Bears Look Like Potential Ivy Contenders
PROVIDENCE, R.I. – This is a different Brown team taking the court these days. Although a number of players return from last season’s team, there’s plenty that’s different about this team. There is a different feel to this team, with different results and different contributors.
After Thursday night’s 68-52 win over New Hampshire in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score might indicate, the Bears are 5-3. Included are three road wins, one of them coming at Northwestern, where head coach Craig Robinson was an assistant before taking the job at Brown. And as the Bears head into Sunday’s game against cross-town rival Providence, a team they beat last year, they’re playing with plenty of confidence and their record doesn’t really give a full indicator of how improved they are.
The confidence is especially noticeable at the offensive end, where the Bears have largely executed well and have at least given themselves chances to score on many possessions. They are much more comfortable in the second year of Robinson’s system, and more players have a good grasp of it than last season, which gives them more options.
“We have a rhythm and a continuity that we’ve rehearsed every single day,” said senior guard Mark McAndrew. “We feel that with our preparation, we can counter anything any team does to us defensively.”
Even as their confidence goes up, Robinson is trying to manage that and knows that it could easily be sapped away because of recent struggles.
“It’s so tough when they’ve lost for a long time to really be truly confident, but games like this help. Games like Quinnipiac help,” said the second-year head coach. “I’m hoping this is a turning point for us confidence-wise.”
Entering the season, the backcourt was the known quantity, although neither McAndrew nor Huffman remotely resembles a true point guard. The Bears could be sure there would be plenty of scoring to come from them and that they would keep the offense going. The big question was up front, although mostly at the defensive end as the Bears were killed on the glass last season and didn’t have anyone who was a real presence inside. Thus far, they have a slightly positive rebounding margin, and they’re more productive offensively and have more of a defensive presence.
“They’ve all done what I’ve asked them to do over the summer, and you’re starting to see the results of that now,” said Robinson of his frontcourt players.
From player to player, the improvement is notable. It starts with their starters, senior center Mark MacDonald and juniors Chris Skrelja and Scott Friske. MacDonald is more of a fixture in the team’s offense in the middle, while Skrelja has improved a good deal since late in his freshman season and Friske is starting to show some of the potential he had as a freshman. Off the bench, freshman Peter Sullivan has helped right away and sophomore Matt Mullery looks improved as well.
In his first year, Friske showed that he’s a competitor and can play bigger, with his offense needing to come along. Last year, he had a slump year adjusting to Robinson’s system, and the coach can see why that is.
“What it was for him is that he’s a guy who wants to do everything correctly,” said Robinson. “Before I got here, he wasn’t supposed to shoot outside. In our thing, everybody’s got to be able to do that, even if they don’t think they’re going to be able to make it. Once he embraced that, which happened over the summer and in the preseason, you’re seeing a different guy. He understands that I’m not going to be upset if he misses the shot, I’m going to be upset if he doesn’t take an open shot.”
The Bears have been rebounding by committee up front, but the results are better. Friske and Skrelja each average over five per game, significantly up from last year’s totals.
With the frontcourt improving, the Bears have better depth. They go at least eight deep, but Robinson feels he now can go even deeper than that if necessary.
“We’ve got 15 guys that I can put in the game and who can play. That’s different from last year when we were playing eight guys, or nine,” said Robinson. “It’s a nice feeling to have. Those guys at the end of the bench are why we’re getting better, because the practices are better.”
That hasn’t been lost on McAndrew as well, as the leading scorer has benefited from having more help around him.
“I think that’s very instrumental to our success, the fact that we have 10 or 11 guys that know the offense,” said the senior guard.
All of this is happening as the Bears’ fellow Ivy League teams aren’t having world-beating non-conference runs. Many felt Penn would be vulnerable this year, and the Quakers have looked the part as a talented but very green team. Yale’s 2-5 record is deceptive, as every team they have played is tough and they have been on the road most of the way. Cornell, a preseason pick of many to win the league, is the only team besides Brown with a winning record and with a schedule thus far that doesn’t compare favorably to Brown’s. Harvard, a team most picked in the second division, looks much-improved thus far in Tommy Amaker’s first season at the helm.
In other words, the Bears, who were looked at as a dark horse before the season, might be as good a contender as anyone in the Ivy League. The league looks more wide open than originally thought, and based on the non-conference play thus far, Brown looks to be as good a candidate as anyone. That’s a testament to the job Robinson is doing thus far with a team not loaded with talent even by Ivy League standards, as well as the players in improving.