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Starting the NESCAC POY Discussion

With one week remaining in the NESCAC regular season, we wanted to start to analyze the top candidates for NESCAC Player of the Year. This is a good time to gauge what has been accomplished thus far from an individual standpoint, and position ourselves to assess the final weekend of play appropriately. In order to do that, we ranked the top 13 players in the conference by their statistical outputs. Limiting the discussion to stats alone is a good and instructive way to generate an idea of where each player stands, but it clearly does not comprehensively capture value. For example, John Swords’ interior presence and its effect on Bowdoin’s smothering defense is probably not conveyed by his 1.9 blocks per game, alone. Likewise, Aaron Toomey’s creation of opportunities within Amherst’s conference-leading offense goes beyond his 6.4 assists per game. But for now, and for what it’s worth, here are the top 13 players in the NESCAC through five weekends of play, based only on statistical output.

PPG

APG

RPG

BPG

SPG

FG

3FG

FT

TOPG

MPG

1.

Robinson

18.1

2.1

5.4

1.0

0.9

60

52

86

1.3

36

2.

Toomey

21.1

6.4

5.2

0.2

1.2

46

37

92

2.7

34

3.

Kizel

17.2

6.1

4.4

0.3

1.5

43

46

81

2.6

37

4.

Mayer

18.9

1.8

8.8

0.5

0.6

51

20

81

1.0

28

5.

Sinnickson

17.5

0.5

6.6

0.9

0.6

48

45

66

0.9

28

6.

Lopez

16.6

1.9

2.0

0.1

1.6

46

46

74

0.8

30

7.

Hart

20.5

2.0

3.6

0.1

0.6

44

40

87

1.9

34

8.

Hudnut

16.9

4.0

8.2

0.6

0.4

46

32

81

2.5

34

9.

Sabety

14.4

0.0

4.9

2.9

0.1

67

0

46

1.4

24

10.

Killian

14.4

1.7

6.4

0.2

2.7

45

35

80

1.2

37

11.

Swords

12.9

1.5

9.1

1.9

0.1

67

0

51

1.3

29

12.

Boornazien

17.1

1.9

7.2

0.6

0.4

41

41

82

2.0

34

13.

Edmonds

15.1

1.1

3.5

0.0

0.6

46

42

77

2.3

34

Robinson and Toomey are 1a and 1b right now. Robinson’s efficiency statistics are in another stratosphere, while Toomey leads this group in scoring and assists, and is first among guards in rebounds. Lopez’s placement at six might seem surprising, but it is hard to argue with his scoring efficiency numbers. Hart’s prolific scoring is offset by his weak peripheral numbers. Hudnut’s 4.0 assists per game and Killian’s 2.7 steals per game are two of the more impressive and surprising numbers on this list. Sabety is tied with Swords in field goal percentage (67), but his points per game and blocks per game are higher, and come in fewer minutes. Following this weekend, we will undertake a more comprehensive analysis of the question.

An Opportunity Squandered for the Polar Bears

Contributor Adam Lamont breaks down Bowdoin’s last second loss at Middlebury on Sunday.

With the game tied and out of timeouts, Tim Gilbride attempted to call an ill-fated timeout, sealing the win for Middlebury. But the problems for the Polar Bears are more nuanced, writes Adam Lamont.

With the game tied and out of timeouts, Tim Gilbride attempted to call an ill-fated timeout, sealing the win for Middlebury. But the problems for the Polar Bears are more nuanced, writes Adam Lamont.

