Amherst Ready for Return to NCAA Tournament

Amherst will play 16 of this season's 24 regular season games in LeFrak Gymnasium.

Amherst opened the 2009-10 season by winning eight of its first nine games and 13 of its first 16 to climb as high as No. 9 in the national rankings, but the Lord Jeffs would stumble to a 1-8 record down the stretch. With a 3-6 record in NESCAC play Amherst was awarded the sixth seed in the conference championship, but the postseason run ended with a 67-49 loss to third-seeded Colby in the tournament’s opening round. Amherst’s stretch of 10 consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament was the second longest active streak in Division III, but the impressive run finally came to an end. One highlight of the season was a 92-67 win over Ithaca in the Ken Wright ’52 Memorial Invitational title game, which gave head coach Dave Hixon ’75 the 600th victory of his career.

The Lord Jeffs must have been thrilled to see a drastic change in the schedule, as this year’s slate features 16 games in LeFrak Gymnasium and only eight away from home. In the past two years Amherst has played 20 games at home and 33 on the road, and last season never hosted more than two consecutive contests in LeFrak. This is bad news for opposing teams, as Coach Hixon’s teams are an astonishing 138-14 (.908) in Amherst since Jan. 1, 2000. The 2010-11 season will open with six consecutive home games, beginning Friday, Nov. 19, against Maine-Farmington in the Ken Wright ’52 Memorial Invitational. Maine-Farmington is a well coached NCAA Tournament team that will provide a good test for Amherst’s big men.

Amherst returns all three of last year’s post players and welcomes another promising player. Leading the group is co-captain Kurt Bennett ’11, who has the best footwork of any big man Hixon has ever coached. Bennett provides the team with key minutes off the bench and has the ability to give opposing centers trouble with his crafty style. During a win over Emmanuel last year, Bennett shot 12-for-12 from the floor for a career-high 24 points en route to a NESCAC Player of the Week honor. His character and leadership make him an ideal captain, as he was named to the conference’s All-Academic and All-Sportsmanship teams as a junior.

Kurt Bennett '11 was 12-for-12 from the floor in a win over Emmanuel last year.

Amherst returns its best rebounder in Jeff Holmes ’12, who started in 17 games last year. His sophomore statistics were an improvement from his first-year numbers in nearly every category, as he averaged 9.8 points and 6.2 rebounds in only 19.0 minutes as a sophomore while shooting at a .526 clip. Holmes can post up, drive to the hoop and even shoot from the outside as the team’s most versatile big man. He battled leg injuries in his first two years but came into the preseason healthier and shooting better. His best performance last year came against Rhode Island College when he scored a career-high 23 points on 8-of-10 shooting in only 17 minutes.

The Lord Jeffs will need Peter Kaasila ’13 to be a force in the paint this season. The 6’9, 260-pound center averaged 6.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in nearly 15 minutes per game as a first-year, but his numbers could drastically improve. He displayed tremendous potential in the regular season finale when he scored a career-high 17 points and was 8-for-12 from the floor in 23 minutes against arguably the best center in the NESCAC. Amherst is also excited about the potential of newcomer Logan Buckner ’14, a 6’8, 240-pound player who could be ready to contribute at the collegiate level.

Much of Amherst’s late-season struggles last year had to do with the loss of Conor Meehan ’11 to injury. A two-year starting point guard and the second of Amherst’s senior captains, Meehan shares the same leadership qualities and character that Bennett brings to the team. His statistics as a sophomore were impressive, but he improved in nearly every facet last year to average 14.2 points, 6.2 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game with an assist-to-turnover ratio of more than 3-to-1. Meehan provides matchup problems for most point guards and is outstanding at driving to the basket. Complementing his driving abilities last year was a team-high free throw percentage of 81.8.

Conor Meehan '11 had an assist-to-turnover ratio of more than 3-to-1 last year.

After he wraps up his duties as the Amherst men’s soccer team’s top goal scorer, Spencer Noon ’13 will rejoin Coach Hixon on the court. Noon is an extremely quick player who has matured into a true point guard after playing the role of scorer as a first-year. Noon played a significant role when Meehan was forced to sit out last year, scoring 14 points and adding three assists against Middlebury in the season finale. Joining Noon to provide strong support off the bench will be newcomers Aaron Toomey ’14 and David Kalema ’14. While Kalema (6'1, 160 lbs.) is a quick, combo guard, Toomey (6’2, 165 lbs.) is a true point guard who will help make Amherst more of a running team. The Jeffs lost the services of DJ Carcieri ’10 to graduation, but Amherst should be strong at the point position with Meehan leading a very talented group.  

