Men's basketball reflects on start of season ahead of final stretch

by Justin Kramer | 1/22/18 2:10am

by Saba Nejad / The Dartmouth

Dartmouth men’s basketball has had a difficult 4-11 start to the season, but with almost a full slate of Ivy League Conference games left to play, and a fast-developing young core, the men are focusing their efforts on qualifying for the Ivy League Tournament at the Palestra, the home gym of the University of Pennsylvania.

The team’s slogan “Work hard, work smart, work together” is echoed across the program.

“The only way you can get to excellence is to have a work culture,” head coach David McLaughlin said. “Every day you have to work hard whether it’s coaches, players or support staff. We have to approach things the right way, and we have to do it together. When you combine that work culture with attention to detail, it becomes the foundation for building a championship program.”

Dartmouth lost much of its core from last season, most notably last season’s A.D. “Dolly” Stark Award winner Evan Boudreaux ’19, who announced in December he would not be playing for the team this year and will finish out his NCAA career at Xavier University.

Moreover, the departures of Wes Dickinson ’17, Mike Fleming ’17 and Ike Ngwudo ’17, as well as Guilien Smith ’19’s early season injury have transferred the reins over to the underclassmen.

“We have a young team, so one of the things that comes with that is gaining experience and gaining knowledge,” co-captain Miles Wright ’18 said. “Our upperclassmen are trying to do our best job to educate these young guys on what it takes to win, not only in games but also in practice.”

As the underclassmen grow under the guidance of their older teammates, McLaughlin noted the team’s continued improvement.

“Even though they’re young and give you some up-and-down moments, there’s this progress,” McLaughlin said. “With [the younger players], it’s nice because you know they are going to continue to get better each game. You’re going to expect more and more and more from that group.”

First-years Chris Knight ’21 and Aaryn Rai ’21 have gotten big minutes this season, as Rai has started every game and Knight has shot .566 from the field, manufacturing 10.5 points per game primarily off the bench.

The sophomore class has taken on a much larger role over the course of this season.Wright noted that Brendan Barry ’20 and Will Emery ’20 are two underclassmen who have stepped up, played big minutes, and shot the ball well.

Barry has emerged as a force at point guard, leading the team with 11.8 points per game, 60 assists and 36 threes in 77 attempts.

“The way that I have tried to step up is controlling the game whether it’s slowing it down if we need to get a good possession or speeding it up if we’re on a run,” Barry said. Wright and Taylor Johnson ’18 have been key leaders on the team, both in the locker room and in the starting lineup. Wright has carried the team both offensively and defensively, with 11.7 points per game and a team-best 61 rebounds to go along with 22 steals on the defensive end. Thus far, Johnson has scored 11.5 points per game in a career year.

“With [Fleming] gone, it showed me that I have to step [up] as a more vocal leader rather than just leading by example,” Wright said. “Basketball-wise, I’m playing a little more loose, not necessarily worrying about the personal outcomes or personal achievements. I’m just trying to play to win.”

With a younger core beyond Wright and Johnson, much of the focus has been on improving different aspects of the game. McLaughlin highlighted defense and getting consecutive stops as the primary areas for growth. This lesson has resonated with Wright.

“They say, ‘Defense wins championships,’” Wright said. “So in order for us to make a push at the Palestra and win the Ivy League Championship, we really need to step up our defense.”

McLaughlin has been pleased with his team’s overall attitude toward development.

“They are a true work team,” McLaughlin said. “They understand that every time they’re on the court, every time they’re in the weight room, they’re in a film session or on their own, it’s a time to get better. That is what we’re striving for. Every single opportunity to get better, you have to take advantage of.”

Though the Big Green’s 4-9 record in non-conference games is far from ideal, the mentality of ongoing growth and development was at the heart of the team’s early season play.

“The non-league slate is a true testament to beginning to define who you are, to really identify some personnel pros and cons and to identify where your areas for improvement are and where your strengths are,” McLaughlin said.

The most exciting non-conference game was a nationally televised scoring spree at the University of Notre Dame, which ended in a hard-fought 97-87 loss on Dec. 19. The Fighting Irish were ranked No. 14 in the AP Top 25 and USA Today Coaches preseason polls.

“We went down 16 within the second half and we fought back to get it within three with four minutes left,” Barry said. “I think that was a great learning experience for us, just showing us where we can be when we execute, share the ball and defend.”

The Notre Dame contest was one of nine road games for Dartmouth so far this season, in which they have a sour 1-8 record. Playing in Leede Arena has resulted in better outcomes for the Big Green, who has played to a decent 3-3 record in a small sample size.

McLaughlin noted the significance of a home court advantage.

“We want this to be one of the most difficult places to play,” McLaughlin said. “With the community support we get, with the student support we’re anticipating and the product we want to give everyone on the court, we don’t see why that can’t be the case every time we step into Leede.”

With plenty of conference games left to turn the season around and finish in the Ivy League’s top four, the team remains upbeat.

“The key throughout the next two months is keeping that morale high if we lose a few games,” Barry said. “We’re just trying to fight, trying to grind and trying to get wins.”

Before the game against Harvard University this past Saturday, Wright emphasized his confidence that Dartmouth basketball will maintain and thrive upon its fighting spirit through the rest of the season.

“We don’t have guys who are going to give up after a few losses or a few tough goes,” Wright said. “We have tough guys that are going to battle and we’re going to persevere. We have [12 regular season] games to write our destiny this season, and we’re going to make it happen.”

On Saturday, the men lost 62-57 in overtime to the crimson. Currently, the Big Green is 0-2 in the Ivy League, good for seventh place and ahead of Cornell University only.

The team hits the road this weekend to Brown University on Friday and Yale University on Saturday.