Bowdoin missed out on a chance against Middlebury to separate itself as the third best team in the NESCAC. The headlines will say that Tim Gilbride’s attempt to call a timeout when he didn’t have one cost the Polar Bears the game, but as is the case with any close game, the story is much more complicated as to why Middlebury escaped with the victory. Shooting 52 percent from the free throw line, missing easy layups and letting Middlebury get open looks from three cost Bowdoin far more than Gilbride’s lapse at the end. Of course Gilbride should have been aware that his team was out of timeouts, but in the grand scheme of things the other factors are far more concerning. It would have been great to see the game go into overtime, but Gilbride has done an exceptional job coaching this year. One mistake should not overshadow that. Now, to the game itself …

For the first 39:30 the game played out just like Bowdoin’s other two losses. Bowdoin’s defense, especially on the perimeter, played worse than its usual stingy self. Dylan Sinnickson and Joey Kizel both had big first halves getting good looks from the outside. The amount of open threes that Middlebury had was particularly disappointing. Bowdoin played primarily man-to-man though they would sometimes disguise it as a zone coming out of a timeout or stop of play. Man is not the defense this team is most comfortable playing and it showed a few times when players got caught watching the ball instead of sticking to their player. Swords was unable to shut down Jack Roberts who had a nice game scoring 10 points. He seemed just a little bit too slow in his reactions and Roberts did a good job keeping him off balance with his post moves.

The Polar Bears made the occasional switch back to the zone for the short stretches when Kizel went to the bench. Bowdoin was burned earlier in the year when Duncan Robinson went off from outside, single-handedly rendering the zone defense useless. Understandably, Gilbride did not want Kizel, coming off a 30-point performance against Colby, to consistently get open looks. He still scored in the first half though it was in a variety of ways, both by pulling up from three in transition as well as getting to the basket. His playmaking in the second half kept the Middlebury offense going even after Bowdoin started to tighten things up defensively in the second half. Obviously a lot of (virtual) ink has been written about Kizel here. Seeing him and Toomey in back to back games was a real treat as well as a disappointing reminder to what Bowdoin is missing as Bryan Hurley continues to play his way back from injury. Hurley was a great floor leader for Bowdoin last year and was the engine of the offense, especially late in the shot clock. It is pretty clear that even though he has returned that Hurley will not be that player until next year. Matt Mathias has been great all season, but he isn’t the type of player who can consistently create for his teammates like Kizel or Toomey. Having a player who can create offense out of nothing in close games is what distinguishes the consistently great teams and may be Bowdoin’s missing ingredient this season.

On offense Bowdoin only got into a rhythm during a few moments in the first half and the end of the game. Middlebury was the first team all year to primarily front Swords with weak-side help quick to double. The high-risk, high-reward strategy definitely played to Bowdoin’s advantage. Swords was able to out-battle Jack Roberts for three easy dunks (it felt like more) because the help side either could not get there in time or the pass came from the middle of the floor meaning nobody could help enough off their man to stop Swords. I found the strategy surprising because playing Swords straight-up forces him to make more difficult shots or pass out to the perimeter. Fronting him allows him to use his greatest strength, his size, to get him easy baskets. Swords finished with 16 points and probably should have had 20 considering he missed two point-blank shots and also five free throws.

What fronting him did do, however, was limit the looks Bowdoin got from the outside because Swords’ touches were limited even though his scoring was not. The clean looks for Bowdoin’s perimeter players that often result from the attention Swords receives just weren’t there. Andrew Madlinger was able to hit a couple of threes, but he also fired up others that were contested because it was the only way he could get a shot off. This was especially true in the first half when Bowdoin only attempted four threes. The lack of threes in the first half made Grant White’s 11 first-half points all the more important because he was able to efficiently score off the dribble. The senior from Vermont had his best game offensively since the first game of the season. He has been more aggressive in the last few weeks getting into the lane and has become a good secondary playmaker for Bowdoin averaging 3.1 assists per game. His play helped offset subpar games from both Matt Mathias and Keegan Pieri. Mathias had a difficult matchup with Jake Brown harassing him for much of the game. Though his shot was off he still had four assists and more importantly no turnovers so he still found ways to produce when he wasn’t having his best game.

