Sports

Men’s basketball welcomes Crimson, Big Green in search of first Ivy win

Bruno looks to upset highly-touted Harvard, get back in Ancient Eight title race

By
Sports Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 2015

Tavon Blackmon ’17 looks to set the offense with Cedric Kuakamensah ’16. The sophomore hopes to provide a spark against tough Ivy competition.

There would be no better remedy for the men’s basketball team’s 0-4 conference start than a win over a rival that has won the Ivy League four years in a row. Bruno will look to do just that when it welcomes Harvard Friday before another league bout against Dartmouth Saturday.

The opponents present vastly different tests for the Bears (9-12, 0-4 Ivy), with Harvard ranked second in the Ivy League and Dartmouth seventh. But with its rocky Ivy start, Bruno needs both wins in order to climb back into conference relevance. Point guard Tavon Blackmon ’17 said the early struggles have not shaken the team’s confidence.

“We’re still positive,” Blackmon said. “We’ve had a tough week of practice. We’ve all worked really hard.”

Harvard (13-5, 3-1)

Head Coach Mike Martin ’04 is still searching to do as a coach what he did so well as a Brown undergraduate: beat Harvard. Martin went 6-2 against the Crimson in four years as Bruno’s point guard, but since trading in his jersey for a suit, he holds a 0-4 record. That does not mean his teams haven’t come close — the Bears have taken Harvard to overtime in each of the last two meetings in the Pizzitola Center — but the four-time defending Ivy League Champions have been tough to beat in recent years.

Preseason predictions expected the Crimson to keep on rolling to a fifth straight title this year, and national pollsters even placed Harvard in the country’s top 25. Some hiccups — an early loss to Holy Cross (8-12, 3-7 Patriot) and a 76-27 dismantling by No. 6 Virginia (20-1, 8-1 ACC) — dropped them from the national spotlight, and their start to conference play has been un-Harvard-like.

Dartmouth shocked the Crimson 70-61 in Harvard’s own gym two weeks ago for its only Ivy win so far this season,while Harvard’s other contests with the Big Green and Princeton were much narrower than expected. To be sure, the Crimson remains near the top of the league and the favorite to capture the Ivy crown, but the chinks in its armor have been exposed.

At 0-4, Bruno needs to turn things around in a hurry in order to conquer the perennial Ivy frontrunner. Bruno showed its ability to hang with the League’s best in a nail-biting loss to Yale (15-6, 4-0) two weeks ago, but the departure of Leland King ’17 — who left the program last week for personal reasons — stunted the offense in back-to-back losses to Cornell (10-10, 2-2) and Columbia (10-8, 2-2).

Wesley Saunders, the Ivy League’s two-time reigning Player of the Year, runs the Harvard attack. The do-it-all senior guard averages 15.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists. The Crimson floor general Siyani Chambers leads the team with 4.6 helpers and adds 9.4 points per game with spotty shooting. Corbin Miller rounds out Harvard’s high-scoring backcourt as the team’s premier outside shooter, ranking third in the Ivy League in three-point field goals.

In recent years, Harvard’s athletic forwards have dominated the middle, but the Bears may have an edge in the paint Friday. Bruno’s co-captains Cedric Kuakumensah ’16 and Rafael Maia ’15 are forces inside and combine to average 20.1 points and 14.7 rebounds per game. Steve Moundou-Missi serves as Harvard’s interior presence and torched the Bears for 21 points last time he played in the Pizzitola.

Blackmon may be the player to watch in a Bruno upset bid as he squares off with Chambers. As the season has progressed, Bruno’s sophomore point guard has taken a larger role in the offense. After averaging nine points per game two weeks ago, he’s broken 13 in each of the last three contests. He’s also moving the ball with greater efficiency, upping his assist average from 3.2 before the holiday break to 4.6.

Martin often calls Blackmon the most important member of the team. With the capabilities of Chambers and Blackmon, the point guard battle could decide the game.

“It’s always a good opportunity to face another good point guard in the league,” Blackmon said. “Everything runs through him, so if I can do a good job with ball pressure and attacking him early, then we’ll be in good shape.”

Harvard was heavily favored in the teams’ final regular season game last year, but Bruno rode a sold-out crowd at the Pizzitola to an overtime thriller. Friday will be the Bears’ first Ivy home game since students returned from winter break, so a potentially large crowd could aid the home squad to a victory.

“We go into every game the same way, but (Harvard) is a little different,” Blackmon said. “They’re supposed to be the top of the league, so you’ve got an incentive to get a big win.”

Dartmouth (8-10, 1-3)

The paint will be the area to watch in Saturday’s battle, as two talented frontcourts duke it out. The Big Green will counter Kuakumensah and Maia with a duo of its own: Gabas Maldunas and Connor Boehm.

Maldunas, a lanky 6-foot-9 Lithuanian, is first on the team in rebounds (6.2), second in scoring (10.8) and third in assists (1.5), showing surprising court presence and mobility for a big man. Boehm stands  6-foot-7 and pours in 10.4 points per contest, a consistent but less than flashy forward.

The forward combo provides a great deal of scoring for the Big Green, but expect Bruno to have an edge on the glass. Neither Muldunas nor Boehm pull in rebounds at the rate of Maia or Kuakumensah, and Dartmouth is second to last in the Ancient Eight in boards, while Brown is first.

Before struggling last weekend in losses to Princeton (9-10, 2-1) and Penn (6-11, 1-2), the Big Green pulled off what may be the upset of the year in the conference with a win at Harvard. Dartmouth erased a 14-point second-half deficit and forced Harvard to allow 18 turnovers. Thanks in part to Blackmon’s improved play, Bruno seems to have quelled some turnover problems from early in the year, but the Bears’ ball control could be a major factor Saturday.

Alex Mitola leads Dartmouth in points and lit Harvard up for 18 in the upset. Standing at just 5-foot-11, Mitola does a lot of his damage with the long ball. His 50 treys are second-most in the conference, but he is also a disciplined player with an impressive 2.6 assist-to-turnover ratio.

“They have a really solid attack, so we have to play solid and contain shooters,” Blackmon said. “If we push the ball on offense, we’ll be fine.”

Blackmon will once again have his hands full guarding a talented point guard and could be a difference maker.

“Lately, we’ve needed me to look for my shot a little more, so I’ve been aggressive,” Blackmon said. “But tomorrow if everybody else is rolling, then I’ll be passive. Whatever the team needs.”

After Mitola and the big men, the roster gets pretty thin for a Dartmouth team that is last in the league in scoring. Bruno could see a distinct advantage in mid-sized players.

Steven Spieth ’17 embodied efficiency in Bruno’s loss to Columbia, scoring 11 points on 3-of-4 shooting and 4-of-4 from the line. Spieth does a ton of work at the charity stripe, where he’s hit 24 of his last 25, and the sophomore’s scoring average has crept into double digits. J.R. Hobbie ’17 has seen his minutes go up as a starter since King left and has turned the extra time into more rebounds to accompany his lethal shooting. Spieth and Hobbie pose much more of a scoring threat than Dartmouth’s wings John Golden and Miles Wright.

Opening conference play with four consecutive losses leaves Bruno on the outside looking in at the title race. While the crown may already be out of reach, the Bears could turn some heads this weekend at the Pizzitola. Tipoff will be Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 6 p.m.