After a historic run, the Yale men’s basketball team has been tasked with attempting to replace a special senior class. Though 47.5 percent of the team’s scoring and 48 percent of the team’s rebounding is set to graduate in a few short weeks, the responsibility to fill that void will fall on more than just one or two members of the 2019 recruiting class.
Instead, five new recruits and one walk-on will be joined by the return of forwards Sem Kroon ’19 and Brandon Sherrod ’16. In total, eight players who did not record a minute of on-court action a year ago will battle for playing time as the Bulldogs set out to defend their Ivy League championship.
“We obviously lose a lot — [point guard] Javier Duren ’15 was the unnamed captain of our offense and [forward] Matt Townsend ’15 was the unnamed captain of our defense,” head coach James Jones said. “But [all of the recruits] have a chance to be impact guys.”
Beside the incoming freshmen, Kroon is the first of two players returning to the squad. The 6’10” La Crescenta, California native was with the Elis this past season but was unable to earn any playing time before withdrawing from school due to an injury. Kroon, who will be reclassified as a freshman next season, figures to play a big role down low next season, at least based on his pedigree: He was ranked the No. 13 player in Massachusetts and was also a McDonald’s All-American nominee as a high school senior.
Sherrod, meanwhile, has been across the country and beyond as he has spent the academic year touring with the world-renowned Whiffenpoofs. The Stratford, Connecticut native was a regular in Jones’ rotation in his junior year and will look to reclaim his role as a reliable post player and strong defender.
Highlighting the incoming freshmen class is point guard Alex Copeland of Harvard-Westlake School. The 6’2” playmaker stuffed the stat sheet in his senior season but no number stood out more than 25.4 points per game. Thanks in part to his scoring prowess, Copeland finished the year as the No. 37 ranked player in the state of California according to ESPN.
Newly elected captain and guard Jack Montague ’16 and guard Makai Mason ’18 are early candidates to handle backcourt duties following the graduation of All-Ivy first team selection Duren, while Copeland will attempt to bolster the perimeter play of the Elis right off the bat.
“During my senior year, I had to score a lot when I drove, but next year I’m going to focus on using that ability to draw defenders and dish to guys like Justin [Sears ’16] and Brandon and kick out to shooters like Jack,” Copeland said. “But if the help doesn’t come over to stop me, then I’ll keep going and finish.”
In the frontcourt, forward Eli Lininger is set to arrive in New Haven as the fifth-ranked player from the state of Oregon. At 6’6”, Lininger proved to be a double-double machine as he averaged north of 20 points per game to go along with nearly 14 rebounds a contest last season.
Following in the footsteps of Mason, who had a stellar rookie campaign for the Elis and earned the team’s award for most outstanding freshman, is fellow Hotchkiss attendee 6’5” Matt Greene. An athletic forward with a penchant for finishing around the rim, Greene will add depth to a frontcourt that is losing a trio of seniors: Townsend, Armani Cotton ’15 and former captain Greg Kelley ’15.
Montague likened Greene to Sherrod in terms of athleticism and said that he hopes Sherrod will be able to take the newcomer under his wing.
Rounding out the new class of forwards will be Jackson, Missouri native Blake Reynolds. Another 20 point-per-game scorer, along with 9.6 boards a game, the 6’7” forward earned the Southeast Missourian Boy’s Basketball Player of the Year award to cap off an illustrious high school career.
With the three incoming forwards, in addition to Kroon and Sherrod, Jones is particularly excited about how the added depth may be able to help Sears, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year.
“At the end of last year, we were down to three post guys,” Jones said. “[All these post guys] sure up our frontline and it gives Justin Sears some more competition in practice where we lacked that last year.”
The fifth and final recruit offers an NBA pedigree. Guard Trey Phills of Charlotte, North Carolina, son of the late Charlotte Hornets star Bobby Phills, attends the same high school — Charlotte Christian — that produced NBA superstar Steph Curry and capped off a dazzling senior year by averaging 22.3 points per game.
Just over a year removed from knee surgery to repair a ligament tear, the 6’1” guard has his eyes set on much more than just adjusting to the Yale campus and easing into the college game.
“Hopefully I’ll make a huge impact, but it’s all up to how much I work,” Phills said. “To be honest, I feel like next year is going to be the first year we go back to the [NCAA] Tournament. I definitely feel like I could push them over the edge, so whatever coach needs me to do, it’ll happen.”
Before helping send Yale back to the Big Dance for the first time since 1962 became a goal of Phills’, however, the Elis had to convince him Yale was the school for him. Despite offers from five-time defending Ivy League champions Harvard as well as from Princeton, Phills credited the coaching staff for helping him make his choice.
Second-year assistant coach Anthony Goins, whom Jones credits for “knowing everybody who is anybody in North Carolina,” was able to serve as a valuable connection for the recruit, but according to Phills, it was Jones’ dedication that ultimately tipped the scales in Yale’s favor.
“Coach Jones, he made me a priority,” Phills said. “The first day that you can take in-home visits, he was there at eight in the morning and that meant a lot because all the other schools just sent assistants later throughout the day.”
With a scarcity of players with the requisite skill sets to succeed both academically and athletically in the Ivy League, it is only natural for Ancient Eight colleges to fight for the same recruits each year.
Yale and Princeton, in particular, have often competed for recruits in recent years, according to Jones.
“We go up against Princeton more than anyone else, and I’d say it’s been 50/50 over the last couple years,” Jones said. “They really wanted Justin Sears and Armani Cotton, and there are a few players on their roster that shall go nameless that we really liked, and they chose Princeton.”
Rounding out the new class will be yet another Hotchkiss product, guard Thomas Ryan, who Jones confirmed will walk on to the team.
Yale’s 22 victories last season were the most since the 1941 campaign.