In our conference breakdown, we discussed how Middlebury would match up with every opponent, and projected a final conference regular season record of 8-2. But this year, more than any other, their fate could be determined by how they finish out of conference. Given the likely non-conference success that will be had by Williams, Amherst, and Tufts, Middlebury might be looking for a fourth NESCAC bid to the NCAA tournament come March, and organizers will look to this brutally tough November schedule to gauge their caliber. Given all of the moving parts coming into place this fall, the Panthers will not be playing at their potential early. After those tests, the non-conference schedule eases up. The following is our projection for every non-conference game, including some discussion where warranted. As always, we will provide more in-depth analysis as these games approach.
November 15, Alvernia: LOSS. Alvernia finished last season 24-5, losing in the second round to eventual national quarterfinalists St. Mary’s, and returns five of their top six scorers. The Panthers have struggled out of the gate in recent seasons, but haven’t paid for it. With question marks at virtually every position for Middlebury, the veteran Crusaders will capitalize.
November 16, Franklin and Marshall/Baruch: WIN. This opponent depends on the Alvernia game. We like Middlebury over both of these teams, though F&M is a perennial tournament contender, and Baruch is coming off a 17-11 campaign.
November 19, Green Mountain (home): WIN. Green Mountain is a fun and improving program, but their defense was nonexistent in last year’s matchup.
November 22, Stevenson: WIN. Stevenson, the tournament host, increased their win total by ten last season, and boasted the conference freshman of the year, but will not match Middlebury’s depth of talent.
November 24, St. Mary’s: LOSS. We saw St. Mary’s in the Elite Eight in 2011, and again (vs. Mary Hardin-Baylor) in 2013; they are one of the more impressive programs in the country. Returning their two top scorers and ranked 10th in the country, the Seahawks will be the favorites in this one, and rightfully so in our minds.
December 1, RPI: WIN. RPI, another good test for the Panthers, finished 17-10 last season. They run a modified Grinnell offense, creating a fast pace that should cater to Middlebury’s depth and athleticism.
December 3, Castleton State (home): WIN. Castleton graduates senior star Mark Comstock, and will likely regress after a 17-11 record in 2013.
December 7, Skidmore: WIN. The Thoroughbreds are talented, led by sophomore wingman Aldin Medunjanin, but they finished 15-11 last year, including a 21-point loss to the Panthers.
January 14, Lyndon State: WIN. This one should be easy; a short bus ride to visit a team that lost by 30 to both Middlebury and Williams last season.
January 21, Johnson State: WIN. The Badgers finished 9-17 last season.
January 23, St. Joseph’s (VT) (home): WIN. This team is not in Division III, and scored 46 points against Middlebury last season. These are the games that should allow the Panthers to find out how deep their bench runs and give opportunities to guys outside of the rotation.
February 4, Keene State: WIN. It was nice to get the taste of the 2012 loss out of mouths with a dominant performance at home last year. This year, Keene State has lost some star power and should be an easier matchup.
Final non-conference record: 10-2
One of the many major question marks surrounding the upcoming season is the new-look conference schedule. Instead of the Friday evening-Saturday afternoon schedule to which Middlebury is accustomed, the Panthers will be playing on Fridays and Sundays all conference season long. They are the only team in the conference that will be on this schedule, and each of their opponents will be playing only one game during the weekend they play Middlebury. (In simplified NESCAC terms, Middlebury no longer has a travel partner.) This arrangement is a product of Hamilton’s joining the conference several years ago, giving the NESCAC an uneven 11 total teams. We reached out to three former members of the Middlebury basketball program to ask them how they thought the schedule would affect the team. They each expressed mixed sentiments.
Ryan Sharry ’12: I remember when I was a senior we found out the schedule would be this way when these guys were seniors and we were on them then telling them how bad it would be. But looking back I think I would really like it. Doing homework will be tough, but I always loved road trips. It’s all basketball all the time. There are no distractions and it’s great to build team chemistry. The extra day of recovery is nice and you can scout more for the team Sunday. When you play a team Saturday it’s tough to scout for them so that will be helpful. Not getting back for Saturday night is a tough blow though. There aren’t many things better than coming home Saturday night after two big wins. Also, the NESCAC always argues they are doing things with academics in mind but sending guys away for whole weekends doesn’t seem to be doing the same thing.
Alex Popp, former Middlebury assistant (now at Holy Cross): Being the standalone is a two-way street: you have the luxury of added—and much needed—rest, but by virtue of being your opponent’s only match-up that weekend you are their singular focus. And they WILL focus on beating you. In a league that prides itself on preparation and advance scouting, giving a Colby or Trinity staff a week to dissect your weaknesses is a daunting thought. The UAA plays on Friday/Sundays, and they deal with far more demanding travel. Therefore I believe that it’s manageable, but my main concern is the NESCAC scholar-athlete. Players like Joey Kizel and Jack Roberts were adamant about dedicating Sundays to the books without the distraction of athletic commitments. My second concern is the parents (the biggest Panther fans on the planet): e.g., the Bullucks and Merrymans who make the weekly trek from the West Coast to watch their sons rain threes in Pepin. Now they can’t take advantage of Sunday, either (formerly a travel day). The Friday/Sunday schedule isn’t ideal, especially when Friday/Saturday NESCAC weekends have become a way of life for student-athletes and their families. But if anyone can make it work, it’s the overachieving Panthers who seem to always have something to prove.
Scott Picard, former Middlebury assistant (now at UMass-Dartmouth): On the one hand, the opponent just has one NESCAC game to prepare for each weekend, while Middlebury has to prepare for two. Usually a team has a game mid-week, so the Friday opponent would get the same amount of time to prepare as Middlebury. The Sunday opponent is likely to treat Thursday as a practice day, then watch film Friday and Saturday, whereas Middlebury will only watch film on Saturday. I think it could be a good thing for Middlebury going on the road because they can get an extra day of rest. Driving to Bates for a game then having to go to bed and wake up early and drive another two hours to Tufts is really tough for a team to come play right out the gate and play 40 minutes. You’re tired, from all the travel, its tough to adjust. They can have all day Saturday to relax, watch film, and game plan. Whenever you have an extra day to prepare it’s a positive. A Coach Brown team will always be prepared and ready to play.
A huge thanks to Sharry, Popp, and Picard for taking the time to share their insights. Our major takeaway is that teams will take advantage of the extra time to focus on Middlebury and it will force Middlebury’s coaches to be more efficient game-planners. The schedule seems brutal for academics, as they pointed out. One benefit is that with Middlebury playing on Sundays, NESCAC fans can now watch high-caliber teams for three consecutive days in this era of quality webcasts.