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First year Duncan Robinson will cause problems for the Panthers

First year Duncan Robinson will cause problems for the Panthers

Friday, January 31, 2014, 8pm
Williams (15-3, 4-1) at Middlebury (12-5, 3-1)

Before this season started, we pegged Williams as the team to beat in the conference, and likely the nation. Halfway through the conference schedule, though ranked 11th in the nation and second in the conference, the Ephs have to feel like they are playing well below their potential. After pushing Amherst to the last possession in the NESCAC Championship last season, then making a run to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, Williams returned senior superstars Michael mayer and Taylor Epley and brought in the most highly-touted freshman in the country, Duncan Robinson. Amherst however, despite losing an extremely talented and accomplished senior class, has not given up their spot at the top of the conference. Two matchups with Williams earlier this month produced 11- and 12-point victories for the Lord Jeffs. Entering tonight’s contest at Pepin, Williams needs a convincing win to re-establish itself as the powerhouse it set out to be heading into this season.

Though the lows for the Ephs have certainly not matched those of Middlebury in 2013-14, the parallel is noteworthy. Two national powerhouses, with four combined trips to Salem in the past three years, underperforming relative to expectations. While we have discussed in depth the sources of Middlebury’s problems, we want to take a look at what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong for this year’s Ephs.

What’s gone right is simple: Duncan Robinson is one of the best players in the country as a freshman. The 6’7″ wingman is a rich man’s Willy Workman, an all-around superstar who can score from anywhere and excels on both sides of the court. Robinson leads the Ephs in scoring at 15.9 points per game. His peripheral statistics are even more impressive, shooting an incredible 64% on 2-point field goals, 48% on 3-point field goals, and a conference-best 90% from the line. His 6.7 rebounds per game, 1.7 assists per game, 1.4 blocks per game, and 1.0 steals per game round out his pristine resume. Robinson could very well be the best player in the conference as a freshman. Two key complimentary players, Daniel Wohl and Ryan Kilcullen, have also been big bright spots this season. Wohl’s 13.5 points per game, 51/35/69 shooting, 5.9 rebounds per game, 2.7 assists per game, 0.9 blocks per game, and 1.3 steals per game make him a bit of a Duncan Robinson Lite. Kilcullen would start at center for most teams in the conference, shooting 49/50/81 at 6’7,” 225 pounds.

What’s gone wrong is a bit more nuanced. The two returning seniors have regressed, to different degrees. All-American center Michael Mayer has dropped from 17.7 to 15.6 points per game, while losing a bit of efficiency with a 54/17/75 shooting line (57/37/76 last year). He is recovering from injury and seems to be back to his old self at this point. Taylor Epley, meanwhile, has lost 5.4 points per game, dropping from 18.5 to 13.4, and is shooting just 43% from the field after a 50% 2012-13. Starting point guard Hayden Rooke-Ley, after missing last season to injury, has gone down again and will miss tonight’s game. Notably, Rooke-Ley was in foul trouble in Williams’ first two losses this season, and out with injury in the third. Freshman Mike Greenman has filled in for Rooke-Ley,  averaging 7.7 points and 3.5 assists in 30 minutes per game since the injury.

As a result of these ups and downs, Williams stands about where it did last year in terms of overall team caliber. In order to win the conference, or make a national title run, Epley will need to step up and Rooke-Ley will likely need to return near full strength. What that means for Middlebury is that this game is winnable, but not much more. Williams is still clearly a tier above the Panthers in terms of star power, consistency, and execution. Matt Daley’s absence is a major blow to Middlebury’s upset hopes. While his numbers have been strong (21 points per 40 minutes, 58% field goal shooting), they do not begin to reflect his effect on Middlebury’s performance. The 6’8″ Daley is an excellent passer, spacer, and defender, and this team has played on a different level with him on the court.

Without Daley, Middlebury will need to win the outside shooting game in order to keep it close. In their three losses this season, Williams has shot just 27% from the field (compare to 39% on the season). Sticking tight to Epley, Robinson, and Wohl on the perimeter will be a priority. Meanwhile, Williams is likely to play a fair amount of zone defense, and Middlebury’s outside scorers must take advantage. Joey Kizel, Dylan Sinnickson, Hunter Merryman, and Matt St. Amour are all strong outside shooters, but none can afford an off-game tonight. Finally, Middlebury will need to stop Michael Mayer, as interior defense has been a major problem at times this season. Some combination of Jack Roberts and James Jensen will take that assignment, and they need to establish a physical presence early, or else there could be a lot of easy buckets for the highly skilled Mayer.

Ultimately, we think that is too much to ask of this Middlebury team, and Williams will come away with the win. 78-70.

Finally, tonight is our last radio broadcast ever, so if you can’t make Pepin, hopefully you can listen here (radio icon). If you want to watch the live video, you can always mute it and turn on the radio stream in the background.

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