After traveling more than 1,500 miles in their first five games, the men of Eli basketball will finally grace the home court with their presence this Saturday afternoon.
Yet this weekend’s home-opener against Bucknell is but a brief respite from the road for the Bulldogs (2-3), who play the rest of their December schedule away from the home crowd of John J. Lee Amphitheater.
Accordingly, the Elis are nervous and excited to make a splash as they play in front of a home crowd for the first time. And if that is not motivation enough, the team also looks to reach .500 on the season.
“I think everybody’s really anxious to finally play at home,” forward Sam Kaplan ’07 said. “We’re 2-3 right now and we haven’t played at home yet. We just want to show the student body how good we really are.”
The Eli squad is coming off of an impressive 74-64 victory over Sacred Heart last Wednesday in which center Dominick Martin ’06 led the Bulldogs with 19 points. Kaplan, who has stepped into a starting role for the first time this season, had not scored more than 8 points in a game through the first three contests this season before netting a career-high 17 against Sacred Heart.
“It was just a matter of making my shots and making it to the free throw line,” Kaplan said. “I shot eight free throws [against Sacred Heart], and before that maybe nine all year. [Wednesday], I got my confidence back.”
Kaplan and forward Casey Hughes ’07 are both new additions to the regular starting lineup this season, and both have come into their own in recent games. Against nationally-ranked No. 1 Wake Forest Nov. 11, Hughes poured in a career-best 20 points to go along with 10 rebounds.
“[Kaplan and Hughes] are just starting to get comfortable right now,” head coach James Jones said. “They’re trying to find their niche on the team. Slowly but surely, they’re starting to do that.”
The Elis will need solid defensive performances as well from both forwards to contain Bucknell’s 6-foot-11 center, Chris McNaughton, who is averaging 13 points per game. Kaplan said that the team will also have to keep an eye on point guard Kevin Bettencourt, who scored a game-high 16 points in Bucknell’s last outing, a 65-52 loss to the University of Pennsylvania (3-2) Wednesday.
But the Elis are growing accustomed to containing big men. Entering Wednesdaay’s game, Sacred Heart’s 6-foot-10 forward Kibwe Trim had been averaging over 15 points a contest. Versus the Bulldogs, however, the defense held Trim to just four points.
According to Jones, the Bucknell team is more experienced than the one the Elis barely edged last season, 63-62, when Scott Gaffield ’04 hit a three-pointer with 16 seconds left to seal the victory. In that game, Martin led the Elis with 16 points.
After last Wednesday’s 19-point performance, Martin is averaging 15 points per game, including 41 points in the last two contests, and 7.8 rebounds per game. Those numbers are up significantly from the 11.4 points per game and 5.1 rebounds per game that Martin averaged last season.
“I think that Dominick is a big component of what we do,” Jones said. “When you’re able to establish an inside game, it makes things a lot easier for the guys on the perimeter. They get a lot of open looks from the outside.”
Martin is shooting an insanely high 65 percent from the field through the first five games this year, trying to best his mark of 60 percent a season ago, which was good for eighth in all of Division I.
“The biggest difference is that I’m being more aggressive,” Martin said. “Getting to the free throw line, adding a little more to my game, working on my post moves — overall [aggressiveness] of the game.”
Still, the Elis will need more than Martin to find a home-opening win this weekend. Jones would like more production from his bench, which is averaging 12.6 points per game.
“We have a lot of young guys on the bench,” Jones said. “A lot of guys who haven’t gotten a lot of playing time. One of our key freshmen, [forward] Nick Holmes, has been injured since the first game. He’s not a hundred percent yet. Once he gets healthy, he’ll add some depth to the back court, which we’re going to need come the Ivy League season.”
For now, the Elis will focus on Saturday’s home opener before they hit the road again.
“It’ll be good to have a home game,” Martin said. “Shots you make at home don’t necessarily fall on other courts.”