Williams plays defense

The Williams College defense has bottle up opponents all year long, allowing just 58.5 points per game.

The Williams College men’s basketball team is 14-1 for the first time since the 2018-19 season, and seems poised to hit the 20-win mark for the fourth time in five seasons.

The 20th-ranked Ephs are doing it this year by running quality offense and taking good shots. Jumping to the front of the line, however, should be their defensive play.

“Anytime you’re playing a lot of underclassmen, you don’t know where the defense is going to be,” Williams coach Kevin App said after Saturday’s 78-53 win over Middlebury, a win that handed the Panthers their first loss in 13 games.

Going into Tuesday’s road game at SUNY New Paltz, the Ephs are scoring at a 74.5 point-per-game clip, while giving up only 58.5 points per game. No team that Williams has beaten this year has topped the 70-point mark. The only team to do that was Amherst, when the Mammoths beat Williams 73-65 on Jan. 8.

“They’ve taken it on, and grown in their confidence at that end,” he said. “They’ve shown they can guard different ways, whether it’s gameplan options or just kind of conceptually. I’m definitely happy on that end.

“But we’ve got size, we’ve got physicality.”

App’s starting lineup consists of 6-foot-9 Nate Karren, 6-6 Spencer Spivy, 6-4 Cole Prowitt-Smith, 6-6 Jovan Jones and 6-7 first-year Declan Porter. When App subs, he has done it four at a time, keeping either Spivy or Prowitt-Smith on the court with 6-foot-6 Alex Stoddard, 6-7 Brandon Arnold, 6-8 Marc Taylor and 6-8 first-year Brandon Roughley. Few teams can match that kind of size and length.

“What we really have that we coaches realize is we have smart basketball players that know the game,” App said, “so, when we give them something, they know why and they go out and perform and execute it. That IQ that they show on the offensive end comes out on the defensive end too.”

Of Williams’ 14 wins, eight of them have come when the defense is giving up fewer than 60 points a game. Five times, Williams has held opponents to 55 or fewer points, and the Ephs held Hamilton to 45 in a 61-45 win on Jan. 7.

If the Williams defensive prowess continues to hold up, it could be the fewest points given up by a Williams team since App’s 2017-18 squad gave up 62.9 points per game. Before that, one has to go back to 2010-11, when the Ephs surrendered 63 points per game.

As Williams sprinted to the top of the NESCAC standings, the Ephs held their last four opponents under 60 points.

It started with an 82-53 win over Bowdoin, a team that is averaging 71.4 points per game. The next day, Williams beat Colby 74-58, and the Mules are averaging 74.5 points per contest.

Amherst is averaging 74.6 points per game, and the Mammoths fell 60-54 on Wednesday night. Then on Saturday, the Ephs held Middlebury to 53 points, and the Panthers are averaging 77.1 points per game.

When one looks at the top five teams in the D3hoops.com national Top 25, the Williams point averages fit right in.

Only two of the top five teams, No. 1 Randolph-Macon and No. 4 Washington University surrender fewer than 60 points per game. WashU gives up 56.5 points per game and Randolph-Macon surrenders 59.7 points per game. Williams would fit comfortably in between those two teams.

The rest of the top five: Wisconsin-Platteville (62.8 points), Illinois Wesleyan (63.5) and Wisconsin-Oshkosh (64.3) also play some pretty stout defense.

The week ahead promises to be a tough one for the Eph defense, as starting Tuesday night, Williams will play four games in seven days.

Williams opens Tuesday night at SUNY New Paltz, a team that is 10-6 and has won five of its last six games. The last time those teams played, Nick Taldis missed a 3-point shot at the buzzer as No. 7 Williams staved off a monumental upset, 70-68.

The Ephs will host Connecticut College and Trinity in NESCAC contests Friday night and Saturday afternoon, and will step out of conference for a Monday, 4 p.m., game against The College of New Jersey. The Lions and Williams have never met, but TCNJ’s coach knows Williams well. Matt Goldsmith is in his seventh year there. He played at Amherst and graduated in 2008, playing on David Hixon’s NCAA Division III championship team. He then spent three years as an assistant under the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame candidate.

While Goldsmith has never coached against Williams, as a player at Amherst, he went 9-0 against the Ephs.

“It’s one of those, the nature of the schedule. We’ve got to figure out the non-league games when we can,” said App. “Losing three games, we were able to get one of them back with TCNJ, but you can’t always dictate when they are right now.

“It’ll be another challenge, but I think these guys would prefer to get out and compete rather than deal with me in practice.”

Howard Herman can be reached at hherman@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6253.

Sportswriter-Columnist

Howard Herman is a sports columnist at The Berkshire Eagle. The dean of full-time sportswriters in Western Mass., he has been with the Eagle since 1988, and is a member of the New England Baseball and Basketball Hall of Fame.