Friday, December 28, 2012

'fast away the Old Year passes..'

     While some of us are sticking the family fruitcake in the bird-feeders (whoever thought those little green things were tasty?) and hoping that our guests finish up the last batch of holiday eggnog, it is noted that 'TheBoys' are back in Pepin getting ready for RPI, and a run at the nescac title - which is the main order of the winter's business. RPI will in town on Sunday afternoon with Pedro Lynch And Company looking to raise their standard to nine-and-oh. By tip time a couple of more "Tall Trees" (defined as those teams remaining undefeated and untouched by the woodsman's axe) will have crashed in the d3 forest. That will leave The Panthers and only five others unscathed as the remaining "Tall Trees" on the d3 landscape. This doesn't appear to be one of RPI's better editions. Although we haven't seen them up close, common opponents indicate that this game shouldn't require any halftime lamaze sessions. It's been more than three weeks since TheBoys were at game speed, but we've seen many times over this incredible six-plus year run that JeffB. always has them primed and focused. Always is one of those terms that one hates to use because of its finality, but it recognizes the understated mastery that this coach has for his craft. He has worked it with all of Midd's recent editions. The beauty of it is in the preparation. And in getting each group to buy in. Sure, there may be some squirts of WD-40 to get everything up to game speed, but cannot envision an overmatched RPI group, also coming off a layoff hanging around too long at Pepin. Something in range of a 20 point-plus tuneup is what's expected from this corner, and then TheBoys will take up the chase for the nescac title. And next week, they might be the new number one, although based on a stronger early season quality, both St. Thomas and North Central, if they survive Ramapo, would qualify for that spot, if my take is correct.

      The biggest step-ups of the season have been the inside play of Lynch, now up to about fifth in the country in FG percentage, and the discovery of Hunter Merryman as 'instant offense' night in and night out. Pressed into duty when Dylan Sinnickson went down with a broken arm, he has not missed a beat, and one would have to think that he's crossed the bridge to being a full-time threat. That now gives us two potential standouts in the sophomore brigade, and it's my take there will be more.

      Two other points remain to be noted. First: although the Midd defense is not the dominant, lock-down type that has carried us in the past few years, it has been very good in the last ten minutes of every game. Nobody yet has been able to put up a run that has paralyzed us. So my take is that the defense is hidden in the statistics, and when the pretenders want to become contenders, TheBoys are able to make plays on both ends that control the outcome. Part of that is that the offense is better. Inside and out. Secondly: the foul shooting has improved markedly. That should pay off in a big way as the season tightens down and the possessions become bigger.

      Finally there has been a lot chatter about the scheduling- is it too weak, is it challenging enough, etc.?
If you look back at the final regular season poll from last year and the second and third polls this year- even without the nescac schedule being in the forefront, it appears by my count that Midd has played at least 16 of the ranked 75 teams in those three polls. Given the overlap of teams it's possible that there aren't more than 45 actual different teams, and given that we've played some multiple times, often in elimination games, the thought from this corner is 'TheBoys' are prepared every night, and know what challenges need to be met as the season unfolds.   

      Fast away the Old Year passes.. sending you all wishes for health and prosperity in the New Year!
And remember: "down from the star at the top of the tree, under the Christmas bells over Otter Creek, past the wreath on Ma Kelley's door, off of DickTheHealer's new whirlpool, nothin' but net!" Be well. Clubbo.


Friday, December 7, 2012

showing Skids we're the thoroughbreds..

     The Panther Express is steaming into the match-up with Skidmore at seven-and-oh. Now up to an all-time high of #3 in the D-3 polls, there are those - all serious followers of Midd's long run in this 'new normal' era - whose concerns about strength of schedule and challenges merit comment. Most of the commentary back and forth has gone on off this page. Those concerns are rooted in the fact that 'TheBoys' are too parochial in playing a variety of Vermont-baked cupcakes (i.e, Johnson St., Green Mountain, etc.)While there is clamor from the outside, and regardless of outcome it would give the Pepin faithful something further to cheer about, for Midd to schedule 'up' to a St. Mike's (d2 and they don't want to play us in the regular season) or get a game with an Ivy Leaguer (ditto's), my take is that from their side of the ball, there's nothing to be gained. When we were trying to get this program out of the New England cellar, my freshman squad met up with J. State. Ecstatic, after putting up a '39' (in the pre-trey days) by my name in the box score, 'The Vendor', my coach, told me, we're not playing them again, they stink- so they got replaced with Northeastern. Not so great an idea -since they shortly thereafter became a D1. So we struggled through three long seasons, at 3and57. Maybe I'm calloused by the 3-57, and just like to see the W's, knowing that in each season, even as they succeed, there are more than enough challenges to keep 'TheBoys' interested.

