With losses to Penn and Princeton last weekend, the men’s basketball team was officially eliminated from the Ivy League title race. The Bulldogs can’t write off this season yet; they still need to focus on their upcoming trip to Dartmouth and Harvard. Two wins this weekend could help Yale save face and give it a winning record in conference play. For the rest of us, however, Yale’s elimination from the championship hunt means we can look ahead to next year.
And what a year it could be, the operative word being “could,” not “will.”
If expectations were high for the Bulldogs coming into this season, they will be doubly high in 2003-04. Several sports pundits are already dubbing Yale the frontrunner for next season’s Ancient Eight title. While Penn, Princeton and Brown will graduate many of their top players, the Bulldogs will retain most of their top performers.
On paper, the top half of the Ivy League looks to be more evenly matched than it was either last season or this year. And that’s largely because the graduation of the Penn class of 2003 — namely forwards Koko Archibong and Ugonna Onyekwe and guard Andrew Toole — will significantly narrow the gap between the Quakers and everyone else. Granted, Penn is an elite basketball program masquerading as an Ivy League university, so a rebuilding year could mean a whopping two or three conference losses instead of one or none. But in the 14-game tournament that is the Ivy League season, two losses could be enough to topple the dynasty.
The two other teams in the top four, Princeton and Brown, are also losing key seniors to graduation. Princeton will have to replace forward Ray Robins and guard Kyle Wente, although neither one has had the impact at Princeton that Penn’s seniors had for the Quakers. Brown, on the other hand, has perhaps the toughest job of all. Like the Elis after 2001-02, the Bears need to prove that their stellar conference play this year was not a flash in the pan. And they will have to that without Ivy League scoring leader Earl Hunt and big man Alaivaa Nuualiitia.
With all three of those teams weakened, Yale’s destiny will rest largely in its own hands. Not that the Bulldogs won’t have their fair share of holes to fill, but they should have the personnel to make up for the graduation of Ime Archibong ’03, Chris Leanza ’03 and T.J. McHugh ’03.
The players that need to step in for Leanza and Archibong are somewhat obvious. Barring an injury, Alex Gamboa ’05 will surely get the nod as the starting point guard, a role he is already accustomed to after his Ivy League Rookie of the Year campaign in 2001-02. In Archibong, the Bulldogs lose a player who brings the intangibles to the court: emotion, aggressiveness and grit. Matt Minoff ’04 has developed into one of the best all-around players on the team and should continue to step up to provide a spark on both ends of the court.
The biggest question for Yale, therefore, will be the strength of the team’s frontcourt. McHugh has been by far the team’s most consistent force on the block and his uncanny ability to draw charges will be sorely missed. The combination of Josh Hill ’04, Justin Simon ’04 and Dominick Martin ’05 should be able to pick up the slack collectively, but one of those three will need to become the go-to guy in the paint. In the past, Hill has been mostly an enforcer and Simon has received limited minutes, leaving the untested Martin to shoulder much of the offensive burden.
There are obviously a lot of “ifs” for Yale next year. If the frontcourt comes together, if the team regains the chemistry from 2001-02, if players like forward Edwin Draughan ’05 become more adept at creating their own shot, then Yale will be poised for a championship run. Luckily for the Elis, there are going to be a lot of “ifs” for the rest of the Ivy League as well.