Ithaca gets off the mat
|Sean Rossi has accounted for
736 assists in three seasons for Ithaca, including 9.3 per game
Ithaca athletics photo by Tim McKinney
The situation seemed dire. Then again, the season the Ithaca
men's basketball had weathered to that point hadn't exactly been
Jim Mullins' squad had successfully overcome a brutal schedule, a season-ending injury, multiple roster defections and a season-long chorus of naysayers, both on campus and throughout the local media. But this -- well, this was too much.
The Bombers, seeded fourth in the four-team Empire 8 tournament, were on the road, facing the top seed and host Hartwick Hawks. Ithaca had built a nine-point lead over Hartwick -- a team it split two regular-season meetings with -- late in the first half, but absorbed the gut punch of losing sophomore Frank Mitchell to a sprained ankle.
Mitchell, the Bombers' leading scorer and rebounder, wouldn't be able to return. This had to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.
Only it wasn't. Something happened along the way from devastating injury to inevitable disappointment -- this group refused to fail.
The Bombers closed out the first half strong and, with some key contributions from freshman Connor Rogers and junior Chris Young, held off Hartwick in the second half to accomplish something no other Ithaca team since the inception of the Empire 8 tournament in 2003-04 had -- win a conference tournament game.
The following day, the Bombers defeated Nazareth for the third time in three meetings this season and clinched the Empire 8's automatic NCAA tournament berth.
"It's been a very gratifying end of the year because these kids stuck it out," said Mullins, now in his 15th season as Ithaca's head coach. "They really became one, they bonded. I think that the thing that we really have going for us right now is you've got a bunch of kids who truly care more about the success of the team than they do about themselves. It's really been fun."
It's also been historic. For the third time in four years, the Bombers are NCAA-bound. That's the first such stretch for a program that dates back to 1929-30. Ithaca has earned at least a share of the Empire 8 regular-season crown in three of the last five seasons, but it was always the conference tournament wins that eluded the Bombers and Mullins.
That monkey is off Ithaca's back. But the road to that accomplishment was far from smooth.
The Bombers stumbled to a 3-8 start this season, struggling behind a combination of a tough non-conference slate and a failed experiment involving 2-3 zone defense. Ithaca also lost sophomore guard Chris Jordan for the season with a torn ACL.
Eric Halejian and Sinjin Wightman, the Bombers' starting center, left the team for personal reasons. Wightman's decision came just over two weeks ago, as the Bombers were closing out the regular season.
"It just seemed like we were snake-bitten," Mullins said. "It was one thing after another."
The low point, at least on paper, might have been a 70-62 loss to Elmira on Feb. 10. The win was the only one of the season for the Soaring Eagles (1-24) and, according to Mullins, had detractors out in full force.
As it turns out, Ithaca hasn't lost since that game, winning its last four to snag an NCAA berth.
"I won't tell you it hasn't been tough," Mullins said. "At one point we were 3-8 and wondering."
The Bombers have had stellar play from several key players along the way, however. Mitchell, a transfer from Rutgers, gave the team a legitimate go-to presence in the post. That has helped open up guard Jordan Marcus (11.9 PPG, 67 3s) and forward Andrei Oztemel (13.2 PPG, 72 3s) on the outside. And the engine that drives it all is junior point guard Sean Rossi, who leads the nation in 9.3 assists per game.
Rossi also ranks 13th on the all-time Division III season assists list (252) and career assists list (736).
Tom Sweeney has filled in admirably at center after being pressed into extended minutes after Wightman's departure. And rotation guys like Rogers, Young and Jordan Healey have been key in crucial situations.
The team's shift from the aforementioned 2-3 zone to a man-to-man switching defense has been instrumental as well. The Bombers twice held high-powered Nazareth to less than 60 points.
Still, it's difficult to compare past disappointments with new milestones. Why did teams littered with All-Empire 8 players -- and in Sean Burton's case, All-American players -- fail to win even a single game in the conference tournament? How did those teams not accomplish what a team that limped to a 12-13 regular-season record was able to?
Mullins can't identity any specific reasons. But he's happy the streak is over, and he made sure to tell his players as much in the locker room before the title game against Nazareth.
"I said to the kids, 'Look, last year we won 20 games, they year before that we won 20 games, the year before that we won 24 games,'" Mullins said. "... I think they thought something bad was coming, but I said, 'You know what? None of those guys have accomplished what you guys have. You've already won a game in the Empire 8 tournament and you're playing for a championship tonight.'"
Ithaca travels to Staten Island (24-4) for its first-round matchup. The Bombers entered the week with limited knowledge of the Dolphins, but an obvious key will be slowing down Staten Island's three-point attack. As a team the Dolphins shoot 40 percent from the arc, led by Bloochy Magloire (17.8 PPG, 45% on 3s) and T.J. Tibbs (14.8 PPG, 42% on 3s).
