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200px-Wesleyan_University_Shield.svg_This preview was contributed by Peter Lindholm ‘17.5, a long-time follower of Middlebury basketball. 

For the first time in this frustrating 2014 season, the magic of the last four years was palpable in Pepin Gym on Sunday night.  The first half of Sunday’s game against Tufts followed the same formula as the clinically depressing Bates loss.  Middlebury’s interior defense was paper thin, with Tufts freshman Hunter Sabety playing the role of paper shredder, with 16 first half points (on 8-8 shooting), and the Panthers trailed 38-35.

The second half however, was a different story.  The Panthers showed the mental fortitude that has characterized the Middlebury teams of the last six years.  After Sabety and James Jensen got tangled up early in the second half, Middlebury dominated the rest of the way, ultimately winning 80-66.  As the second half went on, the crowd in Pepin seemed to lift the team higher and higher.  It was certainly possible to see this team as the next generation in the proud basketball tradition that Middlebury has developed.

Following an 81-69 win over perennial cupcake Lyndon State, Friday’s game at Wesleyan is the perfect chance for Middlebury to continue this newfound success.  But it won’t just happen magically.  Middlebury has to continue the good things that we saw against Tufts, particularly the defensive intensity, the cohesiveness of the new lineup, and the play of Dylan Sinnickson.

The second half of the Tufts game was marked by effort and intensity on the defensive end.  Jeff Brown tried a number of different matchups on Sabety in the first half, with little success.  The matchup that finally stopped the big freshman was Matt Daley, who used his extensive wingspan to half-front Sabety, making interior touches far more difficult.  Jake Brown also played stellar on ball defense against Tufts’ perimeter threats. This defense will need to continue against Wesleyan.  Sophomore forward Rashid Epps is averaging 11.5 points and a league leading 10.6 rebounds per game.  Boxing him out and limiting his inside catches will be imperative for a win.  Middlebury will also have to limit penetration, so Epps doesn’t get layups off passes from slashing guards.  Stopping the penetration and limiting Epps’ catches will also prevent Wesleyan from getting open threes off of inside-out movement, something they are dangerous at, averaging 11.5 made threes in NESCAC play thus far.

Middlebury came out against Tufts with a new look.  Jake Brown and Dylan Sinnickson replaced Jensen and freshman Matt St. Amour in the starting lineup.  These changes were important for a couple of reasons.  First, the emergence of Jake Brown at the point allowed Joey Kizel to play off the ball and focus more on scoring, clearly the best part of his game.  Also, Jensen and St Amour will be able to come off the bench and change the pace of the game with Jensen’s athleticism and St Amour’s scoring ability.  For the first time all year, the Panthers seem to have a lineup which is both cohesive together and versatile in its lineup options.

However, the effectiveness of this lineup, and the team in general, is dependent on Dylan Sinnickson.  His athleticism bolsters the rebounding and defense, his improved shooting touch spreads the floor, and his mere presence allows Jensen to come off the bench as an energy boost, where I believe he is best served.   Sinnickson came back from an absence against Bates with 23 points, but some questionable decisions, probably due to overcompensation for his absence.  He scored 15 against Tufts, with 5 rebounds, and looked much more settled in the offense.  Sinnickson’s versatility and skills are vital to Middlebury’s success against Wesleyan, and in the rest of NESCAC play.

For Middlebury to come back from this slow start and make a run in the NESCAC’s, every game is vital.  Against Tufts, young players like Daley, Brown and St Amour took great steps forward, and established players like Kizel (17) and Merriman (15) continued their strong play.  The Panthers need that balance from here on out.  Wesleyan is 0-2 in NESCAC, but they’ve played Amherst and Bowdoin, the cream of this year’s crop.  They will be hungry for a signature win against a power player like Middlebury, and they have a strong inside presence in Epps and outside threats in Harry Rafferty (13.0) and Joe Edmonds (10.2 and a 41.3% mark from downtown).  This game could either be another building block on Middlebury’s path to redemption, or another nail in their coffin.

One Comment

  1. wrote:

    Thank you Peter, and here’s hoping for the many more thoughts that you’ll bring to the Panther coverage over the next four years.

    That said, this team might be better in an up tempo kind of game that Midd hasn’t really played in the past few years. There isn’t a lock-down defender in the mold of Nolan, or Tim Edwards. There isn’t the back line ‘D’ of Locke or even Sharry to make teams think about not trying to get to the hoop. Longjack does a good job – and certainly his effort with Daley in taking away Sabety from Tufts in the second half was great. By being able to do that Midd can have an inside presence to match up with Mayer, Swords and then Killian and Pollak. That also frees James up to defend against someone other than the biggest ‘Big’. He is excellent at that. It also allows Dylan to man up vs. a ‘3’ or ‘2’- another big plus for us.

    In an up tempo scenario scoring can come from different places and we’ve got a lot of guys that can get into DD’s. I sort of look for that tonite and at ConnColl. These are two games that despite being on the road, Midd should control and put up W’s. Wesleyan is a shadow of last year’s team. Having seen them these would be mu observations: Rafferty has games where he is nearly invisible, so consistency is a question, but a lot of times with frosh that’s the case. Edmonds, the d1 transfer isn’t lighting anyone on fire. Epps has to be played but we’ve seen him in action. Inside, Thomas has continued to bulk up. The result is that he is very strong but has no speed or quickness.

    When we get to new London, the key is to keep Vadas under control. He’s a 1500 point scorer (with a half-season) left, and has a couple of decent running mates in Lopez, McKinley, and Pavlin. This where records may be decieving. This team got torched by Salve (by 34) and allowed Colby to come back and pull away in the 2H. They weren’t in the Bowdoin or Eastern Conn. games, and in those 4 anyway showed no inclination to defend. Since we’ve got more and I think better athletes, road or not, this should cap off the weekend with a ‘W’. These are key games to build on as Peter indicated and will not only help our confidence levels but keep us moving forward towards locking up a nescac home quarter game, the first step in any post-season hopes. Be well. Clubbo.

    Friday, January 17, 2014 at 9:54 am | Permalink

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