MEN’S BASKETBALL: Three’s company

No. 12 Armani Cotton ’15 has started 16 of Yale’s 18 games, averaging
8.4 points on 33.3 percent shooting.
No. 12 Armani Cotton ’15 has started 16 of Yale’s 18 games, averaging 8.4 points on 33.3 percent shooting. Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

In a sport dominated by flashy numbers and star players, a basketball team’s success is often pinned on the play of its best scorer — think LeBron or Kobe or Carmelo.

For Yale (9–9, 3–1 Ivy), however, the play of leading scorer Justin Sears ’16, though critical, has not necessarily been a harbinger of whether or not Yale wins. Leading the team at 15.3 points per game, Sears’ production has varied just two points per game between wins and losses. In fact, Sears has seen some of his best outings end in defeat — namely a 31-point performance in Yale’s 76–74 loss at Providence on Dec. 17.

Perhaps the second-leading scorer, point guard Javier Duren ’15, would be a more accurate indicator of success. But Duren averages more points per game in losses than in wins, and his field goal percentage is virtually identical no matter the result.

With Sears and Duren out of the picture, whose performance has predicted Yale’s success? Thus far, the answer has been forward Armani Cotton ’15.

“Teams are really starting to key in on Justin and I,” Duren said. “Coming into the season, we knew that we were a balanced team and that we didn’t have to rely on one particular guy … so it’s very important to have that extra person to help with the scoring load.”

Despite being the team’s third-leading scorer, Cotton’s scoring output has fluctuated the most of any Eli from game to game, specifically between wins and losses.

When the Bulldogs win, Cotton averages 11.7 points per game. He has struggled mightily in losses, however, scoring just 5.1 points per game in defeats.

Perhaps an explanation may be that Cotton is taking fewer shots in losses and is seeing his production drop for that reason. Yet a look at the numbers shows that overall, he has actually taken two more shots in losses (58) than in wins (56), even though Yale has won just as many games as it has lost.

Cotton more than doubles his efficiency in wins, shooting 48.2 percent from the field in victories versus 20.7 percent in losses. Furthermore, he nearly triples his three-point percentage, knocking down 46.9 percent of his threes in wins as compared to 17.9 percent in losses.

“I can kind of get an idea of when my body is feeling best as opposed to other nights, and, at times, I just translate it into higher-scoring performances,” Cotton said. “But any time I’m on the court, I’m going to be giving my best and everything that I have.”

An evaluation of Yale’s statistics this year shows that no other player on the roster has such stark differentials between wins and losses.

Cotton, averaging 8.4 points per game overall, has been a likely candidate all season long to step up as a potent third scoring option.

Nagging knee injuries have slowed down the guard from New York, N.Y., at times,  and he said that he is aware that Saturday games following a Friday night contest will be especially tough on his body. Yet when Cotton has gotten his body right and produced, he has been a perfect example of a sentiment Head Coach James Jones has preached all season.

“Having a third scorer is great,” Jones said. “The more we can get production out of [third scorers], the better off our team is going to be.”

Beyond scoring, Cotton is averaging about two more rebounds per game in victories.

That figure may be the most telltale statistic for Cotton, according to Jones.

“He can really attack the offensive glass, which is something he is great at,” Jones said. “Having him be productive makes us a much more dangerous team.”

With a critical weekend coming up that includes road tests against Dartmouth and Ivy-favorite Harvard, Yale will need big performances from Cotton if the squad wishes to keep pace in the standings.

Luckily for the Bulldogs, Cotton said his health has improved since the beginning of the season, and his conference numbers are trending upwards.

“This half of the season, I’ve felt a lot better health-wise than the first half, and I think that’s allowed me to be a bit more consistent,” Cotton said. “Ultimately, it just comes down to taking care of preparation and doing all the exercises that I need to do during the week and doing everything that I can to make sure I am prepared come game time.”

In four Ivy League contests, Cotton is averaging a more than respectable 12 points per game behind 43 percent shooting both from the field as well as from long range.

He is also snatching over six rebounds a game in conference action, just one behind Sears for most on the team.

“[Cotton’s] a great shooter, and he’s really one of the top rebounders,” Duren said. “When he attacks the glass looking for rebounds and put-backs, he really excels. Because he excels, we excel.”

For a 9–9 Yale squad, the Bulldogs have blossomed when Cotton has produced. Double-digit scoring games for Cotton have translated into a 5–2 record for the Bulldogs.

Cotton and the rest of the Elis will have a huge opportunity for a statement this weekend, beginning with Dartmouth Friday night at 7 p.m.

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