The last three years of Bulldog basketball can be summed up in one word: seven.

After going 7-7 in three consecutive seasons of Ivy League conference play, the men’s basketball team begins its 2006-’07 campaign this Sunday against the Allegheny Gators in the John J. Lee Amphitheater. This year’s squad hopes to reverse its recent trend, counting on the experience of seven returning players who all averaged more than 15 minutes per game last year. Although the Bulldogs lost first-team all-Ivy center Dominick Martin ’06 to graduation, the team has high hopes for the coming season.

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“We have really high expectations this year,” point guard Eric Flato ’08 said. “We have four starters coming back and we have a lot of young guys … and with Sam [Kaplan] and Casey [Hughes] being seniors, I know they want to go out on a high note.”

Despite the lack of a dominant big man, the Bulldogs will continue to emphasize low-post play and hope to exploit their size advantages in the backcourt.

“What we want to try to do is get more of our guards to the basket,” head coach James Jones said. “We have some mismatches because our guards are so big. I think low post play is always a good place to start.”

Replacing Martin underneath the basket will be no easy task, but forwards Kaplan and Hughes, along with forward Ross Morin ’09, will be counted on to do just that. Although the 6’7” Kaplan and 6’5” Hughes are not prototypical big men, the Bulldogs will still run a motion offense similar to last year’s.

“We’re still trying to do a lot of the same stuff we were doing with Dom here,” guard Caleb Holmes ’08 said. “We’re posting Sammy and Ross and Matt [Kyle ’08] and those guys up but we’re also doing other things to bring them out because they can shoot well.”

Rounding out the Elis’ frontcourt will be Matt Kyle, the leading candidate for the starting center spot. At 6’10”, Kyle is much more of a typical big man than the Bulldog forwards, but he has been plagued by foul trouble in the past. His ability to stay on the floor and avoid early fouls will strongly impact the Bulldogs’ success on the defensive end of the court.

“I’ve been really impressed with Matt in the early season,” Jones said. “He’s doing things this year that he hasn’t done in the last two.”

The backcourt is led by all-Ivy honorable mention Flato, who paced the team with 2.9 assists per game and was second in scoring last season with 11.3 points per game. Guards Nick and Caleb Holmes ’08 and guard Travis Pinick ’09 will also figure heavily into the Elis’ rotation. Nick Holmes was the only player to start every game last year, and the Bulldogs will be looking for him to be more assertive on the offensive end this season.

The Elis will also be counting on the play-making ability of Pinick, who had an excellent rookie year and finished third on the team in assists despite averaging just over 16 minutes per game.

The big questions concern the Bulldogs’ depth at the guard spot. With backup point guard Chris Andrews ’09 missing the season due to a pulled ACL, guards Ed White ’09 and Ari Greenberg ’09 will be battling for minutes in the rotation and will have significantly greater roles than expected. Andrews’ injury will deny Flato the opportunity to move to the shooting guard spot.

“I enjoy playing the one and I get a lot of open shots,” Flato said. “But sometimes when I slide into the two it gets me a little more open.”

Kaplan, last year’s third highest-scoring player with an average of 10.6 points per game, will be counted on for more than just his offensive contributions as he captains the Bulldogs this season.

“Sam is a quiet leader,” Jones said. “Guys will respond to him because they respect him and that’s the most important thing for a leader.”

Although Sam is not as emotional as last year’s captain Josh Greenberg ’06, he is well-respected by his teammates and will be looked to for leadership both on and off the court.

“Sam’s a good guy, he gets along with everybody,” Holmes said. “He’s not the most vocal person in the world but he commands respect.”

In their pursuit of their first above-.500 Ivy League record in three years, the Bulldogs have made free-throw shooting a priority after watching the team hit a dismal 66.6 percent from the line last season.

“We each shoot about 200-300 free throws per week,” Holmes said. “People have been concentrating hard after practice on making their free throws. We’re getting a lot of extra work.”

Since sharing the Ancient Eight championship with Princeton and Penn in 2002, the Bulldogs are a combined 29-27 in conference play. Although picked to finish fourth in the Ivy League preseason media poll, the Elis are hoping to put up a strong fight for the conference crown. Jones said he hopes that a difficult preseason schedule that includes four 2006 NCAA Tournament teams will show his team what it takes to be successful.

“The schedule gets us focused on what we want to do,” he said. “We want to be one of those teams and we want to play at that level. Playing those teams gives us an understanding of what it takes to be that good.”