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Veteran bigs lead men's basketball to battle

Team prepares for life after McGonagill ’14, kicks off new campaign Friday against St. Peter’s

With a veteran presence in the locker room and an on-court gravity that bent defenses toward him without fail, Sean McGonagill ’14 wreaked havoc on defenders around the Ivy League. For four years, McGonagill helped Head Coach Mike Martin ’04 instill a winning culture in what had been a floundering program.

This season, the men’s basketball team has been tasked with replacing McGonagill’s intangibles — not to mention his 37.4 minutes, 17.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.3 steals per game last year — following the graduation of the team’s former captain and third-most prolific scorer in the history of Brown men’s basketball.

“There’s not going to be any one guy who replaces Sean,” Martin said. “But we hope that we’ve recruited well enough and developed guys that collectively will step up and fill that void.”

Beyond the hole at shooting guard, Bruno’s roster boasts a core of returning starters, a couple of offensive dynamos coming off the bench, a talented rookie class and two key players that will dictate the success of the team’s season.


The nucleus

In the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, the Bears’ frontcourt was ranked first overall in the Ivy League, largely due to the team’s two veteran leaders. For the second season in a row, reigning two-time Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Cedric Kuakumensah ’16 and conference-leading rebounder Rafael Maia ’15 were named team captains. The forwards provide the team with a dominating interior presence on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.

Brown’s frontcourt tandem is the most physically commanding duo in the Ivy League. Both players put on 10 pounds over the summer, and Kuakumensah grew an inch. The “Twin Towers” are both listed at 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds, so the Bears should match up physically with any opponent they face this season.

“We’re going to count on those guys for a lot,” Martin said of his frontcourt players. “We’re going to do all we can to maximize their playing time and their efficiency while they’re on the floor.”

Kuakumensah and Maia’s defensive styles complement each other well. Kuakumensah challenges every shot near the hoop and boxes out well, while Maia grabs boards, outlets and consistently runs the floor with the guards. Kuakumensah set an Ivy League record last season with 93 blocked shots, and Maia averaged over eight rebounds per game.

The two can step on each others’ feet at times on the offensive end, but Kuakumensah’s range seems to increase each season, allowing Maia to occupy the space closest to the hoop. The junior even took a few threes in a preseason scrimmage, indicating that he has once again expanded his offensive comfort zone.

Feeding the ball to Kuakumensah and Maia on offense is returning starting point guard Tavon Blackmon ’17. Last season, the then-first-year dished out 3.5 assists per game — the second highest number on the team behind McGonagill’s 3.8, who started his career as a point guard.

Blackmon is a scrappy defender with quick feet and the ability to strip an opponent in the open court. Offensively, he directs traffic and moves the ball quickly and effectively.

The young point guard’s biggest weakness last season was his hesitance to shoot — a weakness that Blackmon has worked on during offseason, Martin said.

“He realized that he has to be a threat every time he catches the ball,” Martin said. “Otherwise teams won’t guard him. He improved his shooting, his strength and he’s more confident out there. We’re excited about what he can do.”

With McGonagill gone, the team will need Blackmon to slash to the basket more often and either finish in traffic or kick the ball out to a shooter — a trait he demonstrated at times last year.


The spark plugs

While McGonagill was undoubtedly the team’s most proficient scorer last season, Leland King ’17 gave him a run for his money. King had a mercurial first season as a Bear, but put together an impressive resume when he was given significant minutes. In the final three games of the year, King averaged 21 points and shot nearly 50 percent from beyond the arc.

Due to his scoring abilities and star potential, Sports Illustrated named King to its list of five sophomores to watch for a breakout season and suggested that the forward could emerge as a top scorer in the Ivy League if he continued scoring at last season’s pace.

The only obstacles in King’s way are Maia and Kuakumensah. Ideally, King would play power forward, as he has the size and physicality to guard a larger player in the post but would easily elude a slower defender on the other end of the court.

But with the two captains cemented in the starting lineup, King will likely either start in the small forward role or be used off the bench as the sixth-man, providing instant scoring against opponents’ second units. While King may not start, Martin said he will use a lineup that features King, Kuakumensah and Maia all sharing the court.

“We’ve thought about it, practiced it and I think you’ll see that lineup on the floor together,” Martin said.

