In case you haven’t noticed the 2019-20 college basketball season is off and running, highlighted by a nationally-televised doubleheader last evening featuring the top four teams in the men’s basketball preseason rankings: Michigan State, Kentucky, Duke, and Kansas.
For all of us veteran purists, it was hoop heaven, the talent was amazing but the quality of play was spotty at best given such a huge stage on opening night.
That aside, it is my pleasure to pen a weekly hoop column for the hard-working Matt Noonan and his many followers here at Noontime Sports.
I have covered one of the Power Five conferences – the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), to be exact – for the last eight seasons, but this year I will focus on a little bit of everything but the primary focus will remain on all that is happening in New England – and that is a lot!
No surprise that Amherst College is perched at the top of both rankings. They have been the gold-standard regionally and a regular participant in the NCAA D-III Tournaments for years.
Speaking of Amherst, the men’s program suffered a sudden jolt in September when legendary coach David Hixon (after 42 seasons at the helm) opted to take a non-health sabbatical to deal with some family issues. The big question is can the program move on without Hixon’s leadership?
Those close to the program feel that with the elevation of trusted assistant Aaron Toomey, who played under Hixon and helped win NCAA titles in 2012 and 2013, the transition should be seamless.
A game to watch (and to gauge how Toomey and his squad are managing the transition) is on January 10 when New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) rival Middlebury College travels to Amherst.
ODDS AND ENDS
There have been a number of rule changes introduced with the most important one being the extension of the 3-point arc from 17 inches to the international standard of 22 feet, 1 3/4 inches. Although testing of this change in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) last year found little change in shooting percentage, it was felt by the officiating honchos that it would alleviate congestion in the paint by forcing defenders to guard shooters further away from the basket. Stay tuned on this change.
All eyes will be pointing to Cambridge, Mass this season to see if the Harvard University celebrated senior class, led by awesome point guard Bryce Aiken, can finally win an Ivy League title, as well as earn an automatic tournament bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Better yet, the Crimson will have some home-cooking help in March as this year’s conference tournament moves from the storied The Palestra to Lavietes Pavilion, March 14-15.
The Ivy poo-bahs move to a conference tournament for men and women was a no-brainer – the atmosphere is pulsating and the quality of play is as good as it gets.
A shoutout to former Marquette University assistant Brett Nelson who assumes the reins at Holy Cross after Bill Carmody‘s decision to retire from the coaching ranks.
Did you know that we have a number of the top coaches in the women’s college game led by the legendary Barbara Stevens, who ranks fourth in wins among college coaches at Bentley University, Harvard’s Kathy Delaney-Smith, Stonehill College‘s Trisha Brown, Springfield College‘s Naomi Graves, and Babson College‘s Judy Blinstrub. If any of you have a daughter that may be destined to play at the college level the price of admission to catch one of these coaches in action will help with a final decision.
In my eight years following ACC men’s basketball, I had the privilege to hear firsthand from some of the great coaches in the game, including Coach Mike Krzyseski, Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim, Rick Pitino, and Mike Brey. Buzz Williams was a real stitch in the press room. But most impressive among this elite group of coaches was the University of Virginia‘s, Tony Bennett.
Obviously, Bennett’s run to the national title was the big news last year but most noteworthy was his recent decision to forego a well-deserved a big raise. Bennett felt that his family was blessed and thankful for what they have and felt that the money would be better spent in funding a program to help athletes transition to careers after basketball. Bennett is destined to be the voice of the ACC once Coach K and Roy retire.
A FINAL THOUGHT
Best wishes to Kristen McDonnell who left the Braintree high school girls basketball program after a ten-year run which included four D-1 state titles and a bunch of sectional crowns. McDonnell is seeking a new challenge as the Norwood high school boys head coach.
The third round – or as some call it, ‘the sweet 16’ – is set to begin tomorrow as 32 NCAA Division III basketball teams (16 men’s and 16 women’s), including 10 New England squads, continue their quest toward the ultimate prize, a national championship.
At Babson College, both the men’s and women’s basketball teams will be in action tomorrow – it is the first-time in school history that both teams will be competing in the ‘sweet 16’ in the same season.
