UPDATED:  I have moved this preview up, and added many new links, for today’s NCAA hoops action.  As expected, Williams, VWU, Amherst and RIC all advanced to an absolutely loaded sectional in Chandler.  A few links pertinent to this weeken’s action: the latest basketball show, video highlights from the Becker game,  the North Adams Transcript’s preview, Williams’ sectional preview (including webcast links), and Amherst’s sectional preview.

Of the five teams who have dominated D-3 basketball from 2003 through 20010 (Williams, Amherst, Virginia Wesleyan, Wisconsin Stevens Point, and Wash U., who have combined to win every title during that time period, with an additional five runner-up finishes), three, number ten VWU, number nine Amherst, and number four Williams, will battle for a spot in Salem.  D3hoops previews the tourney here, Williams previews its sectional here, and Amherst previews its portion of the bracket here.  Watch the webcasts of the Williams games here.

If you want in on the Ephblog NCAA pool, there will be a bonus of five points per pick for each D-3 Final Four team.  My picks are Williams (of course), Stevens Point, Middlebury, and Wooster (I’m not exactly going out on a limb, as these are four of the eight favorites, along with Augustana, Randolph Macon, Whitworth, and Amherst).  Either post your picks, or send them to me via email.  My analysis of the teams in the Ephs’ bracket is below the break.

[Note: the women’s team also made the NCAA tournament, but they are certainly long shots … even if they win their first two games, both on the road, they will almost surely have to face Amherst, who has already defeated them three times, at Amherst in the Sweet Sixteen].

(Ed note: from Jeff’s great round-up [note: click on the Whittington article, which is truly a must-read] PLUS this additional story on NESAC Player of the Year.  For the uninitiated, I also highly recommend checking out some of Troy’s innumerable highlight-reel plays).

First, the favorites:

  • Williams is the favorite to emerge from the bracket, but only by a very narrow margin.  The Ephs will likely host as long as they stay alive, which is an advantage.  Williams suffered a tough loss to Middlebury on Saturday, but that was without point guard Nate Robertson, who is questionable for this weekend’s games, and would be a major loss.  Williams does  not shoot the ball like last year (few teams in history have), but they are better defensively and tougher on the boards.  James Wang ’12 and NESCAC player of the year Troy Whittington ’11 [note: click on the Whittington article, which is truly a must-read] are both all-American caliber players, but the Ephs will need better long-range shooting out of the supporting cast (in particular James Klemm ’13, Hayden Rooke-Ley ’14, Taylor Epley ’14 and Harlan Dodson ’11) than they have received in recent weeks to make it out of a very tough bracket.  All are capable of lighting it up, and they will need to, lest teams focus all of their defensive energy on the Wang/Whittington duo.
  • Amherst is bigger, stronger, and arguably more talented than Williams.  The question with the Lord Jeffs is, do they, as a young team fresh off an epic collapse against Middlebury, have the composure to win four straight games (potentially) on the road?  Amherst is led by Conor Meehan ’11 and William Workman ’13, both of whom seem to always manage to give Williams fits (Workman in particular).  NESCAC rookie of the year Aaron Toomey ’14 was on fire the first two thirds of the year, but has tailed off a bit in recent weeks.  If he can resume his stellar play, Amherst can beat anyone in the country, because they are very deep with tremendous role players in ace shooter Taylor Epley ’12, athletic combo-forwards David Waller ’12 and Alan Williamson ’13, and a very big, skilled center duo in Peter Kaasila ’13 and Jeff Holmes ’12.  Of that group, only Meehan has significant post-season experience.  Amherst looked unbeatable in the first half vs. Middlebury (and the first half of the second half the last time they played Williams).  If they can play at that level for close to 40 minutes (a big “if”), nobody will enjoy playing them.
  • Virginia Wesleyan plays a very different style than Williams has had to deal with in NESCAC.  They are small but very quick and extremely athletic.  They are as talented as any team in the tourney, and posted a gaudy record in the brutal ODAC conference, but their inexperience (no seniors in the rotation) may prove to be their achilles heel.  Still, given that they have arrived a year ahead of schedule, they will be fearless, with nothing to lose.  A very balanced team with seven guys who can hurt you, in particular, center Donald Vaughn ’12 (a poor man’s Whittington, likewise undersized but strong and athletic), forwards Chris Astorga ’13 and Chris Teasley ’13, and leading scorer DJ Woodmore, who is among the best  first-year players in the country.  Watch highlights of a very quick VWU team here and here.

The dark horses:

  • Pre-season number four Franklin and Marshall didn’t have quite as strong a season as expected, but they still have the talent and experience to beat anyone on any given night.  They are led by (like yours truly) Bridgewater-Raritan H.S. alum and (unlike yours truly) preseason all-American James McNally ’11, F&M’s all-time scoring leader and a very powerful inside presence who will give any team fits, along with a stellar point guard, Georgio Milligan ’12, who has started since his first day on campus.  F&M is led by legendary coach Glenn Robinson, who has yet to capture an NCAA title despite numerous deep tourney runs.  F&M is big and strong, but struggles shooting threes.
  • Williams could end up playing Cinderella story Becker in round number two.  Becker is, like VWU, undersized but very athletic.  I don’t know a ton about Scranton (other than, they have a kickin’ Chili’s near campus), but they did win a pretty credible D-3 conference, and posted a strong record in doing so, hence are likely favored to topple unheralded Becker to face the Ephs in round two.  They are led by two-time conference player of the year and national player of the year finalist Zach Ashworth ’11.   As for the Ephs, losing to Husson in round one would be akin to Duke or Kansas losing a round one game in the NCAA’s … not impossible, but it would take a minor miracle, although Husson does have two very talented players, and they seem loose and relaxed heading in, as they indeed have nothing to lose [UPDATE: Williams barely — phew — escaped what would have been a monumental upset, squeaking by Husson in OT].
  • WPI almost always posts strong regular season records, only to flame out early in the NCAAs.  They received a very tough draw with (likely) Amherst in the second round, but they do have two star players in Matt Carr ’12 and Jeffrey Robinson ’11, who, if they have big games, will give them a chance to at least make the Jeffs sweat.
  • SUNY Oswego could win a few games, having won 17 in a row before losing in their conference tourney last weekend.  They are burly and deep, but will have to shoot FAR better from deep than the putrid 30 percent they have managed for the season if they hope to have any chance of making it to the Elite Eight.
  • Rhode Island College: Middlebury fans know all too well just how dangerous RIC can be, after they stunned the Panthers in last year’s tourney.  RIC struggled at times this year, but finished strong with eight straight wins, winning the LEC conference title in the process.  They are deep and balanced, led by a veteran core of battle-tested juniors and seniors: quick point guard Antone Gray ’11, do-everything forward Mason Choice ’12 (brother of former Colby star Adam Choice ’10), athletic small forward Carl Lee ’11, and much-improved big man Mike Akinrola ’12.  Like Oswego, RIC really struggles shooting the ball from deep, and will need to have a few unusually hot games to make a deep tourney run.

Overall, I handicap the odds for the bracket as follows: Williams and Amherst, each 3:1, VWU, 4:1, F&M, 10:1, RIC, 15:1, field, 30:1.

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