Sports

Rookies bolster men’s basketball lineup, promise bright future

Newest crop of players to light up Pizzitola Center has invigorated Bruno with 42 percent of scoring

By
Sports Editor
Friday, February 14, 2014

It started with Tavon Blackmon ’17, a point guard from the nation’s capital who committed in the summer of 2012 to play basketball at Brown. Leland King ’17, the 6-foot-7 forward from California, wasn’t far behind him. So began the men’s basketball class of 2017.

By early 2013, guards Norman Hobbie ’17 and Matty Madigan ’17 had joined the ranks. The group began to take shape but remained under the radar. A little later in the midst of the 2012-13 Bears’ battle to a modest 7-7 Ivy season, the class was finalized when Steven Spieth ’17 and Aram Martin ’17 signed on.

The six-man group — the biggest first-year class in the Ivy League — was tasked with replacing three seniors and filling out a roster of only six returning players.

“We knew we needed help. We needed guys that could be impact players,” said Head Coach Mike Martin ’04. “They’ve had good opportunity because of what our roster was leading into the season.”

Almost halfway through the Ivy schedule, the Bruno rookies have proven themselves a formidable unit, lifting the Bears (12-8, 4-2 Ivy) into contention for an Ivy title.

 

Numbers don’t lie

Bruno’s seven Ivy opponents collect an average 9.5 percent of their total scoring from first-years. But the Bears are a different story. Spieth and Blackmon each individually contribute more than 10 percent, while the first-year class as a whole accounts for 42 percent.

How have the young Bears been able to quadruple the production of their Ivy counterparts? In part, out of necessity — the Bears have less experience than any team in the Ancient Eight.

“Other programs have more established upperclassmen, so that’s not as much opportunity” for first-years, Mike Martin said. “But with that opportunity, our guys have produced.”

Providing more than just boots on the ground, the first-years have combined their unique talents to create a unit that excels in all facets of the game.

Blackmon runs the point. The guard’s 67 assists lead the team, but he’s not afraid to call his own number on the fast break, leading the first-years with 8.1 points per game. This multi-dimensionality has made him a focal point of the offense.

“If you need me to score, I’ll score some game. If you need me to pass, I’ll have assists,” Blackmon said. “But I usually try to get everyone else the ball.”

Hobbie is the sharp-shooter. J.R., as his teammates call him, gets a lot of attention off the bench for his ability to knock down any shot — from anywhere.  The specialist has buried 44 percent of treys  this season and has earned Ivy Rookie of the Week three times.

“I rely on (teammates) to get me the ball, and they expect me to make the shot,” Hobbie said.

King provides an interior presence but complements his size with athleticism. Anyone who has watched the forward take the ball coast-to-coast for a bucket or rack up old-fashioned three-point plays has seen the speed and strength that make King a weapon. With experienced front-courters Rafael Maia ’15 and Cedric Kuakumensah ’16 often battling foul trouble, King’s minutes have been crucial.

Madigan is often called upon to defend late in game, and opponents have paid the price for leaving him alone on the perimeter. The 6-foot-10 Aram Martin hasn’t been able to showcase his long frame because of an injury.

Spieth, the do-it-all, lock-down defender, is in the middle of the Ivy Rookie of the Year conversation. Spieth’s average 7.3 points, 5.5 boards and 2.5 assists per game have steadily climbed as the forward has found his stride in conference play. The totals are all the more impressive given that Spieth is responsible for guarding the best opposing player each game.

Spieth has won two consecutive Ivy Rookie of the Week awards and may earn a lot more hardware by the time the season is over.

 

Building the foundation

The chemistry that continues to show on the court started long before the class converged on College Hill.

As Mike Martin collected commitments from his first recruiting class, the signees quickly struck up a bond. Spieth had met Blackmon and Hobbie on the recruiting trail and visited Madigan in North Carolina. All six set up a group text and exchanged news and messages throughout the summer before their first year.

“The first thing I noticed was that we were a really good group of guys,” Hobbie said. “All the (first-years) hung out together and really clicked immediately.”

“You’ll probably always see a group of us together — we’re really close,” Blackmon said.

As the squad entered preseason, the guidance of upperclassmen, particularly co-captain Sean McGonagill ’14, molded the unit into an impressive force.

“They have been mentors on and off the court, especially Sean. I really give him credit for all the success I’ve had,” Blackmon said. “He’s been in my position. He started as point guard” as a first-year.

The group isn’t without problems, though. The team has seen some inconsistencies due to their inexperience. Blackmon is prone to turnovers at times, and King’s three-point shot has been ice-cold.

“We’ve had some growing pains,” Mike Martin said. “But we thought early on that all these guys would have a chance to play. They’ve earned it.”

Together, the class of 2017 has turned a .500-team losing key scorers into a title contender. With four weekends remaining in the 14-game Ivy League tournament, look for a group of rookies to provide the foundation for a Bruno title run.

Success would confirm what Hobbie saw when he first met his classmates:

“There was a lot of talent — I knew we could do something special.”