I was at the Palestra Saturday night, and let me tell you: it was not pretty.
You probably heard that the men’s basketball team lost both games this weekend, falling 66-49 to the 3-12 Princeton Tigers Friday before being crushed by the Quakers Saturday, 74-52. What you may not have heard is how that loss in Philly happened.
The first media time out came with 15:59 left in the first. Yale was up 7-1, and Penn had yet to hit a shot. Ross Morin ’09 and Caleb Holmes ’08 came in for Sam Kaplan ’07 and Nick Holmes ’08, but the Elis continued to play well, doubling the lead to 14-1.
Then, with 14:36 left, Matt Kyle ’07 came in for Dominick Martin ’06, arguably the Elis’ best player and a presence in the post. Martin had established himself as a solid scoring threat with four points, and the rest of the team was doing a good job feeding the ball to him in the post.
When the Bulldogs went up 16-1 less than 30 seconds later, Coach James Jones pulled Morin to put Kaplan back in, and replaced Eric Flato ’08 (who was leading the team with eight points and two assists) with Chris Andrews ’09. Flato, like all of his teammates, was not in any foul trouble.
At this point in the game, Jones had made five substitutions, and Fran Dunphy, whose team was getting clobbered, had just made his first — Friedrich Ebede for Steve Danley, who was putting up bricks like he owned the factory. Seconds later, Jones made his sixth change — Travis Pinick ’09 for Casey Hughes ’07. Yale now had Andrews, Kyle, Caleb Holmes, Pinick and Kaplan on the court.
For those of you who are counting, that makes four subs on the court six minutes in, Yale up by 15 points. Fifteen points might seem like a sizable lead, but it’s hardly secure when you’re playing the best team in the league in the conference’s equivalent of Cameron Indoor. Now, in Jones’ defense, you have to sub sometimes. No one expects Ivy League players to play the full 40 minutes.
But none of these guys were in foul trouble. Martin, Nick Holmes and Matt Kyle each had one foul when Jones made his sixth change. And the Bulldogs were shooting well, especially Flato. Why not keep your foot on the pedal and run up the score to prevent a Penn resurgence? If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Remember, at this point in the game, Dunphy, whose team was down big, had made one substitution.
When I asked Coach Jones about his substitutions last night he said that with a big lead, he would rather go to his bench before the other team makes a run, instead of forcing the subs to go in when the momentum has already shifted and their confidence might not be as high.
But if you’re going to get beat, and the momentum is going to shift, why not make them beat your best guys? I agree with Jones that Penn was going to start hitting shots — we couldn’t expect a final score of 50-something to one. But if you’re afraid the other team is going to start hitting shots, why not make it harder on them, instead of putting in subs prematurely?
Many people might also argue, as Jones did, that there isn’t that much difference in skill between his starters and his bench. Certainly the Holmes brothers have a similar style of play to go along with their matching chromosomes. But the statistical difference between Yale’s starting five and the five who were in at 13:25 is staggering.
The starters combine, on average, for 46.6 points per game. Andrews, Kyle, Caleb Holmes, Pinick and Kaplan combine for 29.9 (with Kaplan, who starts, and Holmes, the “sixth man,” accounting for almost 70 percent of that). Jones put his scoring on the bench. The subs also shoot for a worse percentage and get fewer rebounds than the starters, of course.
But even if we put stats aside, the same question rears its ugly head. If his five guys on the court were playing great, weren’t in foul trouble, and didn’t seem to be tiring (it was, after all, less than halfway through the first), why did Jones pull them?
Whatever the reason, we know the result. Inexperience and the incredibly hostile Palestra took their toll on the subs, and Penn’s Eric Osmundson hit a three, igniting the crowd. Less than a minute later, after Pinick turned the ball over and then was called for a foul, Friedrich Ebede drained another three.
Caleb Holmes picked up a foul, and Jones put Martin back in for Kyle, but the bleeding continued. Ebede hit another three, narrowing the score to 16-10 Yale. It was a 9-0 Penn run in just over 90 seconds.
Jones was quick to point out that it was the Penn bench, and not the starters, that really hurt the Bulldogs in the first, picking up 18 points to the Yale bench’s nine. He said that when you look at Yale’s subs, you can tell they (like most players) do better at home. And he agreed with me that being away affects subs more than it does starters.
So why did Jones put in so many subs so early? It boggles the mind. Holmes and Kaplan are solid players, but the difference between Andrews/Pinick/Kyle and Flato/Hughes/Martin is a huge one.
Still, manic substitution did not lose the game for the Elis. The blame lies with the team’s failure to take care of the ball (18 turnovers) and being dominated on the boards in the second half. Poor decisions by the players hurt the Elis, like when Eric Flato tried to split a double-team at the top of the key late in the first half. Inexperience did not help either.
As Jones said, “You can’t turn the ball over 18 times in the game and expect to beat a good team on the road. Our decision-making has to be better in the game if we’re going to be more successful.”
No, the loss Saturday was not because of those crazy rotations. But they definitely didn’t help. Putting in so many subs so early killed momentum, broke the rhythm, took most of the scoring off the floor, and let Penn — and the crowd — get back in the game. The moment Penn hit that third three, their third in a row, almost everyone in the Palestra knew it was just a matter of time.
“I never had any doubt Penn was going to win that game,” my host Saturday night told us.
And that is really too bad.
Nick Baumann is a senior in Morse and a former Sports Editor for the News. His column on Yale and Ivy League sports appears on Thursdays.