In just a week, the men’s basketball team’s primary concern shrank from winning the Ivy League title to winning an Ivy League game.
The Bulldogs trudged through their non-conference schedule, but the promise of a clean slate with the start of Ivy League play lingered. However, Yale’s problems have continued into the conference season, leaving fans, coaches and players alike shrugging their shoulders and searching for answers.
“It’s a whole lot of things,” head coach James Jones said. “It’s turning the ball over, missing open shots, not having the ball bounce your way. You can’t just point to one thing. Confidence is certainly an issue. For any team that goes through a stretch like we have, confidence is going to be an issue.”
Yale’s non-conference schedule — rated 14th-toughest in the nation by USA Today’s Sagarin Ratings — may have dealt serious blows to the Elis’ confidence. Opponents included No. 8 UConn, No. 17 Wake Forest and No. 23 South Carolina, as well as Rhode Island and Niagara, all of which are expected to make runs at the NCAA tournament.
“Playing tough teams hopefully prepares you for the regular season,” Jones said. “We played a non-conference schedule like the best teams in our league do. It’s like the chicken and the egg. Gain confidence and play well, or play well and gain confidence. It’s hard to tell which comes first.”
Ironically, it was Yale’s hardest opponent that initially gave the Elis a boost of confidence. On Nov. 17, 2003, the Bulldogs took on then-No. 1 UConn in the first round of the Pre-Season NIT. It was billed as a blowout, but Yale more than held its own, matching the Huskies shot for shot, board for board in the first half. At the break, the Bulldogs led 31-28. By their own accords, it was 20 minutes of virtually perfect basketball.
Yale has yet to replicate the level of play it showed during that fateful frame.
“We need to play with a greater sense of urgency and with more confidence,” guard Scott Gaffield ’04 said. “For myself, as a senior, it’s my last shot. We still have a shot of winning [the league], but we have to put together a string of consistent efforts.”
The Bulldogs are certainly not out of the championship picture. The league is marked by unusual parity this year, and any team can win on any given day. At the same time, an 0-2 start in the Ancient Eight has left Yale with little room for error the rest of the way.
Experience is one thing working in the Bulldogs’ favor. This year’s core of players — forwards Matt Minoff ’04 and Paul Vitelli ’04 and guards Gaffield, Edwin Draughan ’05 and Alex Gamboa ’05 — is the same that won the league title two years ago. In addition, Princeton transfer Dominick Martin ’05 is arguably an upgrade from T.J. McHugh ’03, Yale’s starting center during the 2001-02 championship season.
It seems personnel is not the issue.
Gaffield pointed out that the Bulldogs are missing an “intensity and scrappiness,” which he said were integral in the team’s recent title run.
“Hopefully, we’re getting back to that,” Gaffield said. “We’ve had a few good practices this week, and we seem to have the bounce back in our step.”
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