34 Teams in 34 Days: Dartmouth

Outlook: Evan Boudreaux will keep padding his resume as one of the program’s all-time greats, but Dartmouth needs a huge defensive leap to avoid another season near the Ivy League basement.

Last Year’s Record: 7-20 (4-10 Ivy League)

Who’s Out: Mike Fleming (G, 26 min., 4.7 ppg); Wesley Dickinson (F, 17 min., 4.2 ppg); Ike Ngwudo (F, 12 min., 2.4 ppg)

Who’s In: Adrease Jackson (F); Chris Knight (F); Aaryn Rai (G); Isaac Letoa (G)

Key Non-Conference Games: 11/22 vs. Albany; 12/19 at Notre Dame (ESPN2); 1/10 vs. Vermont

It’s hard to believe in retrospect, but Dartmouth entered the final day of the regular season with a chance to make the Ivy League Tournament. The necessary trifecta was slim but not impossible: If Columbia and Penn lost to stronger opponents, the Big Green controlled its destiny. That would be a tall task at unbeaten Princeton, but the Tigers had clinched the outright title a day earlier, and Dartmouth had a history with season-ending drama

No such heroics followed, as the Big Green lost by 37. Those title hopes said less about their play and more about the rest of the league’s performance: Rather than finishing in the top four, Dartmouth instead tied for last place, with the Ivy’s worst efficiency margin (-12.5 points per possession).

For a team that started the season with a nine-game losing streak, and conference play with five more straight losses, Dartmouth’s late-season hopes showed signs of progress. But without a major improvement on defense, this year’s story will end the same way.

A lack of rim protection was Dartmouth’s biggest flaw last season, and the outlook for 2017-18 is hardly better. Evan Boudreaux is not a reliable shot-blocker (though he improved a bit down the stretch, with two timely swats in a final-weekend upset at Penn), and as the team’s offensive star he must avoid fatigue and foul trouble. The rest of the frontcourt wasn’t much help last year, finishing with the nation’s fifth-worst block rate, and Boudreaux’s top two partners (Dickinson and Ngwudo) are now gone.

That should be an opportunity for new blood. Ian Carter, a 6-7 sophomore, showed some promise around the rim in a part-time role but struggled offensively. 6-8 forward Adrease Jackson is the Big Green’s most-touted freshman, but keep a close eye on Chris Knight, who could emerge as a better fit for his shot-blocking skill despite measuring two inches shorter.

That question is compounded by one-on-one defensive struggles on the perimeter. First-year coach Dave McLaughlin brought in a much more conservative style, which had its merits: Dartmouth cut its foul rate by nearly a third, fixing what had been a problem area. But that improvement came alongside a plummeting turnover rate; as a result, the Big Green’s defensive efficiency (per KenPom) dropped from #184 to #309 nationally. Continuity in the backcourt will help those numbers a bit, but McLaughlin needs to find a middle ground between safe and aggressive defense.

On offense, the Big Green’s outlook is more promising. Until the season-ending blowout at Princeton, they had scored more than a point per possession in six straight games, a vast improvement from their non-conference struggles. Dartmouth actually had the best three-point shooting percentage in Ivy play last year (38%), and its guards can carry an average-plus offense on their best days when surrounding Boudreaux.

The problem is, those best days don’t always come. Since dropping 39 points on LIU Brooklyn in November 2015, Miles Wright has topped 20 only twice (once, coincidentally, against those same Blackbirds last winter). Taylor Johnson fell out of the rotation entirely for a spell last winter before finding himself down the stretch. Guillien Smith made a nice leap into a full-time role as a sophomore, but his January shooting slump coincided with a six-game losing streak.

Most of the backcourt will be in its third year together. If familiarity breeds consistency, Dartmouth will be a better team than last year; throw in an unexpected shot-blocker, and it might be in the playoff race. (Especially if it can somehow sweep Penn again.) But those are a lot of ‘if’s, and the Big Green’s upside is limited by its defense.

The long-term direction of Dartmouth’s program is positive — from the postseason berth in 2015, to Boudreaux’s immediate stardom, to more recruiting success (including three-star point guard Taurus Samuels over the summer). But the Ivy League standard is rising as well, and with the Evan Boudreaux era already halfway over, the odds are against him reaching a postseason tournament in green.

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