     It was a lot easier to schedule 'up' back then because there was only D1 and D2. It's also easier to schedule up when you haven't gotten five ncaa bids in a row. Coaches everywhere are concerned about getting enough 'W's to keep their j-o-b-s, and if an annual meeting with The Panthers was detrimental to that prospect, then they are no longer on our dance card. Among those who have decided otherwise are many longtime rivals. Union and St. Lawrence recently said enough. Norwich and Clarkson had also gone that route, and Colby-Sawyer (who beat us in '09-10) bowed out. The rise of the 'conferences' has contributed to this because there is the reality that if you don't win your conference and get an automatic ncaa bid, then there are only 19 other 'at large' bids handed out. And very few of them- maybe no more than six- are locked in come tournament time. Coaches recognize that unless you have 19 or 20 wins your chances of getting in are slim, even with an enhanced strength of schedule, so don't go 18 and 6 or 7. For that matter even with 20 'W's, there are teams every year that get left out in the cold. Recently Keene State and Wesleyan fell short. For those not familiar with D3, there are 403 teams versus less in D1 (236, and less conferences) so there's only about a dozen 'at large' bids nationally. So we play who we play. The nescac, its tournament and pressure, and the ncaa's are the only measuring sticks that the top programs really go by. And come tourney time you don't want to be left out in the cold.

     Skids at Pepin tomorrow. First trip to Midd for their young trio of Merill, Brooks, and Medunjanin (a soph and two frosh). One of the two frosh G's will have Nolan T. in his grill. Medunjanin, bigger at 6'4 seems the more likely to require Nolan's handcuffs. Don't know whether Merrill is strictly a down low guy or whether he roams. Down low, he'll get either Peter or Longjack. If he is a roamer, then he'll have to contend with Jensen. If Brooks is the PG, he gets the unenviable task of trying to beat Joey. Good luck on that front. Although they won the Liberty last year, and Merrill is very capable, think our experience and pressure, particularly at guard, is key here. Also don't see Merrill pounding Peter and/or Longjack. Know our depth is better going eight deep for sure, particularly with Merryman's instant offense such a factor every night (he has been the 'find' of the new season). All in all, my take is that Skids finds out what real thoroughbreds look like, and that TheBoys go to the break at 8-0. Notable that Williams fell out of the top 25 last week (didn't think they belonged). Today they have the flags in Amherst at half mast because the LordJeffNation went down to Babson at Lefrak, loss number two. This not only seriously jeopardizes their #10 ranking, maybe it exposed their overall lack of real depth (Hixson only went with seven guys), which certainly bodes positive for the Panthers.

     Remember: "down The Alibi stairs, past Ma Kelley's front door, and off DickTheHealer's whirlpool, nothin' but net!" Clubbo.      

Saturday, December 1, 2012

not bad for an opening act...

     The Panther Express is rollin' again. After earning accolades for their performances against 'Your-sinuses' whose Bigs did give us a major headache, and Lebanon Valley who had a kid throw a 30 point night, which usually is a knockout punch on its own, 'TheBoys' survived, and controlled him (one trey in the last 14:18) and the game late. Off to Plattsburgh for another roader, they trailed 26-35 while those with the prepaid lamaze cards were breathing rhythmically (but quickly), then TheBoys closed them down from the time it was 49-all with eight minutes to go. Three things triggered this finish, only 3 turnovers in that span, Lynch coming through in a decisive way with ten big points down this stretch, and the fact that they knocked down 11 of 14 from the line to close Platts out. So at five and oh, there is more than a possibility that Midd ought to head into the holiday break at 8-0. Sure there's a trip to Providence on Sunday, but Johnson and Wales doesn't appear to have the firepower of the their past two squads, with the nation's leading scorer (Lamonte Thomas) having graduated. Add in that J&W has a roader at Rivier (in New Hampshire) on Saturday, and our legs may be the fresher than being on the end of a back-to back. Johnson St. at Pepin should give everybody the opportunity to show game talent, and finally we've got Skidmore before the exam-holiday break. Skids will require a top effort as they've got some of the firepower that earned them an ncaa bid last year, to go along with a solid 'Big' in Conor Merrill who registered with 26 against d1 Siena in an exhibition game. Recent Midd-Skids encounters have been rough and tumble affairs and they're not at all awed by a trip to Pepin, so it will be a test.

