Wrapping up the NESCAC Season

by on February 25, 2013

Posted in: Sports

Another NESCAC season has come and gone and, as always, it didn’t disappoint. Amherst has tallied an incredible 26 straight conference wins, capping two undefeated regular seasons with NESCAC champions. What the Lord Jeffs have accomplished this year should not overlooked — running the table in this conference is incredibly difficult, and to do it in consecutive years, despite graduating their top shooters from last year, is all the more impressive. Coach David Hixon should be the unanimous decision for Coach of the Year. While Hixon had a great pair of players in Willy Workman and Aaron Toomey coming into the season, what’s remarkable is the improvement made by the core of players around them. In particular, Peter Kaasila and Allen Williamson finally played to their potential over the course of the season. After disappointing junior seasons (Kaasila averaged just 6.8 points per game and 4.4 rebounds per game, while Williamson shot 45% from the field and averaged 5.9 points per game), both rebounded with monster senior campaigns, as the pair combined to score 24.7 points per game while corralling 10.5 rebounds per contest — a marked improvement from the season before when they pulled down just 7.8 per game. Kaasila was particularly dominant in conference play, averaging 16 points per game and finishing second in the NESCAC in field goal percentage. Williamson, meanwhile, owned the conference tournament. Take a look at his MVP-worthy numbers from the game:

Colby: 6-10, 12 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, 1 block, 1 tunrover

Tufts: 7-15, 19 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals, 3 blocks, 3 turnovers

Williams: 7-13, 15 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 0 steals, 1 (game-saving) block, 0 turnovers

Tournament Average: 53% FG, 15.3 ppg 4.3 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.7 spg, 1.7 bpg, 1.3 tog

It speaks to the talent of the NESCAC, and of the Lord Jeffs, that Williamson won’t even be considered for either All-NESCAC team. Having spent many hours watching guys play over the course of the season, and an equally long time sifting through stats, and reasoning through our selections, we’ve come to a consensus on our All-NESCAC teams and conference awards. Here are our selections, along with our reasoning where we felt necessary.

1st Team All-NESCAC

G – Aaron Toomey

G – Joey Kizel

G – Nolan Thompson

F – Willy Workman

F – Michael Mayer

These five guys really separated themselves from the pack over the course of the season, and we (as well as many others) would be shocked if the selection turns out any differently. All five had NESCAC-Player-of-the-Year-caliber seasons, making for great discussion. All five are guys you could build a program around, and that’s exactly what these coaches have done. It should come as no surprise, either that all three come from the top three teams in the conference. Middlebury and Amherst each land two apiece, with Mayer representing the Ephs. Notably, three of the selections — and one from each team — are juniors. All three should begin next year as pre-season All-Americans and as the unquestioned leaders of their respective teams. While a young, ultra-talented Ephs team develops around Mayer for his senior season, Kizel and Toomey will headline developing rosters that have much to prove. That  remains a problem for the future, however, as all three have more to play for this year.

2nd-Team All-NESCAC

G – Shasha Brown

G – Ben Ferris

F – Taylor Epley

F – Peter Lynch

C – Peter Kaasila

While the first team selections spoke for themselves by and large, the second team requires greater explanation. This group is headlined by Kaasila, who would be a first team selection many other years. The 6’9” center decimated the conference, averaging 16 points per game and 6.9 rebounds while shooting 60 percent from the floor. Kaasila remains something of a black hole offensively, finishing conference play with just two assists, but when a player scores as efficiently as he did this season, lack of sharing isn’t the end of the world. Lynch and Epley, meanwhile, began the season looking like they belonged on the first team before hitting rough patches of play in the middle of the season put second-team honors in doubt. Both players closed the season the way they started, as Lynch averaged 17.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in the tournament, while Epley scored 17.3 points per game on 56% shooting from the field. The guards in this group presented the most difficult decision. Brown, despite leading the NESCAC in scoring in conference play, underachieved significantly. The 5’11” guard shot a respectable 44 percent from the floor, but was shockingly bad from three (29%) on far too many attempts (59). His numbers were hardly better than Matt Vadas, the conference’s second leading scorer in NESCAC Play and top overall, whose team 0-10 in NESCAC play. While it’s difficult to leave a guy who scored over 20 points per game over the course of the season off of both all-conference teams, that’s exactly what we did in selecting Ferris. While the sophomore averaged almost 7 fewer points per game, he was a tremendously efficient scorer during conference play, shooting 50% from the floor as well as from beyond the arc, one of just three players to do so. Ferris also averaged 6.5 rebounds per game — more than Epley, Lynch and Kaasila. The biggest name left off of this list is the aforementioned Vadas. While the junior swing man finished the season 23rd in the nation in points per game, he did so shooting 41% from the floor, matching the team average. The “yeah-but-he-did-it-all-by-himself argument” also doesn’t look very good when you consider that his teammates, Jared Shill and Mason Lopez, both shot better than 45% from the floor and beyond the arc. And before you credit Vadas with getting good looks for his teammates, consider that he had just 7 assists in conference play, indefensible for a player who spends so much time with the ball in his hands and shoots such a low percentage from the floor.