Mitchell remains a question mark for the game, but Mullins said he is preparing as if the team won't have him available. Mullins called him "50/50" as of Monday.
"We're really happy to be where we are right now," Mullins said. "There were a lot of naysayers and fair-weather fans who, back in early January, were saying, 'Hopefully you enjoyed the last four years because you're getting a different taste now.' It's like, you're darn right we're getting a taste now, we're winning the Empire 8 tournament and we're going to the NCAAs."
Ithaca women return to tournament
The Ithaca women's basketball team doesn't have a go-to player
on offense. Head coach Dan Raymond likes to see how things are
going each game.
"I think all five of our starters, in one game or another, have led the team in scoring," Raymond said. "It's just one of those things where we do not have a definitive go-to player. Whoever's having a good night, that's who it is."
Jenn Escobido (11.8 points per game) and Kathryn Campbell (11.3) have been the top two options offensively, but Devin Shea and Jessica Farley have played key roles as well. The Bombers, who return to the NCAA tournament after a one-year absence, host a four-team regional that includes Elms -- their opponent in the first round -- Southern Maine and Bowdoin.
Raymond said that while hosting is generally preferred, there can be some drawbacks, including the added pressure of playing at home and conceding the best practice times to visiting teams, per NCAA rules.
"To some extent, I believe, it can actually be more of a disadvantage to the host teams," Raymond said. "... [The visiting teams are] the ones that are coming in on Thursday, they're traveling on Thursdays, so no classes for their kids. They're all just focused on basketball, where our kids are having classes Thursday and classes on Friday."
Amherst men, women begin title chases
The Amherst women's basketball team knows what it feels like to
win a national championship. It's a feeling the Amherst men's
basketball team wants back.
The women's team hosts St. Joseph's (Bklyn) in the first round, and will likely face Babson, ranked 14th in the final D3hoops.com Top 25 poll of the regular season, in the second round. But only two other teams in Amherst's bracket -- Juniata (No. 10) and William Paterson (No. 11) -- were ranked at the conclusion of the regular season.
In other words, Amherst's path to the Final Four is rather smooth, particularly for a team that hasn't lost since Jan. 11, 2011. The Lord Jeffs have been led all season by senior Caroline Stedman (team-best 13.9 PPG, 45 3-pointers) and freshman Megan Robertson (11.3 PPG, 7.6 RPG), but the team's other five seniors -- Lem Atanga McCormick, Kim Fiorentino, Shannon Finucane, Jackie Renner and Livia Rizzo -- all played pivotal roles as well.
"We obviously had high aspirations after winning a national championship last year," coach G.P. Gromacki said Monday. "... We had a lot of key returners and a great senior class, so that's been the key. It's really carried us through all season long. ... I can't say enough about them."
The men's team's path to its first Final Four since 2007-08 is considerably tougher than the women's path, but the men's team did secure a welcome first-round bye.
A possible Sweet 16 matchup with Franklin and Marshall -- ranked No. 9 in the final D3hoops.com Top 25 poll of the regular season -- and possible Elite Eight tilt with MIT (No. 3) loom large. But Amherst will get tested right away in it faces NYU, which hosts Misericordia in the opening round.
"They're a strong draw that early on, but you've got to beat good people to get to where you want to go," coach Dave Hixon said Monday. "... It could be a Sweet 16, Elite Eight [type of] matchup."
Hixon said NYU boasts solid height across the roster and matches up well physically with the Lord Jeffs. Amherst's starting lineup includes one 6-foot-1 guard (Aaron Toomey), a 6-foot-5 guard (Taylor Barrise), two 6-foot-6 forwards (David Waller and Willy Workman), as well as a 6-foot-9 center (Peter Kaasila). Toomey (team-best 17.1 PPG) gets most of the attention, but Barrise, who is shooting 47 percent from 3-point range, has been critical as well. The senior drained the go-ahead 3-pointer late in the NESCAC tournament final against Middlebury.
Amherst won a national championship in 2006-07, and returned to the title game the following season. In the three years following that stretch, the Lord Jeffs lost in the first round and missed the tournament entirely, before reaching the Elite Eight last season.
More NCAA men's bracket analysis
What jumps out: MIT's draw in the bottom half
of the Amherst bracket favors the Engineers. MIT, ranked third in
the final D3hoops.com Top 25 poll of the regular season, draws
Skidmore in the first round, a team Amherst defeated by 40 points
in last year's first round. After that comes a matchup with either
Hartwick or Farmingdale State, a pair of upstart teams thin on
tournament experience. Further down the line, one of the following
four teams would make for the Sweet 16 opponent -- Staten Island
(24-4), Ithaca (14-13), Rhode Island College (22-6) or Salem State
(20-7). Consider this: The first time MIT can face a ranked
opponent is the Elite Eight.
