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Dartmouth Basketball Rebuild Has Been a Big Challenge for Cormier

  • Dartmouth men’s basketball coach Paul Cormier, left, speaks with sophomore forward Jvonte Brooks during the Big Green’s season-opening win over Maine on Nov. 10. Dartmouth has won just one game since that 67-54 victory. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

    Dartmouth men’s basketball coach Paul Cormier, left, speaks with sophomore forward Jvonte Brooks during the Big Green’s season-opening win over Maine on Nov. 10. Dartmouth has won just one game since that 67-54 victory. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A trying season has seen sophomore Gabas Maldunas (12) become an enigma. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

    A trying season has seen sophomore Gabas Maldunas (12) become an enigma. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A trying season has seen freshman Connor Boehm show promise. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

    A trying season has seen freshman Connor Boehm show promise. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dartmouth freshman point guard Alex Mitola (11) brings the ball up the floor during the Big Green’s Nov. 10 win over Maine at Leede Arena. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

    Dartmouth freshman point guard Alex Mitola (11) brings the ball up the floor during the Big Green’s Nov. 10 win over Maine at Leede Arena. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dartmouth men’s basketball coach Paul Cormier, left, speaks with sophomore forward Jvonte Brooks during the Big Green’s season-opening win over Maine on Nov. 10. Dartmouth has won just one game since that 67-54 victory. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)
  • A trying season has seen sophomore Gabas Maldunas (12) become an enigma. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)
  • A trying season has seen freshman Connor Boehm show promise. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)
  • Dartmouth freshman point guard Alex Mitola (11) brings the ball up the floor during the Big Green’s Nov. 10 win over Maine at Leede Arena. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

Hanover — Dartmouth men’s basketball practice was winding down last Thursday when assistant coach Jean Bain seized both the ball and his players’ attention.

In no uncertain tones, Bain told the troops that there had better not be any clock-watching during the final 20 minutes. And then all heck broke loose during a heated game of five-on-five.

During the workout’s stretch run, one player hurled the ball against a padded wall under the backboard after a poorly executed sequence. Another delivered a sweeping slap to a courtside chair, toppling it backward. Elbows were exchanged, sweat flew as if propelled by invisible spritzer bottles and head coach Paul Cormier ordered several all-out wind sprints.

During a stoppage, one of the team’s seven freshmen objected to criticism from assistant Jordan Watson, who wasn’t about to back down from the challenge.

“I’m trying to help you get better!’’ Watson shouted angrily. “But go ahead, turn the ball over again!”

These are the times that try the Big Green’s soul. The team is 2-10 and has only two games, including tonight’s clash with visiting Army, until the Ivy League season commences. Dartmouth is a combined 12-58 overall and 2-26 in league play since Cormier returned for his second stint at the program’s helm in 2010.

Extensive rebuilding was anticipated, but Cormier and the remnants of the team’s fan base thought the project would be further along by now. The players are also aware of the situation.

“We’ve gone backwards with our performance, compared to where we were at the beginning of the season,” said sophomore forward and co-captain Jvonte Brooks after Saturday’s loss to visiting Colgate. “We still have all of Ivy League play, and people will forget about 2-10 pretty quickly if we go above .500 in that.

“You can’t feel sorry for yourself. It has to be motivation to work on your game and have a little pride.”

That’s why the assistants bellow and the players scrap and an irritable fog hovers over practice. But the question lingers: Has the program’s progress completely stalled?

Cormier says no.

“I’ve got a young team and a young staff, and I have to show them there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and that it’s going to get brighter and brighter,” said the 60-year-old, who guided Dartmouth to the verge of an Ivy title during his first run with the Big Green, from 1984-91. “We have to remain as focused and diligent and positive as we possibly can be.”

That’s made harder, however, after performances like the one against Colgate. The Raiders had won only five of their 15 games before arriving in Hanover, but made the Big Green look like a junior varsity squad. Teams facing a talent deficit usually rely on inspired defense, because that’s accomplished as much with hustle and heart as with skill. Dartmouth couldn’t even muster that sort of enthusiasm, allowing the visitors to convert 52 percent of their field-goal attempts.

“I can watch film and show you some great (Dartmouth) plays against impressive players, but I can also point to time after time when we take a break,” said Cormier, whose roster has seven freshmen and is the second-youngest among the country’s 345 NCAA Division I teams. “We continue to talk about competing and completing the practice, completing the play, completing the possession, completing the game.”

The subpar performance of some players has been difficult to explain, none more than that of sophomore Gabas Maldunas, a 6-foot-9, 225-pound center from Lithuania, via a New Hampshire prep school. Thrown into the fire last season, during which he started 25 of 30 games and showed flashes of true brilliance, the 19-year-old has regressed since a 25-point performance in Dartmouth’s season-opening defeat of Maine.

Slender and athletic, Maldunas handles the ball well and creates a sort of ballet when he’s ducking and slicing past foes to the rim. The problem is those opponents respond with double-teams and physical play, and that’s when No. 12 becomes invisible.

Maldunas started his 35th collegiate game against Bryant late last month, but produced no points and one rebound in 19 minutes. He has been a reserve in two subsequent games, but still leads Dartmouth with averages of 10.7 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.

“We’re not allowed to use the word ‘potential’ with Gabas anymore,” said Cormier, who has backed off a bit on last season’s prediction that Maldunas could become an All-Ivy player. “You’re either productive or you’re nonproductive. It’s not natural for him to be mean (on the court) or even get testy against an opponent, and he has to have some of that.”

Brooks has plenty of aggression, but he sometimes turns it on the officials. That was more of a problem for Brooks and classmate John Golden last season than it is now, but the issue has lingered. In an attempt to get Brooks to contain his emotions, an exasperated Cormier has taken to not calling any fouls committed against him in practice.

“Jvonte, sometimes he’s his own worst enemy,” the coach said. “He’s too easily distracted, and a bad call will send him off for five or six minutes. We can’t have that, because we don’t have a margin for error and we have to stay focused.”

Other problems include the shooting struggles of Golden, although the guard compensates with excellent defense, and the diminutive stature of point guard Alex Mitola. The freshman averages 33 minutes and 10.6 points, but is physically overwhelmed by many opponents. Nonetheless, Cormier’s high on his mighty mite.

“Alex has a tremendous will to win, and he’s a leader,” Cormier said. “He can really run the team, and he’s won its respect not only based on his ability, but because he’s the hardest worker we have.”

Freshman post player Connor Boehm has been a recent bright spot. He arrived from suburban Chicago out of shape at 6-7 and 235 pounds, but now that his conditioning has improved, he’s a bull in the paint and has displayed a decent outside shooting touch.

It all boils down to inexperience: Dartmouth has one senior and one junior. The former is center and co-captain Matt LaBove, who averages three minutes per game, and the latter is guard Tyler Melville, who averages three points per contest.

So the youngsters are playing, but are they progressing at the appropriate speed? Not lately, which is where the grueling and lengthy practices come in.

“It’s a long season and you don’t want to wear down, but we’re a 2-9 team, and we don’t have the luxury of having hour-and-a-half practices,” LaBove said last week. “We’re only going to get better if we get better in practice. We have to get a full two or three hours of going hard in practice if we’re going to be able to go hard in 40 minutes of a game.”

For now, that remains an elusive goal. Cormier appeared at a loss after the flop against Colgate. It was clearly time to reassess, if not the long-range plan, at least the short-term tactics. Infighting, however, won’t be tolerated, the coach insisted.

“You can’t let anyone point fingers,” Cormier said. “When we climb out of the valley and up the mountain, it’s going to be that much more special. That’s what I hope we do in January and February.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.

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