|Joseph Kuo, who averages 13.3 points per game, and the Cardinals will try to regain their momentum when they travel to Middlebury on Friday night.
Wesleyan athletics photo
The expectations for Joe Reilly’s squad couldn’t have been higher.
Two years removed from their initial New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) title and first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the Wesleyan men’s basketball team has been one of the biggest surprises thus far, winning 11-straight contests before losing to Rhode Island College on Tuesday night. That winning streak included a win over Marietta, which was ranked No. 4 at the time.
Wesleyan, currently ranked No. 9 in the latest D3hoops.com Top 25 Poll, entered the holiday break ranked 17th overall.
“We had high expectations (at the beginning of the season) and so far we’re living up to those self-imposed expectations,” said Reilly. The Cardinals fell two wins short of tying the program’s best start of 13 victories, which dates back to 1911-12 season. But this year's team can still surpass the 1912 squad since that one only played 13 games total.
Those high expectations, Reilly speaks of, stem from a close-knit group that loves to play basketball. Seriously, it’s not cliché.
One year removed from a disappointing setback to Middlebury in the opening round of their conference’s tournament, the Wesleyan men’s basketball team, captained by senior Harry Rafferty, returned to the hardwood more determined and motivated to play their best basketball. And so far, they haven’t disappointed.
Wesleyan began its campaign by capturing a pair of early season tournaments – the Herb Kenny Tournament and Harold Brodie Tournament – before securing their initial Little Three victory over Williams (72-62) last month.
The Cardinals momentum continued shortly after with back-to-back wins over Vassar and Westfield State, and then ten days later at the Daytona Beach Shootout against Washington & Lee and Marietta.
The win over the Pioneers was the Cardinals’ first in the series history – the two teams last met during the 1968-69 season.
Reilly, who guided his squad to this tournament two years ago, felt his unit deserved some extra games before returning to the court this month – it certainly helped keep the momentum intact, too. And while both non-conference games were viewed as tremendous measuring sticks, Wesleyan proved they belong with the top teams in the country.
“We have a roster full of guys that just absolutely love to play and love the game of basketball, and the one reason we scheduled this tournament and fundraised for it was because it just shortened the break,” said Reilly.
“We (competed) in the same tournament two years ago, and I thought it was a great bonding experience for the team … It was fun getting a perspective of teams you see in the Top 25 and make the NCAA tournament, so I think it is a good reference point for our guys to validate how good basketball is in New England because those teams are great (that we competed against), but it also shows there are a lot of great teams in our region too.”
Wesleyan doesn't have much time to regroup after Tuesday's disappointing shooting performance at Rhode Island College. The Cardinals head to No. 22 Middlebury to open NESCAC play on Friday night. Their first home game in conference will be against No. 3 Amherst, which also lost on Tuesday night to Eastern Connecticut State. With five ranked teams in the Top 25, Wesleyan can't afford an off night.
If Wesleyan is to continue its early season success, they’ll need everyone on its roster to be ready to go – again, it sounds cliché, but Reilly has a unit that features some impressive first-years and reserves that can step-in and help when needed.
“We have some young guys that are knocking at the door, so my challenge is to have our scrimmages in practice just be as challenging as the games that we’re playing,” said Reilly. “Again, the guys love to play and compete, and we’re starting to play a lot of guys, so it always has to be next guy up.”
As of recently, it’s been players like Rafferty and classmate Joseph Kuo, junior Nathan Krill and sophomore Salim Green that have jumpstarted the offense, while controlling the defensive glass. Sophomores Jordan Bonner and Kevin O’Brien have also been crucial on defense, averaging 5.2 and 4.2 defensive rebounds per game, respectively.
With a national ranking and an strong start to the season in hand, Wesleyan will look to keep its momentum going, but Reilly knows it won’t be easy.
“We’re excited about our start, but we know we have a lot of work to do,” said Reilly. “Everybody in this conference is really good and you’re going to have to play your best to win NESCAC games.”