Bear necessity wins for Brown

After winning on the road against Central Connecticut this Saturday, Brown basketball finds itself as the only Ivy League team with a winning record (5-4) heading into the first week of December.  The Bears’ 75-58 victory was its best road victory since back-to-back wins against Providence and Central Connecticut State in December 2014. With its yearly rematch with the Friars scheduled for this Tuesday, it is worth spending time reviewing the first month of the Brown season before looking to the future.

Heading into the season, the Bears were picked for eight place in the conference preseason poll. Despite that ranking, Coach Mike Martin was confident in his team’s leadership and guard play. Each of his three tri-Captains, Tavon Blackmon, Steven Spieth and JR Hobbie had four years of experience. Sophomore Obi Okolie, also played a large number of minutes last year. The biggest concern for the team, according to the coach, was lack of front court experience, following the graduation of one of the best defensive players in school history, Cedric Kuakumensah.

For Coach Martin, everything starts with the team’s point guard, Tavon Blackmon.  After the first nine games, Blackmon, a four year starter, is scoring 11.8 points (15th in the Ivies) and 4.2 assists (fourth) per game, along with shooting 87.2 percent from the free throw line (second) and 47.4 percent from three (sixth).  While Blackmon certainly has been leading from the point, it is hard not to think that this is a team with two engines, given the POY-type season that Steven Spieth is having.  Spieth, another four-year starter, is currently averaging 18.3 points (second), 6.8 rebounds (fourth), 4.8 assists (second), 1.6 steals (second) and 36.8 minutes (first) per game, as well as hitting 53.2 percent (fifth) from the field and 88.7 percent (third) from the charity stripe.  Hobbie, the team’s sixth man and three-point specialist, is leading the team with 19 three-pointers and the Ivy League with a 51.4 three point field-goal percentage.

In terms of career milestones for the captains, Spieth recently went over the 1,000 point mark, and presently holds the No. 25 spot in the school’s all-time scoring list.  Blackmon is fourth in all-time assists for Brown, closing in on 400 for his career (presently, 394), while sitting at 942 total points. Hobbie is Brown’s fourth all-time three-point shooter at 210. With Sean “Professor” McGonagill holding the career record of 249, Hobbie has a chance at moving into the top spot before the end of the season.

Okolie missed the first third of the 2015-16 season with an injury, before starting the last eleven games of the season.  Fully healed, Coach Martin was expecting a breakout season from the second year guard.  Unfortunately, Okolie’s season has been up and down with solid games against Albany (17 points), Niagara (15 points), and Marist (11 points), while missing out on double digits in the other six contests.  He presently finds himself at 8.1 points per game, shooting 33.8 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from three.

In the frontcourt, first-year Josh Howard has provided solid play and exceeded expectations with his strong instincts around the basket.  Starting all nine games, Howard, the son of NCAA and NBA star Juwan Howard, is averaging  12.1 points (14th) and 4.2 rebounds (20th) per game, while shooting 55.1 percent from the field (third).  Sophomore forward Travis Fuller has provided strong numbers off the bench, averaging 7.9 points and 5.1 rebounds in 17.3 minutes per game.

Typical for a Mike Martin team, Brown is playing an up-tempo game on both sides of the ball.  On offense, the Bears push the ball quickly toward the basket, primarily looking for layups and fouls over the three-pointer.  Defensively, the team focuses on pressuring turnovers, shutting down the three, and stopping teams late in close games.  The Bears are 37th in the nation in adjusted tempo, with 73.4 possession per 40 minutes.  The team is third in the Ivies and in the top ninety nationally, scoring 77.6 points per game.  However, they are seventh in the Ivies and the bottom ninety in Division I, giving up 78.1 points per game.

With free throws, the Bears are getting to the line 27.3 times (first in Ivies; Top 20 nationally) and hitting 20.9 a game (first in Ivies; Top 10 nationally).  Conversely, the Bears’ opponents are getting to the line 21.6 times a game and scoring only 14.9 points a game.  In turnovers, Brown is committing 15.0 a game, which is sixth lowest in the conference and bottom hundred nationally. Defensively, the team is forcing 15.8 turnovers a game, which is the most in the Ivies and in the top 50 nationally.  The team is hitting 6.7 three-pointers a game, which is seventh lowest in the conference.  Its opponents were shooting threes at 5.9 a game, the lowest in the Ivies and in the bottom 60 nationally.

The Bears are allowing its opponents a league worst 50.1 percent field-goal percentage and bottom fifty 55.2 percent effective field-goal percentage. In rebounding, Brown’s 31.9 per game are the lowest in the conference and in the bottom fifty nationally. Fortunately, it is holding its opponents to 33.6 rebounds a game, which is a league low and in the hundred lowest totals at the Division I level.

Looking at the team’s metrics and style of play, Brown (KenPom No. 240) has been able to claim larger victories against some of the weakest teams in the nation, such as No. 302 Niagara (nine points), No. 332 Morgan State (six points), No. 333 St. Francis of NY (10 points) and No. 337 Central Connecticut (17 points).  Against teams nearer in rank, the Bears have had closer contests, with a one point home win against No. 279 Bryant (which could have been a loss except for an all-time blunder, while suffering neutral site losses to No. 237 Marist by eight and No. 177 Albany by four.  Playing stronger teams on the road, the Bears predictably lost by 29 to No. 22 Cincinnati, but surprisingly loss by only seven against cross state rival No. 41 Rhode Island.

Before opening the Ivy League schedule in January, Brown has road contests against Providence (No. 56) and NJIT (No. 216), while competing at home against Maine (No. 340), Quinnipiac (No. 270), Stony Brook (No. 233), Division III Emerson and Division III Johnson & Wales.  While the team has the potential to be 10-6 going into the league schedule, the quality of the teams in the Ivy League, as well as the Bears’ style of play, does not translate to a significant improvement from last year’s 3-11 conference record.

Based on projections, Brown has the highest chance of league wins at home against Dartmouth (No. 291), Cornell (No. 241) and Columbia (No. 218) with outside possibilities at wins at home against Penn (No. 181) and on the road against Dartmouth. Time will ultimately tell if Brown can rise above objective calculations and subjective preseason rankings, so its talented senior class can have a shot at being one of the four teams in the postseason tournament.  If they cannot succeed, then Brown will have to take a hard look at its program to see if it wants to continue with this style and or its leadership.

2 thoughts on “Bear necessity wins for Brown

  1. The PC game was awful. This team may be high variance by nature, given their lack of effective inside defense and overall size issues. IMO, Martin is playing the right style for the talent he has. They just might win some league games they shouldn’t, and lose some others. They are fun to watch (but, not last night). When shots drop they can win against anyone left on the schedule. They are 10-11 deep. I know I am an optimist, but I don’t think they will finish 8th.

    • Thanks for the comment, Old Bear. For what it’s worth, I don’t think they will finish eighth either. The league’s struggles so far this season only bolster the notion that Brown can beat any Ivy on any given night. But beyond that, the Bears’ offense seems able to explode at any time.

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