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What Ails Middlebury?

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.


  1. wrote:

    Nice sugar coating.
    Joey Kizel, so far this season, has looked too much for his own offense and missed countless opportunities to hit open guys. Padding his stats? Probably not, but he was more effective in previous years playing OFF the ball as Jake Wolfin found him for open shots. Jake Brown can do that at least as well.
    You won’t like this one.
    A team’s leader should not whine at the refs on every call that goes against him. It’s not good sportsmanship or a model of what a Middlebury team represents.
    I’ve seen practices too. Kizel does nothing that I’ve seen to take young players under his wing to help them develop.
    Merryman and Bulluck have shown an interest in teaching the new guys.

    Your point about consistency is right on. When Matt Daley is engaged; he is first team all-nescac. Otherwise he’s best left on the bench. Defensively, we can’t use the word consistency because there simply hasn’t been any. At least in the way we’ve come to know Middlebury D in the past 7 years.
    My take is this: the Panthers can simply outscore most teams, especially if and when Sinnickson returns. The good teams will beat us if the team doesn’t both ‘gel’ and commit to tough D all the time.
    I’ve seen almost all the NESCAC teams play this season. Many have improved dramatically. Wesleyan is awful. Bowdoin is much better. Tufts can beat us. Amherst is far better than I thought they’d be. Williams can win it all. Bates ain’t all that bad. Trinity and Conn, not so good. Haven’t seen Hamilton or Colby. We could lose anywhere from 2-6 games in the league, depending on how Jeff can pull his most talented team ever into a cohesive ‘typical Middlebury’ unit.

    Sunday, November 24, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink
  2. wrote:

    Joey Kizel needs to look for his own shot. He is the best scorer on the team. It’s easy to say he is looking for it too much retrospectively when he has uncharacteristically poor shooting games. We don’t beat Baruch without him looking for his own shot, being assertive, and taking over the offense at times. How quickly we forget the Joey Kizel who took over games last season, often on the ball, sometimes off the ball (just like this last game when he shared the court with JB), and was incredible in that role.

    Complaining about calls? Kizel has been doing that since he got here. Where were the negative consequences? Toomey complains about calls. Wolfin did fairly often. David Hixon does relentlessly. Sharry did. What’s unique about Kizel? The fact that this time the team lost? Poor reasoning.

    In practice, I see Kizel pushing the team’s limits by taking charges, playing to contact, playing harder than anyone else on the court, and making it clear that nothing is more important than the drill or scrimmage at hand. He’s been a tone-setter for this team in practices as well as games.

    Sunday, November 24, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink
  3. wrote:

    no Jensen; no Sinnickson; a rare off game by the team’s best player and an equally rare loss – not a big deal.

    if one wanted to look for worries, i guess they are there. team would be better off w/o the “whining” both on the floor and, worse, from some in support (always blaming the refs is a loser’s lament; never crediting the opponent is tacky; both are beneath and not like Midd); and a rediscovered commitment to the defensive end of the floor would certainly help to offset the off nights. team is fine – Jeff B will tend to any areas of concern – I’m guessing they have one loss entering entering NESCAC play.

    Sunday, November 24, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  4. wrote:

    You’re saying it’s beneath Middlebury to have FANS who note poor officiating? Fans aren’t on the team, and they don’t represent the team. Also, if you read d3boards consistently, fans of every major program almost always say the same thing after a poorly officiated loss: if the officiating was better, [Team] probably would have won, but they should have played better so that it wasn’t a factor. This phenomenon isn’t worth analyzing itself, and it certainly isn’t worth attributing to the team. Did you hear Coach Brown’s post-game interview? First thing he says, unprovoked, is that he wanted to credit Stevenson for the win, that they deserved it, and that they played the better game. What makes you think anybody in the program has anything else to say?

    Sunday, November 24, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

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