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NESCAC Quarterfinal Previews

This post is the cumulative work of our team at Panther Nation. Peter Lindholm previewed Colby-Amherst, Joe MacDonald covered Tufts-Williams, Damon Hatheway wrote Hamilton-Middlebury and Adam Lamont previewed Trinity-Bowdoin.

When: Saturday, Feb. 22, 4 PM

How They Got Here: The defending national champion Lord Jeffs would have run the table for the third consecutive time in the NESCAC had it not been for an 80-75 loss at Colby in late January. Even with that blemish, however, the Lord Jeffs have been the class of the conference once again, finishing 9-1 with the conference’s top seed. Colby, on the other hand, set themselves up in the final weekend for a chance to be as high as the five seed, only to lose a seedings-flipping loss to Tufts, dropping the Mules to the eight seed and giving the Jumbos postseason life.

Last Time They Met: 80-75 Colby (January 31, Waterville, Maine)
The Mules of Colby College pulled off easily the biggest upset of this NESCAC season, beating the defending national champions, Amherst. It was Amherst’s first league loss since 2011, and remains their only NESCAC loss of the season.  It took a nearly perfect performance from Colby, and they got it. The Mules shot 50.8 percent from the floor, highlighted by a 25-point, 5-10 from three showing from Patrick Stewart.

What’s Changed: Amherst is Amherst.
Amherst appears to have recovered fully from the “Thrill in Waterville,” winning their last five games by an average margin of 16 points a game. Colby has continued their momentum, winning 4 of their last 6, including an impressive win over Bates in Lewiston. As is the case in maybe every game Amherst plays, they are the heavy favorite, but Colby has proven that they have a formula to pull off another upset.

The Lord Jeffs have another set of nets they'd like to cut down.

The Lord Jeffs have another set of nets they’d like to cut down.

Keys to the Game:
Maybe the most important thing Colby has to do to have a chance is to feed sophomore big man Chris Hudnut early and often. In the first half of their game against Amherst, Middlebury was able to exploit a size advantage inside against the Lord Jeffs, and the Panthers certainly don’t have an inside threat on par with Hudnut, who’s averaging 18 points and 9 rebounds per game this year. If Hudnut’s presence is established early, Amherst will be forced to double him, which will open up outside shots for Stewart and Ryan Jann (44- and 37-percent shooters from three, respectively).

Then there’s the Aaron Toomey problem.  Toomey is clearly a great scorer, probably the best in NESCAC, but he is arguably more dangerous when he is involving his other electric teammates, like Tom Killian, David Kalema and Conner Green. If Toomey’s other teammates are well covered, he has tendency to force shots to overcompensate, primarily deep threes. If Colby can handle the other three primary scoring options, and force Toomey to be trigger happy off the dribble, they have a chance to pull off a rare double upset.

As for Amherst, all they really have to do is be Amherst. The Lord Jeffs have so much more talent than the Mules, that if they play close to their full strength, this shouldn’t be much of a contest.

Prediction: 80-65 Amherst
As Luke Skywalker proved in A New Hope, and Colby confirmed on January 31, anything is possible. Beating Amherst once in a season has proven to be an enormous task the past three years. Beating the Lord Jeffs twice in the same season would seem to be impossible. Colby has a sophomore class that will haunt teams in the year(s) to come, but they don’t appear to be ready to go toe-to-toe with Amherst in LeFrak just yet.

When: Saturday, Feb. 22, 3 PM

How They Got Here:
The Jumbos squeezed their way into the playoffs last weekend by the slimmest of margins. Tufts, Colby and Wesleyan all finished 4-6 in conference play, having gone all 1-1 against each other. Therefore, in order to decide which two of those three would move on to the playoffs, it came down to records against the conference’s top-four teams (Amherst, Williams, Middlebury and Bowdoin). Wesleyan threw up a fat oh-fer against the top tier, while Colby upset Amherst in Waterville at the end of January and Tufts surprised the Polar Bears in Medord in the teams’ regular-season finale. From there, the Jumbos were given the nod for the seventh seed based on their overtime victory over Colby last Friday night. The Jumbos’ reward? A first-round playoff matchup on the road with the ninth-ranked team in the nation.

Aside from the season-opening, jaw-dropping loss at what turned out to be a neutral site against Southern Vermont, Williams has only lost once in Williamstown this year — to top-seeded Amherst. As the Pepin-faithful witnessed on that miserable Friday evening in January, this team knows how to win. They came storming back from a 16-point halftime deficit to beat the Panthers by three on the road, and rest assured they will not be surprised in the game’s first 20 minutes like they were against the Panthers.

Last Time They Met: Williams 93-Tufts 70 (February 8, Williamstown, Mass.)
Tufts was in the game on the Ephs’ Senior Night for about 15 minutes. The teams were tied with 5:33 to play in the first half at 23-23. From that point on, the Ephs outscored Tufts 21-2 to close out the first half up 44-25. The Jumbos trailed by 30 at one point in the second half, and never got closer than 16. And all this was done without Williams’ senior Taylor Epley.

Duncan Robinson had 25 points and 10 rebounds the first time these teams met.

Duncan Robinson had 25 points and 10 rebounds the first time these teams met.

