The Yale men’s basketball team opened its season with two resounding wins over Fairfield and Sacred Heart by an average margin of 17.5 points, defeating the Stags 70-57 and dominating the Pioneers 99-77.
The Bulldogs (2–0, 0–0 Ivy) look to continue that momentum Thursday night against Lehigh, a game that marks the beginning of a challenging stretch of non-conference road games over Thanksgiving break. In addition to Lehigh, the Elis will face Southern Methodist, Duke and Albany all within a 10-day stretch.
“We are taking all of these games as learning experiences before we get to the 14-game [Ivy League] tournament,” forward Brandon Sherrod ’16 said. “We have to make sure that each game, no matter how difficult or how crazy it gets, is one which we are learning from.”
Although powerhouses No. 5 Duke, the defending national champions, and SMU, which garnered votes but did not crack the latest Top-25 poll, are looming, the immediate concern for head coach James Jones’ squad is a Lehigh team that lost to Syracuse last Friday in a competitive 57–47 contest. The Mountain Hawks also dropped a 98–89 decision to Canisius on Monday, though their 0–2 record may not clearly indicate their talent level, as Lehigh returns an experienced team from last season’s 16–14 group and topped the preseason Patriot League media poll for the second time in four seasons.
Through two games, the Mountain Hawks have been led offensively by the duo of Tim Kempton and Austin Price, both of whom are averaging more than 16 points per game. Kempton, a preseason Lou Henson All-American, is also averaging 9.5 rebounds per game.
“[Lehigh] really likes to push the ball and attack the rim, and they also have guys who can spread the floor with outside shooting,” captain and guard Jack Montague ’16 said. “They will be a tough team to guard, we need to understand their personnel and ‘do our job,’ as coach Jones says.”
With the scoring capability of both Lehigh and Yale, which came a basket short of breaking the 100-point mark in its last contest, the game will likely be a high-scoring affair.
Kempton will match up in the front court against Sherrod and forward Justin Sears ’16. Sears is coming off a 27-point showing against Sacred Heart on Monday, while Sherrod is averaging 7.5 rebounds over the first two games. Sherrod has also contributed double-digit scoring in each game thus far, including a career-high 20 points against Fairfield.
“[Sherrod and Sears are] both two really good guys at the basket and beyond,” Jones said after Monday night’s win over Sacred Heart. “They have great production and they took 16 free throws between the two of them [against Sacred Heart], so they’re putting pressure on players and getting their bench players involved in the game. I’ve been very impressed with their play. It’s the team who gets them the ball inside and makes it easier [for them].”
Guards Makai Mason ’18 and Jack Montague ’16 have also been consistent contributors early on for the Elis, accounting for 12 of the team’s 14 three-pointers in the first two games while racking up 36 points per game between the two. The entire Yale starting backcourt — including Nick Victor ’16, who has grabbed 8.5 rebounds per game, and reserves Khaliq Ghani ’16 and Anthony Dallier ’17 — will be counted upon during the upcoming road trip.
Following the contest against the Mountain Hawks, Yale will travel to Dallas on Sunday to face SMU, a team that won the American Athletic Conference a year ago, but fell to UCLA in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament after a controversial goaltending call gave the Bruins the 60–59 win.
When the Bulldogs face the Mustangs, SMU will be without Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, as the 75-year-old basketball legend will be serving the third game of his nine-game suspension following disciplinary action by the NCAA in late September. The NCAA came down hard on Brown and SMU, banning the team from the 2016 postseason and taking away scholarships for multiple infractions, including academic fraud and unethical conduct.
Without Brown’s leadership on the bench, senior guard Nic Moore, last season’s AAC Player of the Year, will take on extra responsibility from the floor as he headlines the Mustangs’ attack. Moore averaged a team-high 14.5 points and 5.1 