The Awards

Coach of the Year: David Hixon

Defensive Player of the Year: Nolan Thompson

Rookie of the Year: Tom Palleschi

Player of the Year: Nolan Thompson

The first two decisions should be unanimous, the second two anything but. Not surprisingly, therefore, we’ll address the our selections for Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year in further depth. At the midway point in conference play, Hamilton freshman Matt Hart appeared to have locked up the RoY award. As it is, he may still win it after finishing the season averaging over 15 points per game. In an impressive rookie class, Hart may be the most talented of the group. He wasn’t even our runner up, however, as a pair of Tufts freshmen took the league by storm. Stephen Haladyna, this year’s runner up, averaged 12.5 points per game in conference, with a ridiculous 56/48/81 (FG/3PT/FT) split. Perhaps the most impressive number for Haladyna, however, is 4. That’s the number of turnovers the freshman had in conference play, while averaging 22 minutes per game. And he was good all season long in that category, turning the ball over just 17 times in 26 games, while logging 526 minutes. In our eyes, however, the award goes to his teammate Palleschi, who averaged 13.7 points and 6.2 rebounds in conference play and shot 57 percent from the floor. He also finished second in the NESCAC behind Jack Roberts with 19 blocks and 45 total on the season. Palleschi played his best in the biggest games, scoring 34 in two losses at Amherst and was all but unguardable in a 13-18, 27-point performance against Middlebury. Palleschi’s work on both ends of the floor, and his performance in his team’s biggest games of the season gives him the edge over Haladyna, though by a slim margin.

Finally, our NESCAC Player of the Year, Nolan Thompson. You already know why we think Nolan should be the PoY, so I won’t restate our position here. (If you’re not familiar with our argument, you can read Jeff’s excellent case here). Instead I’ll take a moment (or a few) to rebut some of the arguments people have made against Nolan winning this award. Here are the arguments that we’ve heard and our final counterpoints. (Note: To those of our readers who do not read d3boards, the rest of these piece of based on the context established there, where there was much discussion of our initial case for Nolan Thompson for POY)

1) The NESCAC Player of the Year should go to the best player on the best team

Response: There are many reasons why this is poor logic. First, we have far better ways of determining value than throwing our hands up in the air and saying, “Oh well, it’s too close to call, let’s give it to the best player on the best team.” Again, if you want to hear that side of the argument, look no further than Jeff’s post a week ago. If the best-player-on-the-best-team logic was good, we would have little difficulty applying it without problem to other examples. If the San Antonio Spurs finish the regular season with the best record should Tony Parker be the MVP? Of course not. He’s a distant third to LeBron James and Kevin Durant. To make matters worse, when the “best team” is determined by a miniscule sample size (a 10-game regular season and a 3-game tournament) it’s hard to know exactly who the best team is, or even who the best player on that team is. Some may say it’s clear that Amherst is the best team in the conference — the Lord Jeffs just finished a second straight undefeated season, after all. And isn’t it unfair of me to begin this post by praising what Amherst has accomplished over the last two years, only to call it all into question later? What contradiction! Or is it? Let’s travel back two weeks to the final regular season NESCAC game. It’s the second overtime, Aaron Toomey just bungled a make-one, miss-one free throw opportunity with his team down three and 5.9 seconds left on the clock by missing the front end and then (accidentally) making the second. Jake Wolfin catches the ensuing inbound pass and gets fouled with less than 5 seconds remaining in the game and a chance to ice the game by making two free throws. At this point, if Wolfin makes both and Middlebury wins, Middlebury, Williams and Amherst all sit tied at the top of the NESCAC at 9-1 with a random selection process deciding who hosts the tournament (which might have made the difference in the end). Doesn’t it seem rather silly, when you really think about it, that the best-player-on-the-best-team theory hinges entirely on whether Wolfin makes both free throws? Because people prefer simple solutions to difficult ones, we often sacrifice necessary, logical steps in our decision making. This is a classic example.

