Winning takes backseat in early contests

For those of you who held your breath for two weeks now waiting for installment two of my eloquent indictment of the National Basketball Association, I appreciate your loyalty and ask you to keep waiting to exhale. The Pistons and Pacers rendered anything further on the topic moot for the time. I still have theories that I’d be more than happy to expound if you’re like that and want to track me down. Otherwise, get over it. Moving on –

I had the pleasure of taking in Sunday afternoon’s basketball game at the Mullins Center in Amherst between Yale and the University of Massachusetts and came away with a few thoughts on the locals’ prospects for this season.

Yale was never really out of the game until late on Sunday, but it was pretty clear from the get-go the Bulldogs weren’t going to win. Non-conference games for Ivy League teams just don’t necessitate any sense of urgency. You’re trying to figure out your rotation, get people comfortable in their roles, figure out who should play when and with whom and where on the court, and get your young guys and bench players some meaningful minutes in case they’re forced into action when it matters. Herm Edwards, in an already-legendary press conference, said last year that “You play to win the game.” That kind of applies for a team in Yale’s position right now, but not really. These days in the Ivy League, you play to feel things out and get ready for the 14-game real season.

There were some encouraging signs Sunday. James Jones has apparently scrapped the wholesale, hockey-style substitutions he favored in the past in favor of a more traditional substitution pattern that should allow for greater continuity. To me, a lack of depth on this team shouldn’t be an issue — let’s find an eight-man rotation that works and go with it. Let the starters play 30-plus minutes, even if we’re running the ball and theoretically getting worn down. They can handle it.

Another bright spot was seeing Edwin Draughan ’05 remain at the two-guard spot the whole game. Either Alex Gamboa ’05 or Eric Flato ’08 was on the court at all times to help break the UMass press. Quick guards killed Yale last December and January, and the Elis will be sure to see plenty of pressure defenses when matched up against teams with decided athletic advantages. Turning the ball over only nine times (to UMass’ 14) was a good sign.

Dominick Martin ’06 also probably had his best game at Yale, scoring 23 points on 10-for-12 shooting while taking the ball right at reigning Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year Rashaun Freeman, who had a big game in his own right. You’re not going to win many basketball games shooting eight of 20 from the line as Yale did — I can unequivocally say that this was the first time in a good eight or nine years, perhaps since the end of the Padilla-Travieso era, that I watched a UMass team win a game because of superior foul shooting — or 35 percent from the floor. What was surprising was how many attempts Yale got around the rim against an athletic team. While there wasn’t much dribble penetration or creation by the guards in a half-court setting, both Yale’s front court and back court displayed an ability to at least be around the ball for put-back opportunities despite being unable to come down with clean boards.

It’s tough to tell where this team is headed. It probably has the front-line talent to have a season comparable to the 2001-02 campaign that is sadly starting to appear more and more like an anomaly, but it could easily stumble toward the middle of the pack again. Just from watching the one game, it seemed again like there was something intangible lacking, whether it be spark, toughness or a collective identity. I can’t say it’s a lack of intensity — Gamboa for one will never be guilty of that — but something that was there three years ago, was absent the following year with the same players (and maybe the late Josh Hill ’05, who was injured the past two seasons, meant more to that championship team than anyone imagined at the time) and might be absent again.

UMass has a freshman named Jeff Salovski who is listed generously at 6-foot-11, 325, and who is fast becoming a cult figure after only two games in Amherst. Nicknamed the “Big Deli” apparently for defying a doubter in high school and finishing something like a three-foot sandwich, the freshman got the crowd immediately into the game each time he stepped on the court. He chipped in four points, six rebounds and a block in 10 minutes, but it was clear that his primary contribution was the palpable enthusiasm he brought to the court and the rise he got out of teammates and fans.

With 11 minutes left in the game, Salovski, following a scramble underneath the Yale hoop, hustled after a loose ball, belly flopped on top of it, signaled for a timeout and brought the sparse crowd of under 3,000 to its feet. It didn’t matter then when Lappas rewarded the Deli (and, yes, that’s what he screamed at his player to get his attention from the sideline) by feeding him the ball on the next possession, the big man threw up an air ball. What Salovski brought to the court was invaluable.

Perhaps Jones sensed something amiss and reacted by sending Casey Hughes ’07 to the bench to be that spark the team desperately needs. Clearly the team’s most athletically-gifted player and on the verge of a breakout season, Hughes was coming off a 20 and 10 performance against the No. 1 team in the country in Wake Forest, which made the timing of the move curious. Maybe Hughes’ one-for-nine performance from the field was an aberration, but it’s also possible that Hughes won’t adjust well to coming off the bench.

I can see where Jones is coming from — trying to get his quickest guy matched up against either tiring starters or less-talented subs while at the same time boosting his team’s energy level — but sometimes you can’t create what’s not there. Xavier had success in the late-90s using James Posey, its best player, as its sixth man, but this doesn’t always work. Hughes clearly relished his starting spot and the opportunity to shine against a team like Wake. Relegating him to backup duty, while well-intentioned, might not serve its intended purpose, if that’s in fact what it was. Jones is right, however, to try to tinker with the team until he finds something that can overcome the team’s apparent lack of whatever it might be before the Ivy League season rolls in.

Epilogue: I went to a local sports bar after the game with my uncle to grab dinner and catch the first half of the Patriots game before heading back to New Haven. The Big Deli and his family sat at the table next to us. He ordered a salad.

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