This season has been anything but easy for the Yale men’s basketball team thus far. Several games have been decided in the final seconds, games have been played from St. Louis to Georgia and six non-freshmen have matched or set career highs in points scored,
However, what an observer might fail to realize is that for this Yale squad, these past 14 highly challenging nonconference contests have been little more than preparation for a greater monster: the Ivy League portion of the schedule.
The Bulldogs have emerged from the nonconference portion with a 6–8 mark. A team’s nonconference record, however, does not affect its standing in the Ivy League.
“Obviously we’re a little bit disappointed at our record right now,” said forward Brandon Sherrod ’15. “The real season starts now with conference play… the nonconference games were practices for this real season.”
Point guard Javier Duren ’15, whose improved maturity and leadership skills have been a major bright spot for Yale, echoed the sentiments of Sherrod.
Yale will play in its first Ivy League game on Saturday when it hosts Brown (8–6, 0–0 Ivy). That game will be the first step towards the Elis’ ultimate goal: to capture Yale’s first Ivy title since the 2001–2002 season, when the Bulldogs split the regular-season crown with Penn and Princeton.
All the talk about the nonconference schedule being practice should not be viewed as an attempt to rationalize the team’s less than stellar record. Yale faced a notably difficult slate of games that featured Albany and No. 24 Saint Louis, two NCAA tournament teams a year ago, as well as the University of Connecticut, which was No. 19 in the country when the Huskies squared off against the Bulldogs.
Further support for Sherrod and Duren’s statements can be drawn from recent Yale history. Entering the Ivy portion of the schedule, in the last 12 seasons since Yale’s share of the Ivy crown, Yale has done as poorly in nonconference games as 4–9 in 2006–’07 and as well as 10–4 in 2011–’12.
Despite the vast difference between the nonconference records in those two seasons, the Bulldogs fared similarly against their Ivy foes. The Elis went 10–4 in the Ivy League in 2006–’07 and 9–5 in 2011–’12. In fact, Yale has finished at or below 0.500 in nonconference play in nine of the past 12 seasons. On average, however, the Bulldogs have only won just over one game more against conference foes in seasons where they had a winning record against nonconference opponents.
This does not mean the Bulldogs are destined for success. What it does mean is that the nonconference schedule can truly be viewed as a practice period in which the Bulldogs can test themselves and face some adversity without the penalties being too steep.
What these statistics also underline is that the Ivy League is as competitive as any conference across the country. The players understand that paying too much attention to a team’s record, such as some surprisingly poor starts from Penn (3–10, 1–0) and Cornell (1–13, 0–0), can prove costly.
“We know that with the Ivy League season, you can’t really take any team for granted,” Duren said. “No matter how they’re doing, you’ve still got to come bring it every weekend or you’re going to suffer some losses that you really shouldn’t have.”
According to Jones, Yale, which has led the Ivy League in rebounding margin for the past two seasons and prides itself on its presence in the paint, will have to exploit its strength down low in order to be successful.
The play of the forwards and centers across the roster will be even more crucial now since Jones admitted that Yale has had to change what they do offensively because teams have begun to focus defensively on forward Justin Sears ’16. Sears, who broke out in the opener against Central Connecticut State Nov. 9 with 26 points and 13 rebounds, has seen his production slip as of late.
Although he still sits sixth in the Ivy League in points scored at 14.7 points a game, Sears has been mired in a slump the past four games. Sears has failed to reach double digit points in his past four outings (averaging 5.8 points per game) after scoring at least 10 points in each of the first 10 games.
Nevertheless, Jones remains confident in his team’s chances at the title.
“My expectation is always to be the best in our conference,” Jones said. “This year I felt like we have as good a chance as we ever had to win the championship. Do I feel that same way? Right now I do.”
Jones also made sure to note that Yale must not overlook some of the conference’s less-hyped opponents, beginning with Brown this weekend, in order to not fall in a hole early.
The anticipation will finally cease when Yale hosts the Bears at John J. Lee Amphitheater on Saturday at 2 p.m.
Yale has won eight of the past 10 matchups against the Bears.