December 27, 2023 

Behind the scenes of a rebuild: How Linda Cimino got Dartmouth to believe

Players’ shock at winning early in the season has turned into expecting to win

There is a new energy in Dartmouth’s Leede Arena this season, and it starts with first-year head coach Linda Cimino. “She’s everyone’s hype man,” junior forward Doreen Ariik told The Next.

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Cimino loudly celebrates when individual players succeed and challenges them when they don’t. She gets in a defensive stance in practice, hawking guards or simulating physical double-teams in the post. She rebounds for her players in pregame warmups — before she changes into the high heels she wears on the sidelines. She is bringing a different intensity and competitive fire to Hanover, New Hampshire.

“Whatever she can do, she’ll do it,” junior guard Victoria Page told The Next. “She goes out of her way to make sure you know that she wants us to get better and she’s feeding into us every time.”

Cimino has a history of rebuilding programs, and she was hired in May to resurrect a Big Green program that had plunged from grace. Dartmouth was once part of the Ivy League elite, winning 17 championships and playing in seven NCAA Tournaments. But in the 13 seasons from 2009-10 to 2022-23, Dartmouth averaged fewer than eight wins per year and finished in the top half of the Ivy League only once.

The bottom fell out over the past two seasons, when the Big Green went a combined 5-49 overall and 2-26 in Ivy League play. They got outscored by an average of nearly 17 points per game over that span, and they finished last season No. 311 out of 361 Division I teams in the NCAA’s NET rankings.

This season, Dartmouth has played the third-easiest schedule in the country to date, but crucially, it has parlayed that into a 5-6 record entering Ivy League play.

A graph showing Dartmouth's nonconference schedule and results in 2023-24. Dartmouth is 5-6 this season, with wins over Division III Keene State, New Hampshire, Navy, Merrimack and UMass Lowell.
Dartmouth’s nonconference schedule and results in 2023-24. Games are shown in order, with wins in green and losses in red. (Graph by Jenn Hatfield)

Though the previous staff had set the schedule before Cimino arrived, she told The Next, “It was perfect. And it was exactly what we needed in this moment, this season, for us to gain confidence and learn how to win.”

Those wins have injected hope into Dartmouth’s program. The rebuilding process will still be long, but the change in energy swirling around Hanover is an all-important step toward contending again.

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Cimino’s philosophy so far has been to build around defense, even if it means sacrificing offense. She starts two imposing post defenders, the 6’4 Ariik and 6’3 sophomore Clare Meyer, even though they’re still honing their high-low passing and neither one stretches defenses by shooting 3-pointers. Cimino has slowed Dartmouth’s pace to one of the slowest in the country, trying to reduce the number of possessions and limit opponents’ chances to score. She is so committed to saving points that she requires any player who curses in practice to do pushups, so they don’t get a technical foul for cursing in a game.

The coaching staff is also trying to instill a sense of pride on the defensive end. When Dartmouth works on defense in practice, the intensity ratchets up, Page said: “Coaches are yelling at you; they’re very serious about it. And you really don’t get a rep off … These are small mistakes that we made in the past two years that we need to fix now.”

Dartmouth has played man-to-man defense on 86% of its possessions, and it’s sprinkled in zone and pressed occasionally. That’s similar to the previous two seasons, yet the Big Green are getting significantly more stops this season. They are allowing 88.5 points per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 64th percentile nationally.* In comparison, they gave up 99.4 points per 100 possessions in 2022-23 and 96.5 in 2021-22, each of which ranked in the bottom 20% nationally.

Much of Dartmouth’s improvement has come inside the arc. The Big Green are allowing teams to shoot about the same percentage from 3-point range as they did last season, but they’re holding opponents to 40.5% shooting on 2-pointers, much better than last season’s mark of 49.2%. Dartmouth has also cut down dramatically on fouling — Cimino chaired the NCAA Women’s Basketball Rules Committee for two years — and closed possessions with better defensive rebounding.

Points Allowed Per 100 Possessions88.599.496.5
Opponent 2-Point %40.5%49.2%46.1%
Opponent 3-Point %36.0%35.7%31.7%
Foul Rate13.5%21.4%19.3%
Defensive Rebounding Rate69.7%66.3%63.3%
Data includes games against Division I opponents only. Source: Her Hoop Stats

Unsurprisingly, Dartmouth’s wins have generally been its stingiest defensive games, including allowing just 70.3 points per 100 possessions at Merrimack on Dec. 10. But against Lafayette on Dec. 21, the defensive improvement was apparent even in a loss. In the final five minutes, Dartmouth got three steals and drew a charge, nearly coming all the way back from a 16-point third-quarter deficit.

With a team that had so rarely won before Cimino arrived, one of her immediate priorities was teaching her players how to win. She does that through competitive drills that mimic in-game situations. The staff keeps score and awards points for offensive rebounds, so everyone is motivated to crash the glass. And the drills never end in failure, so players get in the habit of executing plays and winning because of it.

“They celebrate, they enjoy it and so they know what that feeling feels like,” Cimino said.

“It’s kind of settled into our heads that we are capable of winning. And so the [drills] kind of, I guess, back that up,” Ariik said. “… We don’t practice them in the sense of like, ‘Oh, this is just for basketball practice.’ We practice them because they’re very plausible, and we can find ourselves in situations where we’ve taken a team to the very end of [a game] and we can win … So practicing it kind of reaffirms that and gives us kind of comfort.”

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Cimino also talks to players about winning in different ways than they’ve heard from previous coaches. Like many coaches, she talks about winning the minutes before the next timeout, but she also breaks down the math to make that feel possible.

