Tomorrow’s basketball game between the last two NESCAC champions, fourth ranked Middlebury and fifth ranked Williams, could be one for the ages. Much like last season’s battles (both won in hard-earned fashion by the Ephs), Williams is the strongest offensive team Middlebury has faced all year, and Midd plays the toughest D the Ephs have seen, so something has to give.  Williams’ oft-overlooked defense is also tremendous, and ranks second only to Middlebury nationally in terms of limiting opponent’s shooting percentage.  You can watch a few video highlights (or really, more like random tidbits than highlights) of the Ephs’ recent victories over Wesleyan and Skidmore here, here and here.  Watch this week’s Eph basketball show here.  Williams has an extensive game preview here, including links for how to watch live.  Following the men’s contest, the tenth-ranked Eph women take on the Panthers as well.  Alas, the crowd may be limited for this one, considering that few people are on campus at Williams this weekend, due to the winter break.

My full game preview continues below the break.

The marquee match-up is at center, where Middlebury’s 6’10 defensive stalwart Andrew Locke ’11 (who as usual leads NESCAC in blocks by a wide margin) goes up against likely all-American Troy Whittington ’11, who leads the nation in shooting percentage.  Locke’s size will present a problem for the Ephs, but Troy has a big advantage in speed, strength, and skill level. Look for him to go right at Locke early in the game to try to get him in early foul trouble, because as long as Locke is patrolling the lane, Eph guards will have a very hard time scoring off the dribble.

The guard match-up should also be great. Middlebury’s back-court is much improved thanks to the development of sophomores Jake Wolfin ’13 and (recent NESCAC player of the week) Nolan Thompson ’13, and the addition of star frosh Joey Kizel ’14.  Thompson, a defensive ace who is purported to be a very rare non-recruited hoops player starting for a NESCAC school, has improved his offensive game by leaps and bounds since arriving on campus.

But as talented as Middlebury is, the Ephs do have a decided advantage on the perimeter, thanks to all-American and 1000 points scorer James Wang ’12, who is ably supported by the all-around steady game of Nate Robertson ’13 (who is a basketball purist’s dream), and emerging frosh Hayden Rooke-Ley ’14, who is a tremendous rebounder for his size.  Middlebury guards are very aggressive and will really extend on defense (knowing that their big guys can help out on any drives), likely denying many clean looks from three for the Ephs’ ace shooters.  That will open up plenty of opportunities to drive for the quick Eph perimeter players, so the Williams guards will have to make good decisions with the ball in the paint, especially when Locke is patrolling the inside.  Hopefully, a few of those good decisions will result in Whittington dunks, igniting the crowd, limited though it may be due to timing.  Robertson and Wang are also both sneakily adept at finishing over larger players.

The Eph guards will need to outplay Middlebury’s perimeter players, because Middlebury has the edge at forward thanks to its own all-American candidate, 6’8, 235 pound, all-NESCAC forward Ryan Sharry ’12, who is ably backed up by Jamal Davis ’11, whose athletic ability has given the Ephs trouble in the past.  [LATE UPDATE: rumor has it that Sharry may miss the game with an injury, which would be a huge blow to Midd’s chances].  The Ephs’ Harlan Dodson ’11 (who is apparently a favorite of the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan thanks to his Adam Morrison resemblance) gives up 45 pounds to Sharry, and back-up power forward Taylor Epley ’14  gives up four inches and 25 pounds, so either way, they will have a difficult time controlling him inside.  If Sharry proves to be too much of a handful, the Ephs could slide bulkier back-up center Brian Emerson ’12 over to the four to help out in a defense-by-committee approach.

Finally, each team also boasts an ace shooter on the wing, James Klemm ’13 for the Ephs and Ryan Wholey ’11 for Midd.  Streak-shooter Klemm leads NESCAC is three pointers made by a substantial margin, and could be a difference maker tomorrow if he gets going.

Keys for victory for the Ephs: (1) keep the bigger, stronger, Middlebury front-court from dominating the offensive glass, because I think Midd’s best chance to score will be off second chance opportunities; (2) get easy baskets off the transition game, before Middlebury’s intimidating big guys can set up in the half court defense; (3) feed Whittington early and often and hope to get Locke in foul trouble to clear up the inside for driving guards; (4) hope Klemm and Dodson hit open shots set up by penetrating guards; and (5) recognize that Sharry will get his points, but don’t allow any of the Panther guards to go off for a big game by focusing too much on inside help defense.

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