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For the first time in recent memory Middlebury travels to LeFrak with nothing to play for in the NESCAC standings. Middlebury’s victory over Trinity, coupled with Hamilton’s loss to Wesleyan, on Friday guaranteed the Panthers a home game in the first round of the NESCAC Tournament. Today, with Middlebury off, Bowdoin lost on the road to Tufts, slotting the Panthers in the 3 seed. So win or loss tomorrow at Amherst, Middlebury will host Hamilton — the 6 seed, and one of Middlebury’s three conference losses — next Friday.

The same is not true for Amherst, who need a win tomorrow to secure the number one overall seed. Should the Lord Jeffs lose, Williams would host, despite having already lost twice to Amherst this year.

And simply because the Panthers are locked into the 3 seed doesn’t mean Middlebury won’t play to the level we’ve become accustomed to seeing when these two teams play. While the only certain path to a NCAA berth for Middlebury is the AQ bid from winning the NESCAC Tournament, the Panthers could conceivably earn a Pool C bid with a win over Amherst tomorrow and a trip to the NESCAC title game.

Furthermore, there is more to this matchup than conference ramifications. Amherst and Williams have a rivalry that most other schools can only hope to foster, but over the last four years, Middlebury has inserted itself into the fray and developed an on-floor rivalry with the Lord Jeffs that has surpassed what the Ephs have been able to muster. If one were to rank the best in-conference games over the past three seasons, he or she would be hard-pressed to find three better games than the last three times Middlebury and Amherst have played one another. (Not insignificantly, Amherst won all three of those games). Now, if you extended the time frame two more years, the on-floor rivalry would switch to Middlebury and Williams. (If you think this is a Middlebury-centric argument, consider that Middlebury has finished the last seven seasons as a top 3 seed in the NESCAC and is 6-0 in the NESCAC quarterfinals over that time. Neither Amherst nor Williams, nor any other team in the conference can lay claim to either of those accomplishments. In other words, over that period — and it’s somewhat arbitrary — Middlebury has been the most consistent team in the NESCAC.)

Returning to the matchup, the last time these two teams played, Middlebury failed to box out the Lord Jeffs in a 104-101 triple overtime loss in what was likely the greatest game ever played in Pepin Gymnasium. Both teams played at an incredibly high level and the game’s final 20 minutes were highlighted by one tremendous play followed by the next. Regardless, Middelbury ended up on the wrong end of a once-in-a-season, but-twice-if-you’re-Middlebury play by Willy Workman who saved the Lord Jeffs at the end of the first overtime and gave them a chance to win. Nobody has forgotten that game and for many, the two losses in LeFrak during 2012 loom equally large. Middlebury hasn’t beaten Amherst since the 2011 NESCAC semifinals, when the Panthers overcame a 16-point second-half deficit to advance to the NESCAC finals.

Why might today be different? Middlebury is playing arguably its best team basketball of the season, the Panthers could be bolstered further by the return of Matt Daley and Amherst has not been quite as dominant in the conference as their record suggests. As a team the Lord Jeffs have shot just 44 percent from the floor in conference play and 34 percent from beyond the arc. The drop off has been most apparent in Connor Green, who appeared to be making an All-NESCAC case early in the year, but has shot just 36 percent from the floor and 24 percent from three in NESCAC play. The other guy who has played a significantly smaller role in conference play is David George, who enters the final game of his NESCAC rookie regular season averaging 17 minutes per game while scoring just 3.2 points per game. George remains a dominant defensive presence in the post, averaging 1.6 blocks per game and the third highest blocks per minute in the NESCAC, but the offensive game has not consistently materialized late in the year for the Lord Jeffs’ promising big man.

Aaron Toomey has continued to carry Amherst, averaging 21 points per game on 46/37/92 shooting splits, but has historically struggled in this matchup. In the five previous games between these two teams, Toomey has shot a combined 25 percent from the field, while scoring just 11 points per game. Whether the D3 Player of the Year continues to struggle against Middlebury in spite of the graduation of NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year, Nolan Thompson, will be one of the keys to today’s game.

Joey Kizel, meanwhile, has enjoyed consistent success against Amherst (though not necessarily in the win column), averaging 17 points per game on 46 percent shooting from the floor. Kizel is playing easily his best basketball of the season, following up a week in which he won NESCAC Player of the Week honors with a 15-point, 12-rebound performance in Middlebury’s road win over Trinity on Friday.

Outside of Toomey and Kizel, the biggest difference makers for Middlebury and Amherst will likely be Dylan Sinnickson and Tom Killian. Sinnickson may be the hardest player to defend in the NESCAC and the Panthers will live and die at times with his jump shot. Fortunately that did not happen in Hartford, as Middlebury overcame a poor shooting night from Sinnickson, who has put together an All-NESCAC caliber season. Even after Friday’s 1-10 performance, Sinnickson leads the team averaging 16.4 points per game while shooting better than 46 percent from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc.

For the Lord Jeffs that player appears to be Tom Killian, who is second in scoring in NESCAC play, averaging 14.4 points per game on 45/35/80 splits. Killian can do a little bit of everything offensively, but makes his mark on the defensive end where he is averaging 2.7 steals per game and 6.4 rebounds in conference play. While he is not as prone for an offensive outburst as Sinnickson, Killian makes important contributions in all three phases of the game and could be the athletic swing forward who can check a player like Sinnickson.

The front line names in this game (Kizel, Toomey) are well known and will be fun to watch, but this game will likely be decided by who gets more production from their role players around those guys. This game will be decided by the Merrymans, Greens, Kalemas and Browns more so than the All-American guards headlining things.

This is not a must-win game for the Panthers necessarily, but boy, every time you head to LeFrak it sure feels that way.

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