The sixth-seeded men’s basketball team will travel to Maine this coming weekend for its NESCAC tournament quarterfinal against third-seeded Bates (7-3 NESCAC), hoping to win its first tournament game since February of 2012.
The Cards come into tournament play with some forward momentum, as they picked up two key blowout wins against Hamilton and Williams last weekend. Wesleyan’s offense is firing on all cylinders at the moment, highlighted by Joe Edmonds ’16’s season-high 29 points—including nine threes-pointers—against Hamilton last Friday.
Wesleyan squared off against Bates earlier this season in Lewiston, Maine, enduring a close 74-66 defeat. The Cards played well in that game and actually led by as much as nine in the second half before the Bobcats closed the gap.
“[That loss] was really about transition defense,” said guard BJ Davis ’16. “They got us going and Graham Safford got going during the second half, and we weren’t stopping the ball in transition. It killed us with penetration to the basket and by hitting some threes, so we’ve been working on transition defense. They also have those big Delpeche twins too, but if we box out and rebound I think we’ll be all right this time around.”
Safford, the Bobcats’ point guard, is among the top in the league with 15.1 points per game this season. The senior made a big impact in Bates’ win over Wes earlier this year by dropping 31 points, the most a single player scored against the Cardinals this season.
“If [Safford] scores over 30 again, it’ll probably be tough for us to win, so we need to make him earn his baskets a little more,” said Head Coach Joe Reilly. “When we were up there earlier, [Harry] Rafferty [’17] had the flu and only played 18 minutes, and [Chris] Tugman [’15] didn’t even make the trip, so that gives us another advantage with some other guys. Hopefully we have a healthy week here.”
While the Cardinals will take some extra precautions to stop Safford, Wesleyan already showed that it possesses one of the stronger defenses in the conference. Its 64.0 points allowed per game ranks third in the NESCAC, only .7 points behind second-seeded Bowdoin and top-seeded Trinity.
“I think we’ll go between probably me, Jack Mackey [’16], and Jordan Sears [’18] to play against [Graham Safford] on the ball for us,” Davis said. “That way we’ll throw a lot of guys at him, and he plays a lot of minutes, so we’ll be throwing fresh legs at him which should wear him down and slow him a little. I think it’s just about making him uncomfortable. He’s a great player when he’s comfortable, but we’re going to try to pressure him early so he doesn’t get in a rhythm. If he’s not in a rhythm, he’ll start forcing things.”
Bates built up a reputation for having one of the toughest home gyms to play in because it’s the smallest in the NESCAC. The sideline stands are placed as close to the court as possible under NCAA rules, giving the Bobcats a noticeable home-court advantage. Bates has not lost at home yet this season.
“It’s tough to prepare for that environment,” Rafferty said. “It gets crazy up there for regular season games, so I cannot imagine how insane it’s going to be in there for a playoff game. With that said, I think we’ll practice a lot of silent calls and coach will continue to remind us that communication is going to be at an all-time high need this weekend. If you’re quiet, nobody is going to hear you in that gym. But it’s going to be so much fun. It is such a fun environment to play in, and it’s two really good teams going at it.”
Wesleyan last played in the NESCAC tournament in 2013, but fell in the first round to a then-nationally ranked Middlebury squad. After graduating a strong 2013 class with three 1,000-point scorers, the Cardinals looked to their youth to move the program forward the last two years. With only three seniors, Wes is still one of the younger teams in the league, gaining most of its production from the junior and sophomore classes.
“My freshman year we had Shasha [Brown ’13], we had Mike Callaghan [’13], and that was a very different team I think because we’re so spread out this year,” Davis said. “You can’t key in on one guy because we have more than one star. I feel like that makes us pretty dangerous because we’re so dynamic. We have the same guys from last year, but we’ve definitely become closer as a team. We’re trusting each other; we’re trusting coach, and that’s really helped follow a game plan for this year.”
The NESCAC tournament reseeds after the first round of games, so a win on Saturday would most likely pit the Cardinals against the Bantams, the highest remaining seed, unless Trinity or Bowdoin lose their quarterfinal bouts.
“We’re really trying to make our legacy and build a bit of a new culture with Wesleyan basketball to make our own name,” Davis said. “Getting a win here to get to the semi-finals, especially given that Coach Reilly was the coach at Bates for so long, would be great. And then if we can get to the NESCAC championship, it’d be unbelievable.”