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Connecticut Part II

Friday night’s game against Wesleyan demonstrated why it’s still too early to count Middlebury in our out this year. On the one hand, Middlebury came away with a 77-75 victory in a NESCAC game on the road, but on the other, the same issues that have plagued Middlebury all season long were present once again in Middletown and the Cardinals spent much of the evening clipping their own wings in a game that they probably should have won.

First, the good: after missing a number of big shots down the stretch in a number of Middlebury’s losses so far this year, Joey Kizel delivered in a major way last night, despite struggling from the floor throughout much of the game. With his team trailing by three, with 21 seconds left in overtime, Kizel pulled up from NBA range and drained a three to tie the game and, after a pair of misses from Wesleyan, send the game into double overtime. Kizel started the game 0-5, and didn’t make his first field goal until the 2:38 mark, when he made a tough layup to cut the Wesleyan lead to three. On Middlebury’s next possession, Kizel orchestrated Middlebury’s one effective set — the pick-and-roll with Sinnickson at the top of the key — and found a wide open Sinnickson for a game-tying three. Sinnickson was tremendous, making 6-12 threes for 18 points to match Kizel as the Panthers’ high scorers. While Sinnickson’s performance was noteworthy, it’s highly unlikely he will get the same looks he did Friday at any point this season. Wesleyan’s pick-and-roll defense was virtually nonexistent, as Cardinal defenders routinely left Sinnickson — who is clearly one of the conference’s best three-point shooters — wide open all evening long. Perhaps their primary defensive assignment was stopping Kizel from turning the corner and getting penetration, but time and time again — and most egregiously when Middlebury trailed by three and Kizel was 1-5 from the floor — Wesleyan defenders got lost in the high-screen action and paid dearly for it. Kizel carried the Panthers from there, scoring 14 points over the game’s final 12:38. It was a throw-back performance for the All-American guard who looked every bit the player who has willed this team back into games before. James Jensen played a big part in Middlebury’s late-game surge, with all 13 of his points off the bench coming in the second half and overtime. Jensen finished 5-11 from the floor, but missed a couple of shots close to the basket that he normally finishes. Jensen has struggled at times this year as he has been asked to play increasingly with his back to the basket, but Friday showed more of the energetic, low post movement to which Middlebury fans have become accustomed. Matt St. Amour also had a strong performance, despite a quiet box score (8 points on 1-3 shooting). The freshman made two key plays late in the game that belie his lack of experience, first stealing the ball from impressive freshman Harry Rafferty to set up Sinnickson’s game-tying three with just over two minutes remaining in regulation and then drawing a foul with 8 seconds left in double overtime to go to the free throw line, where he made two free throws to give Middlebury a 77-75 victory. As a team, Middlebury was stingy once again defenisvely, limiting Wesleyan to less than 35 percent shooting from the floor.

That’s the good — and there were stretches of strong play from the Panthers — but it should be recognized within the overall context: Middlebury should not have won this game. Wesleyan’s inexperience and chance had as much to do with the Panthers’ victory as their play. While win-probability graphs are not kept for D-III basketball, it’s not hard to imagine that Wesleyan had a better than 90 percent chance of winning the game at the end of regulation (up 5 with the ball with 3:00 minutes left) and in the first overtime (up 3 with 28 seconds left). And if Middlebury loses the game in regulation, many of the positives listed above — especially the play of Kizel, who was 1-6 with 5 turnovers at that point — go out the window. Around Kizel the offense is still very much a work in progress. Sinnickson will continue to stretch the floor and give Middlebury an outlet on offense when their sets break down, but he won’t see the looks he got against Wesleyan tonight again this season. And Middlebury had precious little go right for them in the half court, outside of the the two-man game between Kizel and Sinnickson. St. Amour made an immediate impact when he checked into the game, getting to the free throw line and draining a long three on his first two possessions, but that was it for him until the second overtime from an offensive standpoint. After struggling mightily with his shot early in the season, St. Amour has found a rhythm from beyond the arc and the game appears to have slowed down for him considerably going to the basket. Unfortunately, Middlebury has not gotten enough touches for him and he failed to contribute on offense for a long stretch as a result. Finding St. Amour greater opportunities — perhaps by running more sets specifically for him — could be a difference-maker for this team down the stretch. Middlebury also needs greater consistency from Hunter Merryman, who has been one of the few Middlebury players who has produced over the length of the season, but his strong performances have been interspersed with games like Friday’s, when the 6’6” junior went 3-13 from the floor and 0-7 in the second half and overtime periods. Merryman remains a great three-point shooter and a strong finisher around the basket, but settles for too many long-range jump shots off the dribble. With Matt Daley out due to illness, it becomes more difficult, but all the more important that Middlebury finds good looks out of their half-court sets rather than settle for forced jump shots late in the shot clock.

