Out of disappointment last season, the Yale men’s basketball team now seeks redemption on the court.
Coming into the 2007-’08 season, the Bulldogs looked poised to make a strong bid for the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1962. The conference mainstays Penn and Princeton, who had won a share of every Ivy League title since 1988, looked unusually vulnerable. Princeton had descended into the cellar of the Ivy League, while three-time reigning champion Penn lost their All-Ivy duo of Ibrahim Jaaber and Mark Zoller to graduation.
Into that vacuum, a senior-laden Eli team appeared to be the favorite to win the Ivy League championship. The Bulldogs had finished in second place in the conference in 2006-’07, but ultimately, the team last year never lived up to the hype and stumbled to a 7-7 Ivy League record and a 13-15 overall record.
The four Bulldog seniors, center Matt Kyle ’08, guard Caleb Holmes ’08, forward Nick Holmes ’08 and guard Eric Flato ’08, had all played key roles in past years’ teams, but never captured the same chemistry on the court as those previously more successful teams.
“We did a poor job framing our season,” guard Chris Andrews ’09 said. “The fact that we had such lofty goals at the beginning took the focus off of us improving day by day; we were rushing to get to the Ivy League season.”
Left with the loss of four key rotation players, the Bulldogs will now look for new players to emerge. Furthermore, head coach James Jones has directed a change in style for the team. Whereas the Elis often lived and died by their outside shot last year, the focus this year will be on getting easy baskets at the rim.
“We have changed our system of play and will use our personnel differently,” Andrews said. “We are going to put a lot of pressure on our opponents and be more of a transition team.”
The change in style suits the new personnel of the team well. Although this year’s Bulldogs are less adept at shooting three-pointers than Flato and the Holmes brothers, they have more speed on the court. These attributes extend to the bench, and the Elis will have to rely heavily on these players as well if they hope to keep up man-to-man defense the entire game.
“This year we have the players to push the tempo,” guard Porter Braswell ’11 said. “Everybody can really bring the ball down the court and get into our offense.”
On offense, the change in tactics will partially be a result of a court change in college basketball. Since its introduction in 1986, the distance to the three-point line in college basketball has been 19 feet, 9 inches. This year, the line has been moved back a foot to 20 feet, 9 inches, and it will be interesting to see how shooters across the nation adjust.
“With the three-point line moving back this year, it will limit the amount of threes we take,” Braswell said. “Instead of using the ball screens to take jump shots, we will use them to attack the basket.”
Replacing Flato as starting point guard will be the sophomore Braswell, who backed up Flato last year. Andrews, who has missed almost all of the last two seasons due to knee injuries, will be the first point guard off the bench to replace Braswell.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge of replacing Eric, though you can’t really replace Eric Flato,” Braswell said. “He meant a lot to the Yale basketball program, but I’m ready to take the reins.”
The senior forward duo of Travis Pinick ’09 and captain Ross Morin ’09 will be vital to any success the Bulldogs will have this season. Morin was second on the team in scoring and rebounding last year at 10.2 ppg and 5.4 rpg, while Pinick led the Ivies in rebounding during league play at 8.8 rpg.
Filling out the starting lineup will be Alex Zampier ’10 at shooting guard, whom Andrews described as a breakout player. The final starting spot at center remains to be determined with Paul Nelson ’10 and Garrett Fiddler ’11 in a tight battle to see who will replace Matt Kyle ’08, with the edge to Fiddler at the moment.
Looking at the Ivy League competition, last year’s champion Cornell is the pre-eminent favorite by the media and coaches alike. The Big Red was undefeated in Ancient Eight play last year and their three leading scorers are returning, including the reigning Ivy League player of the year Louis Dale.
“The only team that will be good [for sure] is Cornell,” Andrews said. “There are a lot of questions to be answered about the other Ivy League teams.”
The Elis will test themselves right away with a rare big-conference opponent visiting the John J. Lee Amphitheater. Stanford, out of the Pac-10 Conference, comes to New Haven for a game this Friday at 7 p.m., which promises to give the Bulldogs one of its largest and loudest crowds in years.
The Elis played the Cardinals on Nov. 20, 2007 in Palo Alto, Calif., falling 72-61. The game was close, with the Bulldogs trailing by only five points with 5:29 remaining before Stanford pulled away to secure the victory.
“We know what to expect; I distinctly remember the game and every play that happened,” Braswell said. “We played them really well, and were there at the end.”
The Cardinals went on to earn a three seed in the NCAA tournament, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. Gone from that team, however, are the duo of Brook and Robin Lopez, both drafted in the Top 15 in the NBA Draft. As a result, Stanford comes into this game unranked and likely trying to find its identity for the season under new coach Johnny Dawkins, a former assistant coach at Duke. Given these conditions, several players believe a Yale victory is possible.
“We definitely have a shot at winning,” Zampier said. “An upset is definitely within our reach.”