Dartmouth WBB At The 20-Game Mark: Thoughts and Analysis

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:

Year Record Win%
2009-10 11-17 .393
2010-11 7-21 .250
2011-12 6-22 .214
2012-13 6-22 .214
2013-14 5-23 .179
Totals/averages 35-105 .250

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:

Rising 

Lakin Roland

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.

Amber Mixon

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.

Falling

Milica Toskovic

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.

Kate Letkewicz

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.

Middle ground

Fanni Szabo

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).

Daisy Jordan

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

Olivia Smith

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.


Here’s some additional analysis/coverage of the team’s progress.

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Kentucky Rides Post-Play, Late Emergence of Shooters to Outlast Michigan

It took a half for the Kentucky to truly realize its paint-presence potential, amidst a horrid performance by its shooters for the better part of the game. But domination of all that surpassed near the basket–on both ends of the court–in the second half set Wildcat shooters loose. One of them was star freshman guard Aaron Harrison, who blossomed in the final 10 minutes of play and drained a go-ahead three in the waning seconds to give Kentucky a 75-72 victory over the Michigan Wolverines, and an unexpected berth in the Final Four.

Before any last-second heroics though, the Midwest Regional final was determined by in-game developments in the low block, and with particular respect to how the Wildcats functioned in it. Going into the game, Kentucky seemingly possessed an advantage in the paint, but the absence of Willie Cauley-Stein (ankle injury) called this notion into question. Though Kentucky’s highly touted big man primarily makes his presence felt most around the basket, his athleticism gives him the ability to close out on opponents’ jump-shots–a skill that could have been especially useful against Michigan and its fantastic shooters.

But the emergence of the unheralded and lanky forward Marcus Lee–fittingly another freshman factor for the Wildcats–quickly dispelled any doubts about Kentucky’s potential for low-block supremacy. In filling the void created by Cauley-Stein, Lee first asserted himself with a put-back dunk at the 14:16 mark, that proved particularly important as Kentucky was already in a 11-4 hole. The rest of his scoring followed in similar fashion, as Lee tallied 10 points, four offensive boards, and a block at the half, and added four more rebounds and another block in the final 20 minutes of play.

Marcus Lee (00) converts one of his several powerful dunks. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Marcus Lee (00) converts one of his several powerful dunks. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Lee’s first put-back dunk stimulated his team, as it continued to fight back against early-game deficits with effective scoring in the post; by 11:05, all eight of Kentucky’s baskets had come around the hoop, and the team did not even convert a shot outside the paint until 12 minutes and 48 seconds into the contest.

Yet in a 15-5 run by the Wildcats in the final five minutes of the half, the team relied on more than just its scoring in the paint to fuel a game-tying surge. A multifaceted approach to netting points–comprised of free throws, jumpers inside and beyond the arc, and of course post-scoring–showed early signs of the dominant post-game’s positive effect on other aspects of the offense.

Trailing for all of the opening half, Kentucky now entered the break knotted with the Wolverines at 37, and held advantages in rebounding totals (17-12) and momentum. A pivotal moment then occurred within the first minute of the next half, as Michigan’s top big man–Jordan Morgan–picked up his third foul at 19:35 and took a seat on the bench. Michigan knew well before the game that it could not afford such a loss due to its lack of size, and for the remainder of the first 10 minutes of the second half, its weaknesses were exploited, and worries realized.

During this span of time, Kentucky asserted itself in the paint stronger than it ever had before in the contest: the stretch consisted of 12 points in the paint, eight defensive rebounds, seven offensive boards, and three blocks. The Wildcats appeared to be on the brink of definitively pulling away at several points in this time, but Michigan’s shooting ability far from the low block allowed it to stay close and even grab a lead for 3:31.

After the Wolverines possessed a 55-53 lead, and what would eventually be their last one at the 8:54 mark, a basket by Julius Randle (who finished with a valuable 16 points and 11 rebounds) incited a 9-0 run that lasted for nearly three minutes. The streak was broken up by a three-pointer by Wolverine Glenn Robinson III, who played the central role in Michigan’s comeback charges, scoring eight points in the final six minutes.

Yet as the game winded down, it was Michigan’s defense that faltered more than any other unit on the floor, and in effect negated any productive efforts and surges by the team’s offense. Moreover, it became more than just yielding uncontested shots near the basket.

Aaron Harrison (2) rises up for the game-winning three.

Aaron Harrison (2) rises up for the game-winning three. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

As Kentucky’s post players affirmed their stranglehold in the paint, the team’s shooters–notably the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron–consequently settled into a shooting groove, and dictated the game’s flow late. Of course it’s impossible to truly quantify such a correlation, but it’s not far off to think that as Kentucky controlled the paint with an even greater force as the second half progressed, the team’s shooters were positively influenced and played more freely as a result.

