The men’s basketball team’s goals entering the season are clear. First, the Panthers want to secure home-court advantage for the Nescac playoffs by finishing first in the regular season standings. Then, they want to win the Nescac for the third straight season, this time at Pepin Gymnasium. From there, having secured a spot in the NCAA tournament, they have their sights set on Salem, Virginia, and their first Final Four berth since 2011.
Last season, the Panthers had a trip to Salem within their reach, but ultimately fell a bucket short, losing to Williams 79–75 in the NCAA quarterfinals. The bitter taste of losing to a Nescac rival on their home court in one of the biggest games in school history remains in the mouths of the returning Panthers.
“We were a minute, a bucket away last year,” said team captain Jack Daly ’18. “So we know what it takes to get back there, the mentality, the work ethic it will take.”
To achieve these goals, Middlebury must find ways to replace the production of four graduating seniors, including All-American Matt St. Amour ’17 who is third on the program’s all-time scoring list, and four-year starting point guard and All-Nescac selection Jake Brown ’17. The class of 2017 went a combined 89–31 over its four years at Middlebury.
Daly and his fellow captains, Nick Tarantino ’18 and Adisa Majors ’18, make up the senior class charged with leading the effort to replicate and then build upon last year’s success. Daly, a two-year starter who led the Panthers in rebounding and was second in scoring and assisting last year, will take the lead in the backcourt after partnering with Brown and St. Amour for the last two seasons.
“We had three great guards last year, now we have just Jack,” said Tarantino about Daly, the only returning guard who figured into head coach Jeff Brown’s regular rotation last year. “This guy is going to have the ball in his hands, instead of a third of the time, like 95 percent of the time.”
On the other hand, Daly and Tarantino both expect the front court to assume a bigger role since that is where the bulk of Middlebury’s experience returns. Majors (9.6) is Middlebury’s second returning leading scorer, Eric McCord ’19 (7.9) third, Tarantino (6.8) fourth and Matt Folger ’20 (6.5) fifth.
“I expect between Nick, Adisa, Matt and Eric, who were kind of seen as second-tier to the three guards last year, to be able to fill the leadership voids left by Brown and St. Amour on the court,” Daly said. “I expect them to increase production, rebounding, scoring and efficiency. They’re going to be the face of our team this year. So, for them, their consistency is going to be expected, and they’re ready to take on that challenge.”
Unlike last year, when the Panthers were perimeter-oriented, Daly and Tarantino agree their big men will play much bigger roles this season.
“The majority of our returning players, besides Jack, that played significant minutes last year are big men,” said Tarantino. “I think we’ll play a little more inside-out this year, while still playing high-tempo, pushing the basketball in transition.”
What Tarantino refers to, up-tempo basketball, is a given for Middlebury men’s basketball these days. Coach Brown has built his program based on three main tenets: fast tempo, passing and defense, and he has been quite successful doing so, entering his 21st season at the helm with a 336–189 record which is the best in the program’s history.
Even though there will be turnover in personnel, Daly and Tarantino know the Panthers will stick to Brown’s philosophy.
“I think our playing style will be similar in terms of tempo, defense first, passing first,” Tarantino said.
“Coach Brown preaches every day in practice that we’re still going to play up-tempo, score 90 points a game, get 20 assists a game, and lock up on defense,” added Daly. “That’s the way he’s coached for 20 years, and he recruits players that can do that and adjust to that style has been very successful for him over his tenure.”
Several players who were either not on the team last year or played sparingly will need to step up and play more meaningful roles for Brown. The team especially needs players who can shoot the basketball, since the graduating class combined for over 70 percent of the team’s three pointers last season. A playmaker or two will also need to emerge since Jake Brown created so many plays last year with his passing and quickness to the basket.
Tarantino and Daly admitted that it is not possible to replace two great players like St. Amour and Brown individually, so the team must figure out how to do it collectively.
“We can’t expect to replace any of them,” Daly said. “You almost have to look to multiple players to do certain qualities that they brought to the team. So no one person is going to shoot as well as Matt or at the rate he shot at, but someone can hit one more three than he did last year or a freshman can come in and hit a three. No one player will create as well as Jake did, but a couple players can make a couple plays each game. So you really can’t replace great players like that. They go down in history at Middlebury, so it playing with the players you have.”
In the backcourt, Perry DeLorenzo ’20 and Joey Leighton ’20 have an opportunity to fill the shooting void as sophomores after not being given many opportunities in their rookie seasons.
“Perry and Joey have been playing very well in practice,” said Daly. “They’ve been shooting the ball very well. If they can keep that up, they can definitely see some time on the court because they can knock down some shots. They maybe didn’t play as much as they wanted last year, but taking the year to watch the college game, to watch St. Amour and Brown, they can really take something away from that. You definitely see that in practice, where their IQs of the game have definitely jumped from last year. It’s always great to have people on the court who can knock down shots and put points on the board.”
Max Bosco ’21 and Ryan Cahill ’21 could have similar impacts in their first year as DeLorenzo and Leighton, spreading the floor for a Panther team in fairly desperate need of spacing on the offensive end.
“Max has been shooting the lights out in practice,” Daly said. “And Ryan is a very versatile big who has been knocking down some shots and can put the ball on the floor.”
Jack Farrell ’21 profiles as a player with the potential to replace some of Jake Brown’s playmaking from the point guard position. He can handle the ball when Daly is out of the game or pair with Daly in two point guard lineups that coach Brown used so often last season.
“He’s very quick. His quickness is very similar to Jake’s from last year,” Daly said. “He’s an energizer bunny. The kid is up-and-down the court in three seconds, he can play make, is on your hip the entire 94 feet. He can definitely have an impact because he can play make and he can play defense, and those are two things coach looks for in a point guard.”
Will Ingram ’21, a tough-nosed defender, Griffin Kornaker ’21, who is injured right now, and James Finn ’20.5, a walk-on, round out a first-year class that complements each other well by providing a combination of shooting, defense and inside play to support the team’s returning foundation.
Since the Panthers are filling so many new roles entering the season, coach Brown has focused on instilling his basketball values in his team. More so than last year, Brown has to build from the ground up to reach a level where they can compete for Nescac and NCAA championships. He has spent a lot of time preaching an up-tempo, passing offense to his team, as well as using a lot of practice to put half-court offensive in place. Defensively and offensively, he wants to ensure that his team is always communicating, since younger guys are often more timid on the court. Brown and his team recognize how far they are from their lofty goals at this point in the season, and how capable they are of accomplishing them if they commit to improving as a unit.
People outside the program expect big things from Middlebury again this winter as well: D3hoops.com has the Panthers at no. 8 in its national preseason poll.
Still, Middlebury is looking up in the rankings at No. 3 Williams and No. 6 Tufts. As always, the battle for the Nescac championship will be fierce. The Panthers know they can take nothing for granted because everyone is going to be at their best against the two-time defending Nescac champions.
“Being that reigning champion, people always want to take you down,” said Daly. “Going into every game, we expect the best from our opponent, which means we have to bring our A-game every day. Those rankings really don’t mean anything to us because they are based off last year. They aren’t based off our current roster. It’s nice to be recognized, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean anything. We have to come into every game with the same mentality of do whatever it takes to win.”
Tarantino put the rankings in perspective, especially given that it is the preseason rankings.
“It’s only a ranking, and we’re playing for a championship, a Final Four,” added Tarantino. “We’re not playing for the Coaches poll.”
The Panthers will take the court for the first time tomorrow evening at 7 p.m. in Pepin Gym where they host Fitchburg St. in the Middlebury Tournament, the first ever regular season tournament held at Middlebury.