AN ELITE THREE IN AN ELITE EIGHTMarch 19th, 2013
For one brief shining moment last Saturday evening—sounds like a song, doesn’t it?—Middlebury’s junior guard, Joey Kizel, must’ve felt like he was in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Seconds after making two free throws just before the final buzzer, Kizel went all Chastain, tearing off his shirt and sprinting towards the student section, where he and his teammates were met with a mad group embrace. Shouts of JOE-EE! JOE-EE! rocked Pepin Gymnasium.
Kizel’s foul shots had given Middlebury a 73-72 win over Ithaca College and a berth in the Division 3 (D3) Elite Eight.
That event begins Friday in Salem, Virginia, with the four winners playing on Saturday. For the first time ever, the D3 (as well as the D2) finals will be held in conjunction with the Final Four, those two championship games slotted for Sunday, between the big boys.
In Salem, there will be no Nantz and Kellogg, no Vitale, no Lundquist, no Davis and Anthony, no ESPN highlights, no protracted recaps on sports websites. But let’s not get snotty about television—there will be no Sports Illustrated there, either. Magazines and newspapers, some from the colleges’ own local areas, will do just as good a job of ignoring the tournament as TV will. And while I suppose there’s a D3 bracket challenge out there somewhere, I haven’t seen it.
I was at the Middlebury game last weekend, cheering (not from the pressbox; you can’t do that) along with my oldest son, who’s a Middlebury professor, various other family members and friends, and the estimable Alex Wolff, SI senior writer and Vermont resident. Would I have made the six-hour drive without the family connection? Frankly, no. But after two seasons of following Middlebury hoops, an activity that requires a strong constitution since every game seems to come down to the final buzzer, I am a committed small-college follower.
Actually, I’m re-committed. Several decades ago I graduated from Muhlenberg, a small college with a solid basketball program. Back in the ancient 1960s, it was so solid, in fact, that I played one season, projected my chances of cracking the rotation in succeeding years, concluded that I would not, and went on to intramural immortality. I took in a few Muhlenberg games this season, too. They have an Iversonian guard with a killer crossover and a killer name–Malique Killing, who averaged 20 in Centennial Conference play this season. He’s listed at 5’9” but I’m not sure.
The Elite Eight in Salem includes three teams from the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC). They spent much of the winter beating each other up. Middlebury had three losses this season, two to Williams, one by one point, the other in overtime, and its third loss was to Amherst in triple overtime. Williams had four losses, three of them to Amherst, one by one point. Amherst had only two losses this season, neither of them to Middlebury or Williams. Going into the Elite Eight, the schools have a combined season record of 78-9.
Amherst and Middlebury are in the same bracket but don’t match up in the Elite Eight. Williams is on the other side, so an all-NESCAC final is possible. With apologizes for slighting the other five teams (Cabrini, North Central, Mary Hardin-Baylor, St. Mary’s of Maryland and St. Thomas), here is the bracket.
Statistics aside, the most significant numbers attached to the three NESCAC schools are these—1, 2 and 4. That is the U.S. News ranking, respectively, of Williams, Amherst and Middlebury among national liberal arts colleges. I don’t doubt that some admission-standard compromising is necessary to build top-flight small college athletic programs, but rest assured that no jock at a NESCAC school is taking a course called, as it was memorably put in a Letterman Top 10 many years, “Subtraction: Addition’s Tricky Pal.”
I had reason to speak at all three schools over the past few months—an invite from the Amherst Leads program; an invite from SI senior writer Tim Layden, who taught a January-term course at Williams, his alma mater; and an invite from a faculty colleague of my son’s at Middlebury. At all three campuses I found an athletic culture that was integrated into the student body. Athletes are not treated like Brahmins. All students are Brahmins.
On the morning that I spoke in Tim’s class, two basketball players, Dan Wohl and Matt McCreary, had to leave early because they had a three-hour bus trip to play at Lyndon State that evening. No private jets streaming out of Williamstown, Mass.
Tim tells of one session that took place on a Thursday morning, the night after Williams got waxed at Amherst 83-67. Tim expected that his two players wouldn’t come at all or would at least drag in tardy. But, no, there they were—Wohl was the third person to report, in fact.
Tim looked over and said, “Tough one.” And Wohl simply said, “Amherst played great.’’ Then it was back to student life.
There are great academic stories all over the NESCAC hoops scene. Nolan Thompson, Middlebury’s lockdown defender, is a three-time member of the All-NESCAC Academic team, while Kizel and another, junior, James Jensen, made it each of their first two seasons. Amherst has had more than its share of scholar-athletes, too.
But it’s not all about the brains. One of the nation’s top D3 players is Amherst’s junior guard, Aaron Toomey, who was an outstanding scholastic player in North Carolina, a hoops hotbed. But he felt he would be more comfortable in the student-athlete environment of Amherst rather than the athlete-student environment that pervades on bigger campuses.
The manner in which Wohl ended up at Williams is probably typical for a good D3 player. Here is his account:
“After my junior season in high school, I contacted the basketball programs at just about every top academic school in the country. Some were interested after they watched my tape and saw my information (like Williams, Amherst, MIT, and some of the Ivy and Patriot League schools), and others weren’t (understandably, Stanford didn’t respond and Georgetown never did more than send me generic letters.). These schools evaluated me further over the summer in AAU tournaments. When the fall came, I took visits to both Williams and Amherst. Though I was still speaking to some of the Ivys, none had made me an offer, and I fell in love with Williams after my visit.”
Could Wohl, an athletically gifted and versatile player, be a contributor at a D1 school? Could Kizel, an aggressive hard-charging guard who nevertheless plays within the controlled tempo of coach Jeff Brown’s offense, come off the bench at, say, Villanova? Could Toomey be a starter at a mid-major or perhaps even a major? Were he, say, 6’4”, instead of 6’1”, would that have made all the difference in his basketball fate?
I don’t have those answers. But it really doesn’t matter anymore. They seem happy where they are. And they have this in common with the vast, vast, vast majority of D1 players who appear often on TV—they won’t be playing in the NBA.
For his final paper in Tim’s class, Dan wrote about misperceptions about D3 hoops. I didn’t read it (and it was Tim’s job to grade it), but I imagine it said something like the following.
–No, we D3-ers don’t dribble upcourt with one hand while holding a book on particle physics on the other.
–No, we won’t give you a quote from Dostoyevsky after a tough loss. We’re no doubt swearing under our breath.
–No, we don’t always play smart basketball. We dribble into traffic, commit stupid fouls, get technicals.
–Yes, we resent the fact that we get almost no publicity and, in most places, play second fiddle to high school kids who will soon be playing in the city league.
And since they are smart kids, I think they would also admit that, generally, a good D3 team could not beat a mediocre D1 team. Back in 2003, Williams beat Holy Cross 78-71 and it has happened on other occasions. But it would not be the norm. Whatever the talent gap, the D3-ers would be giving up too much size, too much strength and too much quickness.
But rest assured, they will tell you, it will be a high brand of hoops being played in Salem this weekend. It might be hoops with limited hops. But it will be great hoops nevertheless.