Standout Returns To Help

Former starter for four winning seasons, new coach Martin set out to revitalize Brown program
 
By KEVIN MCNAMARA, JOURNAL SPORTS WRITER

   PROVIDENCE — There's a reason Mike Martin had the opportunity to return to his alma mater and grab his first head coaching job as a mere 30-year-old.    A starter on a school-record four straight winning teams for the Bears a decade ago, Martin became the fourth-youngest head coach in the country last spring because Brown needs his help. With Jesse Agel at the basketball helm last season, the Bears finished 8-23 overall and 2-12 in the Ivies. That finish came on the heels of two11-win seasons. The Bears haven't won more than five Ivy League games in a single season in five years.   

"We're focused on the positives and working hard right now," Martin said, "but our numbers are down. It's been a challenge."     

Agel's teams were often ravaged by injuries, and a lack of quality depth undermined the Bears. Martin is left to pick up the pieces. In a recent scrimmage with Colgate, he dressed six recruited players. If all goes well, he'll have eight ready for action for the season-opener next weekend at Binghamton. That means the players who are healthy will be asked to handle heavy minutes. Any additional injuries could prove crippling to the team's chances for a successful season.   

"Right now we're working on our halfcourt man-to-man defense and emphasizing the defensive end of the floor," said Martin, an assistant coach at Pennsylvania the last six years. "We have to be a defense and rebounding team right now."   

The key wildcard for the 2012-13 Bears centers on the health of junior forward Tucker Halpern. He averaged 14.3 points in Ivy play two years ago before missing the entire 2011-12 season due to what the school was calling a major bout with mononucleosis. Fast forward a year, and Halpern is still not healthy. Two months ago, there were fears his career was over, but he's made major strides since then and is hoping to play this year.   

"Tucker has had a series of ailments and illnesses and right now he's working to get into game condition," Martin said. "Obviously we can really use him and we're optimistic he'll be back with us."   

Until Halpern returns, the team's hopes will rest on the sturdy shoulders of junior guard Sean McGonagill. A second-team All-Ivy pick a year ago, McGonagill broke the school's all-time assist record (157) and scored 13.5 points per game.   

"As an opposing coach, I always respected his game and thought he was one of the better guards in our league," Martin said, "but I think he'll be one of the best guards on the floor in any game we play."   

Senior Matt Sullivan will start alongside McGonagill, but the Bears will miss the outside bombing of senior Stephen Albrecht, who may have season-ending back injuries. Sophomores Joe Sharkey and Longyi Yiljep need to find a way to contribute in his place.   

Up front, the Bears are down two experienced players. Andrew McCarthy withdrew from school for academic reasons, while Dockery Walker left after a knee injury. Both could potentially return for next year, but for now the frontcourt in painfully thin. Senior Tyler Ponticelli will have a great chance to make a major impact and Jon Schmidt is looking at backup minutes, but two newcomers have the coaching staff excited. Rafael Maia, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward from Brazil, missed last season due to an NCAA eligibility issue. He'll be joined up front by Cedric Kuakumensah, a 6-8 frosh from Worcester who starred at St. Andrew's School in Barrington.

 "We're playing with a big lineup right now and the two young guys are progressing well," said Martin. "Raf is a very good passer and a physical rebounder. Cedric can block shots and be physical as well for us."   

With paper-thin depth and not enough talent in the younger classes, it's clear that Martin and his staff have major recruiting challenges on their hands. They've already secured verbal commitments for 2013 from Washington, D.C., point guard Tavon Blackmon and Leland King, an athletic forward from Los Angeles. Blackmon, who stars for Gonzaga Prep, is seen as a potential major contributor.   

"We're working hard in recruiting for the next two classes," Martin said. "Our challenge is a lack of depth right now, so I anticipate bringing in some sizable classes."   

In the meantime, Martin is happy just to be back at Brown. He has family in Rhode Island and is closer to his parents, who hail from the Springfield, Mass., area. Former teammates such as all-time leading scorer Earl Hunt have offered support, and Martin would like nothing better than to get his alma mater back to the upper tier of the Ivy League.   

"It's a challenge because the league is so much better than it's been, but Brown is positioned to do great things. I believe in Brown and am really excited to be back," he said.

kmcnamar@providencejournal.com