First-year Duncan Robinson, the conference’s most efficient scorer, had a monster game, scoring 25 points and grabbing 10 boards for the Ephs. Senior Michael Mayer had an almost equally dominant night, scoring 23 and snagging 10 boards. The Ephs played zone for 40 minutes and forced the Jumbos to shoot over their 2-3 look. The strategy was effective for Williams, as Tufts shot 9-32 from deep, good for 28 percent, equal to the Jumbos’ three-point-shooting percentage in conference. The zone helped to neutralize Tufts’ first-year big man Hunter Sabety, who scored eight on 3-7 shooting and had only four rebounds. Sabety, Tufts’ top scorer, would be worth of Rookie of the Year honors were it not for the incredible season of Robinson. But as with many talented young players, Sabety sometimes faded in big moments. Aside from the beat down against Williams, Sabety scored 10 on 3-10 shooting in the regular season finale, a game that Tufts needed to win to make the tournament, and Middlebury fans saw both sides of the talented big man in Pepin when he went 8-8 from the field in the first half and had his way with the Panthers’ big men and then went quiet in the second half as Middlebury fronted him.

The Williams’ zone, with Mayer at the heart, dominated the paint. The Ephs had 50 rebounds to the Jumbos 44, and scored an amazing 52 points in the paint compared to just 22 for Tufts.

What’s changed: The return of Taylor Epley.
The big difference in this game will be the presence of Taylor Epley. Epley is a key factor for Williams, although with their depth the Ephs didn’t miss a beat last time against Tufts. Epley played in 21 games this year, starting 20 and averaged 13.5 points per game. Last year, Epley led the Ephs with 18.5 points per game, and for his career has 1,336 points, good for 12th on Williams’ all-time list. In Epley’s absence, Robinson has more than filled the void, but his return will just add another weapon for Williams.

Another Williams starter was on the shelf for the Ephs in their last match up with Tufts: junior point guard Hayden Rooke-Ley. It is unclear whether or not Rooke-Ley will return to the lineup this Saturday, but if he does, a full starting lineup of Daniel Wohl, Rooke-Ley, Robinson, Epley and Mayer should overpower the Jumbos.

Matchup to watch: Sabety vs. the Williams Zone
As mentioned above, the Ephs contained Sabety by playing zone all game long, winning the rebounding battle and keeping Tufts’ offense out of the paint. The only scorers in double figures for Tufts were sophomore guard Stephen Haladyna and senior guard Kwame Firempong. Both shot well against the zone and Haladyna, at 6’5”, has the height to shoot over the zone, particularly if Rooke-Ley (6’1”) and especially Mike Greenman (5’8”) are in the game. But for Tufts to have a chance, they need to get more production in the paint from Sabety with a little help from fellow first-year Drew Madsen and senior Tommy Folliard. In general, everyone on Tufts will have to play their best game, including junior Ben Ferris, a former Rookie of the Year who was hampered by injury early on and has had a disappointing season. But the Jumbos’ offense needs to get effective touches inside.

Prediction: 79-65 Williams
With the Jumbos playing the best basketball of their season, Tufts should stay competitive as they fight to play one more game. But there is too much experience and talent on the court for Williams for Tufts to handle. Mayer is what Sabety could be in a year or two, but Sabety doesn’t yet show the consistency that Mayer has. Mayer, Epley and Rooke-Ley (who will graduate in 2015 after receiving a redshirt last year), along with role players Matt McCreary, John Weinheimer and Greg Payton, have been Ephs for 112 games and have won 93 of those contests. They have been to two NCAA tournaments (and almost certainly will return this year) and experienced a Final Four their freshmen season. Add to that the incredible talent of Robinson and fellow first-year Daniel Aronowitz, and Williams boasts a well-rounded roster with experience that Tufts could not match in their first meeting, and likely will not this time around.

When: Saturday, Feb. 22, 1 PM

How They Got Here: Middlebury’s regular season play was bookended by losses, tipping off with a three-point loss to Bates at home and culminating in a 17-point loss at Amherst. In between, the Panthers went 6-2 in the NESCAC, losing back-to-back games to Williams and the Continentals by a total of five points. Middlebury’s best conference victory was a 69-66 win over Bowdoin. The Panthers also needed last-second shots to beat Wesleyan and Conn. College on the road. Hamilton, on the other hand lost four of its first six games before finishing the season 4-1 to go 5-5 in conference. The Continentals were far better at home at Scott Field House than they were on the road, which accounted for four of their five conference losses.

Last Time They Met: Hamilton 76-Middlebury 74 (February 2, Clinton, N.Y.)
Hamilton went on a 32-12 run over the final 9:46 of the first half and the first 3:59 of the second half to take a commanding 14-point lead that Middlebury needed just 6:21 to erase. But Matt Hart made too many big shots down the stretch before Greg Newton won the game for the Continentals with six seconds left, negating a 19-point second half effort from Joey Kizel. Hart had one of the best performances of his career, scoring 30 points on 10 of 21 shooting from the field.

What’s Changed: Middlebury’s health
Matt St. Amour had one of his best games in conference play the first time these teams met, scoring 12 points on 4-6 shooting. Two days later, St. Amour endured a season-ending injury at Keene State, cutting an up-and-down, but promising freshman season short. Matt Daley, who sat the first time these teams played will also watch the rest of Middlebury’s season from the bench as his attempt to return from multiple illnesses has proven unsuccessful. The Panthers therefore go into the postseason missing two of their opening-day starters due to a combination of injury and illness. Tightening the rotation hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing for the Panthers, but Middlebury has done a conspicuously good job of staying out of foul trouble and any further injuries or untimely whistles down the stretch for the Panthers will loom large.

Matt Hart, the NESCAC's leading scorer, burned the Panthers late in Hamilton's 76-74 regular season victory.

Matt Hart, the NESCAC’s leading scorer, burned the Panthers late in Hamilton’s 76-74 regular season victory.

