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Growing pains are here for talented Brown team

November 20, 2014 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

WORCESTER, Mass. – Growing pains are likely to be common for Brown, at least in non-league play. The Bears have a fine collection of talent, especially among underclassmen. If you’re looking at potential, the Bears are up there with the best of them in the Ivy League. But Wednesday night’s 80-65 loss at Holy Cross is indicative of how Brown is not yet ready to beat a potential league champion right now, especially while short-handed.

Wednesday night was a trial by fire for Tyler Williams, a freshman point guard, along with other Brown perimeter players. With Tavon Blackmon out due to a concussion sustained Monday night, Williams was thrust right into the middle of Holy Cross pressing. That’s the same Holy Cross that forced Harvard’s Siyani Chambers – the best point guard in the Ivy League – into nine turnovers on Sunday. It was sure to be a tall order.

Holy Cross didn’t turn the Bears over in the backcourt so much as the Bears got caught up playing at Holy Cross’ speed, and from there the turnovers came. While they don’t want to play at a snail’s pace, they aren’t trying to match the frenetic pace Holy Cross plays and tries to make opponents play. Brown gave the ball away 23 times, many of them coming after breaking the press but while they were playing too fast. Many of the turnovers were of the dead ball variety, so they didn’t lead to fast break baskets, but the lost possessions hurt.

“We want to attack pressure to score,” said head coach Mike Martin. “They did rattle us a little bit, I think, they did speed us up. We do want to attack to score, because when we did break the press and take care of the ball, we got some open looks, whether it was open threes or drives to the basket.”

Indeed, the Bears got some good looks, and from cashing a few in were within striking distance for a lot of the first half and at times in the second. They had success after breaking the press a few times. But they could never stop Holy Cross enough to get away from the press, especially once they got within eight points in the second half.

The perimeter is where the growing pains are going to be for Brown, though it’s also where the high ceiling is. Sean McGonagill, a four-year starter, is gone, so now it’s up to the likes of Blackmon, Steven Spieth and Leland King – all sophomores. All three have plenty of talent and upside, but without McGonagill to lean on, there will be some tough sledding at times. This isn’t so much from a production standpoint as much as a veteran presence standpoint, as well as the defensive attention McGonagill commanded. While Blackmon surely would have helped on Wednesday night, adding him to the lineup would not have translated into victory.

A common theme from Martin is that this will be good for the team later on. He knows what he has in terms of experience right now, as well as how important the perimeter is, noting that six of the eight Bears who played on Wednesday were freshmen or sophomores (and all six were perimeter players), while eight of the ten who played on Monday night were as well.

“All of this is going to be good for us,” said Marting. “I’d like to see us compete a little harder from the beginning. I thought there were some times in the second half where we competed like we need to compete.”

The Bears hang their hat on the frontcourt of Rafael Maia and Cedric Kuakumensah. Both are excellent defenders, especially with their rebounding, but can be erratic offensively. At times, they try to do too much, and as a result get themselves into trouble. There’s not a lot of depth with Dockery Walker and other frontcourt options out due to injury. Maia and Kuakumensah have been horses thus far, with Kuakumensah having just become the program’s all-time leader in career blocked shots.

The beginning of the season is a blur with three games in six nights through Wednesday, but the Bears now will leave New England for the Las Vegas Invitational. They play at Indiana State and Illinois before heading to Las Vegas to take on Austin Peay and either Stephen F. Austin or Prairie View. At that point, the schedule, while hardly easy, is more manageable. Six of the remaining ten games are at home, and they have more winnable games on the rest of the non-league slate. The Ivy League isn’t going to produce an NCAA at-large team, but non-league wins certainly help a team’s confidence.

“We have a difficult schedule and we put this together because we think it can help prepare us for the league, because the league is going to be really hard,” Martin said.

If the Bears learn from this and other games, as Martin hopes, this will prepare them. Later in the season, they should be much more capable of knocking off a team the caliber of Holy Cross. There’s enough talent on this team to be a factor in Ivy League play. Before they get there, they need to make it through the inevitable growing pains as they gain experience and take on new roles.

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