Mar. 20, 2019: a sparse but committed crowd enters the Pizzitola Sports Center as Brown men’s basketball hosts a playoff game, its first in five years. Hosting the UAB Blazers, the event is part of the College Basketball Invitational, a minor national tournament. The event is meant to mark the end of a historic season for Brown. Though it ended in disappointment, the regular season yielded 19 wins, tied a program record, so the event should be fun and happy.
But the atmosphere is muted because the situation is more complicated than that.
Unexpectedly, the game now represents something altogether different than it was supposed to less than 48 hours ago. The event is now about not just what is on the court, but precisely what is not.
The unavoidable fact is that Mar. 20, 2019 is the date of the first Brown game of the post-Desmond Cambridge era.
At 12:34 p.m. on March 19, Desmond Cambridge tweeted a message declaring his intention to transfer from the university, marking a pivotal moment in Brown basketball’s history. The former Ivy League Rookie of the Year was objectively a star on the team his freshman year. He wasn’t able to find the same kind of consistency his sophomore year, especially on the offensive end, but his solid defense and spurts of scoring in large quantities made anyone optimistic about the future of Brown with him, especially as he developed as a player.
But now the outlook has changed.
The game didn’t end up being the most helpful preview of Brown’s future, with 37 points in the first playoff win in Brown history coming from outgoing seniors Obi Okolie and Chris Sullivan. The next game, the second round of the CBI and what ended up being the season finale, was not either, as the duo combined for 25 of the team’s 63 points in a loss to Loyola Marymount.
What remains to be seen is who steps into the shoes of the transferring and graduating players. Luckily, there is no shortage of candidates.
When it comes to replacing the scoring load of Cambridge, a prime candidate is rising senior Brandon Anderson, who played the role of volume scorer well in his sophomore year but was inconsistent in playing time and performance this past season. Okolie, while not the presence Cambridge was, will be missed as well, with his consistent offensive playmaking ability and experience having been an asset to a young Brown team. This will likely mean an expanded role for forward Tamenang Choh, who plays with a similar style and has a similar build to Okolie, and is even more unstoppable when moving downhill on the offensive end. Choh does not have the same three-point shooting ability as Okolie, however, which has in the past proved important in taking the pressure off Brown’s other outside shooting guards.
The team has somewhat compensated for these losses with a guard-heavy recruiting class. However, this strategy threatens to inadequately address the team’s weaknesses to preserve its strengths. And one of the most blatant weaknesses is the team’s lack of production from big men.
The biggest production from this spot in the past season was from Joshua Howard, whose strong play when returning from injury fueled the team’s surge in the second half of the Ivy season. Still, his somewhat substandard height and amount of time spent on the perimeter prevents him from playing the role of the prototypical big.
Thus Brown will need its taller bigs. Those include rising junior Matt DeWolf, whose fundamentals could use some work but whose body exudes potential for the position, Davis Franks, a rising sophomore who got little burn throughout the season but who also comes close to fitting the mold of the prototypical big, and Jaylan Gainey, another rising sophomore who also could have benefited from more playing time, and whose body type does not currently fit the mold of a prototypical big but who showed off an intriguingly springy athleticism in the few minutes he played. Probably not coincidentally, Gainey got more play in the CBI.
The 2018-19 season was a historic one for Brown basketball, showing off the potential present in the team’s core.
But now reality is setting in within Providence and certain other parts of the Ivy League. Beating the conference blue bloods, and attracting and keeping talent with the ability to do so, will always be a struggle for the less renowned schools and programs in the conference, as exemplified by Cambridge’s transferring, as well as Adrease Jackson’s transferring from Dartmouth. For Brown basketball fans seeing Cambridge’s possible stardom, as flashed in his freshman year, as being the path to success in the league, this may be a disappointment.
Those who saw the tenacious team defense and system that Brown showed this past year as the future, however, still have reason to be optimistic, because with coach Mike Martin and key defensive impact players like David Mitchell returning, this promises to continue to be a strength. Which way is the right one, if either, or if only one, is hard to know. But based on the results of Brown’s 20-win, historic season, it’s hard not to be hopeful.
Ethan Jobson is also a contributor at Brown Sports Convos.