The men’s basketball team tips off its 2002-2003 season tonight in Stillwater, Okla., against the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Yale hopes to begin a journey culminating in an Ivy League title and an NCAA Tournament berth.
“We were right on the doorstep last year,” Ime Archibong ’03 said. “It’s game time.”
Yale finished last winter 21-11, winning a postseason game for the first time ever in the NIT. The Bulldogs shared the Ivy title with Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.
If the Bulldogs rise to the challenge, they will establish themselves as that ever-elusive third Ivy basketball powerhouse and a force in the nation’s mid-major conferences. But if they fail, the doubters will call last season a fluke.
Welcome then, to what might be the most eagerly awaited season in Yale basketball history. Understandably, it is the players who are most anxious.
“Practice is getting a little tedious,” captain Chris Leanza ’03 said. “It’s almost like you forget you’re teammates sometimes.”
Whether the Bulldogs will pack a hard punch depends on a variety of factors. Leanza said the team has no glaring deficiencies for opponents to exploit, but there are several important keys to Eli success or failure.
No Ivy League coach uses his bench as head coach James Jones does. Yale was the only team in the league last season with no player averaging over 30 minutes a game. Penn, on the other hand, had five players getting that much playing time.
“Coach can sub in five guys at a time,” Leanza said. “Nobody can relax in practice because there’s a guy that wants your spot and your minutes.”
The Bulldogs have several players who can play the one-on-one game. In the backcourt, last season’s Ivy League Rookie of the Year Alex Gamboa ’05, Scott Gaffield ’04 and Leanza all can beat their man off the dribble. Shooting guard Edwin Draughan ’05, who led the team in scoring last season at 11.5 points per game, is perhaps the most explosive of the lot.
Up front, last season’s captain Archibong and All-Ivy honorable mention forward T.J. McHugh ’03 can take advantage of single coverage. Despite his emergence as Yale’s emotional leader last season, the undersized 6-foot-3 Archibong is still overlooked in the Ivies and may catch opponents off-guard with his athletic ability.
The Elis also have the ability to shoot the 3-pointer. Yale set a school record for three-pointers last season with 228, and six players hit 20 or more treys over the winter. Paul Vitelli’s ’04 61 three-pointers was third-most in the Ancient Eight.
“We have a lot of threats from the outside,” Leanza said. “I expect it will be a huge part of what we do this year.”
Although Leanza said the team does not live and die by the three, Yale’s performance last season had a significant correlation to its three-point consistency. In the Bulldogs’ 11 losses last season, they shot 28.1 percent from beyond the arc, as opposed to 37.6 percent in their 21 wins. And in the loss to Penn that cost them a berth in the NCAA Tournament, the Elis knocked down just seven of 26 long-range attempts.
In order to free shooters on the perimeter, Yale will need its big men to draw double teams in the post. Aggressive play down low — especially in rebounding — is high on the Bulldogs’ priority list. Led by the 6-foot-7 Vitelli — last season’s most prolific Ivy rebounder at 7.2 per game — the Elis were league best in rebounding margin last season, grabbing 4.9 more boards than their opponents.
Jones said defending its lead in rebounding margin is one of the team’s goals.
“It’s something important for us to win,” Jones said.
Jones will look to 6-foot-7 Josh Hill ’04 and 6-foot-6 Mark Lovett ’05 for rebounding help off the bench. The pair gave the team 74 second-chance opportunities in limited minutes last season.
But as is always the case in basketball, defense will decide the team’s ultimate fate. While the Bulldogs will light up the scoreboard with their fast-paced offense, they must also limit opponents’ totals. Only Brown gave up more points in the Ivy League last season, and Yale did not win a single game in which it allowed 80 or more points. The old saying that “defense wins games” was especially true in the Eli stat book: the team allowed an average of just 63.9 points in wins but a staggering 83.1 in its losses.
“[Defense] is the cornerstone of our success,” Archibong said.
To prepare his team defensively, Jones devoted the first three weeks of practice almost entirely to keeping the ball away from the basket. He said the Bulldogs are primarily a man-to-man team on defense, though they will drop to zone on occasion.
Leading the way on the defensive end will be Draughan and 6-foot-6 Matt Minoff ’04, team leaders in steals and blocks, respectively. Both were seventh in the league in their respective categories; Draughan picked 42 pockets last season while the undersized Minoff returned 30 shots to their owners.
But before the Elis can start thinking about the Ancient Eight, they will first go through a grueling non-conference schedule that is arguably the most difficult in the Ivy League. No team in the league plays more teams that appeared in last season’s NCAA Tournament. After Oklahoma State, Yale will face Wake Forest and Penn State over Thanksgiving break. The Bulldogs also play Holy Cross and Stanford later in the season and could potentially play Central Connecticut State. Yale does not have a home game until Jan. 8 against Rhode Island.
No longer do the Bulldogs have the benefit of the doubt, or the luxury to say the program is still developing. The team’s three seniors — Leanza, Archibong and McHugh — are all key players in Jones’ system, and their departure after this season will leave big holes.
“I still remember the first day I saw them on campus as freshmen,” said Jones of the Elis’ Class of 2003. “I hope we get to send them out with a bang.”