Williams played an amazingly gutty four games, in a VERY tough sectional, to advance to the Final Four, where they play tomorrow night at 6:00.   In the world of “survive and advance,” survive was the key word for the Ephs.  They survived injuries and illness to their three key players (regional player of the year Troy Whittington ’11, first-team all region James Wang ’12, and Nate Robertson ’13), each of whom took turns carrying the team, while James Klemm ’13 emerged as a clutch shot-maker, with big three after big three throughout the tourney.  The Ephs survived a first round scare against a scrappy Cinderella Husson team, then survived the full court press of a very athletic Becker squad.  But they saved the real fireworks for back-to-back wins, in a raucous Chandler Gym, over top-ten teams Virginia Wesleyan and, of course, Amherst, led by legendary performances from Whittington and Robertson, respectively.  See highlights from the Amherst game here and here, read the Williams game notes here and the Wooster game notes here, read the NCAA’s Williams preview here, and listen to Coach Maker on Hoopsville here (beginning at 5:30) and the Williams College basketball show here.

Now it is on to Salem for, incredibly, the sixth time since 1997, and the second straight year.  This year has a bit of a 2003 flavor, as Williams faces Wooster, once again, in the semifinal, and the Final Four includes a MIAC squad in St. Thomas (Williams beat another MIAC school, Gustavus Adolphus, for the 2003 title).  Eph fans can only hope for a similar outcome, although as you would expect, things don’t get any easier.  One bonus: Eph first-year and Pittsfield native Caroline Sinico will be singing the National Anthem prior to Saturday’s championship game.  She often performs at Chandler, and is top-notch.  Full previews of the four teams competing at Salem below the break:

  • Wooster, which had the highest expectations of all four Final Teams coming into the season, is a familiar foe for Eph fans.  Williams beat them in dramatic fashion in 2003, on their way to the Ephs’ only national title.  Wooster’s all-American post player Bryan Nelson gutted out a serious ankle injury to nearly pull his team to victory in that game.  This year, the situation is reversed, as Troy Whittington, if he can play at all (I expect him to), will have to play through a chipped bone in his hand.  This year’s Wooster team is very different from the 2003 interior-oriented squad, but just as talented — after all, they beat number one Whitworth to earn a trip to Salem.  Wooster is a mirror-image of the Ephs, as it has one strong interior player surrounded by shooters, shooters, and more shooters, and it plays stellar team defense (Middlebury, Williams, and Wooster are 1-2-4 nationally in opponent FG percentage — it may be cliche, but defense wins championships!).  And boy, are they balanced, with FOUR 1000 point career scorers: Ian Franks ’11, Justin Hallowell ’12, Bryan Wickliffe ’11, and Nathan Balch ’11.  Of their five starters, only Wickliffe, an undersized but highly-effective center, is focused on interior scoring.  The rest can gun it, and will shoot from deep.  Wooster’s star, former walk-on Franks (the Great Lakes player of the year), will remind Eph fans of Blake Schultz — an all-American who can hit threes, get to the line via aggressive drives, create for others, and also has a tremendous mid-range game.  He will be a very tough cover due to his high hoops IQ, and will surely get his points.  The Ephs will need to keep his supporting cast of shooters, led by D-1 transfer Balch and red-hot 6’7 Hallowell (17 of his last 35 from three, all against very strong opponents), from getting good looks from deep.  Fortunately, this is something Williams excels at.  Wooster’s biggest strength may be its experience, with three senior and two junior starters, all of whom have been multiple-year starters.  They won’t be phased by pressure situations or a close game, no chance.  Watch some highlights of Wooster here: note what appears to be a Rubik’s Cube half-time competition.  More on Wooster and the Rubik’s Cube here.  Could Wooster be even dorkier than the Ephs?  Say it ain’t so!
  • St. Thomas had arguably the toughest path to the Final Four, beating traditional D-3 powers Illinois Wesleyan, Wisconsin Stevens-Point (aka, Ephs’ Bane), and Augustana in three straight tourney battles.  Although St. Thomas is making its first trip to Salem, they have plenty of experience — their top four players are three seniors and one junior, all of whom have played in the tourney each year in college.  They have a nice balance of size and perimeter play, led by all-American and two time MIAC player of the year Tyler Nicolai ’11, who had a monster sectional.  Nicolai had a Tyus Edney-esque coast-to-coast layup to knock off the favored Stevens Point team in dramatic fashion.  He should receive ample support from stellar guard Alex Healey ’11, along with the imposing size of 6’9 Anders Halvorsen ’11 and 6’8 Tommy Hannon ’12.  I expect St. Thomas and Midd to be a very even game.
  • I’ve written extensively about Middlebury before here, D3hoops has a feature on the Midd seniors here, and Middlebury breaks down its team here.  I will just add that, right now, they are playing defense at a historic level.  Their last four games (vs. Williams and then the three NCAA victories) they have yielded 54, 53, 52, and 50 points, a truly remarkable run against four very talented offensive teams.  Andrew Locke ’11 and Ryan Sharry ’12 are imposing shot-blockers who clog the lane, Jamal Davis ’11 is a front-court stopper who can make life difficult for any forward (even Troy Whittington), and Nolan Thompson ’13 can clamp down on virtually any guard (he plays James Wang better than anyone I’ve seen).  Thompson vs. Nicolai should be a very fun match-up to watch.  Sharry has been playing at an all-American level at both ends of the court, and was rewarded with first-team all-regional honors.
  • As for Williams, what more can I say that I haven’t said already about the Ephs and Coach Maker?  This team is tough as nails and plays with a ton of heart … win or lose this weekend, they have given every ounce of talent they have on this NCAA run, and it’s been great to enjoy the ride.   Hopefully they will bring home a title, as they are very deserving: I can’t imagine any team could possibly be more exciting, hard-nosed, or fun to follow.  But no matter what happens in Salem, this will go down as a year to remember for the Ephs, and no one lucky enough to be at Chandler for the Elite Eight win over the Jeffs is likely to forget it any time soon.

Go Ephs!

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