Saturday, March 30, 2013

"More like...Rematch Purgatory"

      Unless you were hiking in the Andes without a smart phone, by now you've heard that 'TheBoys' came up on the short end of a hard fought loss to NorthCentral in Salem. No nail biting- no moaning about the zebra's lack of vision- and no amazing last minute comeback, The Panthers got beat, fair and square. NorthCentral had one kid (Kmiec) who got really hot, and TheBoys just couldn't quite find an answer. With the exception of him, we defended well. They defended a little better and with some stops created the separation that carried them until very late. Midd made a mini-run, and had a chance to maybe close it to down seven at about the four minute mark, when one of the officials got in the way of a pass on the break and knocked the ball out of bounds. NorthCentral got to re-set their 'D', the margin held and you could feel the air go out ThePanther's season.

      That ride down the Blue Ridge is long, but the trip is shorter fueled by the excitement of a possible championship. Just getting to Salem- one of the lofty goals of every top d3 programs- is terrific. Once you've been there once, you realize that to overcome in that environment, there is precious little room for any miscues- be they turnovers, missed block-out assignments, or coolness of shooting-hand. On a night when we didn't operate on all cylinders, a good defense like NorthCentral's senses it quicker than an army of ants finds an unattended watermelon at a summer picnic, and closes the door. So, there is no 'rematch heaven' with Toomey and His Pals, more like rematch purgatory - and a hanging piece of unfinished business.

      No head hanging for ThePantherFaithful on the longer ride home. More, a discussion savoring what was accomplished. This team, and Pedro, Jake and Nolan, their captains, gave us a great ride this year and through their careers. They've marked the way to Salem. Now it will be up to others to see if Midd can get back there and finally break through. I know that wherever that trio is next year, (and for every year thereafter) come tournament time, they will be in the front row rooting for 'TheBoys' to break through, and raise that trophy. Now that they are about to get onto my side of the fence, they'll be amazed how many riders are on The Panther Express.

      Many of the pieces to end the purgatory are in place, and JeffB. and his staff won't be lacking for prospects in putting together a new edition. Starting with Joey - Midd will have one of the two or three best guards in the land. Although Toomey's publicity machine has been puffing along for three seasons now, if you want to see where they stand head-to-head consider the piece on ''. It confirms what you've seen and actually might add to it. Nice that he was a honorable mention A-A, but clearly, given a few above him, it could've been higher. Jensen will continue the work on his doctorate in tenacity. His development as a big time contributor on the floor is expected to provide dividends at both ends. Others will need to step up. LongJack has shown that he's figured it out. My take is that NateB. will be ready, coming off what has to be a frustrating season. He's got the capability to provide scoring punch and good 'D'.

     From this year's 'all-medical' team, there are several who can provide the spark. "TheSmoothie", Dylan Sinnickson, has the athleticism, and jumper to reach the nescac's top line. Luis Alvarez, as a fifth year senior, certainly demonstrated talents as a 'D' stopper. DeanB. should be able to step forward and pick up his scoring. And maybe Eamon Cuddy, and his new knees, will affirm my prediction that he is the best-under-the-radar-player in the nescac. Also to be noted from the skybox is that this group of freshman looks like they are ready. There was something intangible about them when they came onto the floor in Salem for a short 47-second test drive. They had a collective stage presence. Of course it will be tested - and of course, it's possible the eyes of an old dog were looking at a hopeful future. But I'll stand by 'stage presence', it's the precursor to poise. All don't have it, but think it was on display briefly.

      Next season starts with a bang as Midd has signed on to the "HoopsvilleClassic" at Stevenson (Owings Mills, MD) to open up. It is an eight team affair, with two random games. It promises a significant early test as St.Mary's, Cabrini (both in the EE) are on board. Also in the field are Trinity, TX(ncaa bid), Salisbury, Stevenson (16-9 this year), along with a west coast power and another to be added. With the golf season looming, and the e-mail trail drying up, this is the time of year when I feel a little like Col. Frank Slade (Al Pacino's character) in "Scent Of A Woman", when at the end of his big adventure, he gets out of the limo, trudges up his driveway and goes into his little house, as the camera pulls away. To all who've been on ThePantherExpress this year thanks for sharing in the exhilaration and fun it brought, and let's hope, Lord willing, that we're able to do this again next season.
      And remember: "out 'ThePineRoom' door, down 'The Alibi' stairs, past DicktheHealer's whirlpool, and off the Panther's rock, nothin' but net". Be well. Clubbo.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

'Ridin' Down Rematch Heaven..'

