Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Engineers Eye Historic Win Against Wheaton

Nationally-ranked No. 11 MIT will be in an unfamiliar place when it travels to Wheaton on Wednesday, and not because most the team has never visited Norton. The Engineers will be seeking retribution against the only opponent that has derailed its otherwise perfect ledger against Division III competition. On Jan. 23, the Cardinal and Gray suffered its only home loss as the Lyons rode a blistering perimiter attack, and a clutch finish, to a 60-57 victory. MIT has won five straight games since the setback, and can clinch its first outright regular-season league crown with a payback win in Emerson Gymnasium.

Statistically, the game is a mismatch, as MIT leads the NEWMAC in scoring defense while Wheaton has been the most generous defensive unit in the league by a wide margin (72.6 ppg). The Lyons also pace the league in turnovers and are saddled with the conference's worst assist-turnover ratio. While the Engineers have been the top rebounding team in the NEWMAC, Wheaton is also at the conference basement in offensive rebounds, and only Ben Stehle (6.6) averages more than four boards per game.

Despite the obvious discrepencies on paper, most insiders understand that Wheaton has the talent to play with anyone. A sexy pick in the offseason to be one of the NEWMAC's strongest teams, the Lyons have been riddled with injuries and inconsistent play. Although Wheaton is 8-14 on the season, it has three victories over regionally-ranked teams (MIT, WPI, and Bridgewater State). Anthony Copolla is the team's top offensive threat, although his offensive production has dropped every season since a blistering rookie year. Copolla is still fourth in the league in scoring (17.3 ppg), while he and teammate Jaxon Leo are viable threats from beyond the arc.

The key match-up in Wednesday's game will be the point guard battle between MIT's sensational rookie Mitchell Kates and Wheaton sophomore Brendan Degnan. Although Kates' explosiveness had been slowed by an injury a few games prior, Degnan delivered the superior game in the teams' first meeting by routinely breaking down the Engineers' defense with outstanding penetration. Degnan, who isn't much of a threat from the outside (28% on the year), also managed to knock down all three of his outside attempts, and scored eight straight points in the final two minutes to clinch the surprising win in Rockwell Cage.

To secure their first regular-season sweep over MIT since 2003-04, the Lyons will need another hot performance from the floor. They will also need to replicate their success in keeping MIT's offense off balance. Tech sophomore Noel Hollingsworth, who is incredibly proficient in the post, endured his worst game of the season and finished 3-of-13 from the field. In addition, the Engineers had their worst three-point shooting performance of the season, hitting just 4-of-20 attempts. With Hollingsworth averaging 20.8 ppg since, and MIT averaging a league-best 7.5 three's per game, MIT should feel confident in its quest for the single-season program record for wins.