January 13, 2023
Under Monique LeBlanc, Brown is trending upward
Last season’s last-place Ivy League team has dramatically improved — and here are the numbers to show it
It didn’t take long for Brown junior guard Kyla Jones to see that this season’s Bears were different from the team that won just six games in 2021-22. Although the Bears lost their 2022-23 season opener by 10 points to Fairfield, that game provided proof of concept for Jones after losing to the Stags by 24 a season ago.
“That was a really good game from us,” Jones told The Next. “… Making that big improvement and almost winning and beating them, I think that was definitely an indicator that we were good.”
For Brown head coach Monique LeBlanc and junior forward Mya Murray, more proof came in the next game, an eight-point loss to Duquesne in which Brown executed its game plan and had chances to win. And after that, the wins started to come: five in a row to approach last season’s total before December, then two more to enter Ivy League play with a 7-5 record.
LeBlanc is in her second season and third academic year leading the Bears, as she was hired in April 2020 but saw her would-be first season wiped away by the COVID-19 pandemic. Brown had struggled before her arrival, finishing seventh or eighth in the eight-team Ivy League in four of former head coach Sarah Behn’s six seasons, and the Bears finished last again last season with a 6-20 record overall and 1-13 in league play.
Ahead of the 2022-23 season, Brown was projected to stay in the Ivy basement. LeBlanc said at the conference’s preseason media day that that was “fair” and that the Bears still needed to prove themselves. But so far, that prediction seems to have drastically underestimated the Bears in this stage of their rebuild.
Compared to last season, this season’s Bears have improved significantly on both ends of the court. They are scoring 5.5 more points per 100 possessions and surrendering 9.6 fewer, for a net improvement of 15.2 points per 100 possessions. The following graph shows Brown’s percentile rank last season and this season in 10 key statistical categories, illustrating how much more competitive the Bears have become nationally in several areas.
As a result, the Bears already have four wins against teams they lost to in 2021-22 and have matched their conference win total from last season in just three games. Let’s break down how Brown has started to turn things around under LeBlanc and where the program could be headed.
(Note: Some statistics in this article are from Her Hoop Stats, which only counts games against Division I competition. Therefore, Brown’s win against Division III Mitchell College in December is not reflected in statistics from that website but is included in statistics from other sources.)
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Although Brown returned 92.9% of its points and 88.4% of its minutes from last season, its newfound depth has been a difference-maker. An eight-player freshman class has raised the talent level in the program and complemented the returners. Eight players are averaging at least 16 minutes per game this season, two more are freshman reserves who LeBlanc thinks have a lot of potential, and another is a freshman who started the first two games of the season.
Rather than using a seven-player rotation by necessity, as she did last season, LeBlanc now has enough depth that some players who are talented enough to play are buried on the bench. The reserves who do play are scoring 22.9 points per game, which ranks in the 76th percentile nationally and is up from 15.0 a season ago.
The rotation remains relatively young and inexperienced: None of the starters have played more than one full college season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the four seniors have played a total of 88 minutes through 15 games this season. Five freshmen have started at least one game, and two of them, guards Grace Arnolie and Mackenzie Leahy, have been regular starters.
Arnolie leads the Bears in steals per game (2.4), ranks third in points per game (9.7), and is making nearly 50% of her 2-point shots. Leahy contributes a little bit of everything, averaging 5.0 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 23.8 minutes per game.
With the freshmen’s emergence, sophomore guard Bella Mauricio, who led the Bears in scoring last season and is currently averaging 10.1 points per game, has moved to the bench. She started the first four games of the season but missed the next two with a concussion. LeBlanc liked how her team was playing with the freshman-heavy lineup and decided to keep Mauricio as the kind of bench scorer few other Ivy teams can match.
More efficient offense
Brown is scoring 62.0 points per game this season, a dramatic improvement from last season, when its 55.3 points per game ranked in just the ninth percentile nationally. The offensive improvement starts with Jones, Brown’s leading scorer this season. She is averaging 17.1 points per game, about four more than a season ago and third-best in the Ivy League, while shooting 51.5% on 2-pointers and 48.7% overall.
