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Breaking Down Bowdoin

22nd-ranked Bowdoin has been the surprise team of the NESCAC so far this season. Despite an injury to arguably their most important player, point guard Bryan Hurley, the Polar Bears have found steady footing this year behind the play of center John Swords and an overachieving starting lineup. In preparation for today’s NESCAC showdown betwee Bowdoin and 18th-ranked Williams, contributing writer Adam Lamont has previewed the Polar Bears and broken down the games of the team’s key contributors

Head coach Tim Gilbride has done a masterful job to get his team to 12-0, but his team is about to enter the toughest stretch of their schedule and questions remain.

Head coach Tim Gilbride has done a masterful job to get his team to 12-0, but his team is about to enter the toughest stretch of their schedule and questions remain.

A winning streak starts innocently enough. One win is nothing to get overly excited about to begin the year. Soon after a couple more wins a team starts to gain more and more confidence. Bowdoin has started the season 12-0, and by no means has their run been perfect. But oh boy has it been exciting. The streak’s highlight so far has been undoubtedly the Matt Mathias miracle against Bates in December. The buzzer beater capped off a crazy final minute and a half with the two Maine teams trading baskets right up until the end. Most of the games have been close grind it out contests with Bowdoin making enough plays down the stretch to pull it out. If that sounds like it’s diminishing what Bowdoin has done, maybe that’s true, but Bowdoin is yet to play anybody of real significance. The two victories over the other Maine schools are great, but were non-conference games. Their two conference wins against Conn College and Wesleyan were quality wins, but should not be overstated. It’s clear many are hesitant to give Bowdoin too much credit as they are ranked only 19th in the most recent D3hoops poll. Their game against Williams today will be watched closely to see if Bowdoin can compete for a NESCAC title this year.

The most encouraging factor of this start has been the clear identity that has been present from the first game. A very apt comparison of Bowdoin is the Indiana Pacers right before Paul George made the leap to superstar status. Bowdoin is big at every position and on defense plays a 2-3 zone in order to clog up the paint. The Polar Bears don’t push the ball — they’ve eclipsed the 70-point mark just five times this season. Bowdoin has a bunch of very capable players who complement each other well, but they are very thin, which requires the starters log heavy minutes. What follows is a player-by-player breakdown of Bowdoin’s roster and their Pacers equivalent.

Player Comparisons

John Swords (Center) — Roy Hibbert: Bowdoin’s identity stems from the presence of John Swords in the middle. The offense centers on trying to get the ball into Swords who more often than not throws it back outside to find open looks for his teammates on the perimeter. Without Swords, the foundation of both the offense and the defense would be drastically different. The junior seven footer has been a model of consistency so far with only two games in single-digit scoring and at least five rebounds every game. Last year he demonstrated flashes of his potential as a game-changing player, but lacked any type of consistent offensive game. This year the only weakness in his game is his continued propensity for foul trouble. If he stays out of foul trouble he will average right around 30 minutes per game. Teams can still attack him by isolating him one and one in the elbow area where Swords struggles to keep up with quicker forwards. Chris Hudnut, Colby’s center, had 20 points and Swords had four fouls in Colby and Bowdoin’s first meeting so Swords is by no means a lockdown defender. Another predictable problem for Swords is his foul shooting which is less than 50%.

Keegan Pieri (Power Forward) — David West: This might just be the most apt comparison with the Pacers. Pieri is not a flashy player, but can be counted on for about 12 points and 7 rebounds game in and game out. His ability to hit mid-range shots is crucial in spacing the floor for Swords inside. Often Pieri gets lost in the shuffle because he doesn’t do anything spectacular. Pieri can create his own shot in isolation sets when he works from the elbow area.

Grant White (Small Forward) — Paul George: This is Paul George 2011 edition and not the Paul George who is one of the best five players in the NBA. White is the most frustrating player to watch on offense for Bowdoin. A 54.5% three point shooter who can occasionally create his own shot should not have six shot attempts TOTAL in the first two NESCAC games. When White opened the season with 20 points in the first game it looked like he was going to come into his own. His regression this season is puzzling because this is the first season basketball was his only priority (he also played quarterback for the football team) and he lost most of last year to injury. He should be becoming more and more confident every week, but instead is basically a spot-up shooter and good defender who has to log heavy minutes because he is one of Bowdoin’s few reliable wing players.

Andrew Madlinger (Shooting Guard) — Nobody comparable: Madlinger doesn’t really have a parallel on the Pacers because he is a very steady player who shoots three’s on 60% of his shots. He doesn’t possess the ability to make plays either for himself or his teammates that one would want from one of your primary ball-handlers, but Madlinger makes up for it with his shooting. Like any shooter he runs hot and cold, but when he finds his range, the Bowdoin offense is very hard to stop.

Matt Mathias (Point Guard) — George Hill: Mathias has been incredible in filling in for an injured Brian Hurley. Mathias is not the same player as Hurley, but his composure in initiating the offense has silenced concerns that Bowdoin would be wracked with turnovers without Hurley. The strength of Mathias’ offensive game is his shooting (noticing a trend yet?) but he has enough bounce to get into the lane and distribute. His scoring is a tad up from last year, but he is playing a much different role evidenced by his increase in assists from 2.0 to 4.7 this year.

Lucas Hausman (Combo Guard) — Lance Stephenson: The trait Lance Stephenson is most associated with is confidence dating back to the days when he was a benchwarmer calling out Lebron. Hausman possesses that same moxie for better or worse depending on the game. He is the most dynamic shot-creator Bowdoin has, but often forces the issue too much. His minutes are actually down from last year in large part because he is shooting only 19% from three, which doesn’t really make sense considering he is a good shooter, evidenced by his 87% free throw percentage.

Matt Palecki (Power Forward) — Tyler Hansbrough: This parallel is pretty much spot on. Palecki clearly wants to bring energy off the bench when he comes in. He lacks the athleticism to finish over or around defenders, but does a good job with positioning. Same holds for rebounding. Palecki played very well in the first conference game of the year and could be a valuable scorer off the bench.

Neil Fuller (Power Forward) — Ian Mahinmi: Fuller is not really like Mahinmi in style, but they have similar roles. If John Swords gets into any type of foul trouble Fuller takes most of those minutes. He doesn’t look to score much on offense, but actually has good passing vision, which leads to easy baskets inside for others. There aren’t a lot of minutes with Swords and Pieri entrenched, but Fuller should continue to grow this year.

Looking Ahead

The biggest question entering the season was how Bowdoin would do with Brian Hurley out with an ACL injury. His outside shooting and steady ball handling was critical all of last year. Head coach Tim Gilbride has done a great job this year making sure that the offense doesn’t need a great point guard to score consistently. While Matthias’s play has diminished the loss of Hurley, depth remains the biggest concern going forward. As the Polar Bears enter the stretch period of the NESCAC schedule, will they continue to compete and make big plays late in games when most of the starters play well upwards of thirty minutes a game? If somebody gets into foul trouble or has injury issues, Coach Gilbride will struggle to juggle the rotation and find extra minutes for his bench. The perimeter is especially thin with Hausman being the only bench player getting serious minutes in the backcourt. Ideally one of the three power forwards would be able to play small forward occasionally. Defensively this wouldn’t be an issue because Bowdoin plays the 2-3 almost exclusively, but spacing is can be an issue on offense. But, much like the Indiana Pacers last season — Indiana’s starting five had the best +/- of any team in the NBA by a considerable margin in 2012-13 — right now Bowdoin’s starters have been incredibly effective as a unit. And, as a result, the Polar Bears are enjoying their best start in school history as they prepares for their biggest test yet against Williams.

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