“It’s been a great environment, everybody has been rallying around the two teams,” said Babson women’s basketball coach Judy Blinstrub. “It is really a great atmosphere on campus right now.”
Added Babson men’s basketball coach Stephen Brennan, “I think there is a lot of good energy on campus. We’re really excited for the women’s team for winning the NEWMAC Championship, they have had such a good season.”
Last weekend, Blinstrub’s squad earned a pair of impressive wins, including a dramatic overtime victory over host FDU-Florham, which saw first-year Jacqueline Jozefick net the game-winning lay-up with five seconds remaining in the extra session.
The win over FDU-Florham earned the Beavers a date with Amherst College, which secured back-to-back wins last weekend over Mary Washington and Regis College.
Both Babson and Amherst competed against each other earlier this season with the Purple & White claiming a 67-62 victory.
“It was a great weekend for us,” said Blinstrub of her team’s first-and-second round wins. “I am just so happy for the team … this is a great situation to be in, playing in (the ‘sweet 16’) and I think they’ll rise to the occasion.”
As for Brennan’s unit, they earned two hard-fought wins last weekend, beginning with a 92-76 win over Husson University followed by a 72-65 victory against Skidmore College.
Against the Thoroughbreds, Babson senior Joey Flannery recorded a double-double of 25 points and 10 rebounds, while sinking the game’s final three free throws.
“I thought that down the stretch our defense, talk and toughness helped us overcome a slow start to the second half,” Brennan said of his team’s seven-point win over Skidmore.
Similar to the women’s team, the men’s team will meet a familiar foe on Friday, as Babson will welcome Tufts University to Babson Park with tip-off scheduled for 8:00 p.m.
The Jumbos, who earned a second meeting with the Beavers this season, scored a pair of first and second round wins last weekend, defeating Salem State University, 84-81, before knocking off host St. John Fisher, thanks to a game-high 37 points from junior Vincent Pace.
“We have a lot of familiarity (with the Jumbos),” said Brennan, “but it still comes down to how you’re going to play on Friday.”
A win for the Beavers would send them to the sectional finals – it would be the program’s second appearance in three seasons. They would face the winner of Christopher Newport-Keene State, which will play the first game at 5:00 p.m. – both sectional semifinals will take place at Babson.
Keene State, which earned a trip to the ‘big dance’ for the third consecutive season, claimed a pair of big wins last weekend, defeating Amherst, 69-66, before edging Ramapo, 92-91, in overtime. First-year Jake Collagan’s go-ahead triple with 48 seconds remaining in the additional frame helped the Owls secure the win.
Last season, Christopher Newport defeated Keene State in the ‘round of 16,’ thanks to team-high 22 points from current junior Marcus Carter. The Captains would win their following contest – an ‘elite eight’ victory over Wooster before concluding their season in the semifinals to the eventual champions, the University of St. Thomas.
In addition to a pair of men’s basketball games at Babson, Middlebury College will host a sectional semifinal against Endicott College – both teams met earlier this season with the Gulls claiming a 93-89 victory in Vermont. Williams College and Susquehanna University will also compete in Vermont – the winners of both games will square-off on Saturday in the sectional finals.
Middlebury, which captured its second-straight New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) championship two weeks ago, scored a pair of back-to-back wins last weekend, defeating Farmingdale State (84-75) and Lycoming (95-76). Both wins occurred in Vermont.
The Gulls, who earned an at-large bid to this year’s tournament, made history last weekend, knocking off both Salisbury University and Nichols College en route to the program’s initial ‘sweet 16’ appearance. Endicott senior Max Motroni led the Green and Blue with a game and season-high 34 points as the Gulls defeated the Bison, 111-75.
“We are just thrilled to still be playing and having another week together,” said Endicott men’s basketball coach Kevin Bettencourt.
A big reason Endicott has enjoyed an exciting tournament run thus far is because of the squad’s senior class – six student-athletes, to be exact. They were all sophomores when Bettencourt arrived on campus in August 2014, and have helped the Gulls take a step forward each season toward the program’s ultimate goal of a national championship.
“Our seniors just love playing basketball together,” said Bettencourt, “so it was really special to see it all come together as a whole last weekend.”
