After enjoying a strong winning streak to start off the season and a shortened winter break, the men’s basketball team was back in action on December 30. Over break, the team lengthened its winning streak to nine games, only losing two matches vs. Union College and Hobart College. The men have already won more games so far this year than last year in total.
According to Head Coach Brian Dunne, practicing on an empty campus was beneficial to the team. “I think it is a huge advantage. There are no distractions so all we are focused on is basketball. [I’m] not worried about the players being stressed with academics or running from class to practice,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “[They] can practice in the middle of the day and a lot is accomplished: film, team lifts, team activities, extra workouts. The only downfall is having home games and no students on campus to fill the stands.” Junior co-captain Alex Snyder agreed, but does not necessarily enjoy the lack of winter break: “Its always tough in the beginning to come back to Vassar so quick,” he wrote. “We don’t have much time to be with our families and be home, but being back and having nothing to worry about besides basketball is not too bad either.”
The team quickly moved back into play at the Trinity College Tournament, held in Hartford CT. In its first match vs. Wentworth Institute of Technology, the team won 60-54 with early points by junior forward Luka Ladan [Full Disclosure: Luka Ladan serves as Assistant Sports Editor for The Miscellany News], sophomore guard Johnny Mrlik and junior guard Curtis Smith. Mrlik had 23 points overall for the Brewers. “Wentworth was very well-coached and it was our first game in 20 days,” wrote Head Coach Dunne. “We played well enough to win, and defended very well. It was an ugly game, a lot of fouls, and both teams struggled to execute, but we buckled down the stretch and got the job done. It was great for us to get back on the court and compete after being off for so many days.”
The next day, the team faced the Trinity College hosts, and took the tournament title by only one point. Mrlik had 16 points, Snyder had 14 and sophomore guard Erikson Wasyl had 11. Both Mrlik and Snyder were named to the All-Tournament team.
“The two wins at the Trinity Tournament were big for us,” explained Synder. “The first proved that we could win games even when we did not play our best. The second one showed us that we could beat teams that are considered better.”
Coach Dunne was also content with the outcome after playing a New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) team such as Trinity. “The win against Trinity was a signature win for our program. We are currently 2-0 against NESCAC teams, and the program had zero wins in program history against NESCACs. Trinity was a lot bigger than us and again we defended at a high level and really did a good job of dictating the pace of the game,” he wrote. “It was just a great game and had the feel of an NCAA Tournament game. [There was] a lot of back and forth, and to win the game at the free throw line with .4 seconds left was just a sweet feeling. There is nothing better than going to someone’s tournament and beating the host school in the championship game.”
On Tuesday, January 7th, the team went on to play its last non-league game vs. St. Joseph’s College – Brooklyn, winning 69-60. While Vassar’s defense was integral to this win, shooters Mrlik, Wasyl, Snyder, junior Andrew Adkins and freshman Otis Osman had a total of 26-of-55 field goals and 9-for-21 three-pointers. The team’s success brought the total winning streak to nine wins in a row. After a losing record last year, Head Coach Dunne is impressed. “I knew going in we had a group that was capable of having a special season — this is all of the players. They have bought in and stayed locked in, and have played with urgency and intensity all season,” he wrote. “Last year is in the past and we rarely bring it up, but we use that frustration to fuel our success we have had this year.”
The team’s success mostly stems from an on-field dynamic between the offensive and defensive sides. “We play a pack line style defense and make it difficult for our opponents to drive the basketball,” explained Dunne. “We have superior helpside defense which puts us in great position to rebound. We are currently 1st or 2nd in a majority of defensive categories in the league and that is a testament to our players’ willingness to get in a defensive stance and defend.” As for the offensive end, “We run a Princeton-style on misses and a 2 guard style on makes. We have bright players so I want to challenge them,” he wrote. “Our offense is predicated on making reads on how the defense is playing us. We have a counter to everything the defense could throw at us. It is difficult to guard and allows us to dictate the pace of games and grind teams out in the half court.”
Unfortunately, this dynamic wasn’t enough in the team’s second loss of the season vs. Union College. The winning streak ended when Union brought the score to 79-74, led by Dutchman Terell Winney. In the team’s next match, Hobart College defeated the Brewers only 63-61.
Sophomore Johnny Mrlik has also been integral to the team dynamic. A sophomore forward on the team, Mrlik has started in all 13 games thus far. Mrlik was named Liberty League Offensive Performer of the Week on January 6 earlier this winter season, and was also named the Most Valuable Player at the Trinity College Tournament earlier this month.
After these two league losses, the men were able to bounce back vs. Rochester Institute of Technology, making it the first time in five years that the team has brought its wins to double digits. According to Snyder and Dunne, the two league losses had propelled the team forward. “[It] was a great learning experience for us. We hadn’t lost since November 15th. We all need to be more in the moment and be mentally tough,” wrote Dunne. “Every league game is important and we have to have that mentality.”
Snyder also commented, “I just expect us to play our hardest every night and leave everything out on the court. I do believe we have the talent to be a top four team in the Liberty League and eventually play for the Liberty League title.” As for the rest of the season, Snyder is confident. “I have no issue saying that we are going to be just fine,” he wrote. “It would have been extremely difficult to not lose a second game this season, and seeing the way we were outplayed by Union is only going to inspire us to work harder.”