Matchup to Watch: Matt Hart
The electric sophomore proved too much for Middlebury the first time these teams met, despite a variety of different looks from Middlebury defenders. Jeff Brown has a quartet of defenders he can throw at Hart in Kizel, Jake Brown, James Jensen and Nate Bulluck, who provide a different combination of size, speed, strength and length. Whatever the case, no single Middlebury defender will matchup with Hart as Jeff Brown mixes and matches different looks in an attempt to keep the NESCAC’s leading scorer off balance.

Prediction: Middlebury 81-Hamilton 67
The Continentals (ironically?) have struggled to win on the road this season and while Pepin Gymnasium has not provided Middlebury its traditional home-court advantage this season, the Panthers have played far better at home of late. Middlebury has not lost at home and on the road to the same team in four seasons and has won each of its last six NESCAC quarterfinal matchups. Hamilton has exceeded expectations this season and has a player in Matt Hart who has the potential to singlehandedly keep his team in games, but behind Kizel this senior class should have more than enough to come away with a win in its final game in Pepin Gymnasium.

When: Saturday, Feb. 22, 4 PM

How They Got Here: Bowdoin made a strong run as the NESCAC’s dark horse team, entering conference play undefeated and playing everyone on their schedule close. The wheels fell off down the stretch, however, as Bowdoin lost at Middlebury and at Tufts to finish a middling 6-4 as the tournament’s fourth seed. The four conference losses are the Polar Bears’ only four on the year, however, and Bowdoin remains a threat to make a run in both the NESCAC and the NCAA Tournament. Trinity, meanwhile, suffocated its opponents with physical defense and just enough offense to squeeze its way into the five seed after a 5-5 slate in NESCAC play.

Last Time They Met: Bowdoin 46-Trinity 39 (January 31, Brunswick, Maine)
The teams played one of the most physical and low-scoring games in NESCAC history on January 31. The game was more like a rugby match at times and the final score was reminiscent of a JV basketball game rather than two of more competitive NESCAC teams this season. Quite literally it was a game the likes of which we haven’t seen in 65 years.  Per the Bowdoin Athletic Department, the 46 points was the lowest amount of points Bowdoin had scored in a victory since 1949 when the Polar Bears defeated the University of Maine 42-33. That game also didn’t have a three-point line and in this year’s clanger the two teams combined for 35 attempted threes, but made just five. Nobody had a game to remember with John Swords leading all scorers with 11 points. George Papadeas almost brought Trinity back with his play in the second half, posting nine points and nine rebounds. The game was close the whole time with neither team leading by more than 10 points at any point. Trinity and Bowdoin are great defensive teams that both made it impossible to get easy layups. The difference came at the free throw line where Trinity faltered, going 5-13. Bowdoin was they made their free throws when they had to and as a veteran team didn’t lose their composure when they struggled to score.

What’s Changed: Not a whole lot
Besides Bowdoin’s loss to Tufts, the two teams have won the games they were favored in and lost as underdogs. Trinity still has a balanced attack that is led by forward Shay Ajayi and point guard Jaquann Starks. They have a good frontcourt that is physical on both ends of the flor. It looked like their offense was starting to come together, but last weekend’s 45-point output against Middlebury was a definite setback. Bowdoin remains centered on the play of John Swords in the middle on both offense and defense. On the perimeter Andrew Madlinger has continued to shoot a high volume of threes. Last time the team’s played was Bryan Hurley’s second game back from injury. He played 13 minutes in that game, but did not record a single statistic besides minutes. He remained scoreless the next three games he played, but he seemed to break out against Bates last Friday playing 22 minutes and hitting three treys, including one from NBA range.  Yet the next day he only played 11 minutes, missing the only shot he took.  He can’t move as well as usual because of the brace he wears, but is still effective from downtown if he can get some open looks. There isn’t any reason to expect a very different game from the first time these teams played.

Keys to the Game:
1) Trinity three point shooting: A big reason Trinity poured 90 on Connecticut College earlier this season was that the Bantams shot 11-19 from beyond the arc. Compare that to a 1-9 performance against Middlebury last week and you start to get a sense of the feast or famine nature of their offense. Trinity does not have a pure shooter on the roster who can be counted on to make shots down the stretch. Starks attempts 4.9 field goals per game, but shoots less than 35 percent from the floor. Trinity’s two best hopes of scoring are getting John Swords into foul trouble or hitting outside shots. Even if Swords does get into foul trouble, the Trinity front court will not dominate Bowdoin’s Keegan Pieri, Matt Palecki and Neil Fuller. Bowdoin’s weakness on defense lies on the perimeter as seen by the big games Duncan Robinson, Connor Green and Stephen Haladyna enjoyed against the Polar Bears. Starks and Ajayi (11 points per game on 39/42/76 shooting) will need to make the most of the looks they get from deep. If Trinity hits some threes and shoot better than their 68 percent team average from the free throw line, their offense might have enough firepower to upset Bowdoin.

2) Rebounding Margin: Both teams are exceptional rebounding teams. People don’t concentrate on it when discussing why defenses are exceptional, but holding opponents to one shot is an extremely effective way of stopping teams. Bowdoin out-rebounds teams by 9.3 boards per game and Trinity is even better averaging 10 rebounds more than their opponents per game. In low-scoring games an extra possession carries even more importance than usual. Obviously Swords is a huge presence in terms of rebounds, but the battle will really be won by the other guys on the court like Grant White and Keegan Pieri for Bowdoin and Shay Ajayi and Edward Ogundeko for Trinity. In the first game rebounding kept the Bantams in the game as they had 17 offensive rebounds. A repeat performance of that would be huge for Trinity.