In addition to the seniors, a few New England coaches, including Nichols men’s basketball coach Tom Glynn, credit Endicott’s success to Bettencourt – they certainly know the impact he has made on the program.
“Kevin has elevated the program at Endicott and our league to new levels with his accomplishments since taking over the program in 2014,” said Glynn. “I have so much respect for him as a coach, and his teams are always difficult to prepare for, and his players represent his program with class, which is a testament to his leadership.”
Added Salem State coach Chris Harvey, “His teams play hard, are fundamentally sound and truly play for each other. Kevin is a great teacher of the game and allows his players to use their creativity as well, too.”
Switching to the women’s tournament, Tufts will look to continue their march toward a spot in next weekend’s semifinals when they face the University of Scranton on Friday with tip-off scheduled for 6:30 p.m.
The contest between Tufts and Scranton will take place at Washington University.
Last season, the Jumbos defeated the Royals in the sectional finals, thanks to senior Michela North (13 points and 10 rebounds) and junior Melissa Baptista (23 points). Both players combined for 19 points and 20 rebounds in their second round clash last weekend with Husson as Tufts scored a 64-44 win in Medford.
Said North, “We had a battle against (Scranton) last year, so I’m really excited to play them again.”
A win for the Jumbos would set-up a sectional final against either host Washington University or Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
Finally, one should not overlook the UMass Dartmouth women’s basketball team, which also made history last weekend, defeating La Roche and Montclair State to earn a trip to this weekend’s third round in Amherst.
Matt Ducharme’s Corsairs, who earned an at-large bid to this year’s tournament, scored a pair of exciting wins, defeating La Roche and host Montclair State. UMass Dartmouth collaborated for 71 points in each game.
“It was a surreal moment at the time when we won our second round contest,” said Ducharme. “I just remember saying, ‘wow,’ and I don’t want this to stop.”
That euphoric feeling – or not wanting this exciting run to conclude – will be put to the test tomorrow when the Corsairs attempt to take another step forward toward next weekend’s semifinals.
Standing in their way: SUNY New Paltz, which captured back-to-back contests last weekend against Bowdoin College and Ithaca College.
Similar to the Corsairs, this will be the Hawks’ first-ever appearance in the ‘round of 16.’
A win for the Corsairs – or the Hawks – would set-up an exciting sectional final against either host Amherst or Babson. UMass Dartmouth played Babson earlier this season, defeating the Beavers, 70-62.
In their first round contest against La Roche, UMass Dartmouth struggled in the opening quarter – they trailed, 23-12. Yet, once the so-called ‘nerves’ disappeared, the Corsairs found their groove en route to an exciting 71-64 win.
The following evening against Montclair State, UMass Dartmouth raced out to a 10-point lead (23-13) – the game featured four lead changes and three ties – and kept the momentum heading into the final session.
Although, once Montclair State pulled within two-points (51-49) early in the fourth quarter, Ducharme called a timeout – he and the squad hoped the short breather would halt the Red Hawks’ comeback.
And it certainly did.
UMass Dartmouth responded with a 9-5 spurt, which helped the Corsairs eventually pull away and claim a 71-63 victory.
Said Ducharme of his team’s fourth quarter timeout, “I remember saying that no team is going to give you a shot at the ‘sweet 16,’ so if you want this game, then you have to take it and finish it … I was so proud of the way our team contained (Montclair State’s) runs down the stretch, too.”
Once the final horn sounded, UMass Dartmouth celebrated the exciting victory – again, no Corsairs squad has reached the ‘sweet 16’ in program history, so Ducharme, along with his players and assistant coach Jess Shiel know this run has been very exciting, but the focus must remain on their next opponent.
“There is no easy games at this point of the season and there is no looking to tomorrow,” said Shiel, “so you have to keep the focus on the next game.”
The Babson College women’s basketball team provided head coach Judy Blinstrub with her 600th win last night as the Beavers defeated Emerson College, 72-51.
Babson is now 19-4 overall and 13-1 in New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) play.
Blinstrub, who has been the head coach of the Beavers since the 1984-85 season, becomes the seventh active coach and 14th all-time in Division III to reach 600 victories, as noted in Wednesday evening’s release.
