Today at 4:00, the fourth ranked Williams men battle the eighth ranked, and defending NESCAC champion, Middlebury Panthers in a titanic hoops showdown in Vermont.   After years of being dominated by the Ephs, a resurgent Middlebury program has beaten Williams three straight times, including a humiliation that ended the Ephs’ 2007-08 season in the NESCAC tourney.  The Ephs are in the midst of a tremendous season, as predicted by at least one prescient blogger: after Tuesday’s demolition of Hamilton, they have already locked up their best record since at least 2004, when they made it all the way to the national title game, and are highly likely to earn a bid to the NCAA tourney at season’s end.

Watch today’s game here.  The winner moves to 5-0 in NESCAC, and controls its own destiny for home court advantage in the conference tourney (and, perhaps, in the NCAA tourney).  For anyone watching the game live, use the comments to this post as a live blog.

The game should be an epic battle of styles — Williams features a deep array of offensive options (the Ephs lead NESCAC in scoring by a wide margin), led by two of the top five scorers in NESCAC (James Wang and Blake Schultz, each of whom has been named conference player of the week twice), ace shooter Alex Rubin, and the dynamic duo at center of Joe Geoghegan and Troy Whittington.  The Ephs have been very balanced of late, with Wang, Schultz, Rubin, and red-hot Whittington (shooting nearly 70 percent, which would rank him second in the country if he had enough shot attempts to qualify) each scoring in double figures in each of the last four games.   Behind that quartet and strong team defense, the Ephs lead the nation in scoring differential (Midd is no slouch in that category either, ranking sixth nationally).  The Ephs have a big advantage in terms of both outside (the Ephs lead the nation in three point percentage and are near the top in terms of total three’s made as well as overall field goal percentage) and free throw shooting, two arenas Middlebury at times struggles in.

Middlebury, on the other hand, plays a tough, grind-em out, low scoring defensive style (leading NESCAC in fewest points allowed), and they are bigger, more physical, and tougher on the glass than the Ephs.  Midd has been led this year by its gigantic (big even by D-1 standards) front line of 6’10 Andrew Locke, 6’8 Ryan Sharry, and 6’5 Jamal Davis, who combine to average an incredible seven blocks per game.  As a team, Middlebury leads the nation in blocks by a wide margin, and they also lead the nation in field goal percentage defense.   Midd’s tough senior point guard Tim Edwards is the reigning conference defensive player of the year, and will likely be tasked with shutting down Eph offensive dynamo Wang on the perimeter.  Midd’s top offensive player, Sharry, has been banged up of late; if he can’t go, it would be a big break for the Ephs.

Davis and Whittington, both 6’5 juniors, are familiar with each other from their high school days, when they often faced off as the top players in the small-school NYC prep league.   One other story line to watch: both Middlebury and Williams feature a pair of star frosh guards (Robertson and Klemm for Williams, Wolfin and Thompson for Midd), although the Midd guards earn a lot more playing time at this point due to Williams’ tremendous depth and experience on the perimeter.  But that quartet should have many memorable showdowns during the following three years, at a minimum.

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