It doesn’t take a deep dive into the recent history of Dartmouth men’s basketball to see that finding positive material can be quite difficult, most prominently not having been to the NCAA Tournament since 1959, the longest active drought for any team that has actually appeared in the Big Dance.
So here is an incomplete list of accomplishments the Big Green has already gotten to after holding off Florida Gulf Coast 55-49 on an icy night in Hanover to move to 2-0 on the young 2019-20 season:
Dartmouth is 2-0 for the first time since 1996-97 when it beat Colgate and Lafayette at Leede Arena (technically, Dartmouth started the 2004-05 with two wins, but that was only after Lehigh forfeited 13 games, including one against Dartmouth, after the season for using an ineligible player.)
Its season-opening win at Buffalo – who had a 26-game home winning streak snapped and has won the MAC four of the last five years – was the first road win on Opening Day since 1987 (21 straight losses).
Pretty good, right?
Well, of course, but as David McLaughlin knows, it’s very, very early. It’s now been 21 seasons since Dartmouth posted a winning record in the Ivy League, which these days would likely get the Big Green a berth in the Ivy League Tournament.
But Dartmouth is out to prove that those who wrote it off after star Brendan Barry’s season-ending injury back in late September may have been a little premature.
“I asked the seniors in the locker room if they had been 2-0 and obviously they haven’t,” McLaughlin said. “I asked, ‘When was the last time you won a game here and didn’t feel great about how you executed overall and felt like you could play a little better?’. Part of that has to do with Gulf Coast mixing up their defenses, but you see this look in their eye that said they know they can play better. I think that’s a good message going forward.”
Monday, Dartmouth won the game on the defensive end, allowing just 20 points in the second half against the young Eagles, who shot just 6-of-23 from the field after halftime. It is on defense where McLaughlin has put a lot of his preseason focus in. The Big Green finished 309th, 289th, and 250th nationally in adjusted defense in McLaughlin’s first three seasons, and in 2018-19 finished dead last in the Ivy League by a pretty wide margin in that category (1.054 points per possession).
“We just protected the paint better in the second half,” McLaughlin said. “When they took shots, they were challenged threes and they only had four offensive rebounds in the game. We didn’t send them to the line until late. I thought guys were just really ready to defend.”
The other end, like everything in the early-season, is a work in progress. Dartmouth showed potential at times, including scoring the first 12 points of the second half after the game was tied 29-29. But the Big Green would get only 14 in the final 16 minutes (and just five in the final nine minutes). A lot of that was due to FGCU doing a great job on junior Chris Knight, who led Dartmouth with 13 points (along with six rebounds), but was only 5-of-17 from the field. James Foye and Trevon Ary-Turner each hit three 3-pointers and the Big Green will need them to create shots for themselves when teams inevitably key on Knight. Aaryn Rai also hit the only three-pointer he attempted, finished with 10 points and six rebounds, and also a game-high +13 in 22 minutes.
“Whenever you start off hot, you’re definitely looking to be aggressive,” Foye said. “But within our offense, we all love sharing the ball. It starts with Chris Knight, who is usually the focal point of our offense, but he’s willing to share the ball, too, and his assist numbers show it.”
Dartmouth will know more about itself after this weekend when it plays three games in three days at the UMass Lowell River Hawk Invitational, where they take on Merrimack, Jacksonville, and host UMass Lowell. Two of those teams will be somewhat familiar to McLaughlin, as both Merrimack and UMass Lowell were Northeast-10 Conference rivals when he coached at Division II Stonehill from 2004-2013. After that comes Division III Thomas next Tuesday and then a two-week break for exams (Dartmouth has trimesters).
“It’s a journey, not a destination,” McLaughlin said. “You think about this game, watch the film, learn from it, and move right on to the next one Friday. The only thing I think about in terms of our league is to look at scores. I send guys a text saying, ‘Nice win’, and that’s about it.”