34 Teams in 34 Days: Brown

Outlook: Projections are foreboding after the last-place Bears graduated two leading playmakers. But defensive gains and promising newcomers should offset those losses, leaving Brown in familiar, mediocre territory.

Last Year’s Record: 13-17 (4-10 Ivy League)

Who’s Out: Steven Spieth (F, 35 min., 17.3 ppg); Tavon Blackmon (G, 29 min., 11.1 ppg); JR Hobbie (G, 17 min., 7.9 ppg), Corey Daugherty (G, 16 min., 3.7 ppg)

Who’s In: Zach Hunsaker (G, JC); Jason Massey (G, Sr.); Desmond Cambridge (G); George Mawanda-Kalenda (G); Matt DeWolf (F); Tamenang Choh (F); Jake Shaper (G)

Key Non-Conference Games: 11/26 at Bryant; 12/6 at Providence (FS2); 12/30 at Northwestern

I will miss the Steven Spieth/Tavon Blackmon-era Bears. They weren’t very good — finishing tied for last in the Ivy League three straight times, never beating a top-three team — but they sure were fun. They paired an exciting, fast-paced offense with a not-so-great defense, resulting in crazy runs (19-2, 25-4, and 11-0, just to take a sampling from 2017’s final weekend). And they were involved in more than their share of weirdly memorable games, from an out-of-nowhere upset of Providence to the viral Bryant boner.

With the graduation of those leaders (throw sharpshooter JR Hobbie in as well), Brown is entering a new era. Statistical projections are very pessimistic, and it’s easy to understand why: After losing their two highest-usage playmakers and their two most efficient scorers (with Spieth counting in both categories), the Bears won’t score as many points this year. And they’re projected to keep allowing tons — partly because defense generally improves with continuity, while Brown loses nearly half its minutes.

But there are two reasons to believe these projections are too dour:

  1. The quality of new talent is quickly rising throughout the Ivy League. That means the “replacement level” is higher than it was even a few years ago, and thus projections overrate the importance of losing players in general. Brown can fill its playmaking holes with Zach Hunsaker, a highly touted juco recruit, as well as promising freshmen in Desmond Cambridge and George Mawanda-Kalenda.
  2. Roster turnover should actually help this particular team defensively. The old guard had proven over 2-3 years that it couldn’t get enough stops. Even without as much experience, this year’s Bears should improve on that end, because the bar is so low.

Where will that improvement come from? First, look to rim protection, where the Bears were one of the nation’s worst teams last season. Joshua Howard showed raw skills as a freshman but was often caught out of position; a year’s practice could turn him into an all-around defensive force. The Bears’ go-go style will always leak a few transition buckets, but a little bit of discipline would help prevent that from becoming a flood.

Perhaps the bigger question is, how far will the offense fall? There is simply no replacing Spieth’s senior-year production — a 114 offensive rating on 25% usage while playing nearly every minute. But Brandon Anderson looked ready to become a starting point guard in his last two games, averaging 12 points and six assists while starting for an injured Blackmon. Obi Okolie found his form in conference play and can shoulder a bigger share of the scoring load.

The missing ingredient is spacing: Anderson shot 23% from three-point range as a rookie, and Okolie is at 31% over his first two years. The Bears sorely need newcomers to fill that void (enter Hunsaker, who led his junior college conference in three-pointers), because aside from perhaps Chris Sullivan, there is no proven shooting on the roster. Mike Martin is one of the league’s best play-designers, but all the dry-erase markers in the world won’t help if five defenders can sit in the paint.

Three Ivy League coaches have won the last three titles, four are only 1-2 years into their jobs — and then there’s Martin, entering year six without finishing better than 7-7. That’s not a knock on his coaching in particular: Brown is simply a hard place to win. The hometown alumnus has recruited fairly well recently and is a thoughtful tactician on the sideline, so there’s no reason his job should be in jeopardy yet (though the frequent roster turnover is not a great look). But while the other seven coaches are quite comfortable for now, Martin will need some better results soon.