After going 0-2 at Penn and Princeton this weekend, it will take nothing short of a miracle for the men’s basketball team to repeat as Ivy champions. With Penn returning all of its players and the increased parity in the league, a second championship was by no means a guarantee. Nevertheless, few expected the Bulldogs to be .500 in conference play after eight games, which begs the question: What’s happened?
“I don’t know what exactly it is,” Scott Gaffield ’04 said. “It’s frustrating because it seems like initially it was effort, and then it was rebounding, and then it was defense, and now our offense, we can’t even put points up. Everybody’s trying really hard, but somehow we’re all pulling in different directions.”
Gaffield hit the nail on the head: Yale is no longer playing with the same chemistry and fluidity that characterized the team last season. And that lack of harmony is translating into an inability to score.
Last year’s squad was a classic Cinderella basketball team. The records and titles speak for themselves, but more than that, the team was a cohesive unit and had a different go-to guy on any given night. Four players finished the season averaging double digits in points and only 2.3 points separated the team’s top scorer, Edwin Draughan ’05, from the fifth-highest scorer, Ime Archibong ’03. One day, Draughan might explode for 22 points, as he did against Penn State, and another night, Archibong would lead the way with 17 points, as he did at home against Penn.
For Yale in 2001-02, someone always picked up the slack, and that’s what made the team fun to watch. Over the course of the season, nine different players led the team in scoring on a particular night. And someone was always able to spark the offense. Even if the Bulldogs shot 6-20 from 3-point range (vs. Rutgers), Chris Leanza ’03 could still come off the bench and nail three shots from downtown to will the team to victory. It was a different story line every night, and Yale always made it interesting.
Not so this season.
“Last year, when we had that type of output on any given night, we were winning,” Archibong said. “This year, we’re running into problems. [Players] aren’t being aggressive enough and taking the burden upon themselves.”
It’s almost as if the Bulldog offense is being spread too thin. Two players, Draughan and center T.J. McHugh ’03, are averaging in double digits, but after them, seven players are averaging between four and eight points a game. As Archibong noted, the lack of a go-to guy can leave the team without a way to jump-start the offense.
“Last year, every night a different person stepped up and got the job done,” said Gaffield, who’s averaging 5.8 points per game. “This year, everybody’s trying to get the job done, but we’re having less success.”
This weekend epitomized the Elis’ offensive struggles. Draughan led the way Friday at the Palestra with 13 points, but when he only connected on two field goals in the second half, the rest of the team went cold instead of rallying around him.
Saturday at Jadwin Gym, Justin Simon ’04 was the Bulldog’s biggest offensive presence with eight points. Simon was by far the most effective player, shooting 4-5 from the field and playing with a lot of grit and emotion. But he was only in the game for 13 minutes, and for the other 27 minutes, Yale didn’t have much of an answer to Princeton’s scrappy defense.
“We were pretty flat,” Archibong said. “I don’t think we pushed the ball as well and we really weren’t in sync.”
Yale has six games left to try to reclaim some of that magical chemistry from last season. Against the Quakers and Tigers, the Bulldogs were forced into a lot of isolation and one-on-one plays on offense. This was especially true against Princeton, which slowed the game down to an agonizing pace on both ends of the floor. If Yale is going to continue to spread the offensive burden around, it will need to push the ball more and pick up the tempo to give every player on the court a chance to get open.
Last season’s team had the best of both worlds: a squad that worked well together and a core group of individuals who could take control of a game. Over the weekend, it didn’t look like the Elis had either.