The peculiar case of the Brown Bears

Tyrese Martin missed a free throw, Zach Hunsaker grabbed the defensive rebound and the Brown Bears dribbled it out. It was over. Brown had picked up a win over the 8-3 Rhode Island Rams of the Atlantic 10, who had only one previous loss against a nonranked team and none against a non-power five team. Brown had capped its Division I nonconference schedule with arguably its most impressive win of the season. The Bears had gotten contributions from both their star upperclassmen and their budding underclassmen.

The only nagging feeling came from this question: Why hadn’t they been playing like this all year?

As the Bears finish up their nonconference schedule and head into Ivy play, they find themselves in a remarkably similar situation to where they were a year ago. Again their path to the Ivy tournament seems clear, with Princeton, Dartmouth, Cornell and Columbia having somewhat subpar nonconference seasons. This path again seems to be in danger of running into the snag of Princeton overperforming in Ivy play, particularly early in the season, exemplified by its 78-64 win over Penn Saturday.

The only thing that seems to have changed is Brown and Brown’s lack of consistency. To understand this lack of consistency, one must understand the identity crisis the team is undergoing. Without stalwarts from the previous two seasons in 2018-19 Ivy Defensive Player of the Year Obi Okolie or 2017-18 Ivy Rookie of the Year Desmond Cambridge, Brown’s rotation and rotational hierarchy have been far less established than they were last year, with nine players averaging 14 or more minutes per game this season compared to six last season. This has been further driven by Brown’s young players performing when their upperclassmen have at times struggled.

Easily the biggest breakout underclassman performer for Brown this season has been Jaylan Gainey. As he has gotten more minutes this year, he has undergone upticks in points per game, as well as rebounds, steals, free throw percentage, and most notably, blocks. Gainey has shown off his athleticism as Brown’s primary rim protector, averaging a team-high 2.2 blocks per game. Others have flashed potential too, including freshmen Perry Cowan and Dan Friday, who have each shown offensive ability. Both are shooting over 32% from three in the 15 minutes per game each averages. As well, sophomore David Mitchell has continued to be a force on the defensive end.

With the upperclassmen, it gets a bit dicier. Matt DeWolf showed off the potential he has early in the season, even flashing some three-point shooting ability, but that has tapered off somewhat. Tamenang Choh, Josh Howard and Zach Hunsaker haven’t had quite the seasons they might’ve liked. Choh’s field goal percentage has gone down drastically and his turnover numbers have gone up, even as he has improved markedly from three, struggling to be quite the same offensive force he was in his sophomore year. Hunsaker and Howard, the seniors, have also had their field goal percentages drop from last year, as well as their three-point percentages. The key exception to the upperclassmen struggles would be the success of Brandon Anderson, who has had no problem taking on the scoring load and status as the team’s offensive focal point that Desmond Cambridge had left vacant, averaging a career-high 20 points per game as well as career highs in field goal and three-point percentages.

But still, this lack of consistent minutes of outside shooting ability has made Brown fall short of what it was at its best last year, a dominating three and D team. The defense, the strongest part of its game last year, and what may have above all else given Mike Martin Coach of the Year honors a season ago, has been likely the biggest disappointment this year, giving up 69.9 points per game, good for 248th in the nation. This comes from a team that went from Nov. 18 to Jan. 7 without giving up more than 71 points in a single game last year. These shortcomings have led to some serious issues. The last third of second halves have been a nightmare for the Bears, as they have been outscored by an average of 4.9 points during these periods despite having a winning record. And this record is down from last year, at 7-6 compared to the 12-4 mark Brown put up in nonconference play last year.

And yet not all hope is lost for the Brown Bears – far from it. Despite arguably playing a tougher schedule than last year, Brown has been “in” every game it’s played, leading or being within six points of the lead at the half in every game they’ve played except one, against St. John’s, a game in which Brown was down just four points with 6:40 left in the game. It is clear, especially from games like the one against URI, that Brown, and its roster from top to bottom, have immense potential. Brown’s newly decentralized mode of success could even be taken as an advantage, enabling Brown to beat other teams in multiple ways and harder to gameplan against. Just take their game against Merrimack, where Brown won by 27 points despite getting just 11 from Anderson.

As Brown enters Ivy play, this peculiar team can only hope for the same thing any team does: that even in an Ivy League where the upper echelon seems much farther above the rest of the conference, their best selves come to play and their shots fall on the right nights to finally bring an Ivy League title home to College Hill.

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