The Brown men’s basketball team finds itself ranked No. 179 at KenPom, which is its highest ranking since it was at No. 170 heading into a Nov. 17, 2015 matchup at Northwestern. With two games over the next four days against No. 29 Butler and No. 171 Stony Brook, the Bears are looking to continue their early season success as they enter into their finals break.
At 6-3, Bruno is having its best start since the team had the identical record in the beginning of the 2013-14 season, coach Mike Martin’s second year at his alma mater. With the return of all five starters and its top six scorers (93.5 percent of all points), as well as a fifth-place spot in the preseason Ivy media poll, Brown’s expectations were high heading into the start of the season. With Harvard’s top two players facing unknown return dates, Penn’s second team All-Ivy guard out for the season following an injury on opening night, a Princeton team that was without its heralded first-year four-star point guard and a Cornell team with its second-best player deciding to become a graduate transfer, it was not shocking for the Bears faithful to think that this might be the year when the team finally returns to the upper division for the first time since 2012-13, Martin’s first season at the helm. A two-point loss at No. 280 LIU-Brooklyn and a three-point defeat at No. 208 NJIT in their opening weekend quickly seemed to put the breaks on those thoughts.
The Bears’ season changed for the better when they welcomed UMass-Lowell, Sacred Heart and Army to the Pizzitola Sports Center for the inaugural Tip-Off Classic the weekend before Thanksgiving. In Bruno’s opening game, Desmond Cambridge, the reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year, went for 23 points as the Bears got their first win of the year in a 82-74 victory over the No. 283 River Hawks. On Saturday, the Bears were up 14 with 11:15 to go against No. 290 Sacred Heart, but let the Pioneers get within one before pulling away for the 82-77 win. Brown headed into Sunday’s finale looking for a sweep against a No. 266 Army team that lost its first two games of the Tip-Off.
The Bears used a 15-4 run at the end of the first half to take a 46-26 halftime lead over the Black Knights. In the second stanza, Bruno extended its lead to 27 before completing the 86-66 victory. Cambridge was named the Tournament MVP, while Brandon Anderson and Tamenang Choh were on the All-Tournament team.
Division III Salve Regina and No. 325 Bryant came to the Pizzitola Center at the beginning and end of the Thanksgiving weekend to complete the five-game homestead. The Bears won 96-64 on Wednesday and finished with a 84-60 win over the Bulldogs on Sunday. The win streak came to an end the next week, as the team lost to No. 124 Rhode Island, 71-51, at the Ryan Center. To start the month of December, Bruno headed down to Annapolis to take on the Midshipmen. In the 67-50 win, the first road victory of the season, Cambridge stuffed the stat sheet with 29 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals.
After the first nine games, Cambridge is fourth in the conference with 16.3 points per game and tops in blocks with 1.7 per game. He is shooting 43.3 percent from the field, 28.3 percent from beyond the arc and 74.3 percent from the charity stripe. Anderson has 11.6 points per game, while Tamenang Choh has 11 points and a league-leading 8.4 rebounds per game. In addition, Josh Howard is coming off the bench to add 9.3 points and 5.7 rebounds over 18.9 minutes per game.
As a team, Brown is continuing its fast paced game that emphasizes getting close range shots (53.8 percent from two; No. 101 nationally) and getting to the free throw line (42.5 percent rate; No. 44 nationally). However, this year the team is showing improvement at sharing the ball (60.1 assist rate; No. 27 nationally; +11.1 percent from ’17-’18) and creating a more balanced offense (41.4 percent three point shot rate; +5.5 percent from ’17-’18).
It is on the defensive side, where the Bears are showing significant growth. The undersized yet athletic Bears are limiting opponents to 24.1 percent shooting from two (No. 4 nationally) and 46.5 from three (No. 70), as well as decreasing their chances at the free throw line (31.2 percent rate; -8.8 percent from ’17-’18) and assist rate (41.5 percent; No. 30; -7.8 percent from ’17-’18). They are also leading the league in blocks (4.9) and steals (8.2) per game, while being nationally ranked in block (13.7 percent; No. 39; +5.8 percent) and steal (10.7 percent; No. 60; +2.1 percent) rates.
For the last several years, whether having an experienced or inexperienced roster, Brown routinely faltered as the season progressed. Over the last several campaigns that has resulted in four straight seventh-place finishes. Last year, Penn was able to mature and realize they were just as good as teams that they would routinely lose to in previous seasons. With their greater commitment to teamwork and defense, this year seems different in Providence. If so, this week’s games against Butler and Stony Brook would be a good time to show that Bruno is ready to take that major step forward and serve notice to the rest of the Ancient Eight.