What gets lost in the current five-game slide for the Dartmouth women’s basketball team, all of which occurred at home and thus only exacerbated concern, is how the team was largely on equal footing with its competition.
Aside from the Princeton loss that was an outlier in many respects (it was the Big Green’s best performance lately as the team came out more active and spirited than ever, the Tigers posted ungodly shooting percentages from the field, and most of all, Princeton is nationally ranked, and a veritable power that did not necessarily click on all cylinders in the game), the visiting slate of competitors—Harvard, Penn, Yale, and Brown—did not really display superior skill or advantage over the Big Green. Execution and coalescence as a team are of course entirely different matters, and various individual slumping stretches in addition to one particular injury have prevented Dartmouth from truly going toe-to-toe with its opponent—as an eye test of on-floor talent would indicate would happen.
Regardless, despite how deceptive the losing streak is in actuality, conference standings do not grant partial credit. The Big Green fall to seventh out of eight in the league, and now stand detached from the cream of the Ivy crop. To close the five-game gap, the team has only eight games left to work with. Furthermore, the Ivy League remains stubbornly trapped in the past in eschewing a postseason tournament, which otherwise would allow for greater general excitement, and more conference-wide participation and incentive. It’s a being-different-for-the-sake-of-being-different syndrome, surely defended with some archaic Ancient Eight moral principles, tinged with elitist contrarianism, but it’s unfortunately something players and fans must deal with and suffer from. But that’s beside the point: Dartmouth must now live with the fact that it tossed away any chance at an elusive Ivy League title—and nonetheless within its own Leede Arena.
Yet despite what now appears a lost season, the team still has plenty to play for—and I’m not promoting a blindly upbeat outlook, or forcing out the seemingly requisite positive spin on school sport teams. You cannot simply evaluate the course of this season without also acknowledging the precedent context for this program.
Here’s a quick reminder of where this team was in their post-2009 NCAA tournament appearance era:
Albeit currently on a skid, the Big Green have made a monumental jump in the 2014-15 campaign, in which they have attained a 10-10 mark. A much stronger out of conference display (9-5) certainly buttressed their record, and perhaps to a fault; it only further signifies that the extent of this season’s improvement will be defined by how much the team polishes its in-conference play from here on out. But once again, that’s not to discount the progress that’s already been reached and set in stone.
Moreover, it’s instructive to note that Belle Koclanes is only in her second year in Hanover, and in her first stint as a head coach. As she continues to settle in and imprint her coaching mark on this program, as well as build her rotation around her own recruits, this season offers a glimpse into a possibly optimistic future.
The current makeup of the team also provides additional context on how to judge this year’s results. Only three seniors are on the roster, two of which have played this season, and one (Milica Toskovic) who has played at full health and regularly. By and large, the more youthful players have led Dartmouth this year to the program’s strongest start in almost a decade. In other words, the team remains likely a year, maybe two, away from its peak potential.
So while a conference title and tourney bid has almost certainly escaped the Big Green’s grasp—and most importantly, out of their control—this remainder of the season still represents a crucial opportunity to maintain and advance its path of progress.
Below are some quick notes—and high and low trends—on individual performance as the team sits nearly halfway through Ivy League play:
The more you watch the team, the more Roland sticks out as the best on-court talent, with both feel for the game and shooting touch, as well as the true leader, for the Big Green. She took a sizable drop-off in effectiveness after her best performance in her career—the Ivy League opener in Cambridge—but has gradually begun to regain her form in this last weekend. The junior consistently presents a menacing presence on rebound situations from both ends of the court, and always exudes the most energy among her teammates in every aspect of the game. As of late, when it seemed plainly clear she had broken out of her slump, the junior curiously did not receive a greater share of offensive opportunities—particularly Saturday night against Brown, disallowing her to make full use of her hot stroke (50% for the game, best on the squad). In addition to her ability to create her own shot and convert those resulting from ball movement, Roland has also showed a nifty sense of vision on passes. One can’t help but hope that she gets more chances on offense herself.
And so we arrive at the ultimate under the radar player for the Big Green—and another starter who deserves many more scoring chances than she has gotten so far. While leading the team in minutes in the six conference games played, Mixon still remains an untapped potential; while she has taken 10 less field goals than any other starter, she leads the unit in FG% with .370 (the next player down has .352). When she does take command, the freshman point guard almost always creates a productive result for her team when driving into the paint and attacking the basket (whether skillfully finishing at the rim, drawing a foul, or opening up looks for teammates). Even when she lurks around the perimeter in the halfcourt set, Mixon constantly sends swift, incisive feeds to her teammates that create excellent looks at the rim. A quietly solid three-point shot poses a nice complementary threat as well, and that’s not to mention her tenacity on defense. Considering how offensively lethargic Dartmouth has been for long stretches of time over the last five games, the underuse of Mixon on this end is unjustifiable. I cannot stress enough the necessity of smart and continuous ball movement for offensive production, and Mixon fosters it like no other player. Whether it is herself being more assertive, or more likely the formation of plays and offensive mentality that Coach Koclanes can surely alter, further integrating Mixon on offense is imperative to any success for the rest of the season.
