While Elis everywhere are excitedly anticipating feasts of game bird, the men’s basketball team is salivating over a different type of fast-approaching game.
Over the course of this break, the Bulldogs will dine on opening-season action with four games on the road, starting this weekend at the William & Mary Tip-off Classic in Williamsburg, Va. The Elis will face Radford University in their first game Friday night and either Hartford or William & Mary the next day, depending on the outcome of both games.
From there, the team will travel farther south to Winston Salem, N.C., where it will face off against nationally-ranked No. 2 Wake Forest.
After concluding play Monday against the Demon Deacons, the Elis will return to action in the northeast against the University of Massachusetts in Amherst on the final Sunday before classes start up again.
“Physically, I think our guys are more than ready for [these games],” head coach James Jones said. “Mentally, I know they’re more than ready for it — they’re tired of practice right now. It’s been a long haul for these guys, sort of the dog days, and I think now, with the weekend coming up, the guys are excited about it.”
It has been a little over a month since the 2004-2005 Bulldogs first practiced as a team at midnight madness Oct. 15. In that time, the team has scrimmaged just once, against Wagner College Nov. 7.
“I’m pumped, I’m ready to go,” forward Sam Kaplan ’07 said. “I can’t wait to finally get to play against some real competition. I know the whole team feels the same way.”
In that lone scrimmage versus Wagner, captain Alex Gamboa ’05 said he saw some weaknesses in the Elis’ play, but the team has focused on its shortcomings in the last month.
“We’ve only had one scrimmage against another team,” Gamboa said. “And one of the weaknesses we saw was rebounding, so I think that’s going to be a cause for concern. But that’s something we’ve addressed since we had that scrimmage. There are a lot of questions for us. We’re a different team than we were last year. I think it’s going to be interesting to see how it all works out.”
On Friday evening against Radford, Jones said he plans to start a mix of players with starting experience and players new to the tip-off. The Elis are again led by the explosive tandem of Gamboa and Edwin Draughan ’05 at point guard and shooting guard, respectively.
Last year’s freshmen standouts Casey Hughes ’07 and Kaplan will start in the frontcourt. Both Hughes and Kaplan came off the bench in almost every game last season, and both saw some starting action. Gamboa said he is excited to see what Hughes and Kaplan can do in the starting lineup.
“These are two guys who last season probably would have played a lot more minutes if we hadn’t been so senior-laden,” Gamboa said. “I think they both come in with a good amount of confidence and are ready to be starters on this team.”
Rounding out the starting five, Jones’ big man will be 6′ 10″ Dominick Martin ’06.
Jones said forward Dexter Upshaw ’06 will be his go-to man off the bench, performing almost any role asked of him. Also expected to contribute are the four freshmen — twin brothers Nick and Caleb Holmes along with 6′ 10″ center Matt Kyle and guard Eric Flato.
Jones added that it is difficult to prepare for two games in two days and three possible opponents. Because of this, his team has focused on itself in these four weeks, paying special attention to coping with defensive pressure and avoiding turnovers.
While the Elis were largely a perimeter team last season, with four men outside the arc and Martin alone inside, this season the Bulldogs will look to add to their game at the low post.
“On offense, we do more with the double post than we’ve done in the past couple years,” Upshaw said. “We have two post men on the block now, making a lot of flash cuts and post-to-post screens. That’s something we’re doing differently.”
Jones said that Kaplan will be the primary accompaniment to Martin down low.
The Bulldogs did not meet either of their first two opponents last season, but they do have recent history with the Demon Deacons. The Bulldogs fell hard, 86-61, in that meeting with then-No. 18 Wake Forest Nov. 29, 2003, in Bridgeport. Yet Jones said he is optimistic, especially if one looks a bit further back in time.
“We’ll approach [Wake Forest] like any other game,” Jones said. “We played them down there two years ago and it was a 12-point basketball game. We played UConn last year and we were up at half time. So my expectation is that we’re going to try to win the game like any other game.”
Upshaw said it is important that the team go into Wednesday’s game against Wake with the right mentality.
“We have to have confidence in what we’ve done in our training up to this point,” Upshaw said. “We have to make sure we play our game. If we control the tempo then we’ll have a really good chance to be successful. A lot of playing basketball, in terms of playing teams that are ranked above you, a lot of times it comes back to who’s controlling the tempo of the game.”
Kaplan concluded that the tougher the challenger, the easier it will be for the Elis to find the strength and intensity required to achieve such a monumental upset.
“Playing against Wake Forest, you’re just going to be pumped anyway,” Kaplan said. “It’ll be a packed house, probably around 20,000 people.”
The pre-conference schedule designed by Jones will challenge the Elis early and often with games against Wake Forest, UMass, Niagara and Boston College, all in the first month.