      The Pepin crowd which had snake-danced its way in total delirium to the mahogany rail at Mr. Ups kept high-fivin' and toasting 'The Boys' and the miracle comeback finish with but 1.8 showing on the clock. They had played great but so did The Bombers and there wasn't much room for error. And when Ithaca stripped the ball and then drained that last jumper to go up one, with just six ticks left, the crowd was stunned and silent. With the season pretty much on its last legs it was a damn good thing those legs belonged to Joey. Just like he did against Scranton last year in this same round,when he took it coast to coast to tie it with 3.9 on the clock, he was large and in charge. Having seen him perform this magic  once, the view from the skybox was guarded but optimistic. Ithaca couldn't get a man in front of him and when he really got banged at the left side of the key, the moment was set. Poise, optimum performance under maximum pressure, had just been given a curtain call. Now it was time for the encore. Both ends of a one-and-one to avoid OT. Or at least the first to avoid the beginning of the golf season, and put some life back in the season. Pepin was quieter than the library on a Saturday night, only a few rustles from new fans breathing into paper bags. On the rim and in. A quick cheer. More silence. Then the 'OhMyGod' pandemonium. The stands were shaking. The crowd was chanting "...Jo -ey...Jo- -ey!" It was the greatest, absolutely most memorable moment at Pepin that this writer has ever seen.

      They were all heroes. Ithaca decided to open by making Jake beat them. He was happy to oblige from the gitgo. And now has earned his way back to Salem. Nolan did a good job trying to control Russo and Warech, their go to guy late in the clock. Jensen has grown with each passing week and makes big plays on the floor and snares critical rebounds. Their triangle and two handcuffed Pedro because they sagged a guard onto him, but he fought his way through it and was cool as a cucumber from the line. Going back to Salem, The Boys are as ready for the challenge of beating NorthCentral. According to the pundits, they are athletic, deep and physical. That translates to very good, and what else would you expect in the Elite Eight. I'm already on record with d3hoops- not on the message boards- but right to the top- that TheBoys aren't backing down in any physical confrontations. That you got to believe, we can survive Friday night's battle, which gets us to presumably TheLordJeffNation and "rematch heaven".  With Atlanta on the line and a shot at the national title, there would be nothing sweeter than sending Toomey and His Pals home.

       If NorthCentral gets the better of Midd- there will be disappointment. Understandable, but it is tempered by the unbelievable ride that this team and these seniors have provided -104 wins and 18-and-6 in elimination games- for all of us. Either way they have been great, and JeffB. and his staff has had them ready to play - no excuses -every single night. You couldn't ask for more. Safe travels, I'll see you all at the Civic Center, manana.

      And remember: " down The Alibi stairs, without spilling a drop; off the conductor's cap on ThePantherExpress;  past the lamaze sessions, and over the d3hoops broadcast table; nothin' but net!" Be well. Clubbo. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

'We're in a New York state of mind..'

      Okay, so we're not gonna take a cruise on the Hudson River line, to paraphrase Billy Joel's line, but ThePantherExpress is parked on its famous siding along the Otter Creek, with its "Sweet Sixteen" banner snapping in the wind, while the crowd of 'PantherFaithful' snake-dances its way through town to see TheBoys take on the Ithaca Bombers, another Empire State representative. After Midd's 'D' had cooled the fire-breathing RedDragons, who only puffed a couple of times, and never really caught fire, with their top two G.'s firing a combined 7for24, (never a recipe for success), the local announcers decided that Midd didn't need any asbestos suits for protection, and let us move on to the Sweet Sixteen. Not lost in earning the road 'W' was the grittiness and tenacity on display in Cortland. TheBoys shot the ball better (marginally from the arc) but came up big in controlling their hotshots, and survived a career effort by their big guy. Then when the dark clouds were gathering with Midd down-seven, and the clock said 8:53 till the golf season, Jake made another 3-ball in his history of big shots, then stole the ball and went coast-to-coast to bring Midd back to down-two. From there James swept the boards, Joey controlled the rock, and knocked in two big buckets, and Pedro came alive with a couple of inside stops, and made the FT's to send Cortland packing. Again with the clock under nine minutes, TheBoys were dominant, closing out Cortland 19 -8, with Pedro driving home the last nails.     

