Season Preview: Brown Bears

Co-captain Tucker Halpern will try to instill some consistency to a talented team that struggled to put together back-to-back forty minute efforts last season. (Photo Credit: brownbears.com)

The Brown basketball team showed last year that it was talented enough to beat anyone in the league when it knocked off tournament-bound Princeton and held double-digit leads twice against co-champion Harvard. Harnessing that talent and executing a game plan for a full forty minutes is the next step for a young Bears squad that looks to leap into the top half this season. Brown is a dangerous offensive team with proven weapons in the backcourt and on the wing, not to mention the help arriving on the interior. Last year though, the Bears struggled on the defensive end, ranking last in the league in adjusted defensive efficiency, giving up 1.09 points per possession (adjusted for opponent). On several occasions, the Bears failed to generate stops in key situations, including a 46-point half surrendered to Harvard in a head-scratching game at Lavietes. This season, the Bears will look to buckle down and get serious about defending their bucket.

 

Key Losses: The Bears said goodbye to four seniors last spring, none more notable than Peter Sullivan, the fourth-leading scorer in Brown basketball history. Sullivan had an uncanny ability to get to the rim and the free throw line, knocking down 16 of 16 freebies during Brown’s signature victory over Princeton at the Pizz. Losing Sullivan’s on-ball strength and aggressiveness will hurt the Bears, but his departure also frees up more touches for a variety of efficient scorers including Sean McGonagill and Tucker Halpern. The Bears also bid adieu to guard Adrian Williams whose hot shooting streaks, inspired defense, and veteran leadership will need replacing. Garrett Leffelman was another streaky three-point shooter who averaged over 8 shots a game, representing vacated possessions that will have to be filled by the rising underclassmen.

 

Key Additions: Jesse Agel has brought in another solid recruiting class, including highly-rated 6’9” Brazilian big man Rafael Maia. We’ll get to Maia, but the most valuable addition to this team could actually be Stephen Albrecht, the Toledo transfer who sat out last season with a back injury. Albrecht is still on the road to recovery and a timetable for his return is not completely clear, though reports from the program seem to indicate that he is getting closer to playing form each week. Albrecht is a silky shooter who toasted Michigan State for 20 points during his freshman year for the Rockets, and followed up that performance by dropping 20 on eventual Sweet 16 participants Cornell in Toledo’s next game, his only taste of Ivy action.

 

Rafael Maia will provide some much needed size for a program that has lacked a big man with muscle since the days of Matt Mullery. described the 6’9”, 225 lb. Maia as “a rugged interior player who doesn’t try to be anything other than a center although he is capable of stepping out and making mid-range jumpers.” In our own look at the Class of 2015, Greg Kristof described Maia as “a big time presence on the defensive end and a freak athlete…one of the most talented shot blockers and rebounders the Ivy League has ever seen.” If the young Brazilian can live up to these high expectations and provide the Bears with a demanding inside presence, it would go a long way in improving the defensive outlook for this team and freeing up the perimeter talent for more open jump shots.

 

I’m going to bend the rules slightly and include thirty pounds of muscle on Andrew McCarthy to the “Key Additions” category. The junior, whose nickname, Iceberg Slim, may now be antiquated, looks like a different player after an offseason of intense lifting. His increased strength should go a long way in solving the Bears’ frontcourt problems.

 

Joe Sharkey will be valuable off the bench as a backup point guard, allowing McGonagill to stay fresh; last year, McGonagill played 37 or more minutes eleven times. This season, the Bears won’t have to lean as much on the returning Rookie of the Year.

 

As for the other freshmen, Christian Gore is a pure shooter with a quick release who could see some minutes off the bench. Forward Jon Schmidt (6’7”, 210) and guard Longji Yiljep (6’5”, 185) round out the new class, while senior guard Jean Harris returns to the team after leaving after his sophomore season. Harris went for 18 points on 7-7 shooting against St. Francis in the season opener two years ago. We’ll see if he can re-find that form.

