One of the most promising seasons in recent history will begin for the Yale men’s basketball team on Nov. 14, with hopes for a second consecutive postseason berth on the line — as well as a potential Ivy League championship.
The Bulldogs have high expectations to live up to following a successful season in which the Elis finished with an overall record of 19–14 and a 9–5 mark during conference play. Yale finished second among the Ancient Eight and made an emphatic statement with a 74–67 win at Harvard on Feb. 8, the lone conference loss for the Cantabs. The Elis also made a deep postseason run into April, competing in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. During the tournament, the Bulldogs knocked off four 20-win teams — Quinnipiac, Holy Cross, Columbia and VMI — before falling in the championship game to Murray State.
“Going to the CIT and having a healthy team was a tremendous experience,” head coach James Jones said. “That makes a huge difference for us going forward. They not only think they can, but they know they can win close games … I think the guys have a lot of confidence and hopefully it’ll carry over to the start of this year.”
Point guard Javier Duren ’15 agreed, saying that the team beat Harvard last year because it believed it could win. He added that confidence, coupled with the Elis’ experience, will make them a hard team to beat.
Yale, predicted to finish second in the Ivy League preseason media poll, returns nearly all of its significant players from last season. An experienced group of upperclassmen will lead the Elis this year, as all players who averaged more than 20 minutes other than forward Brandon Sherrod ’16 return as juniors and seniors. This experience will be key for the team in its quest for the conference title and to topple Harvard, the No. 25 team in the nation.
“We have a really great opportunity this year because we have everyone returning from our starting five,” guard Armani Cotton ’15 said. “Guys know the playbook a little bit better, and it helps the new guys get quickly integrated into what we are doing because we have more than one leader on the floor at a time. Repetition is key for doing anything at a high level.”
The Bulldogs have a trio of seniors from last year’s starting lineup in Duren, Cotton and forward Matt Townsend ’15, all of whom figure to play major roles this season. Duren, the only player on the team other than Sears to see more than 30 minutes per game last season and to score in double figures with 13.6 points per game, was an honorable mention All-Ivy selection and will be a key piece for the Elis. The floor general averaged 3.1 assists per game to go along with his prolific scoring, and he will look to take another step forward this season.
Leading the charge along with the senior trio is forward Justin Sears ’16, a first team All-Ivy selection last season and a player of the year candidate for this season. Sears looks to build upon an impressive sophomore campaign in the frontcourt where he led the team with 16.9 points per game while averaging 30.6 minutes. Not only a force on offense, Sears led the team with 1.9 blocks per game on the defensive end and 6.9 rebounds per contest. Fellow classmate Nick Victor ’16 also returns to the backcourt to round out the starting five.
“If we’re going to get to where we want to get to, it’s going to take a team effort,” Duren said. “I think we’re starting to realize that, and based on our success from last season teams are starting to key in on [Sears]. It’s up to the other guys to step up and fill their roles.”
Many returning players spent hours in the gym over the summer and have improved, according to Jones. Guard Jack Montague ’16 and forward Sam Downey ’17 were singled out by the coach as two who have impressed him in the Elis’ short preseason.
In addition to a strong core of returning players, the Elis will add a quartet of freshmen: guards Makai Mason ’18 and Landon Russell ’18, swingman Eric Anderson ’18 and forward Sem Kroon ’18. Though few freshmen have played large roles for the Bulldogs during Jones’s tenure, Jones insists that that all will have a chance to see action on the court.
“They all have an opportunity, and we’ll see where our needs are,” Jones said. “We have 15 guys on the team, and I suspect that most every guy is going to have a chance to prove themselves.”
One point of emphasis, according to Jones, is the team’s assist-to-turnover ratio. There was only one team in the entire country that won a conference championship with a negative ratio, and so the team will look to its primary ball handlers — Duren, Victor and Montague — to improve in taking care of the ball.
During the offseason, the Bulldogs also added Anthony Goins to the coaching staff as an assistant coach. He spent last season in Hanover as an assistant coach for Dartmouth, his first collegiate coaching experience. Prior to aiding the Big Green to their best finish in 15 years, Goins saw success as an assistant coach for Salisbury Prep School.
“It’s nice to have a fresh voice in the locker room,” Jones said. “He brings a lot of energy and experience along with a desire to win.”
Together, the team will face a challenging nonconference schedule as it prepares for competition against a deep Ivy League. Less than a month into the season, the Bulldogs will face the defending national champions and preseason No. 17 team Connecticut. The Elis will then travel to face Florida, the seventh ranked team in the nation and consistent Southeastern Conference power, just three days later. Yale rounds out its nonconference schedule with another game against an SEC opponent Vanderbilt and numerous other teams in the northeast region. The Ivy League schedule will also be difficult, as it ends with a treacherous road trip to Harvard and Dartmouth to close out the regular season.
“I do know that for 14 straight years, we’ve been in the top half of the league, and I think that a lot of that is due to our nonconference schedule exposing us to things that we need to make sure that we work on,” Jones said. “I think that playing really good teams helps you prepare for our league. We have another very good conference this year, and we’ll have to play well to be successful.”
Duren agreed, saying that the team’s slate of games before Ivy League play serves as a measuring stick for where the team stands. He added that Ivy League play is especially important because the lack of a conference tournament means that each game directly determines which team goes to the NCAA tournament as the Ivy League’s automatic representative.
Though there are plenty of obstacles this season that the team will have to hurdle, it could be a magical season for the Bulldogs as they seek their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1961–62 and share of the Ivy League crown since 2001–02.
“This could be our best opportunity,” Sears said. “We know if we’re going to win, now is the time to do it … We know we belong this year, and if we put it all together, I think it puts us over Harvard.”
Yale opens its schedule against familiar foe Quinnipiac, whom the Elis defeated 69–68 in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament last year, on Nov. 14 in the Connecticut 6 Classic.