Though the preseason outlook may have been fairly dismal for an already mediocre men’s basketball team that lost its two best players after last season, Thanksgiving break showed that the Bulldogs may be better than expected this winter.
The Elis (2-2) fell to Bucknell (3-0) in an 87-60 rout Nov. 26, but the John Thompson Classic in Lincoln, Neb., the previous weekend showcased the young squad’s potential. The Bulldogs edged Louisiana Tech (3-2), 69-68, Friday in their season opener, and despite losing to Nebraska (5-0), 64-73, the next day, the Elis rebounded with a 70-67 victory over Longwood (2-3) on Sunday.
The Bulldogs are working to prove that having a relatively inexperienced roster — there are no seniors in the Bulldogs’ starting lineup — is not an automatic disadvantage.
“Part of [our struggle] is just having a young team,” captain Josh Greenberg ’06 said. “We don’t have a ton of guys that have played a whole lot of minutes. At the end of the day, it just comes down to everyone going out and executing.”
Forward Sam Kaplan ’07 has emerged as a dominant offensive force for the Bulldogs. The first Ivy League Player of the Week leads the team with 15.5 points per game and a .550 shooting percentage from the field. Guard Eric Flato ’08 anchors the back court with 11.0 ppg and 3.0 assists per game.
Despite these strong individual performances, the Elis as a team have struggled to score. They average eight points less than their opponents per game and have shot .373 from the field over their first four games, compared to .439 for their competitors.
Though the Elis may not be on top of their shooting game, the tournament gave them a chance to develop another strength that should prove valuable throughout the season — the ability to rally from a deficit.
“Over the week that we were in Nebraska, we really showed that we came together as a team,” Flato said. “We were down in all three of our games, and we came back to win two of them. I think we have a kind of toughness about us, and we won’t just let people put us away.”
Defensively, the Bulldogs have already had their share of ups and downs. Bucknell jumped out to an early 17-2 lead, but the Elis’ smothering defense put a halt to the Bison run. The Elis rallied with a 15-0 run of their own, capped off by a steal and dunk from rookie swingman Travis Pinick ’09 to put the Elis ahead 17-16.
“We started off slow, but we came back because of our defense,” Flato said. “We got in the game by making stops and we ended up taking the lead.”
Center Dominick Martin ’06 is sidelined for the duration of the fall semester since he has just one semester of eligibility remaining, and the Bulldogs have had difficulty finding an inside presence to replace him. Center Matt Kyle ’08 has earned the starting position for now, but he only averages 13 minutes per game, less than several of the players who come off the bench. Kyle averages just two rebounds per game and has only three blocks on the season. A more commanding force inside is forward Casey Hughes ’07, who leads the team with 11.3 rebounds per game and 7.0 points per game.
Despite the height disadvantage the Elis faced, they still managed to rebound relatively well. On the season, the Bulldogs hold an almost negligible 40.8-40.0 advantage over their opponents in rebounds per game, but the Elis out-rebounded a significantly larger Bucknell team 32-28 and held the edge over Nebraska 49-40.
The Elis appear to have more depth this season than in previous years. Though they cannot rely on the impressive individual talents of Edwin Draughan ’05 and Alex Gamboa ’05, last year’s unquestioned senior leaders, the Bulldogs’ bench has already made a difference this season. Guard Caleb Holmes ’08 came off the bench this past week to post 9.8 ppg and shot .438 percent from behind the arc (7 of 16). Pinick and forward Ross Morin ’09 also saw action in all four contests, combining for an average of 13.0 ppg and eight rebounds per game.
One of the Bulldogs’ less-promising statistics is their 20.3 turnovers per game. The Elis handed the ball over to Nebraska 22 times, while the Cornhuskers limited their own turnover mark to 12. Only against Longwood did the Bulldogs manage to turn the ball over less frequently than their opponents.
“The biggest problem we have so far is turning the ball over,” forward Jason Abromaitis ’07 said. “If we can improve that, we can move past the Bucknell debacle and have a great season.”
The Elis will open their home season tonight against Sacred Heart (2-2), who have been paced so far this season by guard Jarrid Frye and forward Kibwe Trim. Frye hit his season-high points mark with 23 against Harvard, and Trim’s most impressive performance was a career-high 29-point showing against Albany. The Elis are 4-0 all-time against the Pioneers and took down Sacred Heart, 74-64, last season.
“I think we all feel ready to redeem ourselves on Monday and are really looking forward to playing a home game,” Abromaitis said. “We shouldn’t be overconfident because Sacred Heart is a much improved team.”