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Nothing NESCAC Play Can’t Solve

Through its first 10 games this season the Middlebury men’s basketball team is 6-4 and decidedly mediocre. Just how atypical has this season been in the context of recent history? Prior to this season, Middlebury had gone five straight seasons without dropping a game in the first semester of play. And to find the last time the Panthers lost four games before the start of NESCAC play, you have to go back to the 2004 season when Middlebury finished 6-18. It’s safe to say that things have not gone according to plan for Jeff Brown and the 2013-14 Panthers.

But while the problem—Middlebury’s ghastly shooting woes—is easily diagnosed, the root of the problem, and therefore any tangible solutions, are far more difficult to identify. It is especially hard to explain the team’s struggles because, in the context of the season, they do not make very much sense. The Panthers went into the break following their most impressive offensive performance of the season—an 89-84 win over Skidmore in a hostile environment. In that game, Middlebury shot 47 percent from the floor—and 54 percent in the second half—while making 10-22 threes and 23 of 27 free throws, including all 14 attempts in the second half. In the two games since then, the Panthers have shot 30 percent (30-114) from the floor and have made just 7 of their 36 (19%) three point attempts. Many different theories for the team’s struggles have been suggested, some of which are worth exploring in further detail.

POSSIBLE EXPLANATIONS

1) Middlebury lost too much from last year’s team
The team’s struggles early in the year illuminate just how impressive the consistency Andrew Locke, Ryan Sharry, Nolan Thompson, Jake Wolfin, Peter Lynch and many others brought to the program was. Of all the many achievements those players accomplished, their ability to compete on a nightly basis with every team they faced is one for which they should always be remembered. Of the 10 games the class of 2013 lost in their final three seasons at Middlebury, they were within a possession with less than minute to play. But while the 2013-14 team has lacked that level of consistency (and really any at all to this point), the issues go far beyond what the team lost in Thompson, Wolfin and Lynch. Jeff and I agree that last year’s team missing those three players likely would have produced better performances against Salve Regina and Plattsburgh State and, especially in the case of the former, likely won the game in spite of their absence. This iteration of the Panthers is far too talented to lose to Salve Regina and Plattsburgh in the manner that they did. While some degree of inconsistency was expected from this team given the number of inexperienced players upon whom it would rely, consecutive lackluster performances of this magnitude where the loss was all but determined with three minutes left in the game cannot be explained away by the absences of Thompson, Wolfin and Lynch.

2) Lack of effort
Though the Panthers have looked flat in each of the past two games, it’s hard to attribute that to a lack of effort. While the offense has tanked, the Panthers have turned in two of their best defensive performances of the season in the losses. Green Mountain aside, Middlebury held Salve Regina and Plattsburgh to the third and first lowest scoring outputs, respectively, of any opponent they’ve played and held both teams to less than 40 percent shooting from the floor. If the belief that defensive intensity is a strong indicator of effort, then it is impossible to fault the Panthers for their effort over the past two games.

3) Missing offensive identity
Tuesday’s game was basketball torture if you enjoy watching clean, well-run sets in the half court. The Middlebury offense stagnated for long stretches of time, with little or meaningless ball movement and a dearth of touches inside for bigs Matt Daley and Jack Roberts. Joey Kizel had a tremendous first half (10 points on 3-4 shooting), but struggled in the second half, making just one of six shot attempts while turning the ball over twice and recording just one assist. The struggles were not unique to Kizel, but indicative of the team’s play overall. The Panthers are struggling from a lack of spacing offensively, though it’s difficult to say whether the poor shooting is causing spacing problems or vice versa. Given Middlebury’s play at Skidmore and the quality attempts they took (and missed) against Salve Regina, i’m inclined to believe that their shooting woes have affected their spacing and not the other way around. Which brings us to…

