Over the past five years, Middlebury basketball has been the picture of consistency, doing something that no other NESCAC team has done—gone undefeated in the lead up to NESCAC play, a stretch of 40 straight games without a loss. That streak ended Friday in the Panthers’ 80-69 loss to Stevenson. There has been a lot of talk—virtual talk … it hasn’t really caught on in the Proctor booth room yet—about Middlebury’s issues. Leadership has been a word that’s been thrown around a lot with many Middlebury posters concerned about an apparent lack of leadership or will from Middlebury on Friday. To me, this seems like a buzzword problem that has been exaggerated in the wake of the loss. If Joey Kizel makes the long three he attempted with 1:37 with the Panthers down 68-55 and Middlebury goes on to win, the narrative is of a resilient Panther team that saw younger players step up (dare I say into leadership roles) and steal a game in which the team underperformed. Now don’t get me wrong, with the exception of Hunter Merryman, Jake Brown and Jake Nidenberg, Middlebury played a brutally ugly game in just about all phases of the game. However, it seems impossibly early (not to mention incredibly reactionary) to worry about leadership. Joey Kizel often makes things look hard on the court and he rarely displays “good body language.” But Kizel is an exceptional leader—he has been the emotional heart of this team for the past three years—and it’s silly to question his leadership simply because his style is different from a Nolan Thompson or a Ben Rudin or whomever. Effective leadership comes in all different forms and is expressed differently by different people. Far more important than whether it appears effective from the outside is whether it is effective in the locker room and I haven’t seen or heard anything to suggest that the rest of the team has anything but the utmost confidence in Kizel. (I’ll get to his shooting problems in a moment.)
Losing, particularly in situations where you aren’t accustomed to losing early in the season, can raise premature questions. I would argue this concern over Middlebury’s leadership is such an example. This is a very inexperienced Panthers’ team that has two freshmen in its rotation as well as three sophomores who saw almost no playing time last season. Middlebury has also missed James Jensen, a versatile player on both ends of the floor, who is another team leader. And on that front, the impact of Albert Nascimento and Luis Alvarez—two seniors who won’t see very much playing time, but are respected voices in the locker room—should not be overlooked. Finally, during the preseason, Nate Bulluck was as vocal as any player we saw and organized the team and ran the offense at times, too. As fans we like to prescribe leadership roles to certain individuals on the floor who look and play the part. Some players, like Kizel, undoubtedly lead by example; but we should not discount the presence of those players whose impact is less noticeable and therefore visually reassuring.
Over the past five years (and more) Middlebury fans have had the incredible luxury of watching very polished basketball with no early season lapses. This team is not going to be those teams—and that’s a good thing. They likely won’t be as dominant against inferior competition and consistency could be a very real issue for much of the season, but I do believe, given what we’ve seen from Daley, Merryman, Brown and St. Amour, this team’s potential is as high as any Middlebury team I’ve watched and that they’re closer to realizing that potential than I thought before the season started.
So if leadership isn’t the problem, what is? I think it’s still too early to answer this question conclusively, or even confidently. But if I had to pinpoint my biggest concern, it’s consistency. Daley has demonstrated how good he can be, but can he stay out of foul trouble on the defensive end and be assertive enough on the offensive end? Is Merryman a potential All-NESCAC player with vastly improved defensive skills? Will St. Amour find his shooting stroke and give Middlebury another floor-spacing, can’t-be-helped-off offensive threat? Will Jake Brown continue to spark the team on both ends of the floor with his energy and playmaking? The play of those four guys and their ability to produce game-to-game on a consistent basis is the biggest question mark at this point.
You likely noticed that I didn’t include Joey Kizel’s shooting struggles among those questions. Through his first four games last year, Kizel was shooting 36 percent from the floor and 30 percent from beyond the arc—only slightly better numbers than what he has posted so far this season. Kizel has looked good in practice and over the course of his career has gotten better as the season goes on. If his offensive struggles carry over into NESCAC play, this will become an issue, but I think Kizel will figure it out sooner than later and return to his All-American caliber play. If you’re not convinced, ask yourself if there’s anyone else you’d rather have taking a big shot in the NESCAC (or even the country) and that should answer both your concerns about Joey’s shooting concerns and any leadership issues you think this team may have.