A year after coming just 1.9 seconds away from going dancing in the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament, the Yale men’s basketball team has been named the Ivy League’s preseason favorite for the first time in the 31-year history of the league media poll.
With 117 points, including five first-place votes, defending co-champion Yale narrowly edged Columbia, which had 114 points and six first-place votes. The three-point separation at the top is the narrowest in 17 years and second-closest in history.
“From top to bottom, we just keep getting better and better every year,” head coach James Jones said of the Ivy League in the preseason Ivy teleconference Wednesday. “I don’t know if we have a Sweet 16 team or a team that will make it into the Elite Eight, but I do know that top to bottom, all our teams are better and much improved. Everyone has opportunities to win outside our conference … I suspect that we have four teams that can win 20 games.”
Princeton finished in third with 108 points and six first-place votes, followed by five-time defending Ivy League champion Harvard at 96 points. Brown, Dartmouth, Penn and Cornell rounded out the bottom half of the Ancient Eight predictions.
The Elis have never been tabbed to finish higher than second in the Ivy League, though they have been picked as the runner-up on seven prior occasions, including last season. This year, with forward and defending Ivy Player of the Year Justin Sears ’16 headlining an experienced squad, the Bulldogs look to avenge back-to-back heartbreaking losses that cost them a stand-alone conference title and their first NCAA tournament berth in 53 years.
“The way things went down at the end of the season for us did not sit well and obviously still does not sit well,” Jones said. “Disappointment is something that pushes you forward. It’s a new year now, though, so everything that happened last year doesn’t matter. I have a new team, new players, so now my focus is on the guys we have and getting the most out of them.”
With three of the team’s top five scorers graduated, the onus falls to Sears and captain and guard Jack Montague ’16 to propel their team — which finished second in both scoring offense and scoring defense last year — to the next level.
Montague led the league in three-point shooting percentage a year ago, knocking down 43.5 percent of his shots from behind the arc.
Filling out the backcourt alongside Montague will likely be guard Makai Mason ’18, whose 6.2 points per game led all freshmen on the team. The sophomore, who averaged 19.2 minutes of play in 2014–15, earned the team’s Outstanding Freshman award and could see even more time this year.
“Because of how good Javier Duren [’15] was for us last year, Makai didn’t play as much as he would have if we didn’t have a great player at the point,” Jones said. “I expect that people are going to get a steady diet of him. He’s a talented guard and he’s come to understand our system a bit better so he can put his teammates in positions to be successful. I’m expecting him to have a great year for us.”
Joining Sears in the frontcourt is forward Brandon Sherrod ’16, who made national headlines in 2014 when he announced he was taking a year off from basketball to tour the world with his a capella group, the Whiffenpoofs. As a junior, the 6-foot-6 Sherrod was second on the team in blocked shots and third in rebounding. Jones said that Sherrod’s athleticism and leadership are welcome additions to an already veteran team.
In separate surveys of six college basketball publications, Sears and Columbia guard Maodo Lo, last season’s Ancient Eight scoring leader at 18.4 points per game, were each tabbed as Player of the Year favorites. Should Sears earn the honors, he would be the sixth player to win the award twice.
Lo, who spent this summer playing on the German national team with NBA players Dirk Nowitzki and Dennis Schröder, will take the court alongside two Lions returning from injuries. Grant Mullins and Alex Rosenberg, a former first-team All-Ivy selection, are both expected to play this season, head coach Kyle Smith said.
Mullins suffered a season-ending head injury, and Rosenberg withdrew last season after fracturing his foot right before league play began. His reemergence elevates Columbia to contender status, as Rosenberg averaged 16.0 points in the 2013–14 season.
“I think [Mullins and Rosenberg are] a little more experienced and mature in the way they play,” Smith said. “There’s still a little rust. You can’t just overcome missing a whole season, but I think experience will overcome that rust … Their leadership has been really strong. I think they just want to see the team’s success … and get back on the court.”
Princeton, meanwhile, looks to build on a 16–14 season, including a 9–5 Ivy campaign that placed it third in the conference standings. Three upperclassmen forwards, each of whom averaged more than 10 points per game last season, will lead the Tigers, who are likely to rely on their big men around the post.
One season removed from a 22–8 overall, 11–3 Ivy record that culminated in its fourth consecutive March Madness appearance, the Crimson suffered a big loss earlier this year with the loss of point guard Siyani Chambers. Chambers, a three-time All-Ivy player who played in 90 of Harvard’s last 92 games, tore the ACL in his left knee this past summer and subsequently withdrew from Harvard for a year in order to preserve his remaining year of league eligibility.
“Hearing that news, first of all you think of Siyani,” Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker said. “As a senior, you’re devastated for him. Then you think of our young team and who he needed to be for this ball club, and how devastating that can be for us.”
Chambers had surgery on his knee about three weeks ago, according to Amaker, and his rehabilitation is on schedule.
Even without Chambers, the Crimson can be a formidable threat. Amaker has proven himself to be a talented recruiter, with two of ESPN’s Top 100 players entering the school next year. Harvard’s current crop of underclassmen includes three- and four-star players such as guards Andre Chatfield and Tommy McCarthy.
“We’ll be as young as we’ve ever been, but nonetheless we think we have confidence and key guys in terms of experience,” Amaker said. “We’ll see what that brings for us.”
Yale opens its 2015–16 basketball season on Nov. 13 at the Connecticut Six Classic against Fairfield. Central Connecticut, Quinnipiac, Sacred Heart and Hartford will also participate in the season-kickoff tournament.