4) Bad luck
Any stretch of wins or losses is usually aided or exacerbated by luck, good and bad. In both losses, the Panthers missed a multitude of shots, both near the basket and from distance that they would normally make. Teams don’t often go through team-wide struggles all at the same time, as the Panthers have in their first two games back from winter break. As a team they will regress toward the mean from beyond the arc (they can’t shoot 19 percent the rest of the season, though they’re shooting just 34 percent on the season) and certain players/lineups will emerge as the season progresses and the team finds its rhythm. Having said that, it’s impossible to attribute the way Middlebury lost to luck. In a one-possession game, luck can play a huge role; it cannot account for consecutive losses by an average of 11.5 points. Furthermore, in the past, Jeff Brown’s teams have overcome stretches of bad luck, either by winning ugly or giving themselves a chance to win and falling short. Thus far, this team has not been able to do that consistently, with a number of these factors playing a role in their performance over the past week.

SOLUTIONS

While it would be nearly impossible for the Panthers to continue to play as poorly as they have, that provides little reassurance for a team that must play by far its best basketball over the toughest part of its schedule to have any hope of challenging for a NESCAC title and a bid to the NCAA tournament. (Thinking big picture for a moment, short of winning the NESCAC tournament and receiving the automatic qualifier, Middlebury likely needs to go 8-2 or 9-1 and advance to at least the NESCAC semifinals, but more likely the finals, to have any chance of making the NCAA Tournament).

How is that going to happen? Well, for one, some consistency shooting the ball would go a long way, both because it is highly beneficial in and of itself, but also because if Kizel, Merryman and St. Amour can stretch the floor they would clear space for Daley, Roberts and James Jensen to operate in the post. Daley in particular looked effective when he got touches in Tuesday’s game and should play a bigger role as he returns to form. Dylan Sinnickson’s return, which could happen tonight, should also provide a considerable boost for Middlebury’s offense. Sinnickson hasn’t played since November 16, when he scored 22 points in Middlebury’s 96-89 win over Baruch after taking a leave of absence from the team for personal reasons. In addition to providing greater athleticism and dynamism on the break, Sinnickson appeared to provide Middlebury with another three-point threat, having made five of his seven three-point attempts this season, including four of five against Baruch.

Sinnicksnon’s return gives Jeff Brown another offensive weapon to mix and match in different lineups and maximizing the production of different players on the floor will be a considerable challenge going forward. In Tuesday’s game against Plattsburgh, the Panthers made their run in the second half with Kizel, Jake Brown, Nate Bulluck, Daley and Roberts on the floor—a five-man lineup that may not have logged any minutes previously. Though the lineup played incredibly effectively together—particularly on the defensive end—coach Brown went back to his starters shortly after, only to watch Plattsburgh extend its lead back to double digits. Balancing when to play the best players versus the best lineup is an incredibly difficult task for any coach (and of course there’s no guarantee that the Brown-Kizel-Bulluck-Daley-Roberts lineup would have continued to be successful), but given the make up of this team (both in terms of its depth and its issues with consistency) Jeff Brown will have to be masterful in his understanding of when to ride certain lineups and when to go back to rely on his more conventional game plan.

NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT

Four pre-NESCAC losses have not inspired a great deal of confidence in this team’s ability to beat quality opponents (and they face one tonight in Bates), but those losses have not adversely affected Middlebury’s chances of achieving its goals in conference play, which tips off tonight. In Bates (7-4), the Panthers face a team that can beat opponents in a variety of ways, in large part due to the emergence of 6’1” guard Graham Safford who has erupted as a NESCAC Player of the Year candidate in his junior season. Safford is second in the NESCAC in scoring, averaging nearly 22 points per game on 49/40/75 shooting splits to go along with 5.7 assist per game as he assumed most of the ball handling duties in point guard Luke Matarazzo’s absence. He’s complemented by 6’5” guard/forward Mike Boornazian, who has been more efficient, if less prolific, than Stafford, averaging 18.5 points per game, while compiling a shooting line of 50/43/80.

