Forward Justin Sears ’16 leads the Bulldogs in points, rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage. Last week, Sears helped the Elis to wins over Columbia and Cornell with an average of 16.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks over the two games. Yale is currently in second place in the conference. In the midst of a career year, Sears sat down with the News to talk about his growing role on the team and the expectations for the season.
Q. You’re having a career year thus far. How have your responsibilities and your role changed from last year?
A. I had a meeting with coach [James Jones] at the end of my freshman year. He said he wanted me to work hard on all the facets of my game so I can be a huge contributor this year, since we lost [guard Austin Morgan ’13]. So, I just worked on my conditioning, my countermoves and I just have a better understanding of how college defenses work and where to score.
Q. Teams often adopt the identity of their best player. Have you seen the team change in response to your growing role?
A. Maybe a little. We’ve been attacking the glass, getting a lot of free throws. We get the boards and just put it back up. The team has adopted that mentality.
Q. The team has struggled on the glass and with guarding the arc all season. But in these last two games against Columbia and Cornell, you were able to hold them both to well under their season averages from the arc and on the glass. Are you finally turning the corner?
A. I think it’s starting to come together. We’ve been practicing great these last two weeks. [Guard Armani Cotton ’15] is picking it up and I think he and I playing well has inspired the other guys. We’ve had great focus in our walkthroughs and I think we’re communicating better. We’re just chasing the ball. We’ve been doing a lot more rebounding drills and everyone’s bought into it.
Q. Despite pulling your hamstring last week, you had a huge game against Columbia off the bench (22 points, eight rebounds, two steals and two blocks on 5–8 from the field). How were you able to be effective despite the injury?
A. I was just being aggressive. We knew coming into it that the bigs didn’t match up well with me. I played with [Columbia center] Cory [Osetkowski] in the summer, so I knew a little bit about him. I just knew they couldn’t guard me if I caught it with space and attacked. I got a lot of free throws and we got the bigs in foul trouble, which caused them to struggle throughout the game.
Q. Against Cornell, you were able to be effective despite a poor shooting performance (3–12) by hitting the glass.
A. Yeah, definitely. Attacking the boards has been the new mindset. At the beginning of the year I had a lot of double-digit rebound performances and I kind of fell off in the middle of the season. Coach said for the team to be successful I needed to attack the glass offensively and defensively. So I’ve just been more focused on attacking the boards and helping the team out in other ways besides scoring.
Q. After a tough non-conference schedule, the team has won three of its last four games and seems to be rolling. What are the expectations going forward?
A. We’re just trying to win first and play the best basketball we can every night out. We’re in a great position now, tied for second. So, we go into this weekend with a little momentum and we’re hoping to sweep again.
Q. Your name has been thrown around for Ivy League Player of the Year. Is that something you’re actively working toward?
A. Yeah, I mean, every player wants to win Player of the Year. Last week, in my meeting with coach, he mentioned how he feels like I can be the best player in the league. He doesn’t want to wait for my senior year for that to happen; he wants it to happen now. So I’m just going go out every night and play as hard as I can and try to help lead my team to victory.
Q. This weekend you’ll be playing Harvard for the first time this year. What’s your mentality going into it now that you’ve grown as a player?
A. I’m definitely excited to play Harvard. This will actually be my first time playing them in Boston; I was hurt last year. When I was in high school, looking at the Ivy League, I followed them a little bit. [Harvard forward] Kyle Casey was the man. This is going be big for me to play against him since I kind of looked up to him when I was a recruit. I’m definitely excited with that matchup and just having the chance to take first place [in the Ivy League] this weekend.