Men's basketball gears up for season opener against Army

by Dana Malajian | 11/13/08 4:16am

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Courtesy of Warner Bros.
by The Dartmouth / The Dartmouth

The Big Green opens its season against Army at 4 p.m. this Saturday in West Point, N.Y. In December 2007, the Big Green lost a heartbreaker to the Black Knights, 59-56.

Dartmouth is hoping to get the program back on track after several years of disappointing performances. The past four seasons have not been kind to the Big Green under the tenure of head coach Terry Dunn.

Dunn came to Dartmouth before the 2004-2005 season from the University of Colorado after he led the Buffaloes to two NCAA appearances. Dunn has struggled to make Dartmouth a force in Ivy League men's basketball.

While he did engineer a turnaround from 2003-2004 to 2004-2005, when the Big Green went from 1-13 in Ivy play to 7-7, Dunn is 36-77 (.330 winning percentage) overall and 18-42 (.300) in conference play over his four years with Dartmouth. Excluding the team's fifth-place finish in 2004-2005, the Big Green has never finished higher than seventh place with Dunn as head coach.

Last season, the Big Green began 8-8 overall, with victories over the University of Vermont and Harvard along with a close loss to Big East contender Rutgers University. But things came apart for the team after downing the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, 86-62, in mid-January, as the Big Green finished the season by losing 10 of its last 12 contests, all in Ivy play. In that span, the Big Green averaged 59.6 points per game while conceding 68.3 points on average to its opponents.

The Big Green ranked fifth in scoring defense and seventh in scoring offense among Ivy teams last season. Additionally, Dartmouth was sixth in the league in field goal percentage and three-point shooting percentage, and last in free-throw shooting percentage.

The steals column was one of the only bright spots for the Big Green, as the team garnered an impressive 7.36 steals per game, good for second in the conference.

Co-captain Robby Pride '10 is not concerned about past performances, focusing instead on creating a new winning culture within this year's squad.

"The biggest difference about this season is the team's attitude," Pride said of the 2008-2009 season. "We've changed how we practice, how we play, even the way we lift. We just have a tougher mentality overall."

While the Big Green plans to change its mindset, the team may not be forced to make major changes in the starting lineup, as three of last season's starters will return for this season.

One of those starters, senior Alex Barnett '09 should prove to be the cornerstone of the team this year. A 6'6" forward from St. Louis, Mo., Barnett started in 27 games last season and was the team's leading rebounder and scorer, averaging 15.6 points per game. Barnett also led the Ivy League in rebounding with 7.3 boards per game. With these numbers, Barnett was named second team All-Ivy last season and ranked among the top six in the league in both blocks and free-throw shooting.

"Alex has continually improved and added to his game since arriving on campus," head coach Terry Dunn told DartmouthSports.com. "He has become a threat from long range [36.1 three-point shooting percent last year], developed his mid-range game and increased his court awareness. That court awareness will be important as opposing teams will key on him."

"He's obviously our leader in every aspect, and we will look to him a lot this season," Pride said. "He has the potential to be Ivy League Player of the Year."

While nobody doubts Barnett's potential to contribute this season, the other players are looking to have a more balanced offensive system and spread the scoring around this season.

"There was a lot of pressure on [Barnett] to carry the team last year, and we hope to take some of that pressure off of him this season," Pride said.

In addition to Barnett, two other returning starters hope to bring the team a winning season.

Marlon Sanders '09 is a 6'6" guard from Cleveland, Ohio, who has been cited for his keen defensive skills. Sanders will move to the shooting guard this season after making 28 appearances and 14 starts last year.

"[Playing shooting guard] will fit Marlon a lot better because he'll be freer to move the ball around and create opportunities, rather than run the offense," Pride said.

Elgin Fitzgerald '10, a 6'6"forward, also returns for the 2008-2009 season. Fitzgerald picked up his offensive play in the latter part of last season, when he averaged more than seven points per game in conference play. He played in 26 games and made 11 starts last season.

"[Fitzgerald's play at the end of the season] took a lot of pressure off Barnett, and it would be huge for the team if he could continue his scoring contribution from last year," Pride noted.

Despite the team's optimistic outlook on the upcoming season, the preseason Ivy League media poll picked Dartmouth to finish seventh out of eight teams, ahead of only Princeton.

The same poll predicted that Cornell (22-6, 14-0 Ivy in 2007-2008) would finish on top of the Ivies. The Big Red won the Ivy League last year with a perfect 14-0 conference mark. Cornell also earned a No. 14 seed in the NCAA tournament but fell to No. 3 Stanford University, 77-53, in the opening round.

Brown finished 2007-2008 in second place in the league, ahead of the University of Pennsylvania. Columbia and Yale were tied for fourth place, while Dartmouth was in a last-place tie with Harvard and Princeton.

Despite the ominous rankings, Big Green basketball is off to a good start in preseason play, defeating both St. Anselm College, a Division II program in Manchester, N.H., and the University of Maine.

Pride notes that the success is in part due to the influence of underclassmen.

"Most of the freshmen coming in played five years of high school basketball, so they're more prepared," Pride said. "They are ready -- physically and mentally -- to play at this level, and they will all contribute, which is unusual for freshmen coming in."

Dunn has hauled in five first-year players -- two guards, two forwards and one guard-forward utility player -- in an effort to bolster the Dartmouth lineup. Dunn only recruited players who played their final year of prep basketball at Northeast schools. In fact, two of those players, guard and forward David Rufful '12 and Josh Riddle '12, were teammates at Northfield Mt. Hermon in Gill, Mass.

If past accolades are any indication, the backcourt combination of guards Rufful and Jabari Trotter '12 may have particular promise for the Big Green. Rufful was twice named Rhode Island Player of the Year during his tenure at West Warwick High School in West Warwick, R.I., and was also tabbed as Rhode Island All-State in 2006 and 2007 before spending a post-graduated year at Mt. Hermon. Trotter was a force at Phillips Exeter Academy last season, where he was the most valuable player after leading the team in scoring and guiding the squad to a school-record 17 wins,

The addition of Kirk Crecco '12 gives the Big Green one New Hampshire native on its roster. The 6'3" guard from Gilford, N.H., was a two-time All-State selection and a 1,000-point scorer during his prep career.

Dunn also brought in one international player, forward Herve Kouna Metsam '12. Metsam is a native of Cameroon who played high school ball at the Canterbury School in New Milford, Conn., and was one of the top 100 players to come out of the Basketball Without Borders program operated in Johannesburg, South Africa.

How these freshmen will contribute during regular season play has yet to be seen, but some might have a chance to show off their skills against Army on Saturday.