LEWISTON, Maine -- Having just defeated rival Bowdoin by a convincing 71-51 score, and having no more games on the slate until late in the month, Bates head men's basketball coach Jon Furbush '05 allowed himself a measure of satisfaction with the state of his team.
"We're playing the way I've wanted us to for six years now," Furbush smiled. "I thought our energy on defense was phenomenal tonight, and I think our defense is our best offense. It's finally coming together."
Just on its own, the Bobcats' 7-0 record may not convince observers that it's going places. After all, last year's team was 6-1 through seven games, but a tough second half of the season, including the entire NESCAC schedule, saw the team finish a hair under .500 at 11-13. But so far this season, all seven of Bates' games have been not only wins, but performances worthy of wins, without a weak opponent in the bunch. And the Bobcats also seem to be getting better by the game.
"We've had trouble starting the second half, and I thought we brought energy to really propel the run we made. I'm really proud of the defense that won us the game," senior captain Graham Safford (Hampden, Maine) said after the Bowdoin game. Bates outscored Bowdoin 39-21 in the second half, including a late 14-0 run.
"I really think this year we're taking it one game at a time -- I mean, honestly, one game at a time," Safford continued. "We're better when we can break the season into chunks. We said we wanted to be 4-0 before Thanksgiving, and then we were like, 'All right, we want to be 7-0 before Christmas.'"
At least some observers are noticing the Bobcats' early-season success. Bates received 8 points in the Dec. 2 D3hoops.com Top 25 poll, and after the Colby and Bowdoin wins they drew 25 points, moving up to eighth place in the "Also Received Votes" category. This week's poll has Bates even higher, with 35 points, the third-most outside the Top 25. One of the teams that is ranked is No. 17 Babson, whose only loss in an 8-1 season so far came against the Bobcats.
The last time Bates found itself in the national rankings was the 2006-07 season, when the team started out 11-0 and rose as high as No. 12. That team went 7-7 the rest of the way to finish 18-7 with a loss to Amherst in the NESCAC semifinals.
Perhaps the biggest reason for Bates' early-season success might be the obvious development of the team's starting frontcourt, also known as the Delpeche twins.
Six-foot-8 center Malcolm Delpeche (Wilmington, Del.) was Maine Rookie of the Year last year, averaging 7.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 0.3 assists per game on .578 free-throw shooting. This year those numbers have all grown, to 8.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists and a .609 free throw percentage.
Six-foot-seven forward Marcus Delpeche's (Wilmington, Del.) improvement has been even more striking: he averages 10.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.0 assists with .895 free throw shooting, up from 5.1 points, 4.7 boards, 0.3 assists and .491 foul shooting as a freshman.
Having two sophomore starters who stand 6-7 or taller and run the floor as well as the Delpeches may be a first in the program's history; certainly, it is a luxury the Bobcats haven't had in many years. As tall as the Delpeches are, though, both Colby (6-8 Chris Hudnut) and Bowdoin (7-0 John Swords) have one featured and bigger big man. But that didn't stop Bates from controlling the boards against both top rivals (36-28 vs. Colby; 39-22 vs. Bowdoin). In the Colby game, the Delpeches outrebounded Hudnut and Colby starting forward Sam Willson 18-11; against Bowdoin's Swords and Keegan Pieri, they built a 17-10 advantage.
"They're rebounding much better than they used to," said Furbush of the Delpeches. "They're reading the ball off the rim, they're attacking the ball, they're being more physical... You know, they were freshmen last year and it was a lot for them. But they've matured a lot, they're more confident and more poised. They're a huge reason we've been successful, because I think they've dominated the boards every game. When we have that, our transition is pretty good."
In his fourth season and only 51 points from joining the Bobcats' 1,000-point club, Safford is the pulse of this team more than ever. A year ago, he was in the middle of the most explosive scoring stretch by a Bates player in the past decade, with five games of 26 or more points over a nine-game stretch. At 15.7 points per game, Safford is still scoring at the sixth-highest clip in the NESCAC, and he hasn't lost his flair for clutch shooting, judging by his game-winning 3-pointer against then-No. 23 Babson with 1.8 seconds left. But Safford has been picking his spots more this season, seemingly with the ability to provide what the Bobcats need from him. Safford is among the NESCAC leaders in scoring (15.7), rebounding (7.5), assists (6.0) and steals (2.6).
Bates' other established All-State player, 6-5 junior guard Mike Boornazian (Portland, Conn.), has also been a reliable inside-outside scoring threat and joins Safford and the Delpeches as a fourth Bates starter averaging at least 5.1 rebounds per game, with 14.3 points and 5.1 boards per game.
Another interesting hallmark of the team is its ability to win both high- and low-scoring games. That's due in part to the team's depth from the first to the 10th man on the active roster. Senior captain and 6-1 guard Billy Selmon (Atlanta, Ga.) averages 8.4 points per game, is a defensive menace on the perimeter, and at the offensive end is not to be left open behind the arc, with 21- and 30-point games on his collegiate resume. One of the most remarkable statistical aspects of the Bowdoin win was the fact that Bates scored a reasonably high 71 points, but its highest scorer (Safford) contributed only 12. The rest of the starting five cascaded from there, with Marcus Delpeche scoring 11, Malcolm Delpeche with 10, Boornazian with nine and Selmon with eight.
And Bates' bench play in the game was a veritable coach's dream: senior captain Adam Philpott (Gloucester, Mass.), sophomore forward Max Eaton (St. Petersburg, Fla.), first-year guard Justin Zukowski (Portland, Maine) and junior forward Mike Newton (Chapel Hill, N.C.) all made two baskets apiece, and all scored between four and six points, while shooting a combined 8-for-12 from the field (.667) and committing one turnover. A fifth reserve, junior guard Josh Britten (Yarmouth, Maine) collected an assist and two rebounds in just three minutes, and in previous games he has shown a propensity for coming right off the bench and hitting jump shots.
"I think we're a unique team and tough to scout out, because we can put up 80-plus [points], and we can play in the 50s and win," said Furbush. "I think we're just going with the flow... I want to play a more high-scoring game and get up and down [the floor, in general], but there have been games where teams have done a good job defending us, and we're going to win 55-53. I think the more we score, the more opportunity we have to win, because I think our defense is that good."
After heading home for a few days of rest, Bates will meet up on Dec. 26 in Atlanta. The Bobcats will hold three days of practice sessions before facing Emory University on Dec. 29. The next day, Bates will play either Union or Birmingham-Southern at Emory.
The Bobcats will return to New England for good with a Jan. 3 non-conference game at Southern Vermont, followed by a home game against always dangerous Brandeis, before the all-important NESCAC portion of the schedule commences on Jan. 9 at home against Middlebury.
That's when the rubber finally meets the road, and the seven victories of late 2014 will recede from memory. What Coach Furbush and the Bobcats won't forget is that the mojo they found while beating Colby and Bowdoin began with defense.