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Friday, November 15: Middlebury (0-0) vs. Alvernia (0-0), 6 p.m. Webcast

Jeff Brown faces a lot of tough choices as he manages his rotation tonight.

Jeff Brown faces many difficult choices as he manages his rotation tonight against Alvernia.

The last time Middlebury lost before the New Year was in 2008, when the current freshmen were in middle school. The senior class is 24-0 in such games, but that spotless record is in jeopardy tonight as the 2013-14 season tips off against Alvernia at the Franklin & Marshall Tournament. Alvernia won the MAC Commonwealth last season, finishing at 24-5 overall and advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament, where they lost to national quarterfinalists St. Mary’s 72-66. Returning five of their top six scorers from last season, Alvernia is ranked 21st in the preseason Top 25. Middlebury, ranked 18th, will rely on first-team All-American Joey Kizel to lead an otherwise-unproven cast against a veteran Crusader squad.

Alvernia’s top scorer is Brian Parker, a 6’4″ forward who shot 57% and put up 14.7 points and 9.2 rebounds in 25 minutes per game last season. An elite scorer like Parker would normally draw James Jensen’s defense, but the senior is likely to miss this tournament as he recovers from offseason surgery. The Crusaders’ second-leading scorer last season was Kahlil Bennett, now a senior, who scored 14.2 points per game but only shot 39/37/76. Who guards Bennett, with the departure of Nolan Thompson? Our guess is some combination of Kizel, Nate Bulluck and Henry Pendergast, each of whom is a strong defender, though in different ways. The other likely starters for Alvernia are 5’11” Lamont Clark, who scores around the basket, 5’9″ outside shooter Chris Davis, and 6’6″ center Harrison Deyo, a limited but efficient scorer. Expect these five, with the possible exception of Deyo, to play in the 35-minute range tonight. Offensively, Alvernia likes to spread the floor and drive to the hoop.

Based on the matchup, there are a couple key takeaways from a Middlebury perspective. First, the height disparity is significant. Any projected Panther frontcourt (some combination of 6’8″ Roberts, 6’5″ Sinnickson, 6’8″ Daley, 6’6″ Merryman, 6’6″ Nidenberg, 6’4″ Huff, and 6’9″ Churchill) will have the size advantage. However, none of the above players has an established post game, so whether they can capitalize is a different question. We expect Coach Brown to emphasize driving and dishing to Roberts and Daley around the basket, counting on his big men to clean up. Sinnickson and Merryman could both be featured at the 3 in bigger lineups, which would allow them to shoot with ease over smaller defenders. Middlebury’s rebounding was disappointing at times last season, and if they struggle here, it will indicate a major area of concern.

On the other side, Middlebury will have to stay in front of Alvernia’s smaller players, stopping penetration and enabling the other defenders to hold on the outside scorers. We project the four guards who get major playing time tonight to be Joey Kizel, Matt St. Amour, Nate Bulluck, and Henry Pendergast. Of those four, the first two will provide more offensive spark. The likely absence of Jake Brown (injury) hurts Middlebury because he is a quick and talented defender, but it might create an opportunity for Bulluck to showcase his skill as an individual defender.

There are two further differences between these teams that will likely define this game. The first is depth of talent. Unless they got hot on the recruiting trail this year, Alvernia’s roster is thin and if any of their main contributors get in foul trouble, it will likely mean a major downgrade. Contrast that to Middlebury, who could send out a third team of players who would start in most DIII programs. If Middlebury can push the tempo with increased substitutions, testing Alvernia’s early season stamina, they can take advantage of that exceptional depth. The other factor is continuity. While Alvernia’s core remains totally intact, Middlebury’s core doesn’t yet exist. That core was Kizel and the three graduating seniors from last year, along with the injured Jensen, and Roberts. Now, it’s likely a combination of players that has never played meaningful minutes together. Regardless of the progress they might have made this fall, that core is going to make mistakes because of their inexperience. Expect periods of offensive stagnation, and uncharacteristic defensive lapses. Coach Brown will likely try out several lineup combinations early, and hope that one hits a rhythm he can ride. Whether or not Middlebury plays cohesively will determine if they can stave off their first early-season loss in five years.

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