Watching as the University of Pennsylvania took the floor in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Yale men’s basketball team could not help but feel the bittersweet pang of nostalgia.
About the same time last year, the Elis owned a piece of the Ivy crown, came only one game short of going to “the Big Dance,” and earned the first postseason victory in Yale history. This year, the story is completely different: after a season that started successfully and ended with disappointments, all the fourth-place Bulldogs (14-13, 8-6 Ivy) could do was look on.
“It was hard to sit there and watch Penn play on TV earlier this afternoon and to think that that could have been us,” captain Chris Leanza ’03 said Friday. “I can say that I speak for the whole team when I say that I was disappointed with the way we played this season.”
Yale finished the season over the break with a 95-82 win March 7 over Harvard and a 60-50 victory March 8 over Dartmouth.
Back in December, it appeared the magic of the 2001-02 season had returned. Yale performed well against a tough schedule, losing tight games to national powerhouses Oklahoma State and Wake Forest. The Bulldogs beat Manhattan and Holy Cross, both of which were conference champions and went to the NCAA tournament.
“One of the things that hurt us is that we played our best basketball at the beginning of the season,” head coach James Jones said. “We had a nine-point game against Oklahoma State and a 12-point game against Wake Forest, and those two teams turned out to be in the top 25 in the country. Then, we went on a five-game win streak and those teams were all very difficult teams. If we had only continued to play that way for the rest of the season, we’d be talking about something completely different right now.”
But Yale’s fortunes changed. After a 20-day hiatus for winter break, Yale went on a seven-game Division I losing streak. The long break between winning the Phoenix Classic Dec. 12 and the loss to Stanford Dec. 30 has been pegged by some as the cause of the Eli tailspin.
“The slump started kind of after winter break after a 20-day break layoff,” forward Matt Minoff ’04 said. “It seemed like in California, we weren’t playing with the same energy and enthusiasm.”
Another potential cause of difficulty was Yale’s schedule. Yale played 10 games on the road before its home opener Jan. 8.
“Playing 10 teams on the road took its toll, and not having our first home game until just before the league opener really hurt us,” Jones said. “We played some tough teams in that stretch and lost some tough road games, and I’m not sure exactly what effect that had on our guys.”
Others have wondered whether the tragic auto accident Jan. 17 affected Yale’s performance. The accident, which claimed the lives of four Yalies, took place the morning of Yale’s scheduled Ivy League opener against Brown. Yale lost two consecutive games to Brown, putting the Bulldogs’ chances of a repeat championship in doubt.
“I don’t want to point any fingers, but the fact that we had that tragedy and those kids die could have mattered,” Jones said. “That was right in the middle of our slump and those couple of games were ones that we could have won. I don’t know if you can put that on the accident — but it could have been.”
Before the 2001-2002 season, Yale was picked to finish fifth in the league by the preseason polls. The indignation felt by Yale players motivated the Elis to prove themselves to the league. But before this season, the preseason poll picked Yale second.
“Last year, we snuck up on some teams, and the fact that some teams weren’t taking us very seriously made us want to show them something,” guard Edwin Draughan ’05 said. “This season, we did not have that to motivate us as much, and we let games get away from us.”
But the Elis maintain they will not let disappointment lower their expectations for next season.
“Sure, I’m disappointed with this season; but I was also disappointed about last season,” Jones said. “Every time you have expectations to make it to the NCAA tournament and don’t get there, you’re going to be disappointed. But as long as I coach here, I expect to have high expectations for us.”