      Now it's time for the last hurrah at Pepin for these seniors, and to celebrate what an unbelievable run they've given us over their careers. Those who think this is the new normal really have little idea how hard these seasons are to achieve, but 103 wins and counting (including 17and 6 in nescac tourney and ncaa elimination games) has them breathless. From my skybox here the view is that it's not over yet, and the Elite Eight is again reachable, and this story will keep unfolding. Last year when we got to this juncture, TheBoys opened the Scranton game flat, finally fought back to a closing tie only to take the dagger of a long 3-ball at the buzzer. This week's preparations include JeffB. more than gently prodding them with the big reminder stick that says "Scranton!" on it. As good as Ithaca has been in coming up with two road wins, they are about to meet a different kind of defense in a very hostile environment. Led by Rossi, the alltime ncaa assist leader (he broke my career assist record in his 4th game as a frosh), and St.Mike's (d-2) transfer Warech,  NolanT., Joey and James will have to be on them from the gitgo. Disrupt their passing, deny the lanes. No open looks for Warech. The reason our trio is mentioned is that gives us three guys to attack their two, and Jeff is accorded the semi-luxury of keeping the freshest of legs on each. The pluses are that we've got size inside, Pedro can damage this team down low, and feel that NateB.'s continuing contributions give us another little edge. At this stage of the tourney, it's about making the most of those edges. And we've got the home cookin'. At Pepin, where every seat will be attended by a fanny, the place will be rocking before the anthem's last notes have died away. My take is that Ithaca won't be able to overcome the defense, the pressure of playing in a packed house on the road (last week at Rochester the kids were on spring break, so that is a consideration) and Midd's ability to control a game late, making them definitely do-able. And although it is one round deeper, where the pain of being on the endangered species list lies in wait, TheBoys are capable of getting this up into DD's, so that if you stand on your tip-toes late in the second half, you'll be able to see the Salem Civic Center on the horizon. It's been a great run. Thanks to the seniors for going out in style. Regardless of the outcome, celebrate them.

      And remember: "Down TheAlibi stairs, past the D.U. house, out of 'DickTheHealer's' whirlpool, and off the 35-second clock, nothin' but net! Be well. Clubbo.

Friday, March 8, 2013

"Where there's a will, there's a way.."

      The Panther Express is off to Cortland State to take on the fire-breathing RedDragons in round two of this newly formatted ncaa. 'TheBoys' survived some very shaky 3-ball shooting (what else would you call 3-for-18) vs. Curry, mainly because they demonstrated an iron will, and a refusal to even slightly fray with the game -and the season - on the line. And since we had gotten to the half in front 31-19, it was too late for any remedial lamaze sessions. So a few of the rookies had to either close their eyes, or breathe into paper bags starting as early as the 12:42 mark in the second frame, when Curry got to within one. The post season shows how much a team has accomplished and why. But it is not for the faint of heart. Time and again- and the running box score says it happened SEVEN times (before the 4:10 mark when we had stretched it to 53-50) TheBoys refused to let them get over the hump.

      That is not only imposing your will under fire, it demonstrates what's been said in this corner throughout the year. That Midd has the best G. trio in the land. No mistakes when there's no room for a single mistake. And how many big stops? Enough. And just when it finally looked like real separation was a possibility, Lambros nails a trey from their bench down 54-61, with 1:50 on the clock to give Curry a last hope. JeezLouise! But they were always fighting uphill, and never got it to a tie, although there were three chances in the last 1:22. That real demonstration of will, creates the way to win at crunch time, which is maybe the signature of this group. It is one where their record just can't be dissected by statistical categories. That having been said, no play this season was bigger than Joey realizing that a ten-second back court violation was about to be called, even though the 35 clock had not reset and it showed :33. He calls time out, still Midd's ball, clock reset to :26. Season saved. Poise. Defined as optimum performance under maximum pressure. TheBoys have it, and it's why they're moving on.

      To survive at Cortland, we're simply going to have to put the ball in the basket more than the last two outings. Against Williams and Curry somehow we kept ourselves in the game despite going 11-48 from 3-land. Anything resembling 35% means TheBoys are capable of putting another nine points on the board in either game, that certainly would create breathing space. Cortland wants to get the game up around 80, maybe 80-plus, spread the floor and crank up 3's. We can defend- thinking from my skybox is that Nolan can use his size and talents to control either Winter or Smith, and see how that disrupts their offensive flow. They have a lot of guys who can score, but TheBoys know how to defend and we may be able to control the game inside with LongJack, Pedro and Jensen on the boards. LongJack has been climbing the national leader board in 'blocks' and is up to #11 nationally. Pedro has been effective (he's in the national leaders in FG pct.) all season down low, and that should continue against a group that is not overly big. Like the way that NateB. is coming back and can give minutes of key defense as well as get to the rim on offense. And if you weren't sure of just how tough or committed James is- go back to the video and look at the block he makes with under 2:00 to go saddled with four fouls. Another demonstration of finding a way.

      Cortland is to be respected. They are untouched at home (13-0), but we're not the Washington Generals trying to match up against The Globetrotters. And they don't have the kind of Bigs (like Palleschi, Mayer, or Kaasila/Williamson) that have caused problems this season. We're capable in an open floor game. Maybe if we take it to the hole a little more, we make them play more defense than they want to, and maybe we can expose that as a shortcoming. Certainly in an open floor game, Midd will have plenty of 'looks', but maybe we use our inside guys more, and let our cutters create something. We've got the talent to make it happen. My take is that Cortland is 'do-able', and The Panther Express keeps rollin'. Then it is possible that Pepin comes back into focus for next weekend.

      And remember;" down 'TheAlibi' stairs, out the door of the bus, over the media table, and off Alex's clipboard, nothin' but net!" Be well. Clubbo.

Friday, March 1, 2013

'Rewarded! And Redemption..'

        'The-Club-at-ThePub' gathering, while a success for Panther fans and alums, did not translate into a lucky charm for 'TheBoys' chances against Epley, Mayer and Co., coming up short in a heart stopping OT loss. Whether Midd would've had converted the chance to tie with under 35 seconds on the clock will never be known. A Zebra's misconception of what constitutes out of bounds on a tipped ball gave the rock back to Williams, we had to foul and that was it. Tough medicine to swallow, and a long bus ride home. But from my skybox these thoughts can be offered. Learn something from the outcome. Then turn the page. Go write another chapter. The ball's in your hands. Salem and the big goal are still out there on the horizon.

      At 22-3, TheBoys were rewarded by the ncaa, with not only the sixth consecutive bid in Midd history (and by the way, now the second longest streak in the country) but a home game in the opener. The PantherFaithful will be rejuvenated after their draining trip to the fiefdom of Lord Jeffrey, and will be on the edge of their seats looking for TheBoys to take charge of Curry early. Curry comes in with an athletic, high-scoring trio, lead by Sedale Jones (22.1 ppg) , a big strongman in Stephens (16+ppg) and Paplambros (also at 16). Have not seen this group but analysis of the running box scores at Amherst, and others, is helpful. They clearly want a high tempo game, but think that their defense is somewhere below having too many holes in a block of swiss cheese. Trailing Amherst at 32-38 with 6:00 left in the first half, they gave up a 24 to 10 'run' to Toomey and his pals, and were toasted by the half at 62-42, never got closer and were buried 117-96. Twice after that they let teams get to the century mark, and neither Nichols nor Eastern Nazarene have the reputation or firepower of an Amherst. In two other games against WPI ( now 25-2) and MIT(20-5), they suffered major collapses down the stretch. WPI slapped them around with an 18-2 burst over a four minute stretch under six minutes, and so did MIT. Why cite facts and figures? Like any historian will tell you- what happened in the past forms the basis of what occurs in the present. Ah! The value of a Middlebury education. All these catastrophes for Curry occurred on the road, and more were out of conference. Attention 'Colonels' - welcome to Pepin. This is the second season. You play to earn every advantage, so that when you get there you can make it pay off. Saturday's hosting is an early reward.

      On paper the match-ups look to be in our favor. On the court, the view from the skyboxes is that they will be more so. Presume that NolanT., DPOY in the nescac, will see if he can fit the cuffs on Jones. This kid can squeeze off a lot of shots (he fired up 14 of 26 vs. Amherst), so keeping him from getting to the basket, or finding his best spots on the floor is paramount. Nolan as the disruptor of their 'O' opens the door to putting more pressure on other parts of their game. Joey, Jake and James get first call on Papalambros and A.Jones. Pedro matches up with Stephens down low in a bone on bone battle. It'd be great if the zebras let them decide it without much interference. And we also have NateB. to call on off the pine, when we need some spark on either end. If they want to run, bring it on! In the open floor with our passing game, and the weak-side cutters, Curry should have the problem keeping pace. And in the halfcourt game, it looks like they have problems defending. Curry is definitely 'do-able' and it should be without any need for the halftime lamaze sessions that this season has often produced. Midd moves on - to the ostensible meeting with Cortland State. 
      Whether Pepin is a second round site depends on how the ncaa weighs the strength of Cortland's region. But we'll deal with that after Saturday. It has been another remarkable season, but it's time to take it further, and this where our G. trio, and our ncaa experience are keys to this next round of thrills. Since for all but one, it will end on a somber note, enjoy the journey. Relish the moment. Scream for it. Slap high fives. Savor the memories it creates, because you never know when we're going to get back here. And to these great seniors- Nolan, Jake and Peter- should this be a last hurrah at Pepin- you've been exemplary, on the court and off. Thanks - is hardly enough.

      And remember: "down 'The Alibi' stairs, past MooseProvoncha's gas pumps, down the hill from the Panther's rock, and off the thirty-five second clock, nothin' but net". Be well. Clubbo.