(We are on the road to Salem. The combination of driving and mid-terms has delayed our preview, and we apologize.)
North Central (27-3), ranked #3 in the nation in the latest D3hoops.com poll, has emerged from the “Bracket of Death” (an 8-team pod that included Washington U., Illinois Wesleyan, UW-Whitewater, and North Central) and has been playing as well as just about any team in the tournament heading into Salem. Middlebury, who has won three games by a combined seven points in the tournament, faces their toughest matchup of the season.
North Central plays in the CCIW, one of the best conferences in the country, and comes into Salem riding an 11-game winning streak, including wins over Augustana, Illinois Wesleyan (twice each), Wheaton, Centre, and UW-Whitewater. The Cardinals rely on length, athleticism, suffocating defense (58.5 ppg allowed), and efficient offense, led by their two all-conference stars, Derek Raridon and Landon Gamble.
Raridon is a 6’5” score-first All-American who has been lighting up D3 ever since he arrived to North Central and put up 21.3 points per game his inaugural season. This year, Raridon is averaging 14.6 points per game on 51% FG, 46% 3FG shooting, as the talent around him has stepped up to balance his firepower. Raridon will likely go for 40 minutes tonight, and our guess is that Nolan Thompson will be right there with him for all 40.
Gamble is a 6’6” junior post scorer who is averaging 14.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game on 59% FG shooting. When he stays out of foul trouble, Gamble is one of the strongest and most talented big men in the nation. Given Middlebury’s difficulties stopping A.J. Stephens and Kevin McMahon earlier in the tournament, Gamble could be in for a big day. He will face some combination of Jack Roberts, James Jensen, and Peter Lynch down low. He is likely too strong for Roberts and Jensen, and too athletic for Lynch, but one of them could step up and limit the damage.
Outside of Raridon and Gamble is a deep group of long and talented complementary players. Vince Kmiec is a 6’4” wingman who scores 10.4 points per game and leads the team in 3-point field goals made on the season (48-153). Aaron Tiknis starts next to Gamble down low, averages 10.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, and can score from inside and outside. Jack Burchett and Charlie Rosenberg, standing at 6’6” and 6’5” respectively, come off the bench and score efficiently in the post, shooting a combined 57% from the floor. Both, however, shoot under 50% from the free throw line, which limits their effectiveness. Rounding our the rotation are Brandon Williams and Pat Rourke, two limited guards who combine for 7.2 points in 38 minutes per game.
Outside of the individual profiles, we know a few things about North Central’s tendencies as a team. Their defense has carried them this season, as they are one of the best defensive teams in nation, especially on the perimeter; their last two opponents (two top-10 teams) have shot a combined 6-34 from beyond the arc. On offense, they like to get out in transition, and Kmiec and Tiknis won’t hesitate to pull up for three on the fast break. Their point guard play is limited, but the talent of Raridon and Gamble can carry them in the half court. Their one weakness on offense is free throw shooting, where they have shot 67% on the season.
In the sense that they are a great defensive team with mediocre free throw shooting, the Cardinals are reminiscent of the Middlebury squad that lost by two in Salem in 2011. Free throws hurt the Panthers in that loss, and they could hurt the Cardinals tonight. If Middlebury is down by multiple possessions in the last few minutes, they could go to a quick-foul strategy early.
The big question for Middlebury is whether they can score against such a high caliber defens, as the Panthers haven’t really faced a great defensive team this season. The three seniors each struggle when they have less space to play in, and their offensive games will be limited tonight. Wolfin and Thompson will have to adjust from an Ithaca team that left them with open looks for much of the game to a North Central team that by all accounts will not. Both will need to adjust quickly and attack; whether or not they make plays will determine the effectiveness of the Panther offense. Lynch, meanwhile, is most effective when he has time to work one-on-one inside, but the Cardinals are likely to swarm on him, so he has to either go up right away or find open teammates. We can expect Middlebury to give it to Lynch whenever he has Gamble in one-on-ones because of Gamble’s propensity to foul. Joey Kizel works well with limited space and should have another big game. James Jensen will likely get extended minutes because of his defensive value against the Cardinals’ length and athleticism. On offense, Jensen will have to attack the basket and draw contact when he gets the chance. Finally, Jack Roberts is going to be asked to limit Raridon at times and will have to do so effectively while staying out of foul trouble.
This is the toughest test of Middlebury’s season, and a non-NESCAC opponent the likes of which they have not seen since St. Thomas. We know this team too well to think they will go down without a fight. If they adjust to the defense, Thompson wins his matchup with Raridon, Wolfin and Lynch are efficient, and Kizel does Kizelian things, then they can advance. If North Central can score with ease down low, and get out in transition, it will be the end of the run for the Panthers.
Final Score: North Central 64, Middlebury 61.
We will be broadcasting the game live from Salem. If you want to listen, there will be an audio link on the Middlebury Athletics’ “Live Coverage” website.