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Elite 8 Preview: Cavs face historic program in Amherst

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Aaron Walton-Moss enters the game as the Cavs' leading scorer, averaging 14.9 points per game. (Tony Durso / Submitted Photo)

Aaron Walton-Moss enters the game as the Cavs’ leading scorer, averaging 14.9 points per game. (Tony Durso / Submitted Photo)

It is the classic case of David vs. Goliath – the historic program that has commanded Division III basketball against the program on the rise.

The Cabrini Cavaliers are playing the role of David. For the second straight season, the Cavs are in the Elite 8. After making their first trip to Salem last season, two trips in five seasons under the helm of Marcus Kahn shows the growth of the program.

Meanwhile, look at the resume that Amherst boasts.

15 NCAA Tournament appearances. This season marking their fourth trip to the Elite 8. A win would give them their third Final Four appearance. And in 2007 and 2008, the Lord Jeffs played for a national championship. Once, they came away runners-up in 2008. In 2007, they claimed the title.

All this has happened under longtime head coach Dave Hixon. He has served as the leader of Amherst’s basketball program for 35 seasons. With a win on Friday night, it will be his 700th as head coach of the Lord Jeffs.

Overall, a look at the Amherst roster will show a team similar to Cabrini. They have a good balance of forwards and guards. They have their leaders in all offensive categories. Amherst’s center-of-attention player is junior Aaron Toomey. Toomey averaged 17.6 points per game and couples that with 4.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. Kahn compared the junior to Jimmer Fredette in a D3hoops.com article earlier this week.

Like the Cavaliers, the Lord Jeffs have scoring depth. Seniors Willy Workman, Peter Kaasila and Allen Williamson all average in double figures in points. Workman also averages 7.8 boards per game.

Off the bench, a core of four players have served as notable performers when the regular starting five need a break. Junior David Kalema and freshmen Connor Green and Ben Pollack rarely make the starting lineup but appeared in all 29 games for the Lord Jeffs this season.

That shouldn’t change in this case, as the Lord Jeffs work to rotate players and bring a disciplined game to the table.

What Cabrini is looking to do is disrupt the conduct that the Lord Jeffs possess. Just five times this season has an Amherst player fouled out.

Additionally, there are questions of how Cabrini’s three guard-two forward package will defend the Lord Jeffs more traditional system. Amherst consistently plays two guards, two forwards and a center.

Defense will also be a major factor. Amherst was one of the hottest shooting teams in Division III all season. They averaged 49.5 percent shooting for the season and shot 39.8 percent from beyond the arc. At the charity stripe, the Lord Jeffs shoot 73.9 percent.

The Cavaliers did struggle early in the season to defend three-pointers but what they can do is gain position. If Amherst chooses to shoot threes on a regular basis and look for opportunities from outside, Cabrini should be able to gain inside position with Jon Miller, DeLeon Floyd or even forward Fran Rafferty. One of the keys to stopping the Lord Jeffs will be grabbing boards and limiting possessions to just one shot.

This is by far the most complete team the Cavs will have faced so far in the tournament on paper. But the Cavs most difficult opponent on paper was the team they defeated last week in Wooster. And that also turned out to be their largest margin of victory in the tournament so far at seven points.

One thing the Cavs haven’t done in this tournament is back down from a challenge and a challenge they will get in Salem. This team has played one game at a time so far and this will be their toughest foe – facing the No. 2 team in the nation. And if they can win another hard-fought game against a top team in the nation, another would wait the following night in the national semi-final. The winner of the Cabrini-Amherst game faces the winner of a game between No. 3 North Central College (Ill.) and No. 7 Middlebury College.

But this is the road to any champions, challenging and trying. The Cavaliers are certainly playing with grit and determination. Those are two things that you can’t factor in on paper.

It might look like David vs. Goliath. But in this meeting between a historical program and a program on the rise, all bets are off.

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