Saturday, November 30, 2013

'Passing The Turkey and Cranberry...'

      Always easier than giving up the ball in the offensive end, I was able to complete one my annual assists on Thanksgiving to the delight of  family. If it had been a basketball it might not have come down the table. I hope that everyone was able to enjoy that kind of a special day with family and friends filled with stories and laughter.

      Back to the business of trying to keep Midd in the 'national' discussion. TheBoys had a downer at Stevenson falling to a team that is on the rise, was in their own building, and caught us on a night where we were less than our best. Give them a big plus for their tenacious, scrappy 'D' which took our 'O' out of sync. Before you run off to join the queue that's forming to jump off The Otter Creek bridge, let's consider a few rays of sunlight that have brightened the room. These back to back opening tournaments  promised to be a serious proposition. TheBoys played well, maybe above their heads in the openers. Eight hours down and back, and two hard games in Lancaster made for a long haul, and exacted a hidden toll. Getting back to campus at one on Sunday morning and following it up with departing on another eight-plus hour ride to Baltimore on Thursday, to get in past one a.m. on Friday, is reminiscent of an NBA road trip. Unfortunately we're from the nescac not the NBA. There wasn't much room for error at Stevenson. Simply put, my take in retrospect is that Midd was 'bus-lagged' and susceptible. Add in the fact that Dylan- maybe our most athletic player wasn't present. That hadn't been factored into my equation, but the job of putting up the 'W' on the road became that much harder. Stevenson sensed it, and had themselves in a position to close us out a couple of times in the second half. That was when The Boys reached down and came back from the brink. Now with two minutes showing, Joey had the rock, down three. The Panthers were in a position to salvage what had been a bad night. He missed, the rebound went long and Stevenson converted it, and then one to seal the deal. The chatter boards had a day and a half to dissect the Panther failure. None of the resident geniuses on the 'net even considered the travel angle, or the personnel angle.

      My thought was validated by TheBoys' performance against St. Mary's game. It was apparently an instant classic, Joey sending it to O.T. at the buzzer. Even though there was a brief lead in the O.T., our free-throw shooting which wasn't good in Baltimore, let us down late. and St. M's sneaked away with a hard fought victory. For those questioning what's wrong, perhaps they should consider these factors: the travel angle. Four games against coming or top programs, not a flavorful cupcake in sight. No Dylan. No James. Either's play would have been enough to turn the tide, don't you think.

      And finally for 'the new normal', these 24 or 25 win seasons are a special creation. They aren't glazed donuts that get turned out by the dozen down at the Middlebury Dunkin' Donut every morning. Because of all the new moving pieces, The Boys are blending, finding themselves and how their games fit together. Even with Stevenson, we've already learned a lot. Matt Daley can be brilliant, but he needs to have that game-to-game intensity. If the brilliance is there, the consistency will come. Nidenberg has made big strides. My take is that he's ahead of Pedro Lynch in his development at this point. Pretty darn good if he stays on that path, because Pedro was better than okay, if you recall. Although Jake Brown and Matt St. Amour haven't yet made it to the top of the prospective nescac rookies 'chatter' yet, don't be fooled, both will make sizeable contributions this season. Jensen returns against RPI. Our intensity will go up a couple of notches with his presence and game. Hunter has been a big factor early and has shown definite improvement. This edition has enough talent, presence and depth to be really good. Given what the rest of the schedule holds that is going to be necessary.

      TheBoys are back on the road tomorrow against RPI, who plays a Grinnell-like system of the run and shoot game. They are scoring at 90 per game. That's a lot of points. The problem they have is they're giving up 112 (yes) ppg. We need to have solid board work to throttle down their throw-it-catch-and-shoot opportunities, and use the 35-clock well enough to frustrate them, and Midd should be fine. Castleton, on Tuesday, usually is one of our 'gimmes', but they have brought in a couple of new kids who did well enough to take one from then-#9 WPI the other night. Not having seen them, I'd trust our depth, the home floor at Pepin, and the fact that JeffB. has the motivator in their WPI win so that The Boys take them seriously. There should not be any stumbles.
Remember: "off the keg at ThePineRoom, over The Otter Creek bridge, out of DickTheHealer's,  whirlpool, and one bounce off Albert's cage, nothin' but net!" Be well. Clubbo.

Friday, November 22, 2013

"The Hits Just Keep On Comin'.."

