Every freshman on campus will have stories to tell when they return to school from Thanksgiving break. But only Dexter Upshaw ’06 and Juan Wheat ’06 will be able to say they spent the week trying to find a place on the defending Ivy League Champion men’s basketball team.
Upshaw and Wheat are the newest additions to the men’s basketball team, a squad that shared the Ivy League championship last year and returns all of last year’s players. The team opens its season Friday at Oklahoma State.
Because of the perfect return rate, men’s basketball coach James Jones has spent less time reteaching his system, leaving the rookies the challenge of learning things faster than normal.
Upshaw said the pace has been tough because the upperclassmen are already into the routine of things.
“We really have to go with the flow,” Upshaw said. “It’s a welcome pressure.”
Wheat said he wants to prove himself and show he can play with the best of them.
In their efforts to play with the Elis’ best, the two freshmen have become fast friends.
“We have to help each other,” Upshaw said.
“Dexter’s my boy,” Wheat said. “We’re both in the same situation.”
From the stands in the John J. Lee Amphitheater during a recent practice, Wheat and Upshaw looked like the same player: Upshaw is 6 feet 8 inches tall and weighs 235 pounds, Wheat is 6 feet 7 inches tall and weighs 230 pounds. Both crashed the boards hard and chased down loose balls.
On one occasion, Jones stood between the two on the baseline, uttering instructions that Upshaw and Wheat simultaneously acknowledged with nods of their heads.
But despite their physical likeness, Upshaw and Wheat do not even play the same position. Upshaw is a center, and Wheat is a power forward. Upshaw and Wheat play different games, too.
Upshaw will back his man down until he can release a baby jump hook over the outstretched arms of his defender.
“That’s my favorite move,” he said.
On defense, Upshaw said he likes to play with a high level of intensity and expects to get some good minutes as a result.
“I feel like my role on the team is to hustle and get rebounds and to play as hard as I can,” Upshaw said.
At practice, Upshaw’s strength was evident when, during a water break, he went through the motions of a spectacular dunk without the ball. When he hung on the rim for a little too long, the basket’s base tilted off the ground and rattled for a moment as Upshaw let go and landed back on the floor.
In an earlier drill on the other end of the floor, Wheat exhibited his game, which has a little more finesse. Wheat swished a jumper from 15 feet, showing off his mid-range game, then slid out of nowhere to set a screen on an unsuspecting defender.
Wheat said shooting and setting screens are among a variety of things he needs to work on.
“Right now I’m taking in everything, learning all the little stuff,” he said. “I think my role is one to just try and learn as much as I can.”
When asked what the difference was between high school and college basketball, Wheat simply replied, “Everything.” Not only is he no longer the go-to guy, but things that worked in high school are not acceptable in the college game, he said.
“You’ve got to realize this is a totally different level,” Wheat said. “It’s definitely been a learning experience.”
Upshaw also said there is a big difference between high school and college basketball. He is now busy learning post moves and how to play proper defense.
“In high school they don’t really teach you fundamentals,” Upshaw said.
For both players, the difference off the court has also been staggering.
“The environment here is so intense,” Wheat said.
Wheat, who is considering political science, economics, or ethics, politics and economics as majors, said he has had little time for anything else besides school and basketball.
“I really don’t think I could handle much more,” Wheat said.
Upshaw, on the other hand, has been juggling as much as he can. He is a member of the Black Church Council and also plays the drums for the Yale Gospel Choir.
“I love Yale,” Upshaw said. “I love the atmosphere.”
On top of everything, Upshaw and Wheat have been paying their rookie dues as well. They did the team’s laundry during the offseason, and are responsible for bringing water to each practice, along with chairs and ball racks. But menial tasks aside, the freshmen have a lot to look forward to this season.
“It’s going to be fun playing in front of a big crowd of people,” Upshaw said.
While Upshaw’s high school games had 100 people in attendance on a good night, Oklahoma State’s Gallagher-Iba Arena, site of the Bulldogs’ season-opening game, seats 13,611.
Wheat said he hopes to have something special saved for Yale’s Nov. 27 game against Wake Forest. Wheat’s hometown is Fayetteville, N.C., two hours from the Wake Forest campus. His family and friends will be in attendance.
But like their upperclassmen teammates, Upshaw and Wheat are most excited about the success they hope the Elis will have this season.
“I’m looking forward most to winning with a bunch of guys I really like,” Upshaw said.