3) Lucas Hausman: He is the most effective player for Bowdoin creating his own shot. That isn’t always the most high-percentage shot, but when Hausman is on his game the Bowdoin offense is much more dynamic. He often plays in more bench-heavy lineups where his scoring is even more important given the lack of other options. His favorite move is a drive left into a spin and a fade-away jumper. Trinity plays man so even if Hausman isn’t scoring but gets into the lane and draws defenders, he could make the Bowdoin offense go.

At the 43-second mark, Hausman successfully executes the move, but then nearly travels at the 1:13 mark.

Prediction: Bowdoin 57-49
Those looking for an explosion offense will have to look elsewhere, but what this game will lack in scoring it should make up with intensity and defense. While it’s reasonable to expect both teams to make offensive adjustments, Trinity’s lack of scoring options down the stretch will continue to plague the Bantams. On the other end, the Polar Bears have won their fair share of close games and have better options late in games. Polar Bears by eight.

Road to Salem Part 6: Amherst & the All-Americans


With the regular season completed, this week NESCAC coaches are voting on the First Team, Second Team, and individual All-NESCAC honors. We have done the same here, based on conference play statistics and a fairly large sample of games watched. There were a lot of hard choices this year, but we came away believing that the awards should (i.e. not “will”) be allocated as follows:

First Team
Aaron Toomey, Amherst
Joey Kizel, Middlebury
Matt Hart, Hamilton
Duncan Robinson, Williams
Michael Mayer, Williams

Toomey and Robinson were no-brainers, as discussed below. Mayer came on strong late, finishing conference play with 19.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Kizel’s 16.9 points, 5.6 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.3 steals per game should earn him a third straight First-Team selection. Hart was somewhat one-dimensional, but that dimension (scoring) was good enough to earn a spot on the team: 21.0 points per game on 46/41/85 shooting.

Second Team
Tom Killian, Amherst
Andrew Madlinger, Bowdoin
Chris Hudnut, Colby
Hunter Sabety, Tufts
John Swords, Bowdoin

Killian was the closest to receiving a First Team nod, finishing in the top 10 in the conference in points and rebounds (14.8 and 7.0), playing the best defense in the conference, and finishing with an efficient shooting line of 48/36/80. Swords and Hudnut were both clearly deserving. Swords’ impact as the 7-footer in the middle of Bowdoin’s defense is not adequately captured by his 13.4 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game. Hudnut is a step away from being a Sharry-like superstar down low, finishing the year with 17.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game on 48/32/84 shooting. The last two spots came down to Madlinger, Sabety, Dylan Sinnickson and Daniel Wohl. Madlinger earned the nod because of his excellent defense (a big part of Bowdoin’s conference-best 57.0 points allowed per game) and complete offense (13.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 41/42/86 shooting). Sabety takes the final spot because of his 14.8 points and 2.9 blocks per game. Sinnickson surpassed all expectations this year (except maybe his own), finishing with 16.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, but his 1-10 showing against Trinity nudged him behind Madlinger and Sabety. Wohl did it all for Williams, putting up 11.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.0 steal per game, but his weaker scoring numbers kept him off.

Rookie of the Year: Duncan Robinson, Williams
The headliner recruiting class lived up to expectations. In addition to Robinson and Sabety, there were great rookie performances all around the conference. David George, Mike Greenman, Matt St. Amour, Harry Rafferty, Zuri Pavlin, Malcolm Delpeche, Jake Brown, Edward Ogundeko, Tarik Smith, and Dan Aronowitz were among those first-year players who were major parts of their rotation this season. The Class of ’17 will contribute to a lot of great teams, games, and moments for the next three years in this conference. But the one above the talented crowd is clearly Duncan Robinson. Robinson had an unbelievable season and is already one of the best all-around players in the country. He was arguably the best player in the conference, which we will discuss below, but for here, we should appreciate that this award will be unanimous and that this was a freshman season for the ages.

Coach of the Year: David Hixon, Amherst
The senior class that Amherst lost was one of the best classes to come through the NESCAC in the last four years. Willy Workman was one of the top 2-3 players in the conference last season, Peter Kaasila was an efficient monster in the paint, and Allen Williamson was the best player on the team during their postseason run to conference and national titles. That Coach Hixon hardly missed a beat (yes, this year’s Amherst team is worse than last year’s, but it’s still better than any other team in the conference) speaks to his ability to recruit, develop and maximize talent.

Defensive Player of the Year: Tom Killian, Amherst
This was a three-way race for us, though we had a hard time knowing if we missed any obvious candidates. Based on everything that we saw, the three best defenders in the conference were Killian, Madlinger, and Swords. Either of the two Polar Bears could make a strong case, but Killian put together a hard resume to beat. Playing 37 minutes per game, Killian—one of the most athletic players in the conference—guarded a variety of top offensive threats, often playing shutdown defense, while also being the best defensive playmaker in the conference at 2.5 steals per game.

Player of the Year: Aaron Toomey, Amherst
If we were in the business of giving co-PoY’s, it would have been hard not to split this one between Toomey and Robinson. The Jeff and the Eph put together two distinct but dominant seasons. Toomey’s 21.0 points per game and 6.6 assists per game reflect truly elite offensive production. He shot an impressive 65% on 2-point field goals, and a decent 38% on 3-point field goals, to go along with 90% free throw shooting, second-best in the conference. Though he is a subpar man defender, Toomey’s 1.3 steals per game tied for 8th in the conference. His 5.2 rebounds per game was among the best in the conference among guards. He also deserves a lot of the credit for Amherst’s sustained excellence despite losing the senior trio. That said, Duncan Robinson put together a gem of a season himself. Robinson scored 18.9 points per game, shooting 75% on 2-point field goals and 53% on 3-point fields goals, making him the best pure scorer in the conference. Robinson led the conference in both 2-point and 3-point percentage. As in, the best three-point shooter in the conference had a higher field goal percentage inside of the arc than John Swords and Hunter Sabety — and it wasn’t even close. The 6’7″ versatile wingman is also a plus defender, and finished conference play with 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. He added 2.1 assists and 5.2 rebounds per contest. If you can have a flawless season as the top scorer on a top team nationally, it would look a lot like Duncan Robinson’s 2013-14. But Robinson missed one game out of ten in conference play, and Toomey’s points plus assists might surpass his efficiency deficiency, so we think the award should go to the Amherst senior. However, both should be remembered as deserving candidates.