       Like the best of A.M. radio's DJ's of the sixties and seventies, JeffB. rolled out a new album of the Panther BBall vinyl last weekend in Lancaster. Those that opted for the maiden ride on The Panther Express were treated to dazzling debut performances (guaranteed to set the nescac world on its ear) by Matt Daley, and Matt St. Amour. Playing back-up to those dazzlers were the solid duo of Conor Hough and 'Jerry' Nidenberg, who impressed with solid play and contributions. Three of the four hardly played a minute under Jeff's tutelage last year, but all appeared to have flourished for the experience. As a small aside it was noted here, that in the last minute of the North Central loss these three sophs were on the floor and looked like they understood what it was all about. Their performances against Alvernia and Baruch, individually and collectively, have at least partially validated what we thought we saw that night. Matt St. Amour, Vermont-grown, and a true frosh, hardly looked a kid who won't handle the bright lights and big-time pressure of Midd's schedule. To a certain extent he's learning on the job because of the speed of the college game. He's the best pure shooter seen around these parts in years- which covers some considerable ground- so there's plenty of expectations that the faithful will be treated to some special performances over the next four seasons (no pun intended).

      Not lost on anyone was the comeback performance of Dylan Sinnickson. Slightly out of sync in the Alvernia game, probably due to an accumulation of game-speed rust, 'The Smoothie' got his hands on some WD-40 overnight and came back with a well-oiled performance against Baruch. Hopefully his absence against Green Mountain will not be a concern because his high level of play will be needed this weekend at The Hoopsville Classic. The Lancaster W's were orchestrated by Joey, who had the game in control and in his hands down the stretch of both battles, and when everyone's tired legs were yelling for no O.T. against Baruch, he calmly knocked in the final nails from the free throw line to get TheBoys on the bus at two and zero.

       LongJack played his best game at Midd against Alvernia. It was a very physical game and he responded well, as seniors are supposed to do. Other contributors over the weekend were Hunter, who continues to progress, and NateB. who defended well. In the home opener, the 810 fans (by far the biggest crowd at a d3 game in the country so far this year) were treated to the Jake Brown debut. Apparently he did not disappoint any of those who had seen him in the preseason. Like his running mate St. Amour, it is certain, barring bad luck, that there is only upside to his game. Brian Jones and Chris Churchill also got into the swing of things showcasing the depth of Jeff's troops.

      All of the above are going to be necessary to make this weekend successful. Although James Jensen was finally cleared to play, that clearance came too late (yesterday) for him to play against Stevenson. Whether there is a practice Saturday that will allow him to be ready for St. Mary's on Sunday is in the to-be-decided category. First things first. Stevenson, at home, will be primed, and have their crowd.  Primed or not, it says here that TheBoys will not be looking past Stevenson. There's not a chance that TheBoys will be intimidated by any 'city-game' tactics. For those with any doubts, play the Alvernia video back. Not only was it a physical test, the local zebras kept a long length of hose unrolled in the second half so Midd was tested to the limit. From 66-64, The Boys pulled away to win by ten. My take is we've had two tougher games already, than we face tonight. We've got more size and depth inside, solid outside shooters (Hunter, Dylan, 'The Saint', and Nate), overall depth behind Joey, in JakeB., and Henry, and in the end, 'The Maestro' to run this game in the closing moments, so that everybody delivers their best on cue. That is a great place to be. It is immeasurable. For those who have a life, and actually may not keep track of such facts- consider this: with the exception of the North Central game last year, all the Middlebury L's of the past three (there were just nine) seasons were all in games that either came down to the last possession, or were in overtime. If you're going to succeed in games where the possessions count like they always seem to do for us, then you need a Jake, a Nolan and/or a Joey. That is hopefully what Henry and JakeB. are learning.                 

      St. Mary's on Sunday is a different animal. It is probably the headline game of this tournament and will go a long way to help us determine where TheBoys are in the national rankings. Talented and tough, they are now one of the premier programs in the country. They're at #10 in the polls and are loaded with kids from the Baltimore area so it's almost a home game for them. James would be a nice addition defensively for us against their three-ballers. Both sides get to scout each other tonight. Call me old-fashioned but there is nothing like seeing what is going on with a team when you see it live. To me that measurement has always been invaluable. Although TheBoys are at #18 on the charts, my take is that our inside size and depth is going to be a big factor, particularly if LongJack wakes up aggravated on Sunday. Add in our overall team speed, and veteran ncaa-poise, and the fact that Joey is at his best in high intensity games, and my take is that if we are close to evenly matched, TheBoys will find a way to pull out a giant road 'W' and send us north in the polls. It may take a couple of extra lamaze sessions to regulate everyone's breathing so they survive St. Mary's, but our counselors are used to it, so hope you are along for the ride on ThePantherExpress.

And remember: 'down The Alibi stairs; out of the bus's luggage compartment; over the scorer's table, and off the cannons at Ft. McHenry, nothin' but net!' Be well. Clubbo.  