Even though teams know that Jones wants to drive to the rim much more than shoot jump shots, she has consistently been able to get by defenders and finish. In a competitive loss to Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) — which is currently ranked second in College Insider’s Mid-Major Top 25 poll — on Dec. 28, Jones had a career-high 34 points on 14-for-19 shooting without taking a single 3-pointer.
“Kyla is amazing,” Murray told The Next. “When she wants to get downhill, she’ll get downhill.”
Jones and Murray both said that Jones has been able to finish more effectively this season than she did a season ago, and Jones also feels more confident changing direction and using her off hand. LeBlanc said that Jones is blending aggressiveness to the basket with patience, often waiting to attack until the Bears have moved the ball and the defense is scrambling.
Other players have also stepped up. Mauricio is still scoring off the bench, but Brown is not as reliant on her as it was a season ago. Against Monmouth on Nov. 25, for example, Brown won 70-69 despite Mauricio being in concussion protocol and Jones scoring just four points in 21 minutes as she struggled with fouls. Arnolie, who hit the decisive free throw with no time remaining, had a game-high 23 points on 9-for-15 shooting.
“Last year, we really struggled with teams that played defense similar to Monmouth, heavy help and getting in the gaps,” LeBlanc said. “… So that was a good game that I thought, ‘Okay, yep, I’m seeing some growth, and I like that we were able to figure it out without … Bella.’”
“[Last season,] it usually was like, oh, one person’s doing all the scoring. One person’s doing all the rebounds,” Jones added. “But I think everything has been a lot more spread out now. One person might have a good game and have 20 points, but I feel like a lot of other people are in double figures or have a bunch of rebounds or steals, and I think that’s what we needed.”
LeBlanc has also tweaked the offense to have her centers facilitate more, and Murray, the backup to sophomore Gianna Aiello, has particularly flourished. She has nearly tripled her assist rate from last season to 14.3%, which ranks in the 65th percentile of all players at any position.
“It’s honestly really fun to get all these assists,” Murray said. “I just feel like the unofficial point guard … Touching the ball more, making plays, I feel like I’m just more a part of [the offense], and I really like it, even if I’m not scoring.”
In part due to its centers, Brown is assisting on 55.7% of its baskets this season, which ranks in the 59th percentile nationally and is up from 50.4% last season. It’s also getting easier shots, with 6.9 more attempts per game at the rim and three fewer in the mid-range. After the FGCU game, Eagles head coach Karl Smesko told reporters that the Bears “were really hard to guard. They cut hard and got behind us a lot to get a lot of shots at the rim.”
That more fluid offense has then helped the Bears set their defense, which has contributed to an even bigger improvement on the defensive end.
“Last year, everything we did was a new concept … to everybody on the team,” LeBlanc said. “This year, it was only new to the first-year players.”
LeBlanc was talking about her system overall, but that especially applies on the defensive end, where all the players had to learn LeBlanc’s 2-3 zone last year. Per Synergy Sports, Brown has played zone on over 90% of its defensive possessions over the past two seasons, and this year, Murray said, it feels “definitely more settled.”
The Bears also have more size, athleticism and length in their zone this season with the 6’3 Aiello starting at center and the 5’4 Mauricio moving to the bench in favor of taller guards. The result is that Brown is holding opponents to 86.8 points per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 70th percentile nationally, and has improved at both blocking shots and forcing turnovers. Led by Murray and Aiello, who rank first and third in the Ivy League in blocks per game, Brown’s 4.5 blocks per game rank in the 90th percentile nationally. And Arnolie and Jones have paced the Bears in steals, helping Brown force turnovers on a whopping 21.5% of defensive possessions. Last season, Brown’s opponents had more assists than turnovers, but this season, that has flipped.
The freshmen have been difference-makers defensively, LeBlanc said, especially Arnolie and forward Alyssa Moreland. Arnolie is physical and athletic on the perimeter, and she has recorded at least three steals in eight of 15 games. “I feel like she’s one of our best defenders and … takes a lot of pride on that side of the floor,” LeBlanc said.
