One of the most anticipated Yale basketball seasons in recent memory has had a less than auspicious start.
The Bulldogs lost to Air Force and Tennessee-Martin in the Guardians Classic in Columbia, Mo., in their first two games. Despite these early struggles, this young Bulldog squad has enough talent to be a factor in the Ancient Eight race.
Heading into the final three games of the season last year, the Elis had a chance to win the Ivy League title. Even though they dropped all of those contests, the season demonstrated that head coach James Jones had brought his Bulldogs one step closer to becoming perennial Ancient Eight contenders. The team finished 7-7 in league play (10-17 overall), its best conference record since 1997.
This year promises to be a pivotal one in Yale’s climb up the Ivy League ladder.
The Yale team — which comprises 12 freshmen and sophomores, three juniors, and no seniors — will try to build upon last year’s success. But if the Bulldogs fail to overcome their inexperience, and the lack of an establish low-post presence, it could be another long, cold winter on the hardwood in New Haven.
The 2001-02 Elis are brimming with speed and agility but short on size. Last year, with big men Neil Yanke ’01 and Tom Kritzer ’01, the Bulldogs often slowed down the tempo of the game. This year, with no one over 6-foot-9 on the roster, they promise to play a faster brand of basketball, pushing the ball up the floor as much as possible.
“I was fearful that because we are pushing the ball, we would make bad decisions,” team captain Ime Archibong ’03 said. But in what he has seen so far, Archibong is confident the team will play smart basketball and keep turnovers and mental errors to a minimum.
While the offense will provide excitement, it is a combination of solid defense and rebounding that must be the linchpin of the team’s success.
On defense, Jones said the keys are maintaining intensity and focus when the other team has the ball.
“We have the makings of what could be a very good team, a championship level team,” Jones said. “But we won’t be if we don’t play defense for 35 seconds [on each defensive stand].”
On the boards, Jones pointed to the fact that last year Yale started one of the biggest lineups in the Ivy League and was still consistently outrebounded by the opposition. So this year, he is hoping speed will get the job done.
“If we all attack the glass, we are so fast and mobile, we can make up for the lack of size,” forward Paul Vitelli ’04 said.
Like last year, the Bulldogs will play a challenging non-conference schedule in order to prepare themselves for Ivy League competition. The Elis will make trips to Big Ten and ACC gyms when they take on Penn State, an Elite Eight participant last year, and Clemson.
A position-by-position breakdown of the Elis:
The Bulldog backcourt has the potential to be as good as any in the league. Point guard Chris Leanza ’03 played through a shoulder injury all season en route to a team best 13.3 points per game and an honorable mention All-Ivy selection. The injury kept him out of nearly all the team’s practices last season. And off-season surgery on Leanza’s shooting shoulder will sideline him until January, Jones said.
In Leanza’s absence, highly touted freshman Edwin Draughan ’05 will take over the ball handling duties. At 6-foot-5, Draughan is tall for a point guard, and his athleticism and slashing ability will make him an effective scorer.
“I am not trying to live up to any expectations,” Draughan said. “I’m just trying to play the best basketball I can play.”
Draughan played both guard positions in high school, and when Leanza returns, he will likely move to the off-guard position. Coming off the bench, Alex Gamboa ’05 will also be an important part of the ball-handling equation.
Scott Gaffield ’04 is the true model of a shooting guard. Of his 34 field goals last season, 27 of them came from 3-point territory. The 6-foot-6 Canadian showed streaks of brilliance, including a 17-point performance against the University of Rhode Island that included five 3-pointers, but was also prone to suffer from cold spells. Although not known for his ability to create shots for himself, the team will rely on Gaffield to knock down the open shot on the perimeter.
Though not the shooter Gaffield is, 6-foot-6 Matt Minoff ’04 will be an important spark off the bench for the Elis. Regarded as one of the best defenders on the team, his 15 blocks were second on the team last year and his 24 steals were third.
The play of the Eli frontcourt will determine whether Yale will be a serious contender for the league title or just an Ivy League also-ran.
Archibong will provide leadership and scoring as a starter at the small forward position. Archibong was widely regarded as one of the most improved players in the Ivy League last season, averaging 9.1 points per game as a sophomore after a freshmen season in which he scored 21 points total.
“Last year was a little bit easier,” said Archibong, who thinks he was able to sneak in under the radar screen last season, with opposing teams neglecting to prepare for him. That certainly will not be the case this year.
His slashing and leaping ability make him an exciting player to watch. But the 6-foot-3 North Carolina native must cut down on his turnovers — his 67 giveaways were second most on the team last year.
The 6-foot-7 Vitelli will complement Archibong at the other forward spot. Though not a true big man, Vitelli said his wingman style of play is a “power forward” in the Ivy League mold. Vitelli and Archibong are the team’s best returning rebounders and will need to fight for good position under the boards against the taller opposition.
At 6-foot-7, 235-pound Josh Hill ’04 is one of the team’s bigger forwards and will be an important defensive substitution. Justin Simon ’04 and freshman walk-on Alex Lyden-Horn ’05 will add depth at the power forward position while Mark Lovett ’05 will be another wingman off the bench.
T.J. McHugh ’03 will be a key ingredient if the Bulldogs are to succeed this year. At 6-foot-8, he is one of the smaller centers in the Ivy League, but his speed will allow the Elis to run the floor. His top priorities must be rebounding and defense, since most of the team’s scoring will likely come from other positions. Still, McHugh must establish himself as a credible scoring threat to punish those teams that neglect him in order to defend the Elis’ more perimeter and penetration oriented scorers. One way McHugh could do this is to get to the free throw line — his 83 percent free throw shooting was second best on the team last year.
The 6-foot-9 Jerry Gauriloff ’05 — whom Jones calls the best post player of the new class — will miss the beginning of the season with a herniated disk. Jones could not offer a timeline for his return.