Early matchups to watch: Rhode Island College vs. Salem State (at Staten Island), Western Connecticut vs. Christopher Newport (at Franklin and Marshall), St. Joseph's (L.I.) vs. Albertus Magnus (at Middlebury).
The picks: I ultimately like Middlebury and Amherst to not only win their respective brackets, but to meet in the national championship game.
More NCAA women's bracket analysis
What jumps out: Rhode Island College has Sweet
16 potential. The Anchorwomen, who won the Little East conference
tournament, face Baruch (19-9) in the first round, and then either
Hartwick or Emmanuel in the second round. The only ranked team RIC
could see before the Elite Eight is William Paterson (No. 11). All
things considered, that's not a difficult road compared to other
teams. Ithaca, for example, could face Southern Maine in the second
round, followed by either George Fox (No. 3) or Lewis and Clark
(No. 7) in the Sweet 16.
Early matchups to watch: Southern Maine vs. Bowdoin (at Ithaca), Hartwick vs. Emmanuel (at Rhode Island College), Bridgewater State vs. Babson (at Amherst).
The picks: I see Amherst winnings its bracket, but George Fox emerging in the other East/Northeast bracket.
Two passions -- hoops and politics
Nate Novosel can't pinpoint a certain time in his life when
basketball became a passion of his. It's not his fault. All
indications are basketball -- much like breathing, eating and
sleeping -- is necessary for life in the Novosel family.
He can remember when the world of politics began to consume him -- the 2008 presidential election. From 2008 until now, Novosel, a senior political science and economics major at the University of Rochester, has been focused on politics. This concentration paid off with a summer internship in Washington, D.C., in the office of Congressman Ben Chandler, the sixth district Congressman in Novosel's home state of Kentucky.
Novosel, who was there from last June to the beginning of last August, was tasked with compiling and distributing memos on daily committee hearings to other members of the staff. Novosel also helped collect research information on medicare, medicaid and social security for a piece of legislation. And he even was able to craft a first draft of a speech for Chandler.
Of course, it wouldn't have been a true internship without some of the thankless work.
"The stereotypical stuff, we had to sort through the mail every morning, deliver all the newspapers to all the staffers, make coffee and all that good stuff," Novosel said. "... It was just a great experience."
Novosel, who will graduate in May, enjoyed his time in D.C., so much that he'll be returning -- after two months of training in Philadelphia -- in August to begin a two-year stint with Teach for America.
In his four years at Rochester, Novosel has compiled a lengthy list of extracurricular activities, including: vice president of the college democrats, head captain of the Saint Sebastian Society (a student-athlete community service organization) and one of the founders of the Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity on campus. Earlier this year, Novosel, through a favor of mutual friend, was able to meet former President Bill Clinton at Rochester's annual Meliora weekend, which includes family weekend and homecoming.
And though, as previously mentioned, it seems be to as natural to him as breathing and sleeping, Novosel turned in another strong year on the basketball court. While the Yellowjackets struggled to a 17-8 record after a run to the Sweet 16 last season, Novosel, a two-year captain, finished second on the team in scoring (12.4 PPG) and fourth in rebounding (4.1 RPG). The former UAA Rookie of the Year and first-team all-conference selection should again be honored by the UAA this season.
Novosel grew up playing against his twin sister Natalie, a standout guard for Notre Dame, and older sister Shannon, a former center at Evansville.
"The three of us had some great backyard, 1-on-1-on-1 games," Novosel said. "It kind of runs in the family."
Indeed -- the trio's father, Nick Novosel, played at Kent State.
Nate said he'll make the trip to Notre Dame to see Natalie play in the first round of the NCAA tournament, should the third-ranked Fighting Irish host. Then it's on to graduation, a few months of training, and back down to D.C.
"I can't wait," Novosel said. "... It's just exciting."
This week's buzzer beater
Feb. 24: Keene State's Ryan Martin hits a three-pointer with just 8 seconds remaining in overtime against Eastern Connecticut, but Nick Nedwick then lofts a pass to Chris Robitaille who tipped it in to force a second overtime. Watch.
If at any point this season you reached out to me, sent me an approaching milestone or story idea, offered gratitude or criticism, or just simply perused a few lines in this column space, thank you. I hope the coverage was fair and the stories were as enjoyable for you to read as they were for me to write. I love basketball, and I have a special place in my heart for Division III basketball. I hope that shows not only in my work, but in the work put in by Pat Coleman, Gordon Mann, Brian Lester, Jason Galleske and everyone else who contributes to the site. Thanks again, and enjoy the tournaments.