The struggles of Pieri were a little more perplexing. He didn’t seem to get the ball as much as he has recently nor with the space he needs to work. Middlebury deserves some credit because the athletes like Jensen or Sinnickson that they can put on Pieri are impressive. He was virtually non-existent in the first half with only one shot taken and two rebounds. In the preview for this game I said that Lucas Hausman shouldn’t shot threes anymore which obviously meant that he went 2-2 from there on Sunday. He also uncharacteristically missed three free throws, which was a theme from Sunday. Bowdoin finished 13-25 (52 percent) from the line and though Middlebury’s misses down the stretch were more important, the cumulative effect of missing 12 free throws is immense. Five of those misses were by Swords who sits at 51.9 percent for the season. No team has employed a hack-a-Swords strategy yet, but we very well could see that this weekend at Bates Friday night, where there should have a raucous crowd trying to get into Swords’ head. Overall foul shooting has been a strength of the team all season and one game of poor shooting isn’t of too much of a concern.

Losing at Middlebury wasn’t a bad loss considering all the talent the Panthers have, but it means this weekend will be a tricky one for Bowdoin. On paper the Friday game against Bates is an easy win, but the teams played an incredibly close game in December that came down to the buzzer. Tufts is a talented team that has struggled, but has pieces. Though Bowdoin closes with the bottom two teams in the league, they are by no means easy wins. Win both and one NESCAC tournament game and Bowdoin should make the NCAA tournament, but stumbling could put them on the bubble because they played an easy non-conference schedule and don’t have a signature win in NESCAC play. The Polar Bears have made up for it by running the table against the rest of their schedule, but if they want to make a run in either the NESCAC or NCAA Tournament they have to be able to beat tournament-caliber teams.

Bowdoin Preview

Middlebury and Bowdoin face off today in a matchup that will be significant in determining how the NESCAC standings shake out. Contributor Adam Lamont, a sophomore at Bowdoin previews the matchup.

Today’s tilt between Bowdoin and Middlebury is the first of three difficult road games the Polar Bears have to finish out the season. Bowdoin has a tendency to play close games so while they pushed Amherst and Williams to the wire, they also trailed Plymouth State and UMaine Farmington deep in the second half. Middlebury has shown the same habit often with devastating results so expect a very tight game Sunday afternoon. The key matchups will be how well Bowdoin gets the ball inside to John Swords and Middlebury’s ability to hit outside shots.

Last year Swords played his best game against Middlebury posting 13 points, 9 rebounds and three blocks. This year that would be a very ho-hum game for him as he has been a game-changing force in the middle all year. Amherst and Trinity both did a very good job against him last week making sure he caught the ball far enough away from the hoop that he had to put the ball on the floor to make a move. If he catches it close to the basket he has a great spin move either way and can use both hands to finish making that virtually unguardable. Often Swords catches the ball holds the ball for a couple of seconds to see whether the defense is going to double him. He is quick to pass out of a double team so if players feint towards him before getting back to their man they can neutralize him to some degree. For Bowdoin the key is getting him the ball in as many different ways as possible. Most of the time right now he gets the ball on entry passes from the perimeter. Bowdoin is starting to employ a baseline out of bounds play that amounts to throwing the pass high so Swords can go up and get it, gather himself, and finish. It would be great to see Bowdoin get more penetration and look to dish it to Swords inside. Even if Swords isn’t able to finish alley-oops, he should be able to gather the passes and finish. He needs to be getting 10 shots a game, something he hasn’t done since January 25th against Colby.

Amherst switched a lot on defense creating a lot of mismatches that Bowdoin looked to exploit. A lot of these possessions ended in post-ups for either Grant White or Keegan Pieri. They didn’t take bad shots, but Amherst kept switching because those post-ups made the Bowdoin offense stagnant. Bowdoin should take advantage at times of a size advantage, but shouldn’t get sucked into a predictable offense that ends in a lot of midrange shots. Like any offense without a great perimeter shot-creator, Bowdoin needs to get the ball inside as much while also moving the defense side to side. Shooting Guard Andrew Madlinger has been lights out shooting the ball all season and can make it with a defender in his face. Madlinger’s play and the return of Bryan Hurley have squeezed the playing time of Lucas Hausman a bit. He only played nine minutes against Amherst, recording zero points, but he remains the first man off the bench. He has to attack the basket even more than he is now (83.8 percent from the free throw line) and at this point should probably not be taking any threes (24.4 percent). He played better on Tuesday against Plymouth State and his creativity is an important asset for Bowdoin especially if Swords is not in the game to attract attention.

