Put the pain from The Game behind, focus on hoops

This year, perhaps more so than in the past, Yale needs a big season out of the men’s basketball team.

Forgive me for rehashing painful memories, but it has not yet been two months since our hopes and dreams of Ivy domination were shattered, as we watched Harvard march into the Yale Bowl and systematically dismantle our Boys in Blue. Many Yalies stumbled into the stadium just prior to halftime, hoping what they saw on the scoreboard was nothing more than a momentary hallucination. For the love of Elihu Yale, what was that hot chocolate spiked with?

Most likely vodka or peppermint schnapps, but that’s beside the point. There was no hallucination. There would be no comeback. And the hated Crimson would go on to thwart Yale’s quest for its first perfect season in nearly half a century while racking up their 12th Ivy League title. Nausea.

But hey, there was always basketball season, right? Wrong. If you were planning to reignite your passion for Yale athletics by jumping on the men’s-basketball bandwagon, through the first six games of this season you probably felt a little like Adam Sandler after being jilted at the altar in “The Wedding Singer.” The Bulldogs followed their opening-night victory against Sacred Heart with five consecutive losses by an average of almost 16 points a pop.

Then came the nail in my sports-loving coffin: My own intramural basketball squad suffered a brutal season-opening loss to Jonathan Edwards College. They apparently used pent-up frustrations about not actually having a college as the motivating fuel for their victory. I could take no more. I was done with sports here at Yale.

But alas, this column is not in fact about the trials and tribulations of my IM basketball team, much as I’m sure you wish it were. Rather, it’s about jumping on that men’s-basketball bandwagon after all.

After dropping five of their first six games, the Bulldogs have clawed their way back to a very respectable 6-8 non-conference record in what is considered by the Sagarin Ratings to be the toughest schedule in the Ivy League and the 37th-most difficult in all of college basketball. Head coach James Jones, currently in his eighth season at Yale, believes that “our 2007-’08 schedule may be the most challenging that we’ve had in my tenure.”

And with Yale already having played six teams that reached the postseason last year — in front of hostile fans in gyms far, far away from the friendly confines of Lee Amphitheather — it’s easy to see why.

Their brutal season-opening road trip featured battles against UMass, Stanford, Holy Cross and 2007 Final Four participant UCLA (currently No. 4). The team returned home for a few games to duke it out with the likes of Vermont and Boston College before venturing into the historic Allen Fieldhouse and suffering a 33-point loss to No. 3 Kansas. Luckily for the Bulldogs, they’re not in Kansas anymore.

But my goal in taking you through this relatively depressing saga is not at all to depress you or turn you away from Yale sports. On the contrary, I aim to inspire appreciation for what the basketball team has done up until this point and excitement about the team’s future prospects this season.

For what we have after the completion of the non-conference portion of our schedule is not at all a down-and-out, dejected Bulldogs squad that has lost by double-digit margins in arenas around the nation. What we now have is a scrappy, experienced, battle-tested team hungry to enter Ivy League competition and better its second-place standing from a year ago.

Yale began its season last year in much the same fashion, losing eight of its first 10 games, but rallied in the second half of the season, ending with a winning overall record and posting an impressive 10-win Ivy season — the first since the 2001-’02 campaign.

And the Bulldogs’ prospects in the Ancient Eight look better than ever. In preseason coaches’ polls, Yale was picked to finish second in the league. Perhaps more important, this season marks the first time since 1988 that neither Penn nor Princeton was selected as most likely to win the title. The Quakers and the Tigers have made the NCAA Tournament 23 times a piece, but the tables may finally have turned this year. Entering league play, the perennial powerhouses are the bottom-dwellers, amassing the two worst non-conference records in the Ancient Eight, with only seven combined wins in 22 tries.

So in this year’s Ivy League parity, a versatile Eli squad that boasts a leading conference Player of the Year candidate (captain Eric Flato ’08), an experienced starting lineup of five upperclassmen and high expectations after last year’s near-Ivy title has the potential to do a lot of damage. Yale has a legitimate shot at winning an outright Ancient Eight title and going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 46 years. The fun begins this Saturday when Brown rolls into town.

Oh, and by the way, my intramural team plays this week, too. You’ll find out how we did next time.

Dhruv Khullar is a junior in Davenport College.

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