Unfortunately for the Bobcats, the offensive well just about runs dry after their pair of elite scorers with no other player averaging more than 8.4 points per game. On the other end, however, the Delpeche twins (freshmen Malcolm and Marcus—6’8” and 6’7”, respectively) provide rim protection (both average more than a block per game while playing fewer than 20 minutes per game) for a Bates team that is holding opponents to 67 points per game on 40.5 percent shooting from the floor. Much like Middlebury should see an improvement offensively from the return of Dylan Sinnickson, the Bobcats will be bolstered by Mattarazzo’s reintroduction into the lineup. Undersized at 5’9”, Matarazzo relies on his ball handling and quickness to beat defenders off the dribble and typically uses penetration to set up teammates rather than find his own shot. He gave the Panthers fits a year ago when Middlebury played at Bates; depending on his game-readiness (he played just 14 minutes in the Bobcats’ loss to Brandeis on Tuesday), he could provide a matchup issue again, though the Panthers should be better prepared to check him with the quickness of Jake Brown.

Bates will provide a strong test of Middlebury’s ability to execute in the half court. The Bobcats are averaging just 13.6 turnovers per game and have the athletes and speed to slow the Panthers down on the break. Where Bates is vulnerable is its lack of front court depth. The Bobcats rely on a trio of freshmen (the Delpeches and 6’7” center Max Eaton) to check opposing front courts, which is an area Middlebury should be able to exploit with consistent touches for Jensen, Daley and Roberts—though they’ve struggled to generate looks inside consistently. Currently the Panthers appear to be ill-equipped to attempt to match Safford and Boornazian in a backcourt shoot out, but after a week of miserable play, we expect the Panthers to get more out of Kizel, St. Amour and co.

After a devastating start to 2014, Middlebury must right itself tonight against Bates. This is unchartered territory for the Panthers, who are both immensely talented, but also sitting on the precipice of a lost season. How they perform tonight will speak volumes about the remainder of their season.

2 Comments

  1. wrote:

    TheBoys almost have jelled. For 39:54 last nite they were in a position to put up the ‘W’. But a cold second-half hand let Bates stay in the game although on ‘D’ they did a good job on Safford and Boornazian. Unfortunate that Bates hit 2 long 3’s late in both clocks to pull it out, especially when they were 1-15 to that point. Now the nescac road is much tougher.
    Big positives on the nite from the return of Dylan, which may have helped the de-icing of Hunter and The Saint, which was suggested yesterday in my Blog. Also thought that Daley continues to progress. More minutes from him will help the ‘O’ produce. Along that line, last year when Longjack was in the game, his lack of being an ‘O’ threat was overshadowed by the other 4 (Jake, Nolan, Pedro and Joey)on the floor. Not so much this time around, as Joey hasn’t had the firepower assistance that that group delivered together. Certain from my skybox view that other teams recognize this as well and are committed to putting the pressure on the rest of the ‘O’, when he’s out there. Although TheBoys had a chance early to crack Bates early, spots of inconsistency prevented it, Bates didn’t wilt, and it came down to a couple of big plays at the end. Definitely a bummer.
    Tufts will be harder, but there were flashes that this team is growing. Remember last nite was the FIRST time that JeffB. had all of the pieces discussed in preseason on the floor together. That’s a big part of the reason Midd has struggled, but my take is that there are still brighter days ahead, and starting with a win over the Jumbo’s they can be an outside contender, and maybe get a home nescac quarter game for their efforts. I’m a big believer in one game, one step at a time. The crowd seemed really in it last nite. That’s a big plus. Hope the same is true tomorrow. Be well.#44.

    Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  2. wrote:

    One additional pre-Tufts thought regarding beefing up the Panther ‘O’. Why not just few well-timed passes up near the rim and Longjack go get ’em. He’s comfortable up there, should be able to finish, and will certainly take any defense by surprise the first two or three times he does it. This forces his man to stay home, which in turn creates space for other parts of the ‘O’. Worth a try, because even if he can’t convert, he may end up at the line, but also it stops a ‘D’ from cheating.

    Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

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