Dockery Walker ’15 — another big man who deserves a healthy amount of minutes off the bench — will make Martin’s rotation decisions that much tougher.

Martin called Walker a player with “a ton of experience” and said the senior will figure into the crowded front court rotation.

After being sidelined for the entirety of the 2012-2013 season, Walker made his return to the court last year and contributed on both sides of the ball. The forward boasts a crafty post game, which allowed him to lead the team with a 51.8 shooting percentage last season. He also contributed on the boards, snatching over four rebounds per game.

Walker and King will both get significant playing time on a team that will always have two proficient post scorers on the floor at once.


The rookies

After last year’s crop of first-years produced two regular starters and one key rotation player, Martin’s second recruiting class is an intriguing group of players.

“Last season’s freshmen made it look easier than it is,” Martin said of the transition between high school and college basketball. “But (the class of 2018) is a good group. There have been days when they have all stood out and showed flashes of really good play.”

Jason Massey ’18, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound guard, showed impressive athleticism throughout high school and is a skilled finisher on fast breaks. He has the body type to become a solid wing defender — the Bears need more depth at small forward, and Massey could help defend the athletic guards that many conference foes have on their rosters.

Tyler Williams ’18 and Patrick Triplett ’18 are also fighting for spots in Bruno’s backcourt. Williams handles the ball well and could fill in for Blackmon at point guard when the sophomore ball handler needs a rest. Triplett is a little bigger than Williams and could earn minutes at shooting guard if he proves he can score and defend at a high level.

There are only so many minutes at the power forward and center positions, and Miki Ljuboja ’18 may be on the short end of the stick. Sitting behind Maia, Kuakumensah, Walker and King, playing time will be scarce for Ljuboja, but the 6-foot-8, 230-pound first-year showed a deft jump shot, strong post moves and a willingness to bang bodies in the paint during a preseason scrimmage.

Kyle Haber ’18 rounds out this season’s crop of fresh talent. Haber has a knack for scoring — both inside and outside — and could provide Bruno with instant offense off the bench. But the lanky 6-foot-7, 180-pound forward will struggle to defend his position, especially against powerful shooting guards and small forwards.


The x-factors

Despite the plethora of the talent in the frontcourt, the bench and the rookie class, two sophomores — J.R. Hobbie ’17 and Steven Speith ’17 — will make or break the Bears’ season.

The importance of Speith and Hobbie is tied to the loss of McGonagill and Matty Madigan ’17. Madigan, who was Bruno’s defensive stopper last season, decided not to return to the team this season, Martin said.

While Kuakumensah locked down the paint, Speith and Madigan matched up with an opponent’s two strongest wing players last year. With Madigan gone, Speith will absorb extra defensive responsibilities. For the Bears to have success, Speith must take his defense to an elite level to lock down oponents like Harvard’s Wesley Saunders, the reigning Ivy Player of the Year.

Hobbie’s primary role on the team last season was floor spacing — the shooting guard demonstrated a consistent ability to hit contested, on-the-move jump shots from outside the arc and finished fifth in the conference in three-point percentage.

Without McGonagill, the Bears need Hobbie to bend defenses toward him and away from Kuakumensah and Maia in the post. If Hobbie can shoot over 40 percent from three-point territory — as he did last season — Bruno will enjoy the extra spacing he provides on the wings.

Speith also flashed an ability to shoot the three, though he took only 38 shots from beyond the arc last year. Both players will have to take a higher volume of long range attempts to keep opposing defenses on their toes.


The outlook

Most preseason polls have the Bears projected to finish between fourth and fifth place in the Ivy League — behind Harvard, Yale, Princeton and sometimes Columbia.

Martin said it is too early for him to rank the teams in the conference without first seeing what the other squads have done with their off-seasons, but the head coach did promise his team would compete on a nightly basis.

“We’ll be competitive with anyone we play,” Martin said. “If we grow and mature as a team, I don’t see why we can’t compete for an Ivy League championship. That’s our goal, we realize it’s a huge challenge, but we’re working hard to make it a reality.”

Life after McGonagill begins for the Bears Friday night, when they host Saint Peter’s University at 8 p.m. in the Pizzitola Center.


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