2) Nolan Thompson’s case for NESCAC Player of the Year ended after his performance in the NESCAC Semifinal

Response: This was the most recent argument made against Thompson’s candidacy. What’s particularly funny about this argument was that it was made just before Aaron Toomey and Willy Workman combined to shoot 5-23 from the field in the NESCAC title game. The popular (and wildly wrong) response to this is, “Yes, but Toomey/Workman played well enough for their team to win and Thompson didn’t.” First of all, one possession games are toss ups; teams will go .500 in these games with a large enough sample size. Secondly, once again, this argument relies on the play of someone entirely unrelated to the point at hand, Allen Williamson in this case, to justify why one player is better or more valuable than another. If Williamson was late helping or mistimed his jump and fouled Epley instead, this argument can’t be made. By the time Epley catches the inbound pass, make or miss, Toomey and Workman have made their (lackluster) contribution, just like Thompson the night before.

3) The selective “Big Game” argument

Response: This point came shortly after number two, as if two weak arguments made in tandem could buttress one another and make one strong one.  After some very selective reasoning, the argument was made that Nolan was a “no-show” offensively in three of his team’s four biggest games of the season — the two losses against Williams and a one-point win over Tufts. (It was argued that the four biggest games of the season for Middlebury were the two Williams games, the Amherst game and the Tufts game. Somehow the Tufts game, one that was played on January 5th was more important than the first round of the NESCAC Tournament, which may have determined whether Middlebury got into the NCAA Tournament or not. There’s not a single person who would trade a win over Tufts in early January for a win over Wesleyan in late February.) Again, you can use a small sample, coupled with some head-scratching selectivity, or you could expand your sample, and include the Amherst 3OT game and the Tufts game, and get a much better idea of how Nolan actually performed in “big games.” The verdict? In “big games” this year Nolan has averaged 9.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, with 40/35/67 splits, which, while far below his season averages, hardly quantifies as being a “no-show” offensively in big games. And if you want to see the selective “Big Game” argument destroy someone’s candidacy for Player of the Year, look no further than Aaron Toomey, who, in four of his five biggest games of the year (Williams x2, Middlebury and Tufts) shot 17-63 (27%) from the field and 9-35 (26%) from three. The point is, you can do this with almost anyone if you restrict the sample size, selectively remove good performances and prey on a bad game or two. (Hey, did you know that Willy Workman shot 28% from the floor and 23% from beyond the arc in 7 of Amherst’s 9 games decided by 10 points or fewer? Is he always soft or just bad in crunch time? Can we all agree that, though the stat I just presented is just as true as the one documenting Nolan’s performance in three of Middlebury’s five biggest games, that it’s almost pointless to conclude something from such a selectively small sample? Finally, in every big game but the most recent, Nolan’s defense was phenomenally valuable, which offsets more than a little of a poor offensive game (see more in 5A).

4) Nolan only face guards his man, is limited as a help defender and doesn’t get steals

Response: This argument lacks any understanding of a) what it means to be a help defender and why a coach might not want a particular defender to help, and b) that steals are a horrible metric of defensive ability. Steals are most often accumulated either by defenders who gamble consistently (see Toomey, Aaron) or by players who profit from the hard work of others. The majority of steals come off of tipped or contested passes, when the ball spends more time in the air, or does not make it to its intended target. Looking at steals to determine the value of a defender is like using interceptions to determine the value of a defensive back in football. The best corners lock their receiver down, and don’t get targeted enough to intercept a lot of passes. Overrated cornerbacks gamble, sometimes get it right, sometimes get burned and get targeted enough times to make a play on the ball once in a while. Basketball is no different in that regard. Then there’s the concept of help defense. This one really seems to be a doozie for people. When a defender is told, as Nolan often is, not to help off of his man, it’s not because he can’t, it’s because providing help defense off the man he’s guarding is a suboptimal strategy. I’ll bet that when most coaches prepare to play Williams or Amherst they tell their top defender not to help off of Epley or Toomey or Workman (though there also isn’t another defender in the country who can guard all three of those guys). Instead, the player guarding Robertson, or Williamson, or Kalema is asked to play help defense. Somehow Nolan’s “lack of help defense” was horribly misconstrued as a drawback from his game, rather than an affirmation of how difficult it is to be the top defender on every team.