 

Key Games:

November 14th vs. Albany at Syracuse, NY– The Bears take on the Great Danes in the first round of the NIT Season Tip-Off. Albany was picked 4th of 9 teams in the America East preseason poll. If the Bears can earn the victory, they’ll likely be rewarded with a date against Syracuse a night later in the tournament’s second round.

 

December 5th at Providence– If there was ever a year for the Bears to knock off their Big East cross-town rivals, this would be it. The Friars were picked to finish 15th in the preseason Big East poll.

 

January 21st vs. Yale– If the Bears want a chance at finishing in the top half, they’ll need to win some tough games early. With five of their first six league games against Yale, Harvard, Princeton, or Penn, splitting with the Bulldogs will be important. Yale, in particular, will provide a litmus test for Brown’s frontcourt.

 

February 4th vs. Penn– See above. Plus, the Bears have struggled with Penn in recent years, losing five out of their last six against the Quakers.

 

Backcourt: At the point, the Bears return Ivy League Rookie of the Year Sean McGonagill. By now, everyone knows the remarkable story of what McGonagill accomplished against Columbia last February. Along with the ability to create his own shot and minimize turnovers, McGonagill’s gritty determination will fuel the Bears’ backcourt this season. There’s no doubt that Albrecht will start at the two if he can regain his health. The duo of McGonagill and a healthy Albrecht is the most dangerous backcourt that no one is talking about. Of course, the Bears will be careful not to rush the transfer into playing situations. Look for the team to cap his minutes early in the non-conference if he is healthy enough to play. Junior co-captain Matt Sullivan will see significant time at the two, and if he can find some consistency with his shot, he’ll be a key piece of this offense, especially early in the season while injuries and inexperience keep others on the bench. The three freshmen, Sharkey, Gore, and Yiljep, may all see minutes off the bench, as well as athletic sophomore Josh Biber.

 

Wing/Frontcourt: All-Ivy Honorable Mention Tucker Halpern is a dangerous scorer on the wing. He can stroke from distance or get in the lane and finish at the rim. Halpern’s career high 29 points against Harvard last February were the most points the Crimson allowed to a league opponent all year. The junior co-captain is also a versatile shutdown defender, and Agel will ask him to lock down both big men and shifty guards. Andrew McCarthy has impressed on the offensive end with his length the past two years, but he’s been pushed around by bigger bodies at times, resulting in frustrating performances for the promising interior player. As mentioned earlier, McCarthy bulked up this offseason and should be much more comfortable making a home in the paint. If he can make use of his improved strength, the Bears will be able to stop penetration and second-chance baskets much more easily. Rafael Maia, the freshman, will be thrown right into the mix and asked to step up early in his career against a few of the best frontcourts the Ivy League has seen in years in Harvard and Yale. Dockery Walker will be a huge asset, most likely coming off the bench. The sophomore’s athleticism and vacuum-like tendencies on the boards will be vital in limiting opponents’ offensive rebounds. Walker brings a contagious energy to the floor that will be a great change-of-pace option for Agel. A starting spot is even in play for Walker, especially while Maia is still getting his feet wet, if he can learn how to knock down some free throws (41.1% in 2010-11). The 6’8” junior, Tyler Ponticelli, also provides some depth off the bench.

 

 

Prediction: It’s tough to call Brown a sleeper after the preseason polls placed the Bears 5th after last year’s disappointing 7th place finish, but the ceiling may be even higher for this team. If Bruno can somehow manage to stay healthy, there’s enough talent here to steal a few games from the Ivy’s top tier. I don’t think 9-5 is out of the question if this frontcourt is as improved as I anticipate and Albrecht is healthy. Nevertheless, surprises generally happen throughout the season and this team may be, as most seem to think, one year away from really challenging that top tier. Ultimately, I think the Bears struggle in the early going of league play, starting 2-4, but finish strong, winning four of their last five and settling in for a respectable 4th place finish at 7-7.

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