Amidst the tension and drama of title hunting for teams across the Ancient Eight, the impending conclusion of the Ivy League men’s basketball season inevitably sparks discussion about the various individual awards.
And no award is the subject of more discussion or debate than the Player of the Year honor, given to the league’s most outstanding player.
For four of the past five seasons, seniors have been the recipients of the prestigious award. More stunning, however, is that out of the 41 times the honor has been bestowed, it has gone to only two underclassmen.
Yale forward Justin Sears ’16, a sophomore, may very well be on pace to join that select group.
Sears certainly has the statistics to warrant his candidacy.
The Plainfield, NJ native ranks fourth in the league in scoring (15.8 points per game), third in rebounding (6.9 rebounds per game), eighth in field goal percentage (48.4 percent) and second in free throws made (5.3 free throws made per game). He also leads the league with six double-doubles, a testament to his prowess on the offensive boards. He ranks second with 3.1 offensive rebounds per game.
Last year’s POY, graduated forward Ian Hummer from Princeton, had numbers that are virtually identical to those put up by Sears thus far this campaign.
Point guard Javier Duren ’15, who has been the emotional leader for the Bulldogs all year despite missing the past two games due to a high ankle sprain, said that the team is fully aware of just how spectacular Sears has been.
“[The team doesn’t] really talk about it as much, but we know that Justin is one of the, and personally I’m a bit biased, maybe the best player in the league,” Duren said.
Sears, who surprisingly earned Rookie of the Week honors just once last year, has already racked up a great deal of hardware this season. His five Player of the Week awards lead the Ivy League and also leave him tied for second all-time for the most in a season, with two regular season weekends still to play. The man sitting atop that list? None other than Hummer, who received the honor seven times.
Harvard guard Wesley Saunders was unanimously named the preseason conference player of the year, according to each media outlet listed on the Ivy League website. He has earned the weekly award three times, and not once since January 6. Since then, Sears has earned four of his five overall Player of the Week awards, garnered in the midst of a seven-game winning streak that has Yale knocking on the door of the NCAA Tournament.
Yale’s performance as a team may be the most critical aspect of Sears’ resume. In all major conferences and leagues, voters for player of the year awards often evaluate the performance of candidates’ teams as a main criterion. This explains why forward Kevin Love of the struggling Minnesota Timberwolves will likely receive few, if any, first-place votes for NBA MVP despite posting a statistical season for the ages. To be considered the best player, many think, a player’s team must be among the best.
Sears understands this requirement and truly takes it to heart.
“It’s huge for me to just know that I’m considered one of the best players in the league. But I mean that just comes back to the team,” Sears said. “The only reason I’m being considered for an award like this is because I’m playing well, but more importantly, I’m helping my team win and we’re in a great situation right now to be able to challenge for first.”
Despite a painful loss to Columbia (17–10, 6–4 Ivy) on Sunday that forced Yale (14–10, 8–2) to relinquish its share of the Ivy League lead, the Bulldogs are still within striking distance of conference leader Harvard, with a matchup against the Crimson at home still yet to take place.
In the Bulldogs’ prior meeting with the undisputed preseason favorite to claim the Ivy title, Sears and Yale upended Harvard and Saunders, topping the Crimson on its home court to end a 20-game home winning streak.
If the Elis can manage to reignite their winning ways this weekend and close out the season strong, Sears may have a couple trophies to hold high at the year’s end: an Ivy League crown and a shining Player of the Year award to accompany it.
“If I were to win the award, it means the team is winning and we’re doing well,” Sears said. “I just want to win, that’s what it comes down to.”
Meanwhile, Yale head coach James Jones, who reached an amazing milestone of his own in capturing his 200th all-time victory earlier this year against Dartmouth, was able to provide an alternate viewpoint on the matter.
“I think that Justin is certainly a kid that will be up for the award, but individual awards aren’t something that I think Justin is concerned with or our team for that matter,” Jones said. “You know we’re trying to win our last few games here to secure an opportunity at winning the championship so that’s where we want to put our main focus.”
On that point, Sears, Duren, Jones and the rest of the Bulldogs can agree – an Ivy League title would trump all individual accolades and recognition.
But Sears earning Yale’s second all-time Ivy League Player of the Year award wouldn’t be so bad either.
Yale, behind Sears and company, is set to tip off Friday night at Princeton (15–8, 3–6) at 7 p.m.