Back to LeFrak

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.

Assessing the NESCAC Tournament Landscape

With two NESCAC games remaining for all but Trinity and Amherst, seeding for the NESCAC Tournament remains wide open. Only Bates (1-7) knows it has been locked out of the tournament — a shocking development after the Bobcats opened conference play with a road win at Middlebury, ending a streak of 43 consecutive wins for the Panthers against non-Amherst, non-Williams foes. Since then Bates has lost and lost badly and will finish the season playing for bragging rights against its CBB brethren. The remaining 10 teams all have something to play for this weekend and given all the many possible permutations, we’ve decided to break things down so we know just where everything stands. Take note of some of the particularly wild tie-breakers, all of which we attempted to analyze below. In reverse order …

11) Bates (1-7), (Bowdoin, Colby): The Bobcats have been mathematically eliminated from the NESCAC Tournament. The eight seed will finish with at least three wins and Bates has lost the head-to-head tiebreaker with all four of those possible teams.

Possible Finishes:
Bates will miss the NESCAC Tournament.

Game they wish they could have back: Friday, January 31 @ Wesleyan (76-70 OTL).
Had Bates won that game they would currently be locked in a four-way tie for the eighth seed and would likely need only to beat Colby to secure a tournament berth. Instead, Bates will miss the NESCAC Tournament for the first time since the ’06-’07 season.

10) Connecticut College (2-6), (vs. Williams, Hamilton): The Camels are in a tough spot with one of their two wins coming against Bates (the other over Colby) and the Ephs and Continentals left on the schedule (though they play those games in New London). Even worse for Conn. College, their tournament chances hinge on matching or surpassing Colby in the standings, which requires the Mules to lose. But one of Colby’s games this weekend is at Tufts and the Jumbos hold the tiebreaker over the Camels.

Possible Finishes:
The Camels will be the 7 seed with: Two wins, Colby goes 1-1 or 0-2, Wesleyan goes 0-2 and Tufts goes 1-1 or 0-2.
The Camels will be the 8 seed with: Two wins, Colby goes 1-1 or 0-2, Tufts goes 1-1 or 0-2; OR two wins, Tufts goes 2-0 and Wesleyan goes 0-2.
The Camels will miss the NESCAC Tournament with: Anything less than two wins; OR two Colby wins; OR two Tufts wins.

Game they wish they could have back: Friday, January 31 vs. Tufts (66-51 L).
From a game perspective, the Camels threw away a chance to beat Middlebury at home, losing in the final seconds on a Dylan Sinnickson three, but even a win over the Panthers would only go so far for the Camels who would still lose a tie-breaker with the Jumbos. Where the Camels really dropped the ball was losing to Tufts at home in a game that would have given Conn. College wins over Colby and Tufts and a stranglehold on a playoff spot.

9) Tufts (2-6), (vs. Colby, Bowdoin): After Bates, Tufts has been the conference’s most disappointing team. The Jumbos can save some face by playing their way into the NESCAC Tournament, but barring a deep run this season is going to be a series of what-ifs for Tufts, which has been derailed by key injuries to its best players. As a result the Jumbos are on the outside looking in, though their path to the postseason is not nearly as tenuous as Conn. College’s, given they own the tiebreaker and also host Colby, currently the seven seed tomorrow.

Possible Finishes:
Tufts finishes as the 7 seed with: Two wins, Wesleyan goes 0-2.
Tufts finishes as the 8 seed with: Two wins and Wesleyan goes 2-0 or 1-1; OR beat Colby, Wesleyan goes 2-0 or 1-1 and Conn. College goes 1-1 or 0-2.
Tufts misses the NESCAC Tournament if: Any scenario that involves a loss to Colby occurs, or if the Jumbos beat Colby, but lose to Bowdoin and Conn. College goes 2-0.

Game they wish they could have back: Saturday, February 1 @ Wesleyan (86-73 L).
When Bob Sheldon looks back at this season there will be a lot of games he wishes he could have back, but the loss at Wesleyan could loom particularly large. Win that game and Tufts is sitting in eighth place needing only to beat Colby to secure the seven seed.

8) Wesleyan (3-5), (vs. Hamilton, Williams): Wesleyan has been one of the pleasant surprises in the NESCAC this season. The Cardinals have played teams especially tough in Middletown, where Joe Reilly’s team is 3-1 this season and a double overtime loss to Middlebury from being 4-0 on home turf in conference play.

Possible Finishes:
Wesleyan finishes as the 6 seed with: Two wins and Colby goes 1-1 or 0-2; OR beat Hamilton, Hamilton goes 0-2 and Colby goes 0-2.
Wesleyan finishes as the 7 seed with: Two wins and Colby goes 2-0; OR 1-1, Hamilton goes 1-1, Colby goes 0-2, Tufts goes 1-1 or O-2 and Conn. College goes 1-1 or 0-2.*
Wesleyan finishes as the 8 seed with: Two losses, Tufts goes 1-1 or 0-2 and Conn. College goes 1-1 or 0-2; OR 1-1, Hamilton goes 2-0 or 1-1 and Colby goes 2-0 or 1-1.
Wesleyan misses the NESCAC Tournament with: Two losses and either Conn. College or Tufts go 2-0.

