The Season of "Ifs"

Players on the men's basketball team gather for a pickup game this fall.

By Justin Long

For most of the past decade Amherst featured what was arguably Division III’s best men’s basketball program, but last season was the team’s least successful in nine years. The Lord Jeffs went 5-4 in their final nine games, failed to advance to the NCAA Tournament second round for the first time in 12 appearances and snapped a streak of 104 consecutive weeks ranked in the Top 25 Poll. Their number of wins—21—was their lowest since 2000.

Playing in the NCAA Tournament and winning 21 games would be a dream season for many Division III basketball teams. But last year disappointed Amherst fans who’d been spoiled in recent years by an NCAA championship and three consecutive appearances in the national semifinals. For those fans, this year might be just as disappointing. No returning players have won postseason awards, and the team is one of the youngest in the 33-year career of head coach Dave Hixon ’75. But don’t count the Lord Jeffs out yet. With so many new faces competing for starting roles, Amherst might be hungrier—and more dangerous—than many expect.

Besides, those statistics from last season don’t mean that Amherst underachieved. “From a coaching perspective,” says Hixon, “I felt we actually overachieved. We lost nearly 70 percent of our points from the previous year and, other than one player, we returned very little experience. Advancing to the NESCAC Championship finals and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament exceeded my realistic expectations.”

Last year’s record is even more impressive considering the other obstacles Amherst encountered. The schedule featured a pair of seven-game road trips. Steven Wheeler ’10—the team’s second leading scorer—sat out due to an injury during a tough 3-3 stretch late in the regular season. Starting center Mike Holsey ’09 battled knee problems. All-American leading scorer Brian Baskauskas ’09 fought through a hand injury in the NCAA Tournament and scored only five points, well below his season average of 16.0.

As a result, first-years and sophomores were forced to step into key roles. This presented the most significant challenge to Hixon, who has a reputation for giving his younger players limited playing time. But those younger players excelled. Taylor Barrise ’12 was named to a pair of All-Tournament teams early in the season and finished fourth in the NESCAC in three-point field goal percentage. David Waller ’12 averaged 15.0 points per game in the conference semifinals and finals. Jeff Holmes ’12 averaged 5.2 rebounds per game despite battling knee problems.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise was the evolution of point guard Conor Meehan ’11, who was asked to fill the void left by two-time national player of the year Andrew Olson ’09. Meehan went from averaging 8.1 minutes as a first-year to 28.0 a year ago and got better as last season progressed. Less than a week after scoring a career-high 26 points in a win over Williams in last year’s NESCAC semifinals, Meehan was only two assists shy of a triple-double against Gwynedd-Mercy College in the NCAA Tournament. He averaged 11.2 points per game and led the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio.

“The young kids played better earlier on than I thought they would,” Hixon says. “In some games Conor willed us to victory. We definitely played a lot older than we were.”

Hixon believes this year’s young core will be just as good. With a 6-foot-8, 250-pound frame, Peter Kaasila ’13 is Amherst’s first legitimate “big man” to come along in a while and should excel in a conference that lacks such size. Willy Workman ’13 and twin brothers Pierce ’13 and Matt Edwards ’13 are all natural scorers who should make an immediate impact. Alan Williamson ’13 has Division I-level athletic ability and could fill the void left by Holsey. Roshard Bryant ’13 brings a 7-foot wingspan with raw talent and great potential.

Amherst is ranked 25th in the Top 25 Preseason Poll—its lowest preseason ranking since 2000—but Hixon hasn’t lowered his expectations. “We’ve had a good thing going for a while now, and no team wants to be the one to mess that up. Getting back to the NCAA Tournament would be a great achievement and make us even better for next year, so we still feel pressured to keep that streak going.”

With only two seniors and two juniors on the team, this will be the only Amherst basketball team in at least 15 years with fewer than six total juniors and seniors. To Hixon, this makes the season all the more exciting. “Competition for the starting spots and playing time might be as [strong] as it has been for a long time,” he says. “Hopefully that internal competition will make us stronger. It will be fun to watch how it evolves.”

Meehan, now a team captain, views his team’s loss to Washington University in the 2008 national title game as motivation. “Coming so close to the highest point in Division III basketball and having it taken away has not left my mind. I want to get back to Salem and win a championship. We have a new generation of players who want to carve their own path, which may make us even more dangerous.”

Wheeler, also a captain, is just as driven. “The season ended far too abruptly last year, and I was left with
a sour taste in my mouth. This will be a season of last chances for me: my last chance to beat Williams on its home court, my last chance to win a conference championship. I want to take advantage of every opportunity as each will be my last as an Amherst basketball player.”

The goal is to return to the NCAA Tournament, but Hixon knows it won’t be easy. “This team has a lot of ‘ifs’ in terms of injuries, maturity and leadership, but we have a lot of great young players who are capable of helping us immediately. There will be a lot of new faces on the court—people definitely won’t recognize us from two years ago.”

Entering his 33rd season at Amherst with 598 career victories, Hixon will likely become the 11th head coach in Division III history to reach 600 wins. The Lord Jeffs begin their season on Nov. 20 against the University of Maine Farmington in the Ken Wright ’52 Memorial Invitational Tournament in Amherst.

Photo by Samuel Masinter '04