January 29, 2012

Keene State men to host No.1 Middlebury on Tuesday

            KEENE. N.H. 1/29/12 – Earlier this year, the Keene State College women's basketball team went up against Amherst College, the top Division III team in the country.  Now it's the men's turn. 

            The Keene State men's basketball team will get an opportunity to see how it matches up against the top team in the country when it host Middlebury College, the top-ranked team in the D3Hoops.com poll, in a non-conference game at Spaulding Gym on Tuesday.  Tip-off is at 7 p.m. 

            "We used to have a real good series with them and for whatever reason we got away from it contractually, so it's great to start it up again," said KSC Coach Rob Colbert.

             The Owls will be facing the Panthers for the first time since a home-and-home series back in the 2000 and 2001 seasons. Keene State won both games, 94-82 at Middlebury and 88-73 the following season back at Spaulding Gym. Back then, Middlebury was a middle-of-the-pack team, scratching to reach the .500 mark in the NESCAC, arguably the top conference in the nation. 

            But that was then and this is now.  Under Head Coach Jeff Brown, now in his 15th season on the Middlebury bench, the Panthers turned the corner in 2007 when it went 19-8.  The next year, Middlebury went 24-4, winning its first NESCAC championship. Last season, the Panthers, making their fourth straight trip to the NCAA tournament, set a school record with a 28-2 record, advancing to the final four.   On Tuesday, they will bring a perfect 18-0 (6-0 NESCAC) record into Spaulding Gym.

            Colbert and his players are looking forward to the challenge.  "It's great to play a team of that caliber and gives our fans the chance to see what the no. 1 team in the country looks like and how we compare," said Colbert.

            "It's a game that everyone is excited to be playing" said junior Ryan Martin.  "We know if we can knock them off it will look good and open some eyes on the selection committee at the end of the season. It' also a good momentum boost for us the rest of the season.  We know can beat them and we'll be ready to go." 

            Keene State (14-4, 8-1 LEC), which extended its winning streak to a season high five games with Saturday's 86-70 win over UMass-Boston, appears to be playing its best ball of the season.  Colbert has settled on a starting line-up and is getting multiple contributions off the bench.  Martin leads a balanced scoring attack, averaging 16.1 ppg., followed by junior Eric Fazio (10.6 ppg.) and Rashad Wright (10.1 ppg.), who is also pulling down a team best 7.1 rebounds per game. 

            The only undefeated team left in Division III, Middlebury got its biggest scare on Saturday, watching as a last second shot by Williams clanged off the rim, preserving the Panthers 80-79 win.  Middlebury, which is fourth nationally in scoring margin (+19.3), is led by 6-8 senior forward Ryan Sharry who tops the team in scoring (21.5 ppg.) and rebounding (9.4 rpg.).  Sophomore Joey Kizel (13.2 ppg.) and junior Peter Lynch (10.3 ppg.) are also averaging in double figures. 

            Little East teams have fared well against the NESCAC so far this season, holding a slim 6-5 advantage. They would like to see that trend continue on Tuesday when Keene State, along with four other LEC schools, takes on NESCAC teams.  Keene State lost its lone game against an NESCAC opponent, dropping a 103-74 games at Williams back on Dec. 7.

            Looking to make a rattle in the rankings after knocking off No. 18 Eastern Conn., last Tuesday, Keene State will be facing its fifth nationally-ranked team on Tuesday.   They have a 2-2 record against the hoop hierarchy, having posted wins over Rhode Island College (92-91) and ECSU (64-56) while coming up short against Western Conn. (94-87) and Williams (103-74).

            Martin said the teams' previous games against ranked opponents can only be beneficial. "I think it helps knowing that we belong and we can also be one of the top teams in the country," he said. "I think we'll go into the game very confident and ready to win."

            We've more than held our own against ranked teams so far this season," said senior Ollie Hunter.  "We're playing better as of late, so we're not going to back down from anybody, I think we'll definitely be ready."