      What we've seen so far is that the guard rotation of Nolan T., Joey Kizel and Jake Wolfin is as good as we thought. Scary good. Nolan earned MVP for his effort at Lebanon Valley, and this trio has controlled the tough games so far with their cohesion, foul shooting, and defense, especially late, and that ability has anchored the 5-0 start. Up front, we have been searching a little bit, but it looks like the Bigs are starting to find themselves. Lynch is demonstrating that he can be a down low force on 'O', and carry that through to crunch time. My take is that he still has upside as his confidence grows. Important to see LongJack have a statement game the other night, even against an overmatched opponent. Think he might have needed that mentally. Still a work in progress, every game is a step forward for him, and a positive addition that is needed every night. Jensen's play has been strong early on both ends, and his intensity is infectious. Nate Bulluck has made good contributions in his limited minutes, and the feeling is that if he continues on this positive path his athleticism will add to those minutes. Still it's tough to crack the best G. rotation in the country. Dylan Sinnickson, he of the "smooooth" jumper, broke his arm and is on the mend, although he won't be back to mid-January at best, so that is a negative. But like the old proverb says, when one door closes another one opens, so enter Hunter Merryman, who has provided 'instant offense' off the bench, with a solid 3-ball, for double digits every game. Gotta like that. And maybe he's the "dial-up" jump shooter that has been absent from our arsenal the last couple of seasons. Still waiting for Churchill to emerge from the shadows of his bout with mono, and think that he might get some decent minutes in the next 3 games.

     So before this opening act which is the pre-conference schedule is over, what have we learned, about us and about the northeast region in particular. My take, having only seen TheBoys 'run' in preseason but bolstered by 3 decent-to-tough road W's, is that this year's edition is better than pretty good, and the national ranking stays intact till the nescac tips off. Have seen part of the nescac already and am fairly sure of two things. First, Wesleyan is not at the level they were at last year. Too much Shasha with the ball means they have regressed, and makes them easier to defend. Plus they don't yet have a bail out shooter because Mendell graduated. Unless those problems are solved, nescac hosting will remain at a more traditional site. Secondly, Williams will be better than last time around. Liked their team 'D', but they have no flash and must run their offense to death- which they did - to get good shots. Hoffman gives them adequate backup for Mayer, and they're getting good contributions from Epley, Klemm and Wohl, a running mate of Merryman's. They have the advantage of home cooking in key nescac matchups. Amherst has new pieces to go with Toomey and Workman, but gets their first test vs. Springfield tonight. Tufts has been in and out but don't judge them just by their record. They had the lead on Ill.Wesleyan (#7) last night with five minutes left and couldn't close the deal. Think they'll be a big road test in January. Don't know which Trinity we'll see, because of the turmoil that surrounds the program. Six kids, and counting, have left the team in the last two years. Elsewhere, MIT without Hollingsworth (major foot surgery) and Karraker, (knee), is a good team but not the powerhouse I'd envisioned. The newmac will be tough for them.  WPI, is solid, and Springfield is improving. The Little East has two good teams in RIC, terrific 'D', and very well coached, and Keene St. who we already know about. Possible that UMass-Boston adds to the mix, but it looks like EasternConn is weaker, and WesConn now in a down year. Enough details for now, The Boys should be able to take care of business at hand and be ready to pull into the break with a win over Skidmore. Getting to eight and oh is better than pretty good, although many fans along the Otter Creek expect this, the "new normal". Be well. And remember, "off 'The Pine Room' keg, down The Alibi stairs, past the burned out DKE house, over Albert's laundry basket, nothin' but net!" Clubbo.