While most Yalies will be spending Thanksgiving break in the cozy confines of their homes, the Yale men’s basketball team will be playing in front of raucous crowds against two national powers.
The Bulldogs will travel to California to take on perennial Pac-10 powerhouses Stanford and UCLA in what is arguably the toughest stretch in the team’s schedule in recent memory.
After opening the season with a convincing home victory over Northeast Conference favorite Sacred Heart last Saturday, Yale went on the road Wednesday night to battle Atlantic-10 conference title contender UMass. The Elis held the lead into the second half, then fell behind with 15:13 on the clock and never regained the lead.
Yale came up short, 89-80.
With three consecutive road games left before they finally return to New Haven on Dec. 1, the competition does not get any easier for the Bulldogs, who, according to national rankings, will be considered huge underdogs in both their contests on the west coast.
Yale first travels to Palo Alto on Tuesday to take on the No. 20 Stanford Cardinal, a participant in the last eight NCAA tournaments. The Cardinal began the season with four victories, despite being without their second-leading scorer and leading rebounder from last season, seven-foot center Brook Lopez, who has been suspended indefinitely for missing classes.
Lopez’s twin brother, Robin, has picked up the slack down low, and the Cardinal have looked to guards Anthony Goods and Drew Shiller — the only member of the Stanford squad averaging double figures — for a majority of the scoring.
The Cardnial’s strong start has come largely without the help of the team’s leading scorer from 2006-’07, all-Pac-10 performer Lawrence Hill, who has yet to play at last season’s level of performance. Although it is very early in the season, the junior power forward is averaging just six points in only 15 minutes per game — a far cry from his 15.7-points – and 31.5 minutes-per-game averages last season.
But that is not all that is in store for the Bulldogs. Just when it seems it cannot get any tougher, Yale will head to the City of Angels three days later to face arguably the most storied program in college basketball, the No. 2 UCLA Bruins.
The Bruins have been participants in the past two Final Fours and head into the season favored by many basketball experts to ultimately cut the nets at the NCAA National Championship in April.
With so much talent, it will be difficult for Yale to pinpoint which UCLA players it needs to stop in order to be successful. After only losing one prominent player to graduation — current Detroit Piston Arron Afflalo — UCLA returned many of last season’s contributors and also brought in the one of the top-ranked recruits in this year’s freshman class — center Kevin Love.
With Love, the Bruins boast what many consider to be one of the most talented frontlines in the country. Accompanying the blue-chip recruit down low is the experienced duo of senior Lorenzo Mata-Real and junior Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
The big men are joined by a pair of prolific guards — junior Josh Shipp and sophomore Russell Westbrook. Junior point guard Darren Collison — a preseason All-American selection — has not played a single minute in any of the team’s first three games thus far this season because of a sprained left knee and is not expected to make his debut until Nov. 28, according to an Associated Press article on ESPN.com.
The Bulldogs will continue to look for major production from their core group of seniors, which is led by captain and point guard Eric Flato ’08, center Matt Kyle ’08 and wingman Caleb Holmes ’08, the team’s three leading scorers.
Head coach James Jones said the big men’s performances will be crucial to the team’s success.
“We have to rebound against both teams,” Jones said. “Their size and athleticism present a unique challenge.”
Kyle, who is accompanied by power forward Ross Morin ’09 on the frontline, should be especially important for the Bulldogs. The 6-foot-11-inch South Carolina native has played his best basketball as a Yalie in the season’s first two games, with a career-high 22 points in the opener and 20 against UMass.
Kyle said he is looking forward to the challenge of facing the likes of Robin Lopez and Kevin Love.
“I feel like I can play with any big man in the country,” Kyle said. “I got a lot stronger over the summer, and if I get the ball in the post, I expect to score. And when they double-team me, I can kick it out to our shooters.”
The most important shooter for the Bulldogs may be Flato, who has not shot with his typical marksmanship in each of the first two games. In those games, he has gone four for 13 from the field and two for seven from beyond the arc.
Yale will also look to the Holmes twins, Caleb and Nick, and sophomore guard Alexander Zampier ’10 for outside shooting.
“I think the key is going to be our shot selection,” Kyle said. “We need to take good, open shots. We can’t rush shots early in the shot clock and expect to come out with a win.”
Despite knowing what is in store for them next week, the Bulldogs are not phased. Jones said the team has the same goals heading to the West Coast as it does every time it steps on the court.
Judging from the surprising number of upsets this year’s college basketball season has already — Gardner-Webb over No. 20 Kentucky, Mercer over No. 18 USC — anything can happen. But it still won’t be an easy task — a win over one of these two teams would probably be regarded as the biggest in program history.
“It will be a good barometer to see how we match up against the nation’s elite,” forward Travis Pinick ’09 said.