*There are a couple of different permutations for this second seven-seed scenario, which you can figure out if you really want.

Game they wish they could have back: Friday, February 7 @ Trinity (70-65 L).
This one stings for the Cardinals, who held Trinity to 19 first-half points before allowing the Bantams to explode for 51 in the second half. The difference between winning and losing that game for the Cardinals is a drop from a tie for fifth place in the conference and clinging on to the 8 seed.

7) Colby (3-5), (@Tufts, @Bates): The Mules are intriguing: They handed Amherst their only conference loss so far this season, ending a streak of 31 straight NESCAC wins for the Lord Jeffs) and had played everyone in the conference tough before being blown out by Middlebury last week. Colby went 3-1 at home this year, but is on the short end of the travel stick, having to play six games on the road this season, including the final two away from Waterville. The future is bright for Damien Strahorn’s team, which is led by a loaded sophomore class. In the meantime, however, Colby will need to prove its chops on the road — where it has yet to win this season — if the Mules want to play beyond this weekend.

Possible Finishes:
Colby finishes as the 5 seed with: Two wins, Trinity goes 0-1 and Hamilton goes 0-2.
Colby finishes as the 6 seed with: Two wins, Trinity goes 1-0 and Hamilton goes 0-2; OR Two wins, Trinity goes 0-1 and Hamilton goes 2-0 or 1-1.
Colby finishes as the 7 seed with: One win, Wesleyan goes 1-1 or 0-2, Tufts goes 1-1 or 0-2.*
Colby finishes as the 8 seed with: One win, Wesleyan goes 2-0, Tufts goes 1-1 or 0-2; OR One win, Wesleyan goes 0-2, Tufts goes 2-0; OR 0-2, Wesleyan goes 0-2, Tufts goes 2-0 or 1-1 and Conn. College goes 1-1 or 0-2.
Colby misses the NESCAC Tournament with: Two losses, Wesleyan 2-0 or 1-1; OR 1-1 and any two of Wesleyan, Tufts and Conn. College 2-0.**

*If Colby, Wesleyan and Tufts all finish 4-6 in the conference (this would happen if Tufts goes 2-0, beating Colby, Colby beats Bates and Wesleyan goes 1-1) then there would be a three-way tie as each team will have beaten and lost to one of the other teams. In that scenario, Colby would be the 7 seed because the second tiebreak (after head-to-head) is record against the top four teams. Only Colby has beaten one of the top four teams (Amherst) from that group, unless Wesleyan beats Williams, but either way, Wesleyan holds the head-to-head against Tufts and would be the second team in, making Colby the 7 seed and Wesleyan the 8 seed. It’s also possible for a four-way tie to occur at 4-6 if Hamilton goes 0-2, which we’ll address in a moment.

**The Mules also miss the tournament in the case of a four- or five-team tie at 3-7. This would occur if Colby and Wesleyan both lose out, Conn. College and Tufts finish 1-1 and Bates wins its final two games (though it’s not predicated on Bates’ participation, hence the four-team tie applies, too). Here, Wesleyan and Tufts would secure the 7 and 8 seeds, respectively, hanging lost only one game to the other teams involved in the tie-breaker. (Wesleyan holds the tie-breaker over Tufts). In the case of a three-team tie between Colby, Wesleyan and either Tufts or Conn. College, Colby would then jump to the 7 seed as each team would have a unique set of wins and losses, to one another and the Mules would have the lone win against a top-four team (Amherst). Wesleyan, having beaten both Conn. College and Tufts, would then be the 8 seed.

Game they wish they could have back: Friday, January 17 @Hamilton (70-57 L).
Again, other games on Colby’s schedule were more tightly contested or were higher profile games, but in terms of securing a NESCAC Tournament berth, no other win would have meant more than beating Hamilton on the road, which would have guaranteed the Mules a place in the tourney and given them a legitimate shot at a home game in the first round as a top-four seed.

6) Hamilton (4-4), (@Weselyan, @Conn. College): Hamilton has resurrected its NESCAC season with wins in its last three games to improve to .500 in the conference. The Continentals had a season-defining win over Middlebury two weeks ago and followed it up with home wins over both Tufts and Bates. Now Hamilton has to go on the road, where it has yet to win a game in NESCAC play, to have a chance at stealing a top-four seed in the NESCAC Tournament.

Possible Finishes:
Hamilton will finish as the 3 seed with: Two wins, Trinity goes 0-1, Middlebury goes 1-1 and Bowdoin goes 0-2.
Hamilton will finish as the 4 seed with: Two wins, Trinity goes 0-1 and Middlebury goes 1-1 or Bowdoin goes 0-2.
Hamilton will finish as the 5 seed with: Two wins, Trinity goes 1-0 or Middlebury goes 2-0 or Bowdoin goes 2-0; OR Hamilton goes 1-1,* Trinity goes 0-1 and Middlebury goes 1-1.
Hamilton will finish as the 6 seed with: One win, Trinity goes 1-0 or 0-1, Middlebury goes 2-0 or 1-1; OR Hamilton goes 1-1, Middlebury goes 0-2 and Wesleyan goes 2-0; OR Hamilton goes 0-2 and Wesleyan and Conn. College go 1-1.
Hamilton will finish as the 7 seed with: One win against Conn. College, Middlebury goes 2-0 or 1-1 and Wesleyan goes 2-0; OR Hamilton goes 0-2, Wesleyan goes 1-1, Colby goes 1-1, Conn. College goes 2-0 AND Tufts goes 2-0.**

*This assumes Hamilton’s win is over Wesleyan. Should they lose to Wesleyan they would need Wesleyan to lose Williams to still secure the 5 seed.

