Last spring, the Vassar men’s basketball team won its first Liberty League championship, which in turn earned them another first: an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
On the heels of last season’s successes, the Brewers were selected as the Liberty League’s preseason favorite this winter, according to the League’s website. This was the first time the team has earned such an honor and marks a significant jump from the previous year’s preseason poll in which they were picked to finish fifth.
The accolade was just the latest step in the progression the program has enjoyed since Head Coach Ryan Mee’s hiring in 2018. Last season was Mee’s fourth at the helm and a fitting representation of the turnaround he has helped catalyze since his arrival. In 2018, Mee inherited a team that was coming off a 9-17 season. Last season, the Brewers finished 18-9 and won the conference title.
“It was an honor to be picked preseason #1 for the first time in school history,” Mee told The Miscellany News via email correspondence. “Our team earned that right but we all know what really matters is how we finish.”
Currently, Vassar finds itself firmly entrenched in a battle between the League’s best. The Brewers are 13-8 overall and 9-5 in conference play, which has them ranked fourth in the League but tied with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and St. Lawrence University for the second-best conference record.
Mee said that he considers the Liberty League to be one of the most balanced conferences in the country. “If you don’t show up on game day, you are going to get beat.”
Vassar came up short in both matchups against St. Lawrence, but split its season series with RPI and beat Ithaca on the road in December. The crucial second leg of its season series with Ithaca will be on Feb. 18, the Brewers’ last regular season game. Before then, Vassar has a conference game against RIT and crucial matchups against Skidmore and Hobart who are both currently 8-6 in Liberty League play and a threat to the Brewers’ current standing according to the League’s website. Barring an end-of-season collapse, Vassar is likely to finish in the league’s top six and have the opportunity to defend its tournament championship. Still, the games against Hobart and Skidmore will be crucial to determine seeding and home court advantage.
As the Brewers hit the home stretch of the final two weekends of decisive Liberty League play, it’s evident that the team is a long way from where it was five years ago. Mee praises his seniors, who now prepare for their final end of season run, for playing a pivotal role in the program’s turnaround.
“The seniors are very special to me. They were our first recruiting class and bought into the vision that [we] were selling. Our pitch was to come to an elite academic school and compete on a national stage. The work ethic they have shown on the court and in the classroom has exceeded expectations.”
This year’s senior class comprises the entirety of the Brewers’ most commonly used starting lineup, the same lineup that excelled last season. Such continuity is any college coach’s dream and the main reason why Vassar entered the season with high expectations.
Avni Mustafaj ’23 has emerged as the leader of that starting unit. Mustafaj leads the team in points, field goals made and free throws. He is also second on the team in rebounds and assists, behind Jack Rothenberg ’23, another key player in the Brewers’ lineup, and is only 45 points away from becoming a 1,000 point career scorer.
Mustafaj is a team captain for a second season, joined this year by Zach Johnson ’23, last year’s Liberty League player of the year according to Vassar Athletics. Johnson has only appeared in 10 games but has still managed to be a leading force for Vassar as a scorer and rebounder. Having Johnson playing at his junior-year form will be crucial to the Brewers’ postseason hopes.
“Avni and Zach, with the help of their teammates, raised the level of our program,” described Mee. “They carry the label of captain, but the group as a whole have done a good job of holding each other accountable.”
Beyond his senior class’ abilities on the court, Mee credits their success to the bond they have been able to form with each other. “I believe the turning point for our program was when our seniors decided to live together in an AirBnB in Maryland for the Fall Semester of 2020. The bond that was made while learning remotely was deeper than anything that could have happened on campus.”
As the season reaches its most important and challenging moments, Mee is urging his team to find consistency.
“If I had to choose one thing that might have cost us a game or two, [it] would be our sense of urgency,” he said. “If we played 40 minutes with the same sense of urgency that we have played the final five to ten minutes, I think we would have two to three more wins.”
He also has some confidence thanks to his senior class’ proven track record.
“I’ve been fortunate to be a part of a handful of championship teams and the common denominator is that your best players are your hardest workers.”
Beyond that, Mee is just making sure to enjoy the ride.
“My goal for our team is to compete to the best of our abilities every second we have together so we have no regrets. Knowing we left it on the floor, we will be able to come back to alumni weekends and reminisce about all the memories we made on and off the court.”