Sweet 16 (and then the Elite 8) with 7 losses on the regular season, one shy of Ithaca’s 8. While Ithaca is more dangerous offensively, Scranton featured a balanced offensive attack with disciplined perimeter defenders and enough size to challenge Lynch and Sharry inside. There are enough similarities between these two teams as well as the game circumstances that this game remains in the forefront of our minds (though it’s really never that far away) and has motivated the team to focus even more in its preparation for today. If Middlebury loses today, it won’t be the result of oversight.
What a way to say goodbye
As we go into this final home game for the senior trio of Jake Wolfin, Nolan Thompson, and Peter Lynch, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on their accomplished careers. All three have been centerpieces to the greatest run in the history of Middlebury basketball, which has included a NESCAC title and two runner-ups, four NCAA tournament berths, three Sweet Sixteens, one Final Four and a 16-6 career postseason record, all while piling up a school-record-tying 103 wins and only 13 losses. Only one senior class in all of Division III basketball has a better winning percentage in their careers than Thompson, Lynch and Wolfin. From the individual accomplishment department, Thompson and Wolfin are both members of the 1,000-point club, ranking 9th and 13th in school history, respectively. Thompson is second in career free throw percentage (81.5%), and Wolfin is the all-time leader in assists (545). Lynch, meanwhile, had to wait for his opportunity behind Andrew Locke and Ryan Sharry, but the gifted scorer has made up for it over the last two years. In addition to leading the team in scoring this season, Lynch is on pace to finish with the best field goal percentage in school history, at 60.8%. These seniors have defined the character of Middlebury basketball during their careers and we, and the Middlebury fan base, have reaped the benefits in the form of countless unforgettable moments and defining games. For those going to the game, this context should not be lost.
The Final Word
This Ithaca squad is vastly underrated, and those who rely on wins and losses to determine the measure of a team have already overlooked the Bombers. Due to injuries during the regular season to some of Ithaca’s core players, the Bombers are approaching this game with the mentality that they haven’t lost at full strength in two months. Middlebury, however, is coming off a win at Cortland against a hyper-confident team that hadn’t lost at home all season long. Ithaca’s collective mindset can only help them coming into the game, but if they find themselves in foul trouble and fall behind early, or go down by double-digits (or close to it) at halftime, as both of Middlebury’s tournament opponents have, will the Bombers be able to fight their way back into the game, or will the memory of the chemistry issues from the beginning of the year and their struggles to win when not at full strength derail the visitors?
Middlebury 74 – Ithaca 70