While most Brown students enjoyed a well-deserved respite from College Hill this winter break, the men’s basketball team bunkered down in the Pizzitola Center to prepare for a packed schedule and the beginning of conference play. The Bears (10-9, 1-2 Ivy) returned Dec. 26 for 6 p.m. practice, and it has been business as usual ever since with players grinding out two-a-days on the hard court, watching hours of film and hitting the weight room.
This training cycle, informally dubbed “intersession” by many winter sports teams, also featured a number of games. Bruno had three non-conference matchups versus Quinnipiac, Stony Brook and New Jersey Institute of Technology, as well as contests against its first three Ivy League opponents of the year: Princeton, Penn and Yale. The team went 2-4 over this stretch, with victories over Quinnipiac (8-12, 5-5 MAAC) Dec. 29 and the Quakers (7-9, 0-3) Jan. 14 to close out winter break play.
Reflecting on the winter break, team co-captain Tavon Blackmon ’17 said from a team chemistry standpoint, it was a great opportunity to “just grow closer together by spending so much time practicing with no one else on campus.” The senior guard also added that the Bears gained valuable in-game experience along the way.
“We played some pretty good teams over winter break,” Blackmon said. “I think it’s really going to help us moving forward with league play.”
Head Coach Mike Martin ’04 added that intersession helped the team pinpoint not only its strengths but also its areas of improvement. In the team’s convincing 82-70 victory over Penn, Martin said that Bruno focused on “taking care of the ball for the full 40 minutes” and “played a complete game.” In the contest, Brown took the lead with 11:43 remaining in the first half and never looked back, topping the Quakers in rebounds, fastbreak points and field goal percentage en route to their first Ivy League win of the season.
Martin also noted that the team’s main weakness is its lack of size. To compensate, “high offensive productivity and speed on offense” have been important assets that the team has focused on so far, he said.
One area of near certainty for the head coach has been faith in co-captain Steven Speith ’17, who “has been playing at an extremely high level,” Martin added.
Speith leads the team in points per game with 15.3 and 33 minutes per game over the Bears’ last six outings during the winter break stretch. In Bruno’s nail-biting 75-74 loss to Yale (10-6, 2-1 Ivy) this past weekend, Speith had a career-high 33 points, including a clutch three-pointer to tie the game at 74 with just seven seconds remaining — his seventh trey of the game.
“First and foremost, people are overlooking us,” Blackmon said. “Before the season we were picked eighth in the league. It was a big thing to show everybody we are a lot better than that. We are a small team, but we have a lot of guys doing a lot of different things, so being unselfish was one of the huge themes. We have really used that to our advantage throughout the season.”
By the numbers, these efforts have definitely borne fruit so far. Brown capped non-conference play one win away from the highest winning preseason in Brown men’s basketball history, forward Travis Fuller ’19 said. This achievement comes after the team graduated Ivy basketball blocks leader Cedric Kuakumensah ’16 last spring.
“Cedric was a huge part of our success,” Fuller said. “He was such a great leader and a three year captain, … but losing him is a little easier when you have three seniors to take his spot. They have done such a great job and are definitely lead-by-example type guys.”
Blackmon also added that the team benefitted from offensive contributions from its bench and that first-years Brandon Anderson ’20 and Joshua Howard ’20 have played “big minutes” for the team. In Bruno’s tight 92-89 loss to Stony Brook, Anderson started at guard and notched 18 points in 23 minutes of play, including three three-pointers.
Moving forward, Brown will face Yale Friday at 8 p.m. in a rematch of last weekend’s thriller. After an upcoming three-game road stretch, six of the team’s last seven games are at home, which will be advantageous if the Bears can rally similar Pizzitola-filling crowds to the student turnout against Yale this past Saturday. Changes to the Ivy League postseason — the introduction of a four-team tournament that decides the Ivy’s representative in the NCAA tournament — will give Brown a unique opportunity to continue its season with more and more wins. “Brown basketball is back. We had the gym rocking,” Fuller said, adding that it was great to have “tons of support,” especially as the team will only face conference opponents from here on out as it vies for a spot in the inaugural four-team Ivy League Tournament at the Palestra.