As such, Andrew and Aaron Harrison appeared much more comfortable in the late stages of the game, and they combined for 14 points in the final 10 minutes. Aaron had the much more significant impact on the game of the two brothers, as in the final 8:08 he drained four three-pointers, none bigger than the one with three seconds left to win the game for his team. The cliched phrase “cool, calm, and collected” would not quite suffice for depicting Aaron late in the contest; only the highest form of basketball praise–the characterization as “clutch”–would do justice.

Florida vs. UCLA- Second Half Notes

Wilbekin (5) powered his team towards the end of the contest.

Wilbekin (5) powered his team towards the end of the contest.

-Gator guard Michael Frazier II lead the way for his team in terms of point-scoring (nine points) in the opening half, but as his sharpshooting performance translates into the second half, Frazier’s play takes on even greater significance; draining two threes within the first three minutes of the half pushed the lead to seven for the Gators, but in the greater scheme of things, Frazier has helped his team consistently retain a comfortable advantage over the Bruins throughout the game

-the Bruins have displayed great resolve in their first encounter with a double-digit deficit (at the 15:53 mark)

  • after a Bruins timeout, top regular season scorer Jordan Adams converts a layup and a three-pointer in a span of thirty seconds, cutting the Gator lead to six
  • this instance also highlights UCLA’s overall style of play and mentality in this matchup: continually playing from behind, but not allowing Florida to develop too much of a rhythm and hot streak in order to pull away–now the Bruins must pounce on an opportunity to further tighten this contest

-Florida’s foul trouble–center Patric Young and guard Casey Prather each a foul away from fouling out–really puts the squad out of its comfort zone; around the time of the absence of the two aforementioned players from the court, UCLA cuts Florida’s lead to 56-55 at the 10:04 mark, going on a 9-2 in a 2:05 span

-but the Gators respond in the most powerful of ways, jump-starting a 10-0 run themselves, stretching from the 10:04 to 5:34 marks in the second half

-Gator point guard Scottie Wilbekin leads the way in this impactful effort, as well as beyond the run and for the remainder of the game:

  • the experienced and tested senior has undoubtedly taken command late in the contest, beginning at 6:19, when he knocks down a triple; he then follows it up by converting a layup and free throw on the contact
  • Wilbekin then banks in a circus-shot in heavy traffic–that makes him 3-3 on field goals with eight points in the final seven minutes of the game
  • there cannot be a more auspicious sign for the Gators than for a senior like Wilbekin to rise up and ice the game; perhaps a newfound sense of mental strength of the senior core–unlike Florida’s previous Elite Eight teams–can now will the Gators further in the tournament than in the past seasons

Final Score: Florida 79 UCLA 68

 

Florida vs. UCLA- First Half Notes

Florida's Patric Young and UCLA's Travis Wear battle to win the opening tip in Thursday's Sweet Sixteen matchup. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Florida’s Patric Young and UCLA’s Travis Wear battle to win the opening tip in Thursday’s Sweet Sixteen matchup. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

-both teams start the game off playing very sloppy, indicated by the boxscore in terms of turnover numbers but also by a simple “eye test’; watching the game, one can observe the dysfunctional and messy play–it’s a frantic pace, that in the early-going, appeared more detrimental than productive for both teams (by the end of the first half, the teams have seven turnovers apiece)

-yet both the Gators and Bruins begin to settle into, and attain a feel for, the stage shortly after a sloppy set of opening minutes

  • UCLA composes itself first, even in time to grab a three-point lead at about seven minutes into the first half
  • effective and sharp ball movement on offense keys a Florida surge, allowing the Gators to impose themselves as the stronger team and the one which will seemingly possess the lead for the most part in this game; they embark on a 13-2 run in a 4:10 span midway through the opening half

-both UF and UCLA extremely willing to hoist up shots from seemingly anywhere near the three-point line; fits the “free style” exhibited by both squads in the opening half–UCLA starts to shy away from this tendency towards the end of the half

-despite a mid-first half surge by Florida, UCLA shows the ability to remain close with their opponents and fighting back from deficits it has faced; a balanced effort across the entire Bruin squad–six players have at least four points–has allowed it to keep pace with the tournament’s number one overall seed

-as the first half is in the books, Florida’s six-point advantage going into intermissions has come in large part due to three-point shooting–launching 13 shots from beyond the three-point line and converting five of them (compared to UCLA’s two), and a rebounding edge (a +7 margin in Florida’s favor)

-foul trouble (ten personal fouls for UCLA and eight for Florida) has also served as a hindrance to both teams’ tempos, possible bottling up explosiveness on both ends of the court

Halftime score: Florida 36 UCLA 30

March Madness 2014 Round of 32: #1 Seeds in Danger?

