New-look Yale basketball club flying high

Attention Yale and New Haven: Yale has a basketball team.

That’s right. Yale has an honest-to-goodness basketball team.

They’re high-flying, scrappy, in-your-face athletic, and there’s barely a weak link to be found on the team.

True, Yale’s team entered the final week of last year’s season with a chance at winning the Ivy title. And they were a very good team.

But this is different.

They knocked off Penn State — a Big Ten team that, while depleted compared to last year, did some damage in last year’s edition of March Madness. And Yale didn’t squeak by them. Nope, they beat them by 13 points, and were in control virtually the entire way. And what’s more, they did it on Penn State’s home floor, where Penn State had yet to lose to a non-conference opponent.

Then, this past weekend, they traveled to Washington, D.C., for the Red Auerbach Colonial Classic tournament.

Here the Bulldogs worked some magic inside the Beltway, blowing out Stony Brook in the first round by 20 points. It was their first win in a tournament since 1997 and the first in the James Jones era. Stony Brook had never lost to an Ivy League team before, yet Yale made the victory look easy.

In the finals of the tournament, Yale met the George Washington Colonials, the tournament’s host, and the winners of it in every single year it has been played.

Now granted, these were not the Colonials of Yinka Dare and Mike Jarvis that waltzed into the Sweet 16 in the 1990s. Nevertheless, they are still an Atlantic 10 team and not to be overlooked.

But the Bulldogs marched into GW’s home arena and stunned them. With 10 minutes to go in the game, Yale was up by 13 points.

With every charge the Colonials made, Yale seemed up to the challenge, in pursuit of its first tournament championship since the 1996-97 season.

Inside 10 minutes though, things turned ugly for the Bulldogs. George Washington got hot from 3-point range, led by Greg Collucci, who was unconscious in the second half. And the never-say-die Colonials stormed all the way back, taking an 11-point lead with one minute to go in the game.

But the Bulldogs didn’t even fold then. Against all odds, they played the most exciting minute of college basketball I have ever seen. As a Yale fan, it was downright stunning and left me with only one thing to say: “Oh wow.”

It was that breathtaking.

Jones employed a fouling strategy on the Colonials that actually worked. George Washington complied by routinely missing one of two free throws, and then Yale did its part by hitting clutch shots, driving into the lane and drawing fouls, and creating turnovers.

Then, with just seconds left and trailing by 5, shooting guard Edwin Draughan ’05 made a layup in the lane. Yale stole the ball, and point guard Alex Gamboa ’05 put it in from 3-point range with a hand in his face and mere seconds left on the clock.

Yale forced another turnover, and Scott “The Senator” Gaffield ’04 had the chance to win the game, but his shot was just off the mark and the game went to overtime.

In overtime, the Bulldogs fell apart; half their team fouled out because the comeback effort had required so much fouling.

Nevertheless, Yale had sent a loud and clear message. This team can play with the big boys.

Jones has done an incredible job recruiting for the Bulldogs, and his coaching in the tournament was nothing short of superb.

The team is amazingly deep. Virtually everyone can score.

The players are athletic — quite a few of them could throw down a dunk in a game.

And they are a real team. They pass well, rebound well, and play defense well. They are scrappy and not afraid to hit the hardwood to create a turnover.

The freshman class, led by Draughan, Gamboa and Mark Lovett, is spectacular. T.J. McHugh ’03 is going to make everyone forget about Neil Yanke ’01. So far Paul Vitelli ’04 has been the team’s most consistent player, and he’s explosive. The team can shoot the lights out from downtown. And that isn’t even beginning to give these guys all the credit they deserve.

When point guard Chris Leanza ’03 returns to the floor after his shoulder is back to full strength, this team will be even better. The explosive point guard tandem of Leanza and Gamboa will make the Bulldog faithful forget about the duo of Leanza and Isaiah Cavaco ’01 from last year.

Unfortunately, though, I don’t think all is sunny for the team. As much as I’d like to say otherwise, I don’t think this team is going to win the Ivy League, this year anyway.

The play of the entire league is up, as evidenced by the University of Pennsylvania’s victories over Georgia Tech and Iowa State and near victory over the second-ranked team in the nation, Illinois.

The play in the league is probably higher than it has ever been. A few years ago, I think this same Yale team sweeps the Ivies. At the same time, my theory is that because of the loss of top talent to the NBA early, the Ivy teams are much closer to the top teams in the NCAA.

But I’ll also say this — the Bulldogs were picked by the all-knowing media to finish fifth this year in the Ivies, with Penn, Brown, Princeton and Columbia all ahead of them.

So I’m going to make a little prediction — in fact, Jim Fassel, I’ll guarantee it. The Bulldogs will finish in the top half of the Ivy League at the very least, and they’re going to send shock waves throughout the NCAA in the process. Because they’re that good.

Don’t believe me? Come out and see for yourself. Drop your books for one night and come out to the John J. Lee Amphitheater tonight to see the Bulldogs in action against Sacred Heart.

I’m going to make one more guarantee. After watching them, you too will be saying, “Oh wow.”

Comments