Elis hope to return to Ivy League title hunt

After dropping seven of its first nine games, the men’s basketball team would have reason to doubt its ability to win as its Ivy opener against Brown approaches.

But the Elis are not doubters. Their play of late has given them reason to believe that they can meet or even surpass the expectations of the preseason Ivy League poll, in which the Yale squad was ranked third behind league powerhouses Princeton and Pennsylvania.

Coming into the season, head coach James Jones had the charge of putting together a cohesive starting five after losing five players, including two starters, to graduation. Still, Jones had plenty of potential to work with. Last season’s top three scorers — guard Edwin Draughan ’05, center Dominick Martin ’06 and guard Alex Gamboa ’05 — all returned, as well as a strong group of freshmen and sophomores.

Forwards Sam Kaplan ’07 and Casey Hughes ’07 join Draughan, Martin and Gamboa at tip-off to complete the new Eli five. Playing a tough non-conference schedule has certainly helped the new nucleus come together.

“Playing some of the best programs in the country will only help strengthen our ability to fight for the league title,” Jones said. “The tough competition will help to build character and confidence.”

The Elis established a pattern of close games and tough losses early on, dropping their season opener to Radford University 72-71 on Nov. 19. The next night they secured their first win in convincing fashion, 92-80, over Hartford. Two days later the Bulldogs took the court in Winston Salem against Wake Forest — then the top-ranked team in the nation. This was the second consecutive season that Jones pitted his Elis against the best in the country — last season the Bulldogs led the eventual NCAA Champion UConn by three points at the half before losing, 70-60.

Against the Demon Deacons the Bulldogs were defeated more decisively, 99-72, but found something to be excited about in Hughes’ 20 points and 10 rebounds — both career-highs.

The Elis returned to New England to face off against UMass Nov. 28, where they suffered a decisive 70-56 loss. Perhaps the lone bright spot on the night was Martin, who scored a career-high 23 points to go along with nine boards. Martin, who transferred from Princeton after his freshman year, led the Ivy League in field goal percentage last year, but struggled to score consistently.

Jones believes that his 6-foot-10 center is one of the best big men in the country. Since the game against UMass, Martin has been a model of consistency. He is second to only Draughan in scoring with 15.3 points per game and leads the team with eight rebounds per game while shooting an impressive .547 from the field.

He carried the Elis to their second victory Dec. 1 against Fairfield, 74-64, with 19 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks, two assists and two steals to notch his first career double-double. Martin credits his solid play to off-season work and the skilled tandem of guards Gamboa and Draughan.

“I have to give credit to my teammates,” Martin said. “The guards have been getting me the ball.”

The Elis were hoping to reach .500 on the season and to impress the home crowd when they took the court against Bucknell in their home-opener Dec. 4. Despite 21 points from Draughan, the Elis fell in overtime, 73-65.

The Bulldogs then hit the road again for four more games away from John J. Lee Amphitheater. Their first stop was Niagara Falls, N.Y., where Elis suffered a 96-60 loss to Niagara University.

The beating the Elis took against the Purple Eagles exposed shortcomings in the Bulldog defense and raised questions about their intensity on the floor, which would be answered against Boston College before the Bulldogs went home for winter break. The underdog Elis pushed the No. 9 Eagles to the brink, taking BC to double-overtime before the Eagles pulled out the 82-80 win.

“I look at that right now as the turning point in our season so far,” Gamboa said. “We really came together. We battled. Even though we lost that game, everyone came away from that game knowing how we have to play to win. It set an example for the rest of the season.”

After a brief vacation of their own, the Elis traveled west for the Cable Car Classic in Piedmont, Calif., looking to turn their newfound intensity into victory.

In the first round, the Elis took on Charlotte. The 49ers — a NCAA tournament contender — rode in on a four-game winning streak and extended it to five with a 80-74 win over the Elis. Having lost four straight games, including two overtime losses, the Elis needed to see their efforts pay off. In their next contest against Santa Clara in the Classic’s consolation game, the Bulldogs went to OT once again, but this time came away with the win. Six different Elis scored in double figures, including Piedmont native Eric Flato ’08, who came off the bench for a career performance of 16 points in front of his hometown crowd.

The Elis made it two straight when they returned for just their second home game of the season, defeating Fairfield, 60-57. In the first game of the second semester, the Elis fell behind early to American and despite a valiant rally, lost 69-65.

Yale’s woes continued with a 79-67 home loss to Saint Peter’s Jan. 15, as the Bulldogs squandered a large first-half lead and gave up 28 points to Peacock star Keydren Clark.

After a trying non-conference schedule, the Elis enter the conference season hoping to best last season’s 7-7 Ivy mark, starting with Brown University Jan. 22 at home.

“We’ve improved a lot just in finding out what kind of team we are,” Gamboa said of the first half of the season. “We came in with new guys, young guys — everybody’s figuring out their roles. We’ve really improved offensively in looking to get other teammates open. Defensively we’ve also toughened up, and that’s really going to be the key for us.”

Gamboa (11.6 ppg), Draughan (15.4 ppg) and Martin (15.3 ppg) will lead the offense once more with scoring options in Hughes (9.1 ppg) and Kaplan (9.0 ppg). While testing themselves against some of the stiffest competition in the country, the Eli offense has performed relatively well in the non-conference portion of the schedule. Yale’s average of 71.3 points per game leads the league. Yet the Eli defense has struggled against high-powered offenses like Boston College and Niagara and ranks last in the Ivies, allowing a league-high 77.3 points per game.

Yale’s non-conference schedule, with three overtime contests in 13 games, has also meant a lot of minutes on the floor for the Eli starters. Jones believes the increased playing time has prepared his players for the rigors of the Ivy League schedule, which includes two games every weekend.

“Playing night in and night out, our starters have played more minutes this year than any other year that I’ve coached here,” Jones said. “So they’ll be ready to play back-to-back games. Then, our guys can come off the bench and help us win.”

The Elis will be tested with their second and third games, away against Penn and Princeton, respectively. The Bulldogs lost their season opener last year against Brown in overtime and fell again to the Bears the following weekend. Of their seven league losses last season, five were by less than ten points and two were in overtime. The Elis split the season series with Penn, winning the first match-up but losing their second meeting, and dropped two to Princeton.

“Penn and Princeton will always be the toughest, but the rest of the league is getting better now,” Kaplan said. “We’re still thinking one game at a time. If you start looking too far ahead, that’s when you get losses — none of the teams we play are guaranteed W’s.”

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