With the non-conference season in the rearview mirror for the Yale men’s basketball team, and with a pair of Ivy contests under its belt, the sample size is large enough that statistics begin to paint a more complete picture of the Bulldogs. And the numbers corroborate the standings: The Elis is the team to beat in the Ancient Eight.
Heading into the 2014–15 season, the consensus among major sports outlets was that Harvard would repeat as Ivy League champion, while Yale would once again finish second. This, of course, was far from a bold prediction, considering that Crimson coach Tommy Amaker brings in strong recruiting classes. In addition, reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Wesley Saunders was returning to a team that made some noise in the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year. However, after just two conference games, the Crimson has faltered, losing 70–61 to Dartmouth at home and falling out of first place in the conference.
That position currently belongs to the Yale Bulldogs. The Elis sit atop the Ivy League thanks to a sweep of Brown coupled with home losses from Columbia and Cornell. Yale (13–6, 2–0 Ivy) and Princeton (8–9, 1–0 Ivy) remain the only two undefeated teams.
Much of Yale’s success is due to its offense, which averages 70 points per contest and ranks as the highest scoring unit in the conference — though this number is a bit skewed due to two blowout wins over non-Division I schools.
Thanks to stout defense against some very good opposition, Yale surrenders just 62.9 points per game. Its +7.1 scoring margin is the biggest differential in the conference. The Bulldogs have been dangerous from long-range, as guard Jack Montague ’16, likely most renowned for his game-winning shot over UConn, has led the way at nearly 45 percent from beyond the arc. Forward Matt Townsend ’15 has been quietly effective in scoring 8.2 points per game on 53 percent shooting.
The Bulldogs also boast two of the Ivy League’s top scorers, with point guard Javier Duren ’15 and forward Justin Sears ’16 in the top 10 in scoring at 13.9 and 13.7 points per game, respectively. Duren has stepped up his game since last year, improving his field goal percentage by five percentage points and averaging 1.2 more assists per game while keeping his turnover rate at an identical clip. Both players dominated against Brown, with Duren going for 21.5 points and seven rebounds per contest and Sears averaging 21.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocks.
Sears, who scorched the Ivies with 16.9 points per game on nearly 52 percent shooting a year ago, has been doing a great job of drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line, but he can improve his game by converting more consistently. Against Brown, he went a collective 18–35 from the line, a surprisingly poor performance for a player who hit nearly 70 percent from the charity stripe as a sophomore. He has been able to get to the line in part due to his prowess on the offensive glass, as he has crashed the boards for nearly three offensive rebounds per game, good for 66th nationally.
On the defensive side of the ball, Yale needs to improve. Opponents are converting over 42 percent of their field goals against the Elis, which leaves them sixth in the Ivy League. With no contributor taller than a listed 6–9, Yale lacks a legitimate center, which can be an issue against teams with solid big men. Sears has done his best to clog the paint, and his 2.56 blocked shots per game ranks 28th in the nation.
Another key is swingman Armani Cotton ’15, who has been a defensive stalwart for this squad, although his impact is not easily quantifiable. His contributions, such as in Yale’s win over UConn when Cotton helped to hold star guard Ryan Boatright 10 points below his season average, often get overlooked when looking at box scores. His 5.3 rebounds per game, in just 25.7 minutes per game, rank second on the team behind Sears’ 7.6.
Cotton and Sears’s individual contributions have been major factors in Yale’s rebounding dominance this season. The Bulldogs are tops in the Ivy League with a +6.8 rebounding margin, more than double the margin of second-place Penn, and they also rank 22nd in the nation, tied with Big 12 powerhouse Kansas.
Yale hopes to take advantage of the unusual trend thus far in the Ivy League — of the seven conference games, five have been won by road teams — when they travel to New York this weekend to face Columbia and Cornell.
Friday’s game against the Lions tips off at 8 p.m.