As if nine games over a 20-day period were not tough enough for the Yale men’s basketball team, the Bulldogs will face a road test against the defending national champions tonight.
Yale (7–2, 0–0 Ivy) can match its best start to a season since the 2011–12 season with a victory tonight, and a win against the University of Connecticut (3–2, 0–0 American) would be by far the most impressive of Yale’s wins this season.
UConn has made quick work of in-state opponents for the past few decades, having won 68 straight matchups against in-state foes in the last 28 years. Yale has not defeated UConn since a 77–75 overtime thriller in 1986, when former NBA player Chris Dudley ’87 was suited up for the Elis.
The Elis may be helped by injuries to the Huskies. UConn guard Ryan Boatright, a key cog in last year’s title team who also scored 14 points in last year’s meeting against the Bulldogs, suffered a sprained ankle during a game against No. 6 Texas on Sunday. However, Boatright returned to practice on Thursday and said that he is a game-time decision for tonight’s matchup.
Guards Omar Calhoun — who scored 18 points in the Huskies’ game against Yale last season — and Rodney Purvis also returned to practice this week, but their status remains up in the air. Purvis missed UConn’s contest against Texas, while Calhoun has yet to be active for a regular season game this year.
But regardless of whether the defending champion is at full strength, a victory over the Huskies would be touted as one of the most impressive upsets in recent Yale history. Point guard Javier Duren ’15, however, disagrees with that sentiment.
“I honestly don’t see it as an upset,” Duren said. “I think we are just as good of a team as them and we’ll have a great opportunity to prove it. Anytime you play big time teams, you want them at their best, so hopefully all of their players will be active.”
Last year’s contest saw Yale fall by a final score of 80–62, but the Bulldogs matched up well with the Huskies. Besides a five-minute stretch that saw graduated UConn guard Niels Giffey knock down five three-pointers as part of a 18–6 UConn run, Yale held its own, especially in the paint.
Yale manhandled UConn on the boards, outrebounding the Huskies 43–31, including an impressive 22–4 edge on the offensive glass. Forward Justin Sears ’16 contributed eight of those offensive rebounds en route to a double-double, scoring 17 points and snatching 10 total rebounds.
In an effort to replicate such a performance, Sears said the key is to impose his presence early on, as the Ivy League Player of the Year candidate is averaging just 3.5 first half points over the past six games.
“Just trying to be aggressive out the gate — I won’t try to feel it out like the past few games since that has gotten me to a weak start in the first half,” Sears said.
Yale’s undoing in last year’s battle was its offense. Only Sears and Duren registered at least 10 points, while the team as a whole shot a woeful 31.7 percent from the floor, making it the fourth-worst shooting performance for Yale all of last season.
But a year later, the Elis are showing signs of a more balanced attack. Whereas Yale only had two players average more than nine points a contest last year, this year’s group has four such players: Duren, Sears, guard Jack Montague ’16 and forward Matt Townsend ’15.
With more options to rely on for offensive output, Yale will have somewhere to turn if any of those players are having an off night.
“We all believe each and every player can make plays on this team, therefore it leads to balanced scoring,” Montague said. “This even scoring also comes from a balanced attack of a great inside-out game. The guards feed off the posts and vice-versa.”
The numbers back up Montague’s mention of Yale’s inside-out game. Yale’s guards are averaging a collective 42.6 points per game while the forwards are averaging a comparable 35.8 points per game.
Defensively, Yale would be well served to try and contain UConn’s guard play to the best of its ability. Four of UConn’s five top scorers are perimeter players, unsurprising for a program that has churned out NBA guards such as Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Kemba Walker and, most recently, Shabazz Napier.
With Boatright — the most offensively proficient of the current UConn guards at 20.8 points per game — potentially hobbled by his ankle and the Huskies reeling after two consecutive losses, all the pieces are in place for a potential Yale upset.
The opening tip at Gampel Pavilion is scheduled for 7 p.m. tonight.