The first 10 minutes of the Amherst game made the Bowdoin defense (both man and zone) look atrocious. The ball movement was amazing with Aaron Toomey orchestrating his teammates. The perimeter defenders were always a step too late leading to blow-by drives because of bad closeouts. The defense tightened up as the game went on, but Aaron Toomey was huge down the stretch for Amherst. Dylan Sinnickson will need to have a big game for Middlebury. Duncan Robinson and Connor Green shot and made a lot of threes against the Bowdoin zone. Sinnickson is the same type of player for Middlebury so it’s crucial that Bowdoin make sure he doesn’t get open looks. Swords’ interior defense keeps getting better. Amherst was content to shoot from outside launching 37 threes making up 61.6% of their shots from the floor. The unfortunate loss of Matt St. Amour will hurt Middlebury in this aspect though they still have capable shooters. Coach Tim Gilbride is very careful about keeping Swords from fouling out and Swords often sits for long stretches in the first half. This affects him more on offense than defense because he takes some time to get into a rhythm. The best perimeter defender for Bowdoin is Grant White and he will draw Sinnickson if Bowdoin goes man to man. That man-to-man would leave most likely Mathias on Kizel, who scored a career-high 30 points on Friday night and has scored 22 or more in each of his last three games. Mathias isn’t a great athlete, but he doesn’t get beat and played Toomey very close even though Toomey still managed to hit some contested threes. The most even matchup is the power forwards where both Merryman and Pieri play crucial, albeit secondary, offensive roles. If one of those two is able to assert themselves, that would be huge whether it’s Merryman draining threes or Pieri knocking down midrange jumpers.

Bowdoin has announced that they have the ability to win the NESCAC tournament, but barring any upsets, they will have to take down Williams and Amherst in back to back games. This matchup would have been much more intriguing if Bowdoin and Middlebury had been able to finish off Amherst and Williams respectively last weekend. Still if anyone outside of the top two is going to make a run in the conference tournament, it’s Bowdoin or Middlebury. The winner will have the inside track on the number 3 seed, which doesn’t mean too much given the parity in the bottom half of the league. This should be a good benchmark game for Bowdoin that will be facing a Middlebury team that needs every win they can get.

Still Playing for Something

Chris Hudnut leads a talented sophomore class for the Mules who are braying as they enter the stretch run.

Chris Hudnut leads a talented sophomore class for the Mules who are braying as they enter the stretch run.

Never in our short college careers have we — and by we I mean Jeff and I as Middlebury men’s basketball fans — been in this situation. The 2013-14 season has been a deadly cocktail of regression to the mean, Murphy’s Law and mediocrity. At 13-7 (3-3), the Panthers are not extinct yet, but very much endangered. News of Matt St. Amour’s ACL injury is just the latest tear in Middlebury’s once promising tapestry. Of course the Panthers still has something to play for, but so too does Trinity, Colby, Hamilton and every other team in the NESCAC. That it feels necessary to affirm as much is itself an indictment of our lofty expectations for this team. At this point it is highly unlikely that Middlebury will be playing on the final day of the NESCAC season, let alone the D-III basketball season.

And that’s ok. High expectations are rarely a bad thing, but with them should come an understanding that failure to match or exceed those expectations does not equate to absolute failure. As fans, or even media, it is tempting to lose focus or interest when a team does not perform to its potential, particularly when that potential has been actualized or exceeded in recent history. Middlebury is 3-3 in NESCAC, 13-7 overall and will likely (but not certainly) miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007. Generations of Middlebury basketball fans that preceded us would have found much to enjoy in a season like this one. And simply because we have been spoiled by outstanding success the past four years should not preclude us from doing the same. With that in mind, here are the things to keep an eye on in today’s game against Colby.

