The men’s basketball team’s winter break gave the Elis a little taste of everything: the good, the bad and the ugly.
The good came in the form of a 70-67 defeat of Rice Jan. 2 on the heels of a win over Savannah State. The bad was consecutive losses to Providence and James Madison on Dec. 22 and Dec. 29, respectively. And to round out the experience, an 87-46 trouncing by Kansas Jan. 4 accounted for the ugly.
Though difficult opponents handed Yale (7-7) some tough losses over the five-game stretch, head coach James Jones said the Elis have definitely been playing at a higher level than they were before break.
“I can’t put a finger on what exactly we’ve improved upon,” Jones said. “But our overall game play has improved over the last several games. We’re a little bit more efficient on offense and a little more efficient on defense as well.”
The Bulldogs emerged from their road trip poised to enter the Ivy League season with a winning record for the first time since 2001. The Elis meet American (4-6) tonight in Washington, D.C. for their final non-conference matchup of the season.
“We’re still working on things,” swingman Caleb Holmes ’08 said. “We have games where we play really well and we have lapses. It’s more a matter of us being consistent and playing together.”
American holds a 2-0 series advantage over Yale, and the Eagles are undefeated on their home court this season. But the Elis will be motivated to get that extra win to boost their record to above .500 and will try to take advantage of a relatively inexperienced American squad.
The Bulldogs have played American in each of their previous two seasons. Both times, American jumped ahead to an early 22-point lead, and each time, Yale failed to recover.
“We just have to come out and be ready to play,” Jones said. “The last two years, they haven’t been that much better than us, but we haven’t been ready to play.”
As the Elis anticipate playing the Eagles, they can look back on their travels over break to find out what has and has not worked for them this season. One thing they can count on is their ability to win close games. Five of the Elis’ seven wins have been by five or fewer points, including their contest against Rice, in which the Eli defense did not allow the Owls a field goal in the last six minutes.
“I think that our team has been able to fight and to prove their mettle in those games,” Jones said. “That’s what it takes. When you look at last year’s team, we lost a lot of those games. This year, we’ve been able to win them.”
Improvement in the Bulldogs’ play can be attributed to center Dominick Martin ’06, who took last semester off and returned to the court just in time to kick off the winter break road trip. Since then, he has averaged 11.1 points per game, just behind team leader Sam Kaplan ’07 (12.6). Martin is also second on the team in rebounds (5.7 per game), trailing forward Casey Hughes ’07 (7.4 per game).
“He gives us a very good inside presence,” Flato said. “It takes a lot of pressure off the perimeter players because a lot of teams will double him and it gives us opportunities on the perimeter.”
Since the beginning of the season, the Elis have struggled to limit their turnovers, and their recent road trip has done little to correct that. Against Kansas, the Bulldogs played the Jayhawks closely until there were just three minutes left in the first half. But at the three-minute mark, old habits came back to haunt the Elis. On their last six possessions of the half, the Bulldogs committed five turnovers, allowing the Jayhawks a 13-0 run to take control of the game. Overall, Kansas scored 31 points off of Yale’s 22 turnovers.
“We were running our offense fairly well and we weren’t turning the ball over in the first half,” Flato said. “But in the last three minutes of the half, we were kind of careless with the ball … that’s what brought on their rout.”
But turnovers do not always cost the Elis wins. Even 23 turnovers against Rice could not deny the Bulldogs their victory.
“I don’t know how we win games with so many turnovers,” Jones said. “I just think we’re efficient in other areas. We’ve only been out-rebounded in one or two games this year and we shoot more free throws than our opponents and make more.”
Though the road trip has brought the Elis several wins and improvements, the Bulldogs are anxious to return to their home court for their Ivy League season opener against Brown.
“It was kind of tough,” Flato said. “After Texas and Kansas, everyone wanted to get home. It wears on you physically and mentally, but we’re a tough team, so we’ll hang in there.”
Not every aspect of a road trip is negative, though. The Bulldogs played Kansas in a sold-out Allen Fieldhouse in front of 16,300 fans.
“That was definitely an experience I think a lot of us will never forget,” swingman Travis Pinick ’09 said. “It was tough losing by 40 points, but to play at a special place like that is pretty unforgettable.”