Against UMass Lowell on Dec. 14, for instance, Dartmouth was up by a point after the first quarter. Cimino told her players that they didn’t have to do anything extraordinary in the next three quarters to win the game — just play UMass Lowell even or better. The Big Green then won those quarters by two, two and one point.

“You have to take away that mindset of, [Winning is] far away,” Cimino explained.

The players have bought into the new mentality, and their initial “astonishment” at competing and winning gradually turned into self-belief, Ariik said. That shift began in the second game of the season, a seven-point loss to Siena.

“We were really competitive … We were only short because we didn’t make as many layups as we should’ve,” Ariik said. “But it was at that game that we’re like, ‘Oh, actually, we can do this.’”

Facing little defensive pressure, Dartmouth guard Victoria Page dribbles the ball with her right hand.
Dartmouth guard Victoria Page (15) dribbles the ball in a game against UMass Lowell at Costello Athletic Center in Lowell, Mass., on Dec. 14, 2023. (Photo credit: Dartmouth Athletics)

A few weeks later against New Hampshire, Dartmouth got its first Division I win of the season 43-40. Page broke a 40-all tie with under a minute left by catching an inbounds pass near the top of the key and driving to the rim for a right-handed layup. The day before, Dartmouth had practiced how to respond to being up three and down three late in a game, and Cimino said postgame that the execution on that play “showed tremendous growth.”

In December, the players got even more confidence from consecutive comeback wins against Navy and Merrimack.

“I don’t think we [had] ever come back [before then] to win a game,” Ariik said. “And that’s when it was cemented that, yeah, we actually can play, we can compete, we can win.”

“Seeing the fight that we had in us, that was really big,” freshman point guard Nina Minicozzi told The Next.

Page (9.8 points per game), Ariik (8.8) and Minicozzi (8.5) are the team’s leading scorers, and their chemistry is growing. Page has moved off the ball to make room for Minicozzi in the starting lineup, and she’s been teaching the freshman how to lead as a point guard even as she figures out for herself how to lead without the ball in her hands.

Meanwhile, Minicozzi and Ariik are roommates on the road after Ariik approached Cimino to request a freshman so she could mentor them — a first in Cimino’s coaching career. Before games, Minicozzi and Ariik have similar routines and often banter to ease their shared nerves. And they’re connecting on the court, too: Of Minicozzi’s 30 assists against Division I teams, 15 are to Ariik — the most between any two Dartmouth players.

Dartmouth forward Doreen Ariik shoots an open right-handed jump shot. A Navy defender realizes Ariik is open but is too late to contest it.
Dartmouth forward Doreen Ariik (14) shoots a jump shot in a game against Navy at Leede Arena in Hanover, N.H., on Dec. 8, 2023. (Photo credit: Dartmouth Athletics)

Winning has also helped the entire team’s chemistry by making the season more fun. Cimino said her players told her that their recent road trip to Massachusetts and upstate New York was the best one they’d had — topping when they saw a Los Angeles Lakers game in California last season. One highlight was a surprise two-hour detour to watch Dartmouth alum and current North Carolina head coach Courtney Banghart lead her team against UConn in Connecticut.

“[Winning] makes it fun, and I think that’s what we were missing in the past few years, just the excitement to win,” Ariik said. “And I think it becomes addictive: After having one, you want to have another.”

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However, while Dartmouth is gelling as a team and improving defensively, not everything is on the upswing yet. Many of the Big Green’s offensive numbers have barely changed from last season, despite playing an easier schedule.

For example, their effective field goal percentage is 40.6% this season, compared with 40.4% a season ago. They’re scoring 78.8 points per 100 possessions this year, almost the same as last season’s 77.0, and their turnover rate remains high, at 21.7% compared with 23.0% last season.

Some of that stagnation is likely because the team is still adjusting to the new coaching staff. Ariik and Meyer are also still learning how to play together instead of one replacing the other. And the offensive compromises Cimino has made to prioritize defense are showing up, particularly in how few easy baskets Dartmouth is getting. Its 3.2 fast-break points per game rank in just the second percentile nationally, and its 7.5 second-chance points rank in only the 16th percentile, despite the size advantage it often has with Ariik and Meyer.

Though the Big Green have already equaled their win total from the previous two seasons, they recognize that Ivy League play will be a step up in competition.

“We know what it’s going to be like in a couple weeks,” Cimino said in mid-December. “And so we just got to keep them together and keep them positive and learning and growing, and keep reinforcing that this is the foundation that we’re laying, and even if you lose, it’s not the end of the world as long as you learn.”

Dartmouth guard Nina Minicozzi looks up as she dribbles the ball with her right hand. She has her left arm bent and in front of her to protect the ball for a Bryant defender.
Dartmouth guard Nina Minicozzi (1) attacks in a game against Bryant at Chace Athletic Center in Smithfield, R.I., on Nov. 6, 2023. (Photo credit: Dartmouth Athletics)

But what Dartmouth’s surprising start has done is put the program on track toward building something. The players are bought in and trust the coaching staff. They feed off Cimino’s energy and respond to her coaching. They’re enjoying the journey. And now, they’re undaunted and eager to test themselves in the Ivy League.

“In the past, we’d look at it as like, oh my gosh, all the odds are stacked against us,” Ariik said, “but we’re part of the odds now.”

* Some statistics in this article are from Her Hoop Stats and CBB Analytics, which only include games against Division I competition. Therefore, Dartmouth’s win against Division III Keene State is not reflected in those statistics but is included in statistics from other sources.

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, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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