Former teammates take different tourney journeys

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Daniel Aronowitz is averaging 17.4 points per game for Williams on 50 percent shooting, including 37 percent from three.
Williams athletics photo

By Ryan Scott 

While the Williams Ephs were clinching a spot in the national semifinals this past weekend, the University of Michigan men’s basketball team was in Washington, DC winning the Big Ten tournament. “On both Friday and Saturday nights we were out to dinner with the team,” says Wolverine forward Duncan Robinson, “I was streaming the [Williams] games on my phone under the table.”

If circumstances had been different, Robinson would’ve been headed to Salem with former classmates, Mike Greenman and Dan Aronowitz this week. All three were freshmen on Williams’ national runner-up squad in 2014. “We still talk all the time,” says Robinson, who transferred to Michigan after the season, when head coach Mike Maker took the same job at Marist. “We text before and after almost every game; they are some of my best friends.” Adds Aronowitz, “Being the three freshmen [on that team], we created a bond that no amount of miles can affect."

Losing by two in the national championship game is often all the motivation a team needs to redouble efforts and improve, but Williams lost its best returning player, head coach, and five graduating seniors. It took a lot of hard work from Greenman, Aronowitz, and first time head coach, Kevin App to get this program back to Salem again so soon.

"Most coaches would tell you I’m an idiot,” says App, who came to Williamstown after several years assisting at Army. “You want to take a job at its lowest point, but a big reason I wanted the job was because, when I worked at Williams, it left an impression on me. Another part of it was Coach Maker, he gave me a chance and I wanted to show him that a program he put a lot of effort into was in good hands."

"I’m absolutely thrilled for Kevin,” says Maker. “He was the first assistant I hired at Williams. Bringing Williams back to Salem speaks volumes about his ability as a coach and his connection to theWill program."

With so much changing in just the course of a few years, it’s fitting that Williams’ road to Salem this time is so different from the previous one.

After missing most of last season with an injury, Mike Greenman has returned for another Ephs' postseason run.
Williams athletics photo 

"Our freshman year almost everyone on the team had been to Salem before,” says Greenman, who was the starting point guard that freshman year, but missed most of last season with an injury. We were pre-season ranked really high. We came onto a team that was expected to go really far. This year we started off the radar and worked our way up to this point. It was two completely different roads to get to the final four."

This Williams squad has just one senior who sees regular minutes, Aronowitz, and relies on a lot of underclassmen, especially down low. “Looking at the team last Spring, the one position we didn’t really have experience coming in was at the 4-5 position,” says App, “We got a sneak peek when we went to Spain together in August. After that trip we thought we had a chance to compete on the national stage because of the development of those guys in particular."

The first to break out from the sophomore class was Kyle Scadlock, the second-leading scorer on the team, who provides both an inside and outside presence in the post or the wing. Fellow sophomores Marcus Soto and Michael Kempton man the block.

"The underclassmen have embodied our season,” says App. “Kyle went through a pretty rough stretch individually towards the start of league play and really fought through it. In the playoffs he’s been competing at a really high level. Matt Karpowitz, as a freshmen, hadn’t really played [much in the first] two NCAA tournament games, didn’t play at all Friday night, but we were in foul trouble [on Saturday] and didn’t hesitate to throw him in there and he had the best game of his career."

Scadlock is not the only Eph who struggled during a string of losses for Williams in January. The Ephs finished in just sixth place in the NESCAC at 5-5. “In hindsight those losses don’t seem so bad,” says App. “We had a lot of road games against really good teams and it was just a hard stretch on our schedule. Still, we didn’t handle ourselves early in the season as well as well as we should have."

This team is battle tested. They played nine games against NCAA Tournament qualifiers in the regular season, three more in the conference tournament, and, of course, four more over the last two weekends. They’ve lost just two games since January, at Tufts and at Middlebury, both of which were avenged two weeks later in post-season play.

"We put too much pressure on ourselves when conference [play] started,” says Greenman, “We were already playing really well, but maybe we thought we had to play better or do more because it’s NESCAC. When we embraced the ‘one game at a time’ mentality, we really took off."

Still, the first round of NESCAC playoffs meant going to rival Amherst in a game that, at the time, seemed do or die for both teams’ NCAA futures. “I remember the whole week never feeling like we were going to lose,” says Aronowitz, “For Mike and I as the leaders of this team, for the younger guys to be able to see we were playing with looseness and confidence, that there wasn’t any need to be uptight, they learned not to put more emphasis on a single game than is necessary."

It’s this leadership that’s been so valuable for Williams and it was that first trip to Salem that’s shaped the perspective of Williams’ leaders. “We didn’t know any better as freshmen,” says Aronowitz, “Having two years where felt we were good enough and didn’t make the tournament shows us you can’t take these things for granted."

"Not a lot of guys in our program get to be the leader on the court for two straight years,” says App. "Dan has been our leading scorer, the guy we call plays for, the guy we count on to make things happen. Last year he was surrounded by a lot of freshmen and he gave them confidence that has carried over to big time to this year."

That was never more true than in the sectional championship at Middlebury. “We were up three or four at halftime of the conference championship and they came out and smacked us in the mouth in the second half,” says Aronowitz."We were up two on Saturday and we talked about it in the locker room that we have to respond far better than we did two weeks ago. To recognize the mistakes that we made and to execute was instrumental for us."

Maybe knowing themselves as well as they do will help Williams succeed against an Augustana squad that looks awfully familiar. The two teams haven’t played each other before, but they both rely on young players and have defied expectations to make it back to Salem. Even the stats are very similar.

Whatever happens on Friday, for Williams it will be the culmination of something that started three years ago and extends well beyond the gym in Salem.

“Williams is a really special place,” says Maker. "The tradition of the program is one thing, but it’s the character of the kids and the alumni – it’s a really special place – my wife and I are tickled that they continue to have success under Kevin’s leadership."

Michigan plays Oklahoma State in Indianapolis at 12:15 on Friday, so Duncan Robinson will be free to watch his favorite Division III team continue that tradition. I suspect Maker speaks for all of Eph nation when he says, “We’ll be wearing purple and gold this weekend for sure.”