I understand the importance of having the intangible senior leadership here, as well as a lanky frame and long stretch that reaps benefits on both ends of the court. But Toskovic’s game suffers greatly from a very poor shot selection, often occurring in the early stages of contests. She has tended to force several shots—forgoing the development of a team passing rhythm—and has not always kept her options open on offense. Her tendency to try to excessively settle into/develop a nice shooting touch in the early-going along with similar trends from two or three other teammates every night collectively serve as one of the biggest obstacles to efficient ball movement, which invariably keys any of Dartmouth’s offensive success. Toskovic also commits some of the more unexplainable and reckless turnovers while on offense. Koclanes pulled the senior guard out of the game almost immediately after two or three of her miscues on Saturday, perhaps hinting at a discontent on the coach’s part.
The alternative to Toskovic, or at least whom Koclanes typically subs in for her senior, does not introduce an upgrade. But that comes with good reason, as Letkewicz, a freshman, still has plenty of growth ahead of her, in the rest of this season and beyond; if anything, gaining some playing time—a jump from 10.5 to 12 MPG in Ivy League matchups—could reveal that Koclanes sees something in the young guard. It’s just that at the moment, Letkewicz oftentimes looks lost when on the floor and is prone to carless mistakes.
Any team improvement moving forward rests largely on the shoulders of the second-year guard, as Szabo’s shooting—and how it fits into the team’s general offensive flow—is a fundamental characteristic of the offense. With a refined repertoire of wing three-pointers, short pull-up jumpers after creating space, and clinical transition finishing, the sophomore has managed to build on her stellar freshman campaign. Yet through the past five difficult games, it’s become apparent that she must learn to recognize when she has an off, cold shooting night, and act accordingly: assume a greater role of facilitator, which she’s more than capable of (she’s a magnet for opposing defenders). Last weekend’s game against Brown provides the best case study for this, as the guard remained perseverant to a fault in yearning to establish her shot (6-20 on field goals), and she impeded Roland (who, as mentioned before, had the hot hand) from taking control of the game. On another note, Szabo must also stay aware of her foul situation, as on two consecutive nights this past weekend, Koclanes was forced to take her out of the game for 10+ minute-spans (one in each game).
After a relatively strong display of post-game offense (14 points on 6-10 FG’s)—and for a team in need of it—against Princeton on January 31st, the junior has slacked off since then, shooting a combined 3-15 in the two following games. Many of the misses came on extremely unlucky bounces, and you could see her frustration after every near-miss. If she just adds some more dimensions to her activity in the offensive paint—pump fakes on shot attempts, and passing out of the post so as to not force shots—Jordan can certainly fill the void of a respectable big man presence on the team. On defense, the center must also keen in on staying tight to the player she marks
The freshman, who stands as one of the tallest players on the team, has been a pleasant surprise in the short spurts of action she’s seen. While a scarcity of attempts plays a part in this, Smith nevertheless has the highest overall FG% (.488) and highest in-conference mark (.600) on the entire team. Such efficiency, and even more so because of her bursts of energetic and aggressive post play off the bench, has made the center a valuable contributor, and unheralded at that. At least for now, she should progress no further than this reserve role, as Smith’s primary flaw stems from getting exhausted too quickly, which occasionally leads to lazy fouls.
Team-wide developments and Tia Dawson
The need to address a pressing defensive flaw would not become more pronounced than in last Saturday’s contest: Brown generated all but four of their total 50 points (28 PITP and 18-24 FTs) from drives into the restricted area to produce easy looks near the rim. It’s the common theme of the opposing offense that has continually crushed the Big Green in the last five games. Basic points in the paint totals don’t emphasize it enough, as opponents rely heavily on slashing towards the hoop from well outside that area, and successfully so; getting for the most part out-rebounded from game to game lends further insight into this issue for Dartmouth. An introduction of greater help defense—from the weak side or simply from the closest teammate nearby—might help in this situation. After all, shifting players more towards the rim can never prove too detrimental, as the inconsistent shooting that typifies most Ivy League teams cannot fully capitalize on freer looks far from the basket.
Yet a solution to this problem probably relates more to the health of senior Tia Dawson. After a solid first two years in Hanover, the center played only five games as a junior, and has seen injuries restrict her time (11.7 MPG) on the court once again this season. But what she did in the short playing time against Brown on Saturday night bodes extremely well if she ever returns to regular minutes. Playing through leg injuries, Dawson collected 10 rebounds and three blocks in only 13 minutes of play. When you think about it, that’s absolutely ridiculous considering the small sample size (and evocative of Hassan Whiteside numbers). Prorate that to a Per 25 min. total—she played 27.8 MPG in her presumably injury-free first two seasons—and you have some absurd 19.2 RPG and 5.8 BPG marks. It would not be far-fetched to attribute the team’s recent struggles against tougher competition to her minimal presence. Of course it would be near impossible for Dawson to sustain such production and reach the projections, but her performance nonetheless demonstrates how indispensable the center might really be to her team’s success—namely through the fulfillment of a much-needed rim protector for at least +20 minutes.