Posted by Matt Choi '14
What a difference a year makes. Last season the men's basketball team was like a pit bull puppy. It was young and made some innocent mistakes, but you knew it was eventually going to grow up into something that scares people on the street. But you didn't expect it to happen this fast. On paper, the team jumped from 9-7 to 10-6 in the Liberty League, and from 15-11 to 16-9 overall. That's right, single game win improvements in both categories, not something that jumps off the page at you but the devil is in the details.
Skidmore has managed to improve to 75 points per game, seven more than the league average, and six more than its own average last year. Sophomores Tanner Brooks and Aldin Medujanin and junior Conner Merrill led the squad for much of last year and have continued to hold the scoring mantle this year. Throw in transfer wing Eric Sanders '16, who is leading the team in scoring at 15.8 a game, and you begin to understand this jump in production. It might be one more win over last year, but the margins are way bigger. Last season Skidmore outscored opponents by a total of 86 points, but this season it's 180 points. Skidmore has only been held to under 60 points once in the league this season, and in their last three losses they still scored at or above the league average.
Looking at how Skidmore got to this point yields some interesting improvements as well. Obvious to anyone who has watched this season's team is the three-point shooting. Brooks attempts seven threes a game on average, and Medujanin averages five. Amazingly, Merrill averages three attempts a game from beyond the arc, which is unexpected from the team's tallest player and an aggressive force in the low post. Every member of the starting lineup (and a good chunk of the bench) is confident taking a wide open three and it's shown in some ridiculous three point shooting displays, most notably when Brooks scored six threes over Union from a variety of head scratching distances. Believe it or not, three-point shooting is the stat that's changed the least since last year. Shots attempted and shots made from beyond the arc show small improvement, but have stayed relatively consistent.
The difference comes in the frontcourt interior offense. Skidmore added Sanders and Perun Kovacevic '15 this season. Sanders is a lengthy wingman who, like his teammates, is comfortable from behind the arc but is perhaps most impressive when he's driving to the rim. What he lacks in height he makes up for in leap, and watching him elevate over big men is a sight to behold. Kovacevic is difficult to categorize offensively, showing grit and brute power on the post but then coasting in for layups and finger rolls not usually seen from a player of his size. Add these two new faces to the already prominent interior abilities of Merrill and Medujanin and you end up with nights like Skidmore's blowout victory over RPI, when they scored over half their points (42) inside the paint.
But what does this scoring frenzy mean if it doesn't translate to winning? It means we have one of the best offenses in the league, but far from the best defense. That sounds like an odd statement for a team ranked third in the league for defensive efficiency, but when we are talking about a four-team tournament, as is the Liberty League tournament, that's not good enough. There have been times where Skidmore's man-to-man defense has been lacking, especially against good shooting teams. Case in point, the final regular season game against RIT, when the visiting Tigers shot 50% on the night, and 66% from beyond the arc. Coach Joe Burke has attempted to hide some of his man-defense flaws in a be-deviling zone defense that places Sanders in the passing lane between the backcourt. This strategy has worked on many teams, but no system can account for a lack of hustle, getting a hand up, or chasing a shooter off his spot.
Taking these points into the playoffs, it's hard not be a little concerned. Vassar is one of the teams that has shot well against Skidmore, and they are 2-0 against the Thoroughbreds this season. The most recent game between the teams on Feb. 14 is a typical example of a Skidmore loss. The Brewers took the three-ball away on the defensive end, and went to work from midrange and three-point range on offense. If Skidmore wants to win on Wednesday they need to summon the interior ferocity they have displayed in bouts this season and only take smart three-pointers, while hounding Vassar shooters Erikson Wasyl and Johnny Mrlik. Only a balanced performance will get Skidmore back into the finals, and give it a shot at winning its third championship in four years.
Regardless of Wednesday's outcome, any talk of a transition period for this team is over. This team is performing years ahead of schedule, and nothing is impossible at this point. Underclassmen or not, the Thoroughbreds are full grown pit bulls.