It’s now Day 6 of the 2014 NCAA tournament, and the common regular season theme of parity has already made its way into the postseason. Though a total of eight upsets in the Round of 64 is actually a low number in historical terms, the first two true days of the tourney featured a 14-seed shock a 3-seed, 12-seeded teams go 3-1 against 5-seeded teams, and 11-seeds also compile two wins. The madness did not cease as the field narrowed down to 32 squads, as in the first day (Saturday) of the Round of 32 the Dayton Flyers showed early signs of a  ‘Cinderella’ status by trumping #3 Syracuse, and #7 UConn used a second-half surge to topple second-seeded Villanova.

Yet as the last pre-Sweet 16 tournament day has arrived, the real stunner of March Madness–the fall of the targeted number-one seeds–may be imminent. Of the previous four years of the tournament, three included #1 seeds faltering to either eight- or nine-seeds. And if these top seeds emerge in the Sweet Sixteen unscathed, there’s still a chance at least one sees its last days very soon, as six #1 seeds have been upset in this round during this four-year span. So with three #1 seeds in action on the final day of the Round of 32, here’s a look at those whose seasons could be in peril.

1 Arizona vs. 8 Gonzaga

The Bulldogs–unlike in last year’s tourney–certainly entered March Madness under the radar, and outlasted Oklahoma State in what felt like an upset in their first game. Gonzaga maintained their fantastic shooting efficiency and rode junior guard Kevin Pangos’s 26-point performance en route to the victory. Thus, if Arizona wishes to extinguish any possibility of a Zags upset, then its defensive focus must be keyed on Pangos, whose play often serves as a microcosm for his team’s as a whole. Pangos averaged a modest 14.5 PPG and shot 42.9% from the field during the regular season, but does numbers dipped to 12.8 and 34.4%, respectively, when the Zags lost. Furthermore, Gonzaga posted a 49.8 FG% in the regular season–fifth best in the country–but in its six losses, that percentage dropped down to 46.1. Arizona should be able to combat and restrain the Bulldogs’ efficiency on offense, as the Wildcats rank third in defensive efficiency, and will have more than enough offensive firepower themselves to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. 

1 Wichita State vs. 8 Kentucky

Though often erratic and inconsistent, Kentucky possesses loads of NBA-ready talent which could pose a threat to and potentially overwhelm their small-school opponents. Yet going into the matchup, the Shockers unequivocally remain the better team, with more balance and efficiency on both sides of the ball. Furthermore, Wichita State surprisingly matches up well with Kentucky (as a program) in terms of pedigree in recent years. In the last four seasons, the Shockers have won an NIT championship, made a Final Four appearance, and completed an undefeated regular season, a notch down from  the Wildcats’ two Final Four berths and one championship in that time period. To sum it up, Wichita State is the more experience-laden and tested team in terms of players (as opposed to Kentucky’s freshman-dominated squad), and does not lose an edge at broader level of comparing programs. So don’t expect the Shockers to get a taste of their own medicine, as they were the last team to knock a #1 seed in the Round of 32, occurring one year ago.

1 Virginia vs. 8 Memphis 

Time after time again in the history of the NCAA tournament, a poor showing by a top seed always seems to precede its elimination. And no #1 team appeared more shaky–and for most of the contest on “upset alert”–than the Virginia Cavaliers, who despite completing a surprising sweep of the ACC regular and tournament titles, struggled against sixteenth-seeded Coastal Carolina, eventually needing a 14-point second-half swing to defeat the upset-minded Chanticleers. It will undoubtedly be a clash of styles when Virginia and its slow and methodical ways face off against Memphis and its fast pace on Sunday. Though the Cavaliers’ excellent transition defense (which allows seven points a game) could slow down the Tigers’ top-notch transition game (good for second in the nation with 21.2 PPG), several of UVA’s defeats in the regular season have come to explosive and fast-paced offenses like that of Memphis. And while the Cavs could slow down the Tigers on the defensive side, if they continue their struggles on offense–as their top two scoring options showed signs of weakness in the last game–they will fail to keep pace and will be sent home packing.

—Update—

Just for the record, and so I don’t appear completely foolish after writing that Kentcuky would not be the first team to knock off a one-seed, I did feel that Wichita State would be the first #1 seed to fall at one point in my thinking process.