Season Preview: Dartmouth Big Green

With its core returning, can the Big Green crack the top half of the league for the first time since 2009?
With its core returning, can the Big Green crack the top half of the league for the first time since 2009?

In 2012-13: 9-19, 5-9, T-6th place, No Postseason

A Look Back

Breakthrough years usually consist of more than a 5-9 record and second-to-last finish in the conference, but last season represented a quantum leap for a squad that had gone 3-39 in Ivy League play since 2009. Dartmouth went three years between Ivy League road wins in that span and a trip to Leede Arena was usually viewed as a reward for enduring Harvard the previous night on the northern road trip.

Things were different in 2012-13. If not for a last-minute meltdown, the Big Green would have beaten eventual champ Harvard on the road in January. And even after that overtime loss, Dartmouth held its own, playing every team close at least once en route to five wins in the conference.

The task now facing Paul Cormier as he enters the fourth year of his second stint in Hanover is to better that record once again and finish .500 or higher in the Ancient Eight. He’ll attempt to do that with most of last year’s team intact. Center Matt LaBove, the sole graduating senior, averaged just four minutes per game. The only significant loss is junior forward Jvonte Brooks, the team’s leading scorer two years ago who chose instead to play for the Big Green football team. Brooks and Cormier did not get along, and a thumb injury only made it more difficult for Brooks to see the court. Ultimately Brooks played just two minutes over the final eight Ivy League contests, during which Dartmouth went 3-5. Though Brooks could help this year’s team, the Big Green still managed all right without him last year.

One of the youngest teams in the country last year, Dartmouth was led by forward Gabas Maldunas, who became the first Dartmouth player to earn All-Ivy honors since 2009 (Second Team). Guards Tyler Melville and Alex Mitola both shot better than 39% from beyond the arc last season, and freshman forward Connor Boehm proved a decent scoring option in the post alongside Maldunas, though the two struggled to find success at the same time. Melville in particular flourished after Cormier inserted him into the starting lineup on Feb. 2 and his 9-of-11, 23 point performance almost keyed an upset at Princeton on March 2.

2012-13 was a year of fits and starts for the Big Green, as the team endured a five-game midseason losing streak before winning three of its last four to avoid its fourth consecutive last-place finish. Consistency will be the key this season if a young Dartmouth team is to take the next step.

Players to Watch

Gabas Maldunas, Junior – The 6-9 Maldunas was the team’s best player last season, gobbling rebounds in the paint and operating as a decent scoring threat out of the low post. His averages of 11.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks all led the team, and his contributions on defense were what prevented a bad unit (102.2 points allowed per 100 possessions) from being even worse. Among Dartmouth’s six highest minutes-getters, Maldunas’ 97.4 Defensive Rating was by far the best (next closest: 103.8) and outside of Maldunas, no player averaged higher than 0.2 blocks per game. It’s asking a lot for Maldunas to carry the team offensively as well, and he does have some help in that regard. But it’s essential that the Lithuanian play more consistently; 28 and 8 nights like the one he enjoyed against Cornell are great, but Maldunas also scored seven points or fewer five times in Ivy play. Part of that is due to Cormier (who played Maldunas off the bench for a three-game stretch midway through the year, including just 30 minutes combined against Columbia and Cornell), but if Dartmouth is to improve, Maldunas must be the one to lead them.

Alex Mitola, Sophomore – Mitola was thrown into the fire immediately as a freshman and responded well, scoring in double digits his first five games and shooting 39% from three-point range on 166 attempts (third in the league). The 5-11 point guard showed the ability to create his own shot on occasion, though he struggled to do the same for others, averaging just 2.0 assists per game. Mitola needs to keep firing, but if he’s going to lead the team in minutes again, he must improve his passing. If Mitola can make a jump in that department, he’ll be on his way to the upper tier of Ivy point guards.

Cole Harrison, Freshman – The team’s top recruit, the 6-10 Harrison offers Cormier some tantalizing opportunities when it comes to setting his lineup. He averaged seven points and eight rebounds per game at powerhouse Montrose Christian (Md.) last season (Kevin Durant’s alma mater) and his size and touch make him an intriguing option for the Big Green. With Maldunas on the low block and Harrison on the elbow, Dartmouth can play high-low out of the post while spacing the floor for Mitola and Melville. If he develops quickly, he can really help the Big Green offense, but if nothing else he should see the floor often because of his size.

Question Marks

Scoring — Though Dartmouth’s offense was markedly improved last year (Offensive Rating jumped from 90.4 to 95.3), that’s not really saying much considering the Big Green ranked 345th, 335th and 324th nationally in points per possession the previous three seasons. Mitola could occasionally free himself from his defender on the perimeter and Maldunas and Boehm both showed at least a hint of a post game last year. But too many Dartmouth possessions ended in contested jumpers after 30 seconds of unsuccessfully probing the opponent’s defense. If Harrison can give the Big Green another reliable threat in the paint, Dartmouth’s offense could make a nice jump. Otherwise, Cormier will have to find a way to create better scoring opportunities, because Dartmouth isn’t going to improve as a team if it finishes last in FG% and 3FG% for a second consecutive season.

The Second Half — Dartmouth held halftime leads in eight games last season but only won four of those contests. In losses to Harvard (twice), Penn (Feb. 16) and Princeton (March 2), the Big Green outscored its opponents by an average of 3.8 points in the first half but were outscored by a whopping 12.0 points in the second half. It’s obviously harder to hold a lead against good squads like Harvard and Princeton, but playing one good half was a consistent theme for the Big Green in losses. If Dartmouth is to improve, it has to avoid those second-half mistakes, whether it’s allowing Penn to shoot 16-for-21 in the second stanza or blowing a five-point lead to Harvard with 32 seconds to play.

Key Non-Conference Games

@ Illinois, Dec. 10

@ St. John’s, Jan. 18

Prediction

Dartmouth should be stronger this year than it was in 2012-13, but that also looks to be the case for most of the league. A jump to the top half of the standings will be difficult, but Dartmouth was two wins from .500 last year, which would have put them in a tie for fourth. With Maldunas, Mitola, Melville and Boehm, Dartmouth has a promising core. If one or two of the supporting cast can take a leap – whether it’s Malik Gill, John Golden or an incoming freshman – seven wins is doable. As it stands, I think the depth of the league and Dartmouth’s inability to create shots down the stretch will cause the Big Green to fall just short. Put me down for 6-8 and fifth place in the Ancient Eight. 

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