**In this scenario there is a five-way tie between Hamilton, Colby, Wesleyan, Conn. College and Tufts all of which would be 4-6. (This scenario is possible and there is only one chain of events that would lead to this outcome). Should things break down as such, Wesleyan would get the six seed because the Cardinals went 3-1 against the other four 4-6 teams. Hamilton, Tufts and Conn. College, however, all went 2-2, with each losing to Wesleyan and then dropping a game to one another. The next step in the tie-break, therefore, is record against the top-four teams. Here, Hamilton comes out on top only if Middlebury is in the top four teams. If the Panthers lose to Trinity on Friday and Amherst on Sunday (such that the top four would be Amherst, Williams, Bowdoin and Trinity), then none of those three teams would have recorded a win against the top four and the tie-breaker would expand to records against the top eight teams. Here, Hamilton would escape the tie-breaker again with a win over fifth-seeded Middlebury, leaving Tufts and Conn. College to battle it out for the eight seed. Because Tufts has the head-t0-head advantage, the Jumbos would claim the eight seed, leaving Conn. College and Colby, which went 1-3 against that group of teams out of the playoff picture. Therefore, in the unlikely event of a five-way pile up at 4-6, the NESCAC standings would look like this: 6) Wesleyan; 7) Hamilton; 8) Tufts; 9) Conn. College; 10) Colby.

Game they wish they could have back: Saturday, January 11 @Trinity (62-53 L).
Beating Trinity would have done more than flip the two teams in the standings. At 5-3, Hamilton would be sitting in a three-way tie for third place with Middlebury and Bowdoin and would secure a home game in the NESCAC Tournament with two wins this weekend. As is, the Continentals are the most volatile team in the conference with finishes anywhere between the 3 and 7 seed possibilities.

5) Trinity (5-4), (vs. Middlebury): Trinity has been one of the league’s stingiest teams this season, but has yet to register a win against any of the conference’s top four teams. That could all change this weekend. A win over Middlebury would give the Bantams a signature win and would guarantee them a home game in then tournament. Trinity is not a serious contender for the NESCAC title, but if you can buy yourself another home game — and a possible rematch with Middlebury in the first round of the conference tournament on your floor —you say yes every time.

Possible Finishes:
Trinity will finish as the 3 seed with: A win over Middlebury and two Bowdoin losses.
Trinity will finish as the 4 seed with: A win over Middlebury and Bowdoin  goes 2-0 or 1-1.
Trinity will finish as the 5 seed with: A loss to Middlebury, Hamilton goes 1-1 or 0-2 and Colby goes 1-1 or 0-2.
Trinity will finish as the 6 seed with: A loss to Middlebury and Hamilton goes 2-0 or Colby goes 2-0.
Trinity will finish as the 7 seed with: A loss to Middlebury, Hamilton goes 2-0 and Colby goes 2-0.

Game they wish they could have back: Friday, January 31 @Bowdoin (46-39 L).
Had Trinity beaten Bowdoin, a win over Middlebury would have secured the Bantams the third seed in the conference tournament. Instead Trinity scored a season-low 39 points on a horrific 29/12/39 shooting line and will have to beat Middlebury to secure a home game in the quarterfinal round.

4) Bowdoin (5-3), (@Bates, @Tufts): The Polar Bears have been the most consistent team in the NESCAC, taking care of business at home against lesser talented teams and dropping games to Williams and Middlebury on the road. The Polar Bears are talented, experienced and have one of the best five-man starting lineups in the conference. But they have yet to record a signature win, which may be the difference for them between an NCAA Tournament berth and a loss in the NESCAC Semifinals.

Possible Finishes:
Bowdoin will finish as the 3 seed with: One more win than Middlebury this weekend.
Bowdoin will finish as the 4 seed with: The same number of wins as Middlebury this weekend.
Bowdoin will finish as the 5 seed with: Two losses and Trinity goes 1-0 or Hamilton goes 2-0.
Bowdoin will finish as the 6 seed with: Two losses, Trinity goes 1-0 and Hamilton goes 2-0.

Game they wish they could have back: Saturday, February 1 @Amherst (70-67 L).
Amherst made just 10 two-point field goals in that game, but made up for it with 15 made threes. Bowdoin enjoyed an efficient scoring night, shooting better than 55 percent from the floor and held Amherst to 41 percent shooting. Despite the disparity, the Polar Bears ended up on the losing end. A win would have given Bowdoin the tie-breaker for the two-seed in the NESCAC Tournament and an outside shot at hosting.

3) Middlebury (5-3), (@Trinity, @Amherst): The Panthers have the toughest finishing schedule of any team on the road against two top-five teams. It is difficult to know if the Panthers have been snakebitten by NESCAC play or if they deserve the cards they’ve been dealt. On the one hand they lost one-possession games to Bates and Williams after holding double digit leads at halftime, on the other they stole a pair of games on the road at Wesleyan and Conn. College with a series of big plays down the stretch that would be difficult to replicate. Either way, the Panthers have a chance to grab the three seed in the tournament, which is more than they could have asked for two weeks ago following losses to Williams and Hamilton.