Amherst will also be without Steve Wheeler ’10, who finished his career ranked 27th on Amherst’s all-time scoring list (917) and second in three-point field goals made (191). Wheeler’s ability to shoot from well beyond the arc forced opposing defenses to extend, which is something the Lord Jeffs will need to replace this year. Coach Hixon hopes that void will be filled by Taylor Barrise ’12, who started in all 25 games as a sophomore and averaged 8.2 points and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 35.6 percent from long range. Barrise put his shooting skills on display against Bowdoin last year when he scored a career-high 23 points thanks to a 9-for-12 performance from the floor (4-for-7 3-pt.), also adding six rebounds in the game.

Barrise (4.0) and Meehan (2.6) are the only players on the roster who attempted more than 1.5 three-pointers per game last year. Because shooting the long ball is not one of Meehan’s primary roles, the Lord Jeffs will need someone to help Barrise extend defenses. Among the leading candidates are forwards Billy Butler ’11 and Pierce Edwards ’13, two good catch-and-shoot guys who could provide valuable minutes off the bench when Amherst is need of a three. The Lord Jeffs also welcome guard Connor Gach ’14 (6’4, 185 lbs.), a big scorer who is expected to be another three-point threat.

David Waller '12 averaged 7.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as a sophomore.

Amherst tends to feature versatile players who can do it all, and this year will be no different. Highlighting that list will be David Waller ’12, a two-year starter who showed flashes of brilliance in his first two seasons. After an impressive rookie year, Waller saw his numbers improve in scoring (7.8 ppg), rebounding (4.6), assists (1.5) and steals (0.6). He was named the NESCAC’s Player of the Week last year when he followed a 20-point, 9-rebound performance against Curry with 15 points, 10 boards and five assists against Trinity. Waller is one of the team’s most explosive players, and this season has potential to jump to the next level.

Willy Workman ’13 and Allen Williamson ’13 each averaged roughly 6.0 points per game and brought a lot of energy to the program as first-years, as both guards have the ability to start or be the first player off the bench. Workman is a multi-dimensional player who did everything for the Jeffs last year, notably totaling 14 points on 7-for-11 shooting to go along with seven rebounds, three assists, three blocks and a pair of steals against Williams College. Williamson, meanwhile, is the team’s most athletic player, and last year provided fans with one explosive play after another. He scored a career-high 17 points and recorded three steals against Babson.

Connor Johnson ’12 and Tim Prowitt ’12 are both very skilled 6’6 players who can do a lot of things for Amherst. Johnson is particularly versatile and can play anything from point guard to power forward, while Prowitt has the potential to contribute as a big-time rebounder and scorer. Johnson posted career highs in points (12) and rebounds (5) against Emmanuel last year, and this season will hope to return to top form after recovering from a broken foot in the offseason. Amherst also welcomes guard/forward Tom Killian ’14 (6’5, 175 lbs.), a skilled wing player with a style similar to that of Workman.

Allen Williamson '13 provided Amherst with a spark off the bench as a first-year.

Amherst is unranked in the Top 25 Preseason Poll for the first time since 2000-01, but don’t expect the Lord Jeffs to stay off the radar for too long. With four starters returning and two outstanding leaders comprising the senior class, Amherst’s depth and athleticism should create problems for the majority of teams this year. The Jeffs are as multi-dimensional as ever, but their depth will allow players to have more defined roles compared to years past. Coach Hixon notes that his players are more mature and in better shape this season, which should bode well for what was an extremely young team a year ago.

The Jeffs ranked second in the NESCAC in scoring (75.7 ppg) and field goal percentage (.478) last year, but playing better defense will be a point of emphasis this season. Amherst was at the bottom of the conference pack in scoring defense (70.5 ppg) and ranked fifth in field goal percentage defense (.420). Coach Hixon would like to see more defensive performances like the one Amherst had against Ithaca, during which an explosive Bomber team shot 8-for-33 (1-for-14 3-pt.) in the second half. The Jeffs will also need to improve their shooting at the line, as they ranked last in the NESCAC in free throw percentage (.634), notably shooting 4-for-15 in a three-point loss at Williams.

Amherst has the tools reestablish itself as one of New England’s elite teams, but the NESCAC should see a drastic improvement as a whole this year. Williams and Middlebury have separated themselves as the teams to beat in the conference, with the Ephs (30-2) advancing to last year’s national title game and Middlebury (25-4) moving on to the NCAA Tournament’s second round. Colby is coming off its best season in more than a decade (19-6) and has defeated Amherst in each of the past three meetings, while Trinity and Bowdoin have given the Jeffs trouble in recent years. Wesleyan features a very dangerous group of young players, and Connecticut College lost to the Jeffs by only seven last season. Bates and Tufts will also be looking to repeat the success they had against Amherst a year ago.