1) February is here and Joey Kizel has gone on something of a tear. Kizel has 45 points in two games and appears to have found his shooting stroke (13-27 FG, 4-10 3PT, 15-17 FT). Now, understandably this is a tiny sample size (two games) and excludes the 1-9 shooting performance against Williams on Jan. 31, but if you view Kizel’s performance in the grander scope of his career, a late-season surge is precisely what we would expect from the All-American guard. Kizel has struggled at times with the weight of his responsibilities as a facilitator and scorer, particularly when the offense stagnates around him, but the Panthers do appear to be taking steps forward in that regard. Middlebury has lost its identity for stretches — most blatantly in the second half against Williams and the first half performance at Hamilton — but the offense seems to have turned a corner, more closely resembling the team that outscored Skidmore on the road than the group that abandoned ship against Plattsburgh at home.

2) While the offense has looked in rhythm, the team now has to replace a key rotational cog in Matt St. Amour who was averaging north of 20 minutes per game. How do his minutes get distributed and who steps into that role? It would seem like Dean Brierley, Nate Bulluck and Bryan Jones are the most likely bench players (likely in that order) to see a spike in minutes as a result of St. Amour’s injury. Bulluck has seen a reduction in his minutes at the same time that Brierley has seen a rise in his. Following St. Amour’s injury, both guards saw seven minutes of game action. Bulluck and Brierley are likely better fits at St. Amour’s position than Jones, who doesn’t give Jeff Brown as much size or defensive versatility off the bench. But in limited minutes so far this season, Jones has made the most of his opportunities and looks like a player who could give Middlebury a spark off the bench. Given Jones’s future and potential, it would be nice to see the freshman guard see steady minutes off the bench down the stretch in preparation for next season. Having said that, if Bulluck and Brierley — two of the hardest working guys in the program — have earned their minutes as upperclassmen, it’s equally hard to tell them to take a seat while another freshman plays in front of them. Even in a rebuilding year this team has depth, talent and character, which means that minutes will still be difficult to distribute and a deserving player will likely play fewer minutes than he would somewhere else. How the rotation shakes out the rest of the year is an unfortunate, but interesting storyline.

3) Colby has just one double-digit loss since the start of NESCAC play and held Williams to a seven-point loss in Williamstown, fell to Bowdoin in New Brunswick by five and beat Amherst and Trinity at home. Last weekend was not a one-hit weekend wonder for the Mules who are contending for a top-four spot in the conference and very well may play on the second day of the NESCAC tournament for the first time since 2010. The Mules’ sophomore class is the sugar cube of the program. All five of the team’s top scorers are members of the class of 2016, led by 6’8” center Chris Hudnut, 6’3” guard Ryan Jann and 6’6” forward Patrick Stewart who average double digits. Hudnut has developed into one of the conference’s best big men in what appears to be a golden age for the NESCAC in that regard. (While previous groups may have been headlined by bigger names such as Whittington, Locke and Sharry, the proliferation and distribution of talented bigs conference-wide seems unprecedented in recent years.) The Panthers have had mixed results against other centers, struggling to contain Malcolm Delpeche in the conference opener against Bates and getting shredded by Hunter Sabety in the first half against Tufts before shutting him out in the second half and doing an impressive job limiting Michael Mayer a week ago. Jack Roberts will have his hands full this weekend against Hudnut tonight and the 7’0” John Swords on Sunday. The Panthers’ depth in the front court remains thinner than desired with the prolonged absence of Matt Daley. Jake Nidenberg and Chris Churchill have provided spells of strong play on both ends, but keeping Roberts out of foul trouble will be essential for Middlebury this weekend.

It has been a tough ride so far for this team, exacerbated by extended absences from Dylan Sinnickson, Matt Daley and now Matt St. Amour, three players who we felt were the biggest offensive threats around Joey Kizel to start the season. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Panthers have lost a handful of games they should have won, but have not pulled off the same feat — one of the hallmarks of Middlebury teams of the recent past. As a result, the 2013-14 season likely will not extend beyond the NESCAC season, which makes appreciating the games that do remain all the more important.

Road to Salem Part 5: Williams

If you haven’t seen it yet, here is Part 5 of the Road to Salem, which follows the team on the day of their matchup with Williams: