After building a double-digit cushion heading into halftime last Saturday, the Brown Bears held off a feisty American squad late to earn the victory. It was Brown’s fourth road win of the season, an impressive feat since they had to wait until March 1st to earn their fourth road win last season. The triumph gave Brown their sixth one in eight contests, which matches the program’s best start since the 2001-02 season.
How exactly has second year head coach Mike Martin engineered the somewhat surprising start? Many who know more about Ivy League than I do anticipated a rebuilding campaign for Martin given the production lost. Brown was fifth in the conference in returning possession minutes, whereas younger upstarts like Penn, Dartmouth, and Yale were bringing back more experience. What has been the difference in the early going?
The Offense is Clicking
Brown has been a well-oiled machine offensively, scoring 1.06 points per possession (ppp) and shooting the lights out from behind the arc (42.2% 3PT). Typically “Brown” and “offensive firepower” aren’t mentioned in the same sentence – you’d have to go back to the 2007-08 Bears led by Craig Robinson to find a team as offensively efficient – yet they’re excelling at scoring the basketball. Six players who’ve played at least a quarter of Brown’s minutes have an offensive rating above 100. The two main contributors who fall below that mark, Cedric Kuakumensah and Tavon Blackmon, have helped out the team in other ways. Kuakumensah, a 6’8” athletic speciman you wouldn’t normally find in an Ivy League gym, possesses fantastic rebounding rates and is incredibly difficult to contain around the rim. Blackmon leads the team with 3.8 assists per game, despite his rookie status.
Against American, Brown scored 1.20 ppp thanks to a balanced attack where seven Brown players scored between seven and 14 points. Which brings me to my second point…
The Roster Has Far More Balance Than Previously Expected
Everyone knows how good Sean McGonagill is. The Ivy League all-conference first teamer has been exceptional (122.8 offensive rating while handling 20.6% of possessions), but on Saturday, American guard Darius Gardner made life difficult for the senior. McGonagill finished with 12 points, 6.5 points below his season average, and he had to work extremely hard to get decent looks at the basket. Fortunately for Martin’s crew, Brown was able to lean on others to pick up the scoring slack throughout the game.
“A lot of teams are going to focus on Sean, but I think we’ve got some weapons offensively and we have a pretty good idea of what certain guys can do and what their certain strengths are,” said Martin after the game. “And we want them to be confident and aggressive offensively.”
Currently six players are averaging double-digits when their numbers are measured over 40 minutes. On Saturday, the balance was on full display as Rafael Maia, Dockery Walker, McGonagill, Kuakumensah, and Blackmon all had at least five points in the second half. Martin can comfortably rely on eight players to provide big minutes down the stretch. Moreover, the added depth allows Martin to implement an up-tempo system when necessary and take advantage of transition opportunities to keep opposing defenses on their heels. The Bears tempo has increased significantly from last season, going from 64.8 possessions per game to 69.9. The 2013-14 pace currently places Brown in the upper third of the nation.
The Freshmen Are Exceeding Expectations
With much of the hype being cast on Brown’s Ivy League counterparts, the freshman trio of Blackmon, Leland King, and Stephen Spieth has flown considerably under the radar. Maybe the newcomers aren’t surpassing the expectations of Brown’s coaching staff, but they certainly are elsewhere. It’s a big reason why a team ranked 319th nationally in experience is off to a fast start.
“I think we have some pretty talented freshmen that are certainly helping us out,” explained Martin. “They’re getting opportunities because we don’t have a ton; we have four really good upperclassmen in McGonagill. Rafa [Maia], Cedric, and Dock Walker, and then after that we don’t have a lot of depth in our older class. So as a result our freshman are getting a lot of opportunity, whereas at some other schools those freshman aren’t getting opportunities. Our guys are producing. They’re making the most of those opportunities.”
As perhaps the purest point guard on Brown’s roster, Blackmon has allowed McGonagill to play more off-the-ball at times. His 1.5 assist to turnover ratio (30 assists/20 turnovers) thus far is somewhat impressive for a freshman, and should continue to improve. King and Spieth both possess the versatility to score anywhere on the floor, creating potential mismatches defensively. They’ve been efficient shooting twos (49.2% on 69 attempts) and threes (39.3% on 28 attempts).
The defense is still a work in progress (Brown gave up 1.13 ppp versus American), yet Brown has a wonderful opportunity to finish near the top of the Ivy League. Even though their do-everything guard McGonagill graduates at the end of the season, the Bears have been positioned well by Martin and his staff. In the meantime, Brown can realistically set their goals on winning the league championship this season.
“Our goal is to win every game we play,” said Martin. “Up and down in our league, there are some teams that are playing really well, We think we have enough to expect to win every game. That has to be our mentality.”
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