Moreland didn’t play much in the month of November but has gotten double-digit minutes in seven of her past eight games. In a career-high 26 minutes against Providence on Dec. 7, she had six steals. “Those plays fire her up,” LeBlanc said. “… [She has] really great instincts.”
In addition, Brown has dramatically improved its defensive rebounding, which has helped close out defensive possessions. Last season, Brown was one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country, collecting just 60.9% of opponents’ misses. “That’s really what killed us a lot last year,” Jones said. In non-conference games this season, Brown rebounded 70.8% of opponents’ misses, which ranked in the top half nationally. In conference play, the Bears have slipped in that regard, but their overall rate of 66.9% is still one of their starkest improvements from a season ago.
Intensity and other intangibles
One reason why the Bears have improved in so many statistical categories is the effort they expend on the court, especially defensively. “I think the biggest change that we’ve made as a team is I think everyone’s just playing a lot harder,” Jones said. “… [In practice,] we just work on going hard all the time and not cutting things short … We do everything full out and hard. And I think that we’ve really seen some improvements.”
That has started with the freshmen, who were diving on the court and taking charges even in pickup games this fall. They have been assertive and confident, and they’ve been vocal leaders, which is sometimes challenging for younger players. Crucially, the veterans have all helped teach the freshmen Brown’s system and encouraged them to lead, creating a tightly knit and competitive team.
“The whole freshman group really brought a positive vibe to the team that we needed, and I’m really grateful for that,” Murray said. “… Everyone can learn from them. … They are great leaders, and so it’s just really a great team dynamic where we can all depend on each other.”
What’s ahead in Ivy League play?
As promising as Brown’s nonconference results were, the players and coaches alike knew that they had to take another step forward in Ivy League play. Brown’s non-conference strength of schedule ranked 319th out of 361 Division I teams, and the Ivy League is perennially one of the tougher mid-major conferences.
“Every [Ivy] opponent is going to be Florida Gulf Coast-ish — you know, at that level,” LeBlanc said on Dec. 31, just before the conference opener at Penn. “… We still have to play a really, really good basketball game to win these games. So whereas some of our wins this year, maybe we haven’t played a great full game of basketball and we figured out and we got a win, we understand that Ivy League play is not like that.”
That lesson got hammered home against Penn, as Brown lost the first quarter 25-4 and had to play from behind the rest of the way. The Bears won the second half by five, earning praise from the color commentator for their continued fight, but lost 74-53 to a Quakers team that currently leads the conference with a 3-0 record.
The next game offered more of the same as Harvard buried Brown 22-3 in the first quarter en route to an 89-59 win. But the next night, in the Bears’ third road game in as many contests, they flipped the script and won the first half by seven, ultimately beating Dartmouth 66-58.
“What’s hard is we feel like an improved team. Certain numbers show us that we are an improved team,” LeBlanc told The Next on Jan. 11. “… So I think that the latest challenge is heading into Ivy League with some confidence and then having that sort of stripped immediately in those first two games. So [I was] glad to see us bounce back with Dartmouth.”
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As LeBlanc acknowledged, although the Bears have improved, so have many other teams in the conference, making it tougher to see their progress. Going forward, LeBlanc hopes that her players will rediscover the confidence that they had entering Ivy play, reduce their turnovers and shore up their defensive rebounding.
But the makings of a LeBlanc-style team are beginning to show in her second season, and that’s significant. She hopes to add more offensive firepower in future seasons and eventually have a roster where all players can not only facilitate the offense, but also shoot threes.
“We’re trending in the right direction,” LeBlanc said on Dec. 31. “I’m liking our offensive style of play. … Our younger kids are really good, and they just need more experience on making these reads and decisions. And I think also, if we can add a little bit more scoring to the punch, that’s really going to help.”
The vision is that Brown will finish in the top half of the conference and qualify for the Ivy League Tournament no later than 2023-24, when it hosts the tournament in Providence. And if it can surprise some teams this season, even better.
“We’re hungry,” Jones said, drawing out the word for emphasis and still smarting over being picked to finish last. “We’re ready. We’re ready to prove a lot of people wrong.”
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided and Power Plays.