Before the season, if you offered men’s basketball head coach James Jones a 5–1 start in Ivy League play, I have no doubt he would have jumped at the offer.
In its first five games of the conference season, Yale looked superb, displaying dominant rebounding, great offense and the ability to win games down the stretch.
Yet after Saturday night’s 52–50 home defeat at the hands of the Bulldogs’ archenemy Harvard, Jones was anything but happy. His players had, in his words, not stuck to the game plan that had catapulted the team to the top of the Ivy League standings. Jones felt great about his team’s defense, which held Harvard to just 16 first-half points and 52 for the entire game, a dozen fewer than the Crimson’s average. However, Jones lamented the fact that his offense stalled in the first half because it did not effectively pass to create shot opportunities.
But Harvard’s victory at the John J. Lee Amphitheater — the Crimson’s fourth consecutive road win in the series, making Harvard’s current seniors the first class to accomplish this feat in school history — was not merely due to Yale’s faults. Rather, Harvard took advantage of its undersized opponent by feeding its big men in the paint. While the guards from both teams struggled to find their rhythm, Harvard forwards Zena Edosomwan (6’9”), Agunwa Okolie (6’8”) and Steve Moundou-Missi (6’7”) dominated the paint for a combined 20 points on an efficient 10–19 shooting.
Next to this three-headed monster, Yale forward Justin Sears ’16 was unable to get much going. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker called the first team All-Ivy big man “out of sync” and it showed in the box score, with Sears putting up only seven shot attempts, the fewest by a Yale starter. The Yale offense could not run the ball through him like it normally does; the Harvard defense frequently collapsed on Sears, giving him minimal space to dribble himself free from defenders.
In addition, another Yale big, forward Matt Townsend ’15, scored 10 points, but could hardly get off a contested shot without the ball being sent flying back his way.
In order for Yale to maintain pressure on Harvard for the Ivy League title, the Bulldogs need to do a better job boxing out. In what has become a dangerous trend, Yale has won the battle on the offensive glass just once over the past five contests. In the Elis’ 69–65 nailbiter over Brown on Jan. 24, the Bears corralled 11 offensive rebounds to Yale’s eight. In Friday’s 81–66 win over Dartmouth, the Big Green won the offensive rebounding battle 14–10. Last night, that figure was 10 to eight in favor of the Crimson, despite Yale missing seven more field goals than Harvard. Sears is the 55th-best offensive rebounder in the nation, averaging 3.09 per game, and he remains crucial to the Elis’ success on the glass.
Jones addressed his team’s rebounding woes in the post-game press conference. He of all people understands that in order for his squad to compete for the ultimate goal of earning the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1962, the team needs to work on its fundamentals and avoid playing the type of “home run basketball” that contributed to Yale’s pathetic offensive first half on Saturday.
When Sears is matched up against big men such as Harvard’s, it becomes clear that Yale lacks shot creators to get its offense going. Point guard Javier Duren ’15 struggled on Saturday, scoring just nine points to go alongside eight rebounds and seven assists. While Duren was able to find teammates like Townsend and guard Jack Montague ’16 for buckets, he made just three shots of his own, all from beyond the arc.
Saturday’s contest shows that Sears needs to play a major role in Yale’s offense going forward. That starts with his teammates hitting shots all over the court. Yale needs Duren to sink more shots in the lane, forward Armani Cotton ’15 to hit more shots from the perimeter — the New York native made just 1–7 attempts from downtown on Saturday — and more dribble-drive penetration by the Eli backcourt. Accomplish that, and Sears will continue to rampage through Ivy foes.
The Bulldogs need not fret. They remain tied for first place in the conference. The loss to Harvard might sting, but the team should take solace in the fact that it played one of its poorest games of the season and lost by just two points.
Harvard’s small but spirited student section heckled Sears, called “Too Tall” dating back to high school, by calling him “Too Small” Sears.
And if Yale wants to reach March Madness, it needs “Too Small” Sears to come up big.