Today the Panthers travel to Connecticut College (7-6, 1-1) for a game that, in year’s past, was a surefire victory. But the Camels, who have already secured their first NESCAC victory — an 82-74 win at Colby — after going winless in the conference a season ago, will provide another test for Middlebury. Matt Vadas is back to his usual ways, putting up a high volume of points on an even higher (comparatively) volume of shots. The Camels’ senior guard is averaging 19.9 points per game on 42/39/80 splits and as goes Vadas, so goes the team: Conn. College shoots just 42/36/69 from the floor while scoring 69.5 points per game. On the other end, the Camels have surrendered an average of just 69.7 points per game, which has kept them competitive through the first seven games of the season. Vadas has received support from senior forward Mason Lopez who has been a far more efficient scorer on fewer attempts. The 6’3” Lopez is averaging 12.5 points per game while shooting better than 43 percent from both the floor and beyond the arc. Freshman forward Zuri Pavlin has also made an immediate impact for the Camels: the 6’5” forward is one of two players in the NESCAC averaging a double-double with 10.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. Point guard Bo McKinley rounds out Conn. College’s key contributors. The sophomore is averaging 9.2 points per game and leads the team with four assists per game. McKinley can knock down open shots, at the rate of 48 percent from deep, where he is the Camels’ most dangerous threat. Outside of those four, Connecticut College does not receive substantial contributions. This appears to be an improved team, but it’s hard to believe that a team that relies so heavily on just four players can run with a Middlebury team that has the talent and depth to create problems for the Camels.


  1. wrote:

    I appreciate all of your good work, as one of the many PN followers.

    I would offer that Joey delivers in a major way, every game. Those present on Friday night @ Wesleyan, saw him orchestrate some things that never show up in the box score. We saw the same in New London, yesterday.

    Monday, January 20, 2014 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  2. wrote:

    Agreement aplenty with “OldTimer” from the Clubbo skybox view. Frankly I’m not sure what game or games you are referring to, but Joey’s ‘deliverances’ in the the absolute clutch far outweigh what you term missed big shots. In support, the following specifics are offered: coast-to-coast with under 11 secs. vs. Scranton to give us the tie in the ncaa’s; ditto that vs. Ithaca last year and calmly knock two in to give us a one-point ‘W’ in the ncaa’s; a falling out of bounds 3-ball at the buzzer vs. St. Mary’s to put us in OT; a steal from Bates, conversion and 3 the old way to tie the Bates game (yes, he did miss a 3 at the buzzer which would have gotten us to a second OT, but we had gotten the rock back with under 5 secs.)in the first OT; and at Wesleyan when we absolutely needed it he banged in a long 3 to tie it at 67. On the missed side, the bates 3, and a 3 that could have tied the Stevenson game with about @:10 to go. I don’t think I remember any other instances.

    In a player’s whole career, there’s usually only a couple of chances in a make or break situation. After being around this game for fifty years, he’s one of the ones you would want to have the rock with the game and/or season on the line.

    Finally- I haven’t seen two more poorly officiated games. The homer bias that was on full display on Friday nite, was almost capped off by the outside offical raising his arm with 3-fingers up when Wes.’s shooter released a trey after the red lights were on. That jerk was going to give them the game. It missed and Midd won in the next OT.
    At ConnColl. another game of 5 -on-8, that Dylan’s 3 ball won. 2 W’s in two games, where Midd only led for 2.2secs. of regulation( at Wes. we had a lead, finally 3 minutes into the 1st OT, although we had been tied earlier). So far, 3 nescac games have come down to the last possession. But like in golf, they don’t ask how, they ask how many. There are no BAD W’s. Clubbo.

    Monday, January 20, 2014 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  3. wrote:

    Old Timer and Clubbo,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. I think there’s something of a misunderstanding here because no one has greater appreciation for Joey’s game than I do. In our team preview I wrote: “I’m not sure there’s another athlete across any sport at any level I’ve enjoyed watching more than Joey Kizel.”

    I still regard Kizel as the most clutch player I’ve ever seen play — across all levels. Having said that, even great clutch players miss big shots in games and I think that has been true of Kizel this year.

    Re: the word clutch — I think there is a misguided tendency to define clutch as just the last shot of the game, or limit it to the final minute of a game. Through his first three seasons, what made Kizel so remarkable was his ability to make big plays throughout close games, either to keep his team in the game, or to win games late. (We wrote about this last year in depth: This season he hadn’t had quite the same success in those situations outside of the St. Mary’s game, until the Wesleyan/Conn. College games this weekend.

    I stand by what I think is an objectively true statement — that Kizel has missed big shots in Middlebury’s losses this year (as have all his teammates, they just don’t have the track record making those plays). To expect him to make every big shot, even given his past performances, is unreasonable. I also agree that Kizel continues to do things for this team that don’t show up in the box score and that he has been the engine that has willed this team to a 10-5 record. I don’t see a contradiction there.

    Tuesday, January 21, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

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