Possible Finishes:
Middlebury will finish as the 3 seed with: Two wins; OR one win over Trinity, Bowdoin goes 1-1 or 0-2 and Hamilton goes 1-1 or 0-2.*
Middlebury will finish as the 4 seed with: 1-1 (win against Trinity) and Bowdoin goes 2-0; OR 1-1 (loss to Trinity), Bowdoin goes 1-1 or 0-2 and Hamilton goes 1-1 or 0-2; OR 1-1 (win against Trinity), Bowdoin goes 1-1 or 0-2 and Hamilton goes 2-0.**
Middlebury will finish as the 5 seed with: 1-1 (loss against Trinity), Bowdoin goes 2-0 or Hamilton goes 2-0; OR 1-1 (win against Trinity), Bowdoin goes 2-0 and Hamilton goes 2-0; OR two losses and Bowdoin or Hamilton goes 2-0 or 1-1.
Middlebury will finish as the 6 seed with: 1-1 (loss to Trinity), Bowdoin goes 2-0 and Hamilton goes 2-0;*** OR two losses, Bowdoin and Hamilton go 2-0 or 1-1.

*If Middlebury, Bowdoin and Hamilton end up in a three-way tie at 6-4, things get interesting. Each have unique wins and losses to the other two teams and none of them would have wins over the top four (top two in this case because only Amherst and Williams are clearly ahead of them). Middlebury, however, would have one more win than Hamilton against the top eight teams and either one more or the same number as Bowdoin (depending on whether the Polar Bears lost to Tufts or Bates and whether Tufts then qualified for the tournament). Middlebury, however, holds the tie-breaker over Bowdoin, making them the three seed. Bowdoin, meanwhile, would be the four seed, either because they would have a better record than Hamilton against the top eight teams or, if their records are the same, because they own the head-to-head win over the Continentals.

**Things get really hairy if a five-team pile up occurs at 5-5. How this would happen: Middlebury and Bowdoin lose out, Hamilton goes 1-1, and Colby and Wesleyan both go 2-0. In that case, Trinity would be 3 seed at 6-4, Middlebury would be the 4 seed (only the Panthers and Polar Bears have one loss to that group and Bowdoin’s came to Middlebury), Bowdoin would be the 5 seed, Hamilton would be the 6 seed (only team with two losses), leaving Colby and Wesleyan, which both went 1-3 against the other teams in that group. Because Colby ahs the head-to-head victory, Colby would be the 7 seed and Wesleyan would be the 8 seed. If, however, you remove Bowdoin from the equation (say they go 7-3 or 6-4) and you have a four-team tie between Middlebury, Hamilton, Colby and Wesleyan, then Hamilton takes the 5 seed, Middlebury grabs the 6, Colby is the 7 and Wesleyan is the 8. In this case, Hamilton and Middlebury have one loss and Hamilton has the head-to-head tie-breaker, while Colby and Wesleyan would have two losses and Colby still holds the breaker.

**There is also the possibility of a four-team tie at 6-4 if: Trinity beats Middlebury, Middlebury beats Amherst, Bowdoin goes 1-1 and Hamilton goes 2-0. In that scenario, Bowdoin would be the 3 seed because they went 2-1 against those teams and beat Trinity head-to-head. Trinity would be the 4 seed because their only loss came to Bowdoin. Middlebury and Hamilton both lost two of their three games, but Hamilton beat Middlebury, which would make Hamilton the 5 seed and Middlebury the 6 seed.

Game they wish they could have back: Friday, January 31 vs. Williams (64-61 L).
Middlebury led by as many as 18 points in the second half, before watching it all slip away in a heartbreaking loss. A win over Williams would have given Middlebury the inside track to the two seed, but would have had an even bigger impact on the Panthers’ Pool C odds as a win over the Ephs would have given Middlebury wins over two of the three top-ranked teams in the region, with a game at Amherst looming. Beat all three and the Panthers likely would have secured a Pool C bid. Now even a win over Amherst on Sunday guarantees Middlebury nothing.

2) Williams (7-1), (@Conn.College, @Wesleyan): Williams has stumbled just once this season in NESCAC play, but the Ephs have been less than convincing in a number of their wins. Regarded by many in the pre-season to be the most talented team in the country, Williams has thus far failed to dethrone Amherst. With an outside shot at hosting the NESCAC Tournament, the Ephs would love to secure a pair of wins, though they cannot fall beyond the two seed in the standings.

Possible Finishes:
Williams hosts the NESCAC Tournament with: A pair of wins and an Amherst loss.
Williams finishes as the 2 seed with: Any combination of a loss and an Amherst win.

Game they wish they could have back: Saturday, January 11 @Amherst (84-73 L).
Only one candidate here for the 7-1 Ephs: the loss to the Lord Jeffs in the conference’s opening weekend. Had Williams won that game they would almost certainly be hosting the NESCAC Tournament this weekend. But Amherst has twice beaten the Ephs, both at home on the road, and have proven so far to be the better of the two teams.

1) Amherst (8-1), (vs. Middlebury): Amherst has been the NESCAC’s best team for the third consecutive season. For the Lord Jeffs the equation is simple: beat Middlebury and host the third straight NESCAC Tournament at LeFrak Gymnasium.

Possible Finishes:
Amherst hosts the NESCAC Tournament with: A win over Middlebury; OR a loss to Middlebury and Williams goes 1-1 or 0-2.
Amherst finishes as the 2 seed with: A loss to Middlebury and Williams goes 2-0.

Game they wish they could have back: Friday, January 31 @Colby (70-65 L).
The Mules handed Amherst its one loss of the season. A victory that night would have secured the Lord Jeffs the number one overall seed, regardless of what happens in Sunday’s game. It also broke a streak of 38 consecutive wins in conference for Amherst. While Amherst will not run the slate for the third straight season, a win over Middlebury would make the loss to Colby moot.