Dartmouth Senior Is an Army of One
Dartmouth College center Matt LaBove, center, jostles with a pair of Elon opponents during a nonconference game on Dec. 17, 2011, at Leede Arena. LaBove, who plays his final college game tonight, is the only member of his five-man recruiting class who has remained with the Big Green program. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Purchase photo reprints »
Dartmouth College center Matt LaBove, left, defends Columbia counterpart Mark Cisco during the team's Ivy League game on Feb. 3, 2012, at Leede Arena. LaBove, who plays his final college games tonight, is the only member of his 5-man recruiting class who has remained with the Big Green program. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Purchase photo reprints »
Hanover — It’s Senior Night for the Dartmouth College men’s basketball team. This is a fitting title, because the Big Green has only one senior. Matt LaBove, a 6-foot-9 center, is the last man standing from a five-man recruiting class that hit town in the fall of 2009.
Garrett Brown, Josef Brown, Mbiyimoh Ghogomu and R.J. Griffin? They either quit or were dismissed from the team, along with seven other players in different recruiting classes who played alongside LaBove at some point. He’s also toiled under the guidance of three head coaches and nine assistants.
“That’s life,’’ LaBove said. “You’re going to have times when you’re down and you’re frustrated and you struggle. But I’m still here and it’s time to reflect on all the good times and good people I’ve met through Dartmouth basketball.”
About the only constant during LaBove’s Big Green basketball experience has been his indomitable spirit in the face of mounting losses and diminished playing time. Dartmouth entered the weekend having won just 22 of 112 games overall and six of 54 Ivy League contests since his arrival on campus.
As a freshman, LaBove started 16 of the 27 games in which he appeared, averaging 5.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 19 minutes per game. He’s started only four games since and none this season. Before last night’s game against visiting Cornell, he was averaging four minutes per game and had scored 12 points all winter.
The man whose decisions have pinned LaBove to the pine, however, also thinks the world of him. Third-year Dartmouth coach Paul Cormier describes No. 44 as one of his favorite players ever to coach, and earlier this week lamented not playing him more.
“Matt came to practice every day with such sincere spirit, and I’ve never seen anyone cheer so hard for their teammates from the bench,’’ Cormier said of the Big Green captain. “If I’d known our record was going to be what it was during my first two years, I would have tried to play and develop Matt more. I question myself a lot on this with all my players.”
Cormier openly admits that the rebuilding process has been more difficult and progressed more slowly than he expected. In similar fashion, LaBove wasn’t anticipating the turmoil he’d face when he committed to Dartmouth after being named the 2008-09 Massachusetts Player of the Year. After leading St. John’s High in the Worcester area to the state’s Division I title as a senior, LaBove had the Big Green’s coaching staff distinctly excited.
“Matt was a pretty good (recruit) for us and he chose to pay for an Ivy League education over scholarship schools,’’ said former Dartmouth assistant Shay Berry, now the second-year head coach at Division III Hunter College in New York City. “It’s rare for the Ivies to find a player who can bring a low post presence for four years, but you can’t predict how people’s careers are going to go. What’s happened is a testament to Matt and his character and perseverance.”
LaBove said he drew interest from the likes of Boston University, Bucknell and Holy Cross, but had always wanted “to go to a college with grass” and found Dartmouth’s combination of strong academics and bucolic charm irresistible. He had been on campus fewer than five months, however, before head coach Terry Dunn left the program for reasons that have never been made clear.
Rumors of player dissatisfaction swirled in the days and weeks after assistant Mark Graupe took over on an interim basis, but Dunn, who now coaches a boys high school team in Colorado, declined comment when reached by phone there last month.
Regardless, the upheaval took the focus off basketball, as did the arrest of a teammate on drug charges later that season. LaBove, whom Dunn admitted to having thrown into the fire earlier than he would have liked, was left a bit confused.
“You’re trying to find stability and normalcy and everything around you is getting shaken up,’’ LaBove recalled. “I was trying to figure out what it was like to be a Division I basketball player, but that definition was changed so many times in a short period. By the end of that year, my thought was just that things have to get better from here.”
Cormier put the program on solid footing and began recruiting players with better talent and character. The rebuilding process, however, hasn’t been kind to LaBove in terms of game action. Dartmouth is committed to an up-tempo style that uses its post players as scorers, passers or both. LaBove’s best qualities are defense, rebounding and physical play. After losing nearly 50 pounds the last few years at Cormier’s behest, the senior is more mobile and always enthusiastic, but the latter characteristic hurts him at times.
“He gets so excited when he gets the ball that the first open guy he sees, he’ll make that pass, even if it’s not a good one,’’ Cormier said. “If he was coming back next season, we would work on him having more offensive composure and to cut down on turnovers.”
The opportunity left available to LaBove has been to become an energy player. To enter the fray and bang on the boards, trade elbows and shoves under the hoop and awaken his teammates if they’ve fallen into lethargy. It sounds easy enough, but the trick is staying mentally alert and physically loose so as to be able to respond to Cormier’s call. That and swallowing the natural frustration of being replaced only minutes after entering a game.
“You understand that (the coaching staff doesn’t) think you can play and contribute more, but you try to bring energy for three or four minutes a game and in practice every day,’’ LaBove said. “It’s not about me. It’s about making Dartmouth basketball relevant again. That’s what I came here to do and I’ll play whatever role I can to do to that.”
Tris Wykes can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3227.