The Bulldogs have a habit of making their season-openers exciting.
The Elis started off last year with a bang, beating a talented Louisiana Tech team, 69-68, on forward Sam Kaplan’s two clutch free throws with six seconds left. The year before, the Bulldogs lost a nail-biter to Radford, 72-71, with Kaplan missing a shot from the top of the key with just over 15 seconds remaining in the game.
Understandably, Kaplan is excited about captaining a hungry Bulldog team in their season-opener against the Allegheny Gators in Lee Amphitheater.
“I can’t wait,” Kaplan said. “It’s been a long time since last season and we’ve been working hard in the preseason to get ready.”
The Elis begin the 2006-’07 campaign this Sunday against a Division III team that has posted only one winning record since 1999. Despite their recent lack of success, the Gators are a young squad that lost only one key contributor from last year’s 11-14 team. The Gators’ talent isn’t lost on the Bulldogs.
“It’s going to be a good test,” point guard Eric Flato ’08 said. “It’s the first game we play and every year there are always some kinks that we have to work out. We’re not going to take them lightly.”
Allegheny’s offensive success will be decided by the play of their backcourt. Led by senior point guard Casey McCloskey and junior shooting guard Bill Babe, the Gators rely on their perimeter depth to make up for their lack of size. Last season, McCloskey led the Gators with 14.2 points per game, shot 40.6 percent from the three-point line and recorded 4.16 assists per contest, earning an honorable mention nod to the NCAC All-Conference squad. Bill Babe complemented McCloskey’s sharp-shooting by pacing the team with 44 three-pointers. Although the Gators were deadly from the three-point line last year, the Bulldogs will give Allegheny opportunities beyond the arc if it means keeping the lane clear.
“[Head] coach [James] Jones has been stressing team defense,” Flato said. “We’re going to try to stop penetration even if it means giving up the deep jumper. We’re going to keep the man contained, keep him in front of us.”
The Elis’ success this Sunday will be contingent on their ability to exploit their size advantage and to control the paint. The Gators’ biggest player, Ryan Hollihan, stands 6’8”, and only one other starter is taller than 6’3”. In comparison, the Bulldogs will start only one player under 6’6”.
“We’ll definitely be oriented to get the ball inside,” Flato said. “Hopefully we can get a couple of easy baskets in the beginning to open up our offense.”
The Bulldogs’ biggest concern this weekend will be overcoming their spate of injuries. The team will compete without guard Casey Hughes ’07 and forward Ross Morin ’09. Morin is fighting off an infection and Hughes is suffering from mono, Flato said. Hughes’s illness leaves the Bulldogs with serious questions in the backcourt. After losing Chris Andrews ’09 to an ACL injury, the Elis were already dangerously thin behind starting guards Flato and Nick Holmes ’08. Jones is still undecided regarding how to handle the situation.
“It’s strange,” Jones said. “Those are the guys we expect to have in our normal rotation and we look to have them back in the next few weeks. Hopefully, the guys we have in our program right now will take advantage of the opportunity.”
Despite the uncertainty, the Elis are maintaining their focus.
“We’re going to work the matchups, try to stop their best players, and win the game,” Kaplan said. “We’re going to learn our stuff and play the way that we want to play.”