Over the past few seasons, Blinstrub has guided the Green and White to six NCAA Tournament appearances, along with six NEWMAC Conference Titles.
Following their win over the Lions, the team posed for a photo (as seen above), holding ‘600’ win cards with the tenured head coach.
Taylor Russell is a senior at Babson College and a captain on this year’s women’s basketball squad. Russell, along with fellow captain Giovanna Pickering and seven others return from a team that went 21-6 last year and captured its fifth New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) regular season title since 2010.
Russell started nine times and appeared in 26 of 27 for legendary Coach Judy Blinstrub’s Green and White, averaging career highs of 9.3 points and 5.5 rebounds, while shooting 45.1 percent from the floor. Russell was a three-sport (basketball, lacrosse and volleyball) All-Star at Braintree High School in Braintree, Massachusetts.
Russell’s younger sister, Ashley, is a sophomore on the Penn Quakers basketball team.
Noontime Sports correspondent Bob Whitney recently spoke with Russell just prior to the Beavers’ first game of the 2016-17 season on Saturday, November 19 against Farmingdale State (Amherst College Tip-Off Classic 8 p.m.).
How prepared were you to play at the college level?
My high school coach, Kristen McDonnell, was a real stickler for defensive fundamentals – it was all about defense first. That skill set really helped me in my first year at Babson. I felt like I was a step ahead of the other freshman because we had spent considerable time on defensive skills (individual and team) at Braintree HS.
What have you noticed are the biggest differences in transitioning from playing in high school to college?
There are a couple of things that quickly come to mind. First of all, the pace of the game is so much quicker. Then the competition is much more intense and finally managing the time commitment between basketball and maintaining your studies. At Babson one of our guiding principles is students first and athletes second!
What challenges have you faced on the offensive end?
I have had to become a much more versatile player in college. I have had to learn the No. 2, 3 or 4 spots on the floor. I spent a lot of time learning and refining my post moves over the last three seasons.
What are the challenges of being a student-athlete?
No question maintaining a balance between basketball and the classroom. Time management is critical to your success. It was a real challenge, but I am glad that I made the sacrifice to do both.
What are the intangibles of playing a sport in college?
I have learned a lot, but I truly believe that hard work will pay off for you in the long run – whatever it takes to get the job done on the court or in the classroom. You also get the opportunity to make some incredible friendships along the way, which will hopefully become life-long. In addition playing a sport teaches you a lot about teamwork, decision-making, leadership, adapting to change and how to handle pressure.
Finally, what kind of senior season do you expect to have?
Well, we lost a number of very experienced players from last year so experience will be a factor in the early games. But we have some very good freshman this year and a transfer so I expect us to be right in the mix for the NEWMAC title. Last year we just missed the NCAA tournament but this year I expect us to earn the automatic bid.
Follow Bob on Twitter @WhitneyBob; like him on Facebook and Instagram.
BABSON PARK, MA – The streak is still alive for the Babson women’s basketball team.
In a battle of the top two teams in the NEWMAC, the No. 22 Beavers used a stifling defensive effort in the second half, and ground out a win against Smith College on Saturday afternoon, 59-50.
For the entire first half, and the first few minutes of the second, that streak was in jeopardy. The Pioneers led during much of that time, thanks in large part to Rosa Drummond’s 13 first-half points. But the Beavers turned their defensive intensity up a few notches, and held Smith to just 18 points in the second half.
“We took our post player and kept her inside, instead of matching post on post,” said Babson head coach Judy Blinstrub. “That was the big difference, people playing tougher on the defensive end. And matchups were key.”
Offensively, Babson was led by NEWMAC leading scorer Sarah Collins, who had a double-double: 19 points (17 in the second half) and 22 rebounds. Drummond led Smith with 15 points.
The Beavers improved to 13-1, 8-0 in the conference. They are now in sole possession of first place in the NEWMAC.
“It feels good. I’m happy for the girls. They worked hard to get there, and the seniors especially,” said Blinstrub of her team’s 73-game winning streak in the conference. “You don’t want to lose on your home court, [so] I’m proud of what they’ve accomplished.”
On Wednesday night, Babson will host Clark on Wednesday, while Smith (12-2, 7-1 NEWMAC) returns home to take on WPI.