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Almost Game Day...

      If D3 Bball was on espn, there'd be a big digital clock in the McCullogh Social Space that right now would be at 55 hours and blinking down the minutes till tip time on Friday. But this is Middlebury, and except for a few of the frenzied faithful, with the tip-off being hundreds of miles away, the countdown clock would be viewed with marginal interest from the passers-by.  And because TheBoys have made annual trips deep into the ncaa's the new normal on campus, what's the big fuss anyways, it's not even the nescac playoffs. Although Midd leads the country with 147 W's over the last six seasons, this year's tests begin from Night One, and the powers that be apparently have decided that overcoming the loss of Jake, Nolan and Pedro will be too much for JeffB. and TheBoys. Accordingly, Midd has been disrespected in the rankings and opens as #18. So be it.

      Instead of beginning with the usual flavorful cupcakes that dot the early schedules of most power programs, so that everybody can get up to game speed and blend in the new pieces of the equation, JeffB. has signed TheBoys up for everything he thinks they can handle by taking on Alvernia and then Franklin & Marshall for openers. You can note that TheLordJeffs will be giving away recipes for different varieties of cupcakes as they chomp their way through a less-than-taxing pre-nescac schedule. Probably aghast at what Midd will be trying to accomplish, they're certain to be snickering if things don't go well for The Panthers. Alvernia was an ncaa team last year and returns almost intact. They're at #21 in the country and must think they can go up the rankings ladder, so it's obvious that the blending this time around is going to have to occur early and at game speed, and the new pieces will have to be well-oiled when they step on the floor. To do this TheBoys will be lead by the master-blender in the country, Joey Kizel. He was accorded preseason first team All-American status, but you can be certain he'll still never take a possession off, and that the rest of this year's edition operates on the same page, if what was seen in preseason scrimmaging is any guide. Although James Jensen will be missing from opening weekend, he is well and may be ready to go for Stevenson and St.Mary's.

      Having looked over Alvernia's roster, it appears that we are bigger across the front line. LongJack's presence inside has been growing and he'll be one of the national leaders in blocks. Expect help from Chris Churchill who looks about ready to live up to the freshman potential he showed as long ago as at Ramapo. If that's the case it gives us another set of options to play with a bigger lineup. Add in Matt Daley who has excellent ability to run the floor at 6'7, and the improved play and confidence seen in Nidenburg and there's more depth up front. Dylan Sinnickson is about to return after losing last year to a broken arm. He will be a match-up nightmare for everyone on the schedule. His athleticism and smoothness of stroke are something special. Nate Bulluck could be on the verge of a senior break-out season and has the athleticism to make a big contribution on both ends of the floor. Hunter Merryman continues to improve and will provide instant offense when he is called on. Dean Brierly looks bigger and stronger coming off his surgery.

      Behind Joey, Henry Pendergast has had a year of backcourt tutelage, filled out and should be able to provide effective ball control when necessary. Luis Alvarez is back for one more go and brings solid 'D' to the table. Conor Huff is improving as he transitions from being a prep school '4' to a college '2' or '3'. The big news for the Panther Faithful is that this a very good freshman group. Jake Brown looks like he will get minutes right away. An excellent on-ball defender, he sees the floor very well, and can finish in the break situation. Brian Jones is also very quick and can make his presence felt, particularly defensively. Matt St. Amour is the dial-up jump shooter that we've been looking for, since Andrew Harris graduated. He's got big-time range, a quicksilver release, and doesn't miss. With him and Hunter in the game, it is doubtful we will be seeing many 'zones'.

      As mentioned earlier TheBoys must blend on the fly. They are capable of that. Regardless of Alvernia's plan, my take is that our size should control inside, and that Joey can control the game. Knowing that there is depth aplenty one can visualize contributions from many. The how and what will be decided on by JeffB. who has taken this bold step which will tell us very quickly if it is successful, how good this group may be. Having seen TheBoys in preseason mode, my take is we won't be tight even though it's game one. Alvernia on the other hand, who isn't as used to being in these high-intensity games, may press a little early, solely due to that fact. Both are pluses for Midd. Alvernia should be do-able and that will set up Saturday's match with more probably F&M. That presents another difficult scenario, since F&M rarely loses in their building (4 times last 3 seasons) but the coaching staff will get to scout them post-Alvernia.

      Glad that everyone is along for the ride this season, which promises to be another great one, even if it starts with a doubleheader of nail-biting.    
Remember: "down the steps of the bus; off the visitor's locker-room wall; past the Zebra's looking at the video monitor, two bounces and off the 35-second clock, nothin' but net!"
Be well. Clubbo.