5 A) Teams don’t have to game plan for Nolan like a great offensive player or dominant defensive player like Andrew Locke

Response: One of the most difficult things for people to seemingly understand is that stopping your opponent from scoring is just as valuable as scoring yourself. It took the entire baseball world years to understand the value of preserving runs defensively. Unfortunately, much of that cornered thinking still exists, and has been prevalent throughout this entire discussion. In particular, people clung to the notion that Nolan’s game did not demand that other teams really game plan for him on offense or defense. In one sense, this argument is correct, but only in the sense that some degree opposing coaches don’t game plan for Nolan because you can’t game plan for Nolan. If you’re head coach Mike Maker, what do you tell Taylor Epley — primarily a catch-and-shoot scorer — before he plays Nolan? How do you adjust to a relentless defender, who never takes a play off, fights over, under and through screens like nobody they’ve ever played against and doesn’t just contest shots, but impedes his man from catching the ball in the first place. So yeah, coaches may not game plan all that much for Nolan’s defense, largely because they recognize that trying to affect Nolan’s defensive play is a waste of time. Ask Shasha Brown if they game-planned for Nolan and, if they did, how it went. And while you can point to the NESCAC Semifinals as an example of how a player improves the second time he plays against Nolan, much of that had to do with Middlebury’s game plan which, for a change, included asking Nolan to help off of Taylor Epley due to Nate Robertson’s driving ability. That and some combination of Nolan not playing his best game and Epley, who deserves much of the credit as well, getting the better of Nolan on the perimeter a couple of times. Nolan was the one to improve in the second matchup vs. Brown, despite Wesleyan having a week to prepare for his defense.

5 B) Nolan, therefore, is the NESCAC equivalent of Bruce Bowen or Shane Battier

Repsonse: Lost in this discussion was Nolan’s offensive game, which was tremendous. Let’s try this objectively for a second. Here are three players’ stats from NESCAC play, when everyone faced the same competition.

Player A: 14.0 ppg, 54% FG, 52%, 3PT, 91% FT

Player B: 16.8 ppg, 46% FG, 41% 3PT, 65% FT

Player C: 12.8 ppg, 50% FG, 50% 3PT, 75% FT

Now it would be impressive if you could name those three players without any help based solely on their conference stats. But what if I told you that those three players, in some order were Nolan, Ben Ferris and Taylor Epley. Would you be able to tell which one was Nolan?

He’s Player A, which I think by all objective standards is the most impressive of all of those players. And I chose those three players strategically not because Nolan has better stats than they do, but also because the three of them have similar offensive games and all play a similar role in the offense. None of the three are point guards, all of them are primarily catch-and-shoot scorers and none of them can be considered the first option on their respective teams. And yet Nolan put up superior numbers to both of them. And we’re going to compare Nolan to Bruce Bowen or Shane Battier? Because they’re both good defenders who score primarily by spotting up, much like Ben Ferris or Taylor Epley? Nolan Thompson is the NESCAC Bruce Bowen? The Bruce Bowen who averaged 6.1 points per game on 41/39/58 splits? The one who never scored more than 8.2 points per game in his career? Just because Nolan shoots from similar spots on the floor? Or Shane Battier, who has shot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc only twice in his career? Nolan would be the NESCAC’s version of Bruce Bowen or Shane Battier if one of them held LeBron, Durant and Westbrook to single digits in three straight games, while putting up the best offensive statistics in the league at their position. Yeah, then maybe the NBA to NESCAC comparison will have legs. In the meantime, comparing Nolan to those guys because he has similar tendencies offensively is like saying “Hey, Aaron Toomey’s .436/.426/.908 and below average defense looks a lot like Jose Calderon’s .470/.429/.904 line and matador defense and Jose Calderon would never be a player of the year.” It’s lazy analysis and is a selective viewpoint that misses the bigger picture.

A Final Thought

We’ve made our case and now offered our counterpoints to the critiques made over the last 10 days. We welcome more discussion on this point, and have thoroughly enjoyed discussing this, explaining our argument, and understanding the points that others have made specific to this point and regarding many others. If you still have comments to make, we hope that you read our initial case first, because it was there where the meat of the argument — Nolan’s value and historic defensive season — was established. A thoughtful discussion is satisfying wherever it ends up; equally dissatisfying (and disappointing) is a petty remark that doesn’t address what’s been said.