The men’s basketball team continued its strong start to the season over Thanksgiving break, taking three of its five games and improving to 5-2. After a strong 76-54 comeback win over Emmanuel, the Cards took highly touted Little Three rival Williams into overtime before falling 85-77.
The Cardinals’ depth is proving to be their biggest asset this season, as six different players took home game-high scoring honors over the five games, while three big men have been the top single-game rebounders so far. Last year’s top scorer Harry Rafferty ’17 dropped a career—and Wesleyan season—high 26 points in the win over Emmanuel, as he hit six threes in the process.
“Everyone is just a year older, which makes all the difference in the world,” Rafferty said. “Last year we were a really young team and at times we made a lot of young errors. We were all playing with each other for the first time and still feeling out our roles on the team and learning how to play with each other.”
After playing just over 11 minutes per game last year, Joseph Kuo ’17 has perhaps been Wesleyan’s player with the most impact thus far, tying Rafferty with a team-high 12.9 points per game and grabbing 7.4 rebounds per game. An increased post presence from Kuo and consistently strong play from last year’s top rebounder Rashid Epps ’16 (9.9 PPG, 8.4 RPG this season) have led Wesleyan to the third-best rebounding and points-allowed averages in the NESCAC so far.
In a back-and-forth game against last season’s national runner-up on Nov. 22, the Cardinals took the Ephs to the wire in their only NESCAC matchup before Christmas. With Wes down by two with just 11 seconds to go, Kuo hit two key free throws to send the game to overtime where the Cards were unable to hang on.
“We’re extremely disappointed, but we weren’t discouraged,” said Head Coach Joe Reilly. “We talked a lot about that game, and we didn’t shoot the ball particularly well so we were able to get to overtime because of our defense and our hustle and grit. We just didn’t make enough plays to win. But we can really build off of that, and we’ve really learned a lot about our team in the first seven games. That was a playoff-like atmosphere in November against a very good team, and it was a great college basketball atmosphere and a great game for our experience.”
Although Wesleyan was plagued by poor free throw shooting, going 10 of 18 from the stripe, the Birds again proved their versatility, receiving double-digit scoring contributions from Rafferty, Kuo, Joe Edmonds ’16, Jack Mackey ’16, and BJ Davis ’16.
“Obviously the easy answer to win those games is to shoot the ball better, but you don’t have a lot of control over that,” Reilly said. “So I think our keys have been defense and rebounding and limiting turnovers. We have to get to the free throw line a lot, and you have to hit free throws to win close games, so that’s something that we definitely have to focus on.”
The Cards bounced right back after the loss though, using an impressive 23-6 second half run against Elms on Nov. 25 to win 79-55. Wesleyan was fueled by a great three-point shooting performance from Mackey, who hit five of his seven attempts from beyond the arc on his way to a game-high 17 points.
After dropping a close game at Curry College later that week 68-60, the Cardinals took down Mass. College of the Liberal Arts, forcing 19 turnovers and again utilizing an important 25-9 second-half run to put the game away.
“Defense definitely facilitated those runs,” Rafferty said. “When we get stops, it really helps us get out and run offensively and get some momentum. We start getting into the groove of the game a little more, and we have the potential to be a really good defensive team if we follow our principles and do what Coach Reilly and Coach [Tim] McLaughlin are teaching us. We need those easy possessions.”
Wesleyan will have a sizeable break after Thursday’s game against Westfield State, as the NESCAC accommodates finals weeks for its schools. Although coaches are available to meet with players to go over important aspects of their individual games, the team will not have formal practice again until the week of its next game.
“What we do is we sit down with guys and give them a report on where we see them now, and what areas they need to improve on,” Reilly said. “It’s a good time to try to catch your breath, and I think looking at a guy like Jack Mackey last year, who didn’t play a lot first semester but played a lot in the second semester, he really used that time to make an effort to connect with the staff and get some extra workouts in. So it is a time for guys to separate themselves from the pack, but when we’re together those individual skill sets get put on the back burner in favor of our team concepts.”
For the first time in its program’s history, Wesleyan will travel to Daytona, Fla. to play in the Daytona Beach Shootout from Dec. 19-20. The Cards will face off against Birmingham Southern College and Maryville College before coming back to host the Red & Black Holiday Tournament in early January.
“We’re going to play two very high level teams, so it’s going to be great,” Reilly said. “We want to play really good competition so we can get ready for NESCAC play.”