Julia Henry

A season after a pair of heartbreaking losses ended any NCAA Tournament hopes, the Yale men’s basketball team enters the 2015–16 season with a target on its back and weighty expectations on its shoulders.

Although the Bulldogs have since graduated starters Javier Duren ’15, Armani Cotton ’15 and Matt Townsend ’15, as well as captain Greg Kelley ’15, this year’s lineup is ready for another run at the conference title.

Head coach James Jones returns an experienced and talented roster from last year’s title-winning squad. The Bulldogs were recently selected as the Ivy League preseason favorite for the first time in the 31-year history of the league media poll.

“You’re proud of that for the reason that it’s the first time in the school’s history we’ve been picked first in the ballot,” Jones, the 2015 Ivy League Coach of the Year, said. “In something like nine out of the last 11 years, we’ve out-kicked our coverage. They’ve always picked us lower than we’ve actually finished. It’s nice to get some recognition for a group that’s deserving, for one that won a share of the championship last year and is returning the Player of the Year.”

Forward Justin Sears ’16, that Ivy League Player of the Year, is back in New Haven for his final season, as is sharp-shooting guard Jack Montague ’16. The pair combined to score an average of 23.7 points per game in conference play last season. Montague, who captains this year’s squad, led the Ancient Eight in three-point shooting, draining 43.5 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.

Montague said he has been working on expanding his game and trying to create more opportunities for his teammates. Last year, he averaged 2.0 assists per game.

Joining Montague in the backcourt will be point guard Makai Mason ’18, Yale’s most impactful freshman in the 2014–15 season. Mason was fourth on the team in scoring during Ivy play, highlighted by a team-high 19-point effort in the regular season finale at Dartmouth.

With Montague manning the shooting guard position, Mason will be expected to fill the void left by Duren, an All-Ivy first team performer last season.

“I think everybody is going to do a bit more,” Jones said. “Makai Mason, who only played 20 minutes a game, I suspect he’ll be a guy who will be a standard double-digit scorer for us.”

In the frontcourt, Sears, already the 10th-leading scorer in school history, will be relied on to replicate his All-Ivy first team production. The Plainfield, New Jersey native was recently named to the Lou Henson Award Preseason Watch List by CollegeInsider.com, which is awarded to the Mid-Major Player of the Year.

With 47.6 percent of the team’s scoring having graduated, Sears must continue to be effective using his self-described “unorthodox” playing style while also adjusting as opposing defenses try to limit him.

“The motto Coach Jones has always had is ‘next man up’ so once someone graduates, someone is going to step into the previous seniors’ roles,” Sears said. “I think we have a group of guys whose roles will be expanded this year and can replace what we lost from last year.”

Jones mentioned guard Nick Victor ’16, a regular starter two years ago who was severely limited by injuries last season, and forward Brandon Sherrod ’16 as players that could contend for starting spots.

Sherrod returns to the Elis after spending the 2014–15 season traveling with his a capella group, the Whiffenpoofs. As a junior two years ago, Sherrod averaged 6.8 points per game and 4.3 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-6 Sherrod will provide much-needed height and athleticism to the Yale frontcourt, which seeks to replace Townsend and Cotton, who combined for nearly 10 rebounds per game last year.

“[Sherrod’s] athleticism, leadership and his strength down at the basket are going to help us out tremendously,” Jones said. “We missed that part of him last year … so we’re happy to have him back.”

Sherrod missed a season in which the Bulldogs came mere seconds away from locking up an elusive NCAA Tournament berth — twice. Back-to-back heartbreakers against Dartmouth and Harvard, which saw the two conference opponents score go-ahead baskets with 0.5 and 7.2 seconds remaining, respectively, shut Yale out of March Madness for the 53rd year in a row.

To add insult to injury, Yale was not given a bid to the National Invitation Tournament. At the time, Jones told the News he felt “stunned and disgusted” by the postseason snub.

Despite the frustrating close to the campaign, the team says it has put last season behind it and has begun to look forward to a new year. This focus on the future began with last year’s recruiting class, which included six players from across the country.

“As a class, we bring a lot to the table,” guard Trey Phills ’19 said. “As far as last year’s team, they bring a lot back as well, so [the freshmen’s] role is pushing each other in practice and developing a little bit. In the years to come, we’re up to something. We’ve got some stuff in store.”

Along with Phills, an all-state player from Charlotte, North Carolina, guards Alex Copeland ’19, a McDonald’s All-American nominee, and Thomas Ryan ’19 will provide depth in the backcourt. Forwards Eli Lininger ’19, a fellow All-American nominee, Matt Greene ’19 and Blake Reynolds ’19 round out Jones’ crop of newcomers.

The freshmen will have their first opportunities to contribute during the nonconference portion of the team’s schedule, an especially difficult one in 2015–16.

After knocking off the defending national champion, UConn, on a last-second three-pointer from Montague last season, the Bulldogs will have the chance to replicate the feat on Nov. 25 when they travel to play the 2015 champion, Duke.

Duke is one stop on a 10-day road trip that takes Yale to four different states. In addition to that Thanksgiving road trip, which includes a trip to Dallas to face Southern Methodist University, the team will also head west in December to compete against Illinois and the University of Southern California.

“There are definitely going to be some tough challenges on the road, playing … teams that are definitely high-caliber and will test us before the Ivy League,” Montague said. “Hopefully we can knock one of them off and see how our team competes against top-level teams.”

The Bulldogs begin their regular season on Friday as they take on Fairfield in the annual Connecticut 6 Classic at 3 p.m. Yale was tabbed as the top team in the coaches’ poll for this year’s season-opening event, hosted by Central Connecticut.