Young Jackets have some sting

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John DiBartolomeo is averaging 23 points per game but is drawing his coach's compliments for his unselfish play.
Rochester athletics photo 

Luke Flockerzi has been around basketball long enough to know that a coach never truly knows what they have in a group of players at the start of a given season.

That's because, in a game dominated by numbers, it's the unquantifiable entities that help good teams become great. Unselfishness, camaraderie, chemistry -- elements found on all great teams, and at the same time, impossible to measure before the games tip off.

Flockerzi, now 10 games into his third season as the head coach at Rochester, saw these attributes in his 2010-11 squad that advanced to the Sweet 16. He's seeing it again this season as the Yellowjackets sit at 10-0 overall and hold the No. 7 ranking in the latest Men's Top 25 poll.

"It's never guaranteed year to year, your team dynamic," Flockerzi said. "It's one of those things that you don't have absolute control over, but we've been very fortunate this year."

On paper, there was reason to cast doubts about Flockerzi's squad this season. Rochester returned 11 of its 15 players from a year ago, but lost three key contributors, most notably forward Nate Novosel, a four-time all-UAA standout and key cog in the middle. Of the 15 players on this season's roster, 10 are underclassmen and only three players in the regular rotation are upperclassmen. 

Of course, those three upperclassmen -- senior guard John DiBartolomeo, senior center Rob Reid and junior forward Nate Vernon -- are experienced, proven players, particularly DiBartolomeo, who was a second-team preseason All-American.

The key was the sophomore class. Some of the players got to play last season, some didn't. But so far this season, the sophomores have stepped up.

Second-year guard Tyler Seidman and forward Kent Coyne have started all 10 games along with DiBartolomeo, Vernon and Reid. It's not gone unnoticed by their coach.

"That sophomore class has really kind of stepped up and been key contributors for us early this year," Flockerzi said.

Last season, the Yellowjackets followed up their Sweet 16 run by missing the NCAA tournament entirely, a disappointing follow-up to one of the program's best seasons. Rochester was not able to duplicate its success on the road and struggled defensively. Through the 2012 portion of their schedule, the Yellowjackets are improved defensively, allowing just 62.8 points per game, down from 70.48 last season.

Rochester has already beaten five teams that played in some form of postseason a year ago, including a Hobart squad that reached the Sweet 16. Rochester beat them in the finals of the Wendy's Classic on Dec. 1, and again one week later at home, 86-80.

But Flockerzi pointed to a 66-59 win against RIT on Nov. 28 and an 82-60 win at Hamilton on Dec. 5 as the two key victories so far, both for different reasons. Rochester struggled offensively against RIT, but prevailed in the game thanks to their defense, something that might not have happened last season. And the Hamilton game showed Rochester's ability to win on the road, another characteristic lacking a year ago.

"You can't get comfortable, and this group's been hungry to prove something from the first day because they were a little disappointed that they didn't make the tournament last year," Flockerzi said. "I'm excited about what we can accomplish if we continue to maintain that focus."

DiBartolomeo has emerged as a Player of the Year candidate. The 6-0, 175-pound guard has seemingly done it all this season, averaging 22.7 points per game (21st in the country), 5.5 rebounds per game, 5.7 assists per game and 2.1 steals per game. Flockerzi has already won Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year honors in the UAA, one of the toughest conferences, top to bottom, in the country.

Nate Vernon is second on the Rochester team in scoring and is 41-for-45 from the free-throw line.
Rochester athletics photo

"He's the hardest working kid I've ever coached," Flockerzi said. "He's gotten noticeably better every single season. He's a basketball junkie, he's a gym rat. He continuously strives to improve every aspect of his game."

Flockerzi called DiBartolomeo "probably the most unselfish 23-point scorer in the country" and said the team likes to run much of its offense through Reid.

"It sounds crazy to say, just because John's averaging like 23 points a game, [but] our offense really isn't geared for one person," Flockerzi said. "It's kind of a read-based offense and our guys are unselfish to a fault."

Players like Vernon, who is quietly averaging 13.4 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 44 percent from 3-point range, and sophomore Tyler Sankes, the Yellowjackets' third leading scorer despite not starting a game, have helped foster a team-first attitude.

It's impossible to measure that attitude, but the most obvious way to try is simply by looking at a team's record. Rochester, in that case, is perfect so far.

Now Flockerzi's biggest challenge is keeping his team hot. Rochester last played on Dec. 8 and won't play again until Jan. 2, when it hosts RIT before the start of conference play.

"It's almost like two seasons," Flockerzi said. "We really approach that week back [after break] as kind of a second preseason."

Men's Northeast: Williams stays hot

Middlebury remains the team to beat in the NESCAC, and for good reason. But Williams is doing its best to keep pace with the No. 2 team in the country.

The Ephs closed out their pre-Christmas schedule by winning their last three, which helped soften the blow from a home loss to Stevens on Dec. 1. Williams handed Springfield, a solid 8-3 team off to its own strong start, a convincing 84-69 loss on Dec. 8. Junior center Michael Mayer, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, led the way with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Senior guard James Klemm finished with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, including 6-of-8 from 3-point range. But arguably the biggest contribution came from junior forward Taylor Epley, who poured in a game-high 27 points.

"For Taylor, I think this was a coming out party," Williams coach Mike Maker said on the school's athletics website. "He's a very talented young man. He can shoot from behind the arc, and he can also post and drive. We all know what a good shooter James Klemm is from the three. Michael Mayer, as usual, posted another double-double."

Epley is averaging 16.8 points per game this season and is a key reason why the Ephs have resembled the Final Four teams of 2009-10 and 2010-11, as opposed to their 17-8 showing last season.

Men's East: NYU edges Stevens

Carl Yaffe and Evan Kupferberg each scored 18 points as NYU edged Stevens 71-65 on Dec. 9 in an early-season battle of two of the top teams in the East region.

Stevens entered the matchup just eight days removed from its impressive road win against Williams. NYU was just six days removed a disappointing loss to New Jersey City, its only defeat of the young season.

The game was every bit as close as might be expected between two teams that were, at the time, ranked in the Top 25. The Ducks and Violets remained deadlocked at 63-63 with just one minute to play. But after Max Wein sank a pair of free throws to put NYU ahead by two, Stevens' Russ Thompson missed a go-ahead 3-pointer.

NYU closed out the game by sinking its next six free throws as Stevens intentionally fouled.

It's tough to take too much away from an early December game, but this much is clear -- both of these teams have the talent and expectation to be playing come NCAA tournament time.

Women's Northeast/East: MCLA's Tremblay shines

It's been a pretty good December for Lucy Tremblay.

The Massachusetts College senior guard scored 20 or more points in three of the Trailblazers' five games, including a 39-point showing in a win against St. Joseph's on Dec. 7. In that same game, Tremblay eclipsed the 1,000-point plateau for her career.

Tremblay, a four-year starter and former MASCAC Rookie of the Year, has confirmed her status as one of the conference's top players this season. She is tied for second in points per game (17.6), 10th in rebounding (5.9), tied for fifth in assists (3.0) and sixth in steals (2.9).

But as good as December has been individually for Tremblay, it’s been a mixed bag for the Trailblazers. MCLA sits at 5-4 overall after close road losses to Salisbury (5-5) and Union (6-3).

MCLA is back in action Dec. 28 at Lycoming in Lycoming's holiday tournament.

This week's buzzer beaters

Dec. 8: Aaron Davis beats the buzzer for WPI at Fitchburg State to keep the Engineers unbeaten. Watch

Top 25: Middlebury, Rochester men move up

Middlebury and Rochester rose to No. 2 and No. 7, respectively, in this week's Men's Top 25 poll.

WPI (No. 18), Albertus Magnus (No. 20), Williams (No. 24) and Amherest (No. 25) also cracked the top 25. NYU, MIT, Rhode Island College and Stevens all received votes.

Amherst again finished as the top ranked East/Northeast team in the Women's Top 25 poll at No. 9. Tufts remained at No. 10, while Southern Maine climbed three spots to No. 16. Emmanuel (No. 17) and Babson (No. 20) also were ranked. Williams received votes.

Quick hits

Keegan Pieri finished with 22 points, six rebounds and three blocks in Bowdoin's 64-58 win vs. Colby on Dec. 7. ... Saleek Marshall (nine points) was one of seven Framingham State players with at least seven points in the Rams' 57-54 win against Alfred on Sunday. ... Matt Vadas scored 23 points and Aaron McBurnie added 22 points in Connecticut College's 83-74 win over Mitchell on Dec. 11. Mitchell's Alex Del Rio had a game-high 25 points in the loss. ... Patrick Dinneen poured in a game-high 25 points and added four rebounds, three assists and four steals in Salve Regina's 77-61 win vs. Wheaton on Dec. 6. ... Optimystik Kinard scored 32 points on 11-of-14 shooting, including 6-of-9 from 3-point range, as St. John Fisher routed Pitt-Bradford 106-57 on Sunday. ... Union knocked off Utica, 82-61 on Dec. 11, behind Joe Mason's 21 points and seven rebounds. ... Frank Stortini tallied 20 points and 11 rebounds in Bard's 86-22 victory against Sarah Lawrence on Dec. 8. ... Kathryn Campbell scored 19 points and Devin Shea added 16 points and four steals in the Ithaca women's 84-52 victory over SUNYIT on Dec. 14. ... Lianna Carrero tallied 31 points, five rebounds and six assists, while teammate Lindsay Karle added 23 points as Albertus Magnus downed Springfield, 64-59 on Dec. 11, to improve to 8-1 overall.

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Justin Goldberg

Justin Goldberg is a newspaper copy editor and freelance writer in southwest Virginia. Originally from New York, he played Division III basketball in that colder region of the country, but moved to Virginia in 2008 to earn his M.F.A. in creative writing. He has written for multiple publications, including C-VILLE Weekly and The Roanoke Times. He is happy to join for his first season as the Around the East-Northeast columnist.