November 16, 2009

2009-10 MIT Men’s Basketball Season Preview

THE SKINNY

A year following the program's most memorable campaign in decades, MIT returns to the hardwood in 2009-10 with lofty goals and a confident outlook toward putting together another  good season. On the surface, it would be preposterous to declare the Engineers a better basketball team after losing D3Hoops National Player of the Year, Jimmy Bartolotta, and starting point guard, Bradley Gampel. The duo logged a tremendous amount of minutes during their career donning the Cardinal and Grey, with Gampel pacing the New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) in assists and steals, and Bartolotta closing the season as the conference's all-time leading scorer. But despite their absence, MIT isn't necessarily looking to rebuild, but rather reload. The Engineers enter the season receiving votes in the D3Hoops Top 25 preseason poll for the first time in team history, and will quickly look to justify those expectations behind the improved play of its returning core and a solid incoming class with a strong passion for the game.

IN THE LEAD

Back to lead the team are tri-captains Billy Johnson, Patrick Sissman, and Eric Zuk. Johnson averaged 17.1 ppg last season as the team's power forward, but he might spend a majority of his time this year at the three. Although Johnson is 6'8", he is a constant threat from deep. Last season, Johnson finished third in the NEWMAC in made three's (behind teammates Bartolotta and Jamie Karraker) while averaging 7.2 boards. An All-Conference selection last season, Johnson's leadership has served as a tremendous influence for Tech's youth-laden squad. Sissman and Zuk, who both played significant minutes last year, will be a critical component of the team's success. Zuk dropped in 27 points at Suffolk as a sophomore last season and will likely spend most of his time on the wing, although the 6'5" forward was asked to spend most of last year playing out of position in the middle. Sissman has a strong understanding of the system and will once again split time at the point.

SECOND TIME AROUND

As the first rookie class to experience a win in the NCAA postseason, the maturation of this group will be key as MIT hopes to replicate last season's success. 6'4" sophomore Jamie Karraker will likely start the campaign at shooting guard and enters the season as the team's top deep threat. Karraker shot 42% from three-point range last season while averaging nearly 2.7 makes per game. If he is able to get open looks on kick-outs and screens, Karraker's impact could be devastating for the opposition. Billy Bender is difficult to place, although it isn't impossible to envision the 6'5" stat-stuffer logging minutes at all five positions. As a freshman, Bender saved MIT's season in the quarterfinals of the NEWMAC playoffs, while he duplicated those heroics with terrific play in the Engineers' First Round NCAA victory at Rhode Island College. Classmate Arni Lehto saw limited action as a rookie, but he shot the ball well and made good decisions when given the opportunity.

ADDITIONS

Besides an upgrade in talent, the biggest bonus for MIT entering the new year is its significantly improved depth. Expected to lead the way is sophomore transfer Noel Hollingsworth. At 6'9", Hollingsworth is a complete package offensively. He sees the floor well, can pass out of the post, and is even one of the team's best three-point shooters when his feet are set. Hollingsworth appeared in six games last season at Brown University, but will likely start at the five for MIT, as he is a true low post player with a deft touch around the basket. Potentially taking over Johnson's place at the strong forward is 6'8" rookie Will Tashman. A bruising defender and rebounder on the offensive end, Tashman will be asked to produce big numbers as a freshman. He is a highly skilled player with the ability to play with his back to the basket or step out and be a face-up player. Fellow freshman Ben Montgomery will also play a pivotal role in the Engineers' game-plan this season.  Montgomery is 6'8" and brings a tenacious enthusiasm to the game every time he steps on the court. He has a good feel for the game, and will definitely add a strong physical presence to the front line. Although the backcourt was dealt a difficult blow with the departure of Gampel and Bartolotta, the Engineers softened the impact by adding rookies Mitchell Kates, Jimmy Burke, Nick Sather, Devin Dee, and Patrick Gichuiri. Kates, who played the point at Exeter Academy, is the most exciting young point guard the program has had in years. He has excellent quickness and ball handling skills, and is feverishly working to become a lock-down defender and a reliable shooter. Jimmy Burke comes from a top high school program and has a great feel for the game with the ability to set up his teammates for easy baskets as well as consistently knock down the open jump shot.  Nick Sather brings an athletic and aggressive disposition to court.   He is a tireless worker who will help out early, especially with his tenacity at the defensive end.  Devin Dee is a hard-working wing with an ability to knock down the open jumper. His ability to progress into the college game will be pivotal to the success of the team this year.  Patrick Gichuiri is a 6'4" guard from Kenya, and although he has little game experience, he is very athletic and committed to improve.

ROAD TO THE POSTSEASON

MIT will have little time to reflect on its second 20+ win season in four years, the loss of its second All-American in the same time frame, and its first NCAA tournament win. A difficult conference slate looms as do match-ups against two of the top three teams from the GNAC (Emmanuel and Emerson), Tufts, and Salem State, who advanced to the NCAA Division III Sweet 16 last season. The Engineers will also face Gordon College, who was a 20-win team in 2008-09, and will play city and academic rival Harvard University for the first time in 24 years.  The schedule also features a tournament at always tough Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which will be opening a brand new facility when the Engineers come to town the first weekend of the season.

FINAL ANALYSIS

With Bartolotta off to Italy's top professional league, some might expect the Engineers to slink out of the national picture, but this team has the ability to be one of the biggest surprises in Division III. Eight of the 14 players on MIT's roster are new to the program, but the team will prove to be a tough assignment with its combination of size and ability. Unlike past years where MIT has relied primarily on its strong perimeter play to propel the offense, the difference for the Engineers this season could be its more balanced attack which will be able to get more points around the basket while still having a consistent perimeter attack. Assuming the team can stay healthy and the new additions can adjust to the college game, the Engineers have a chance to put together another successful season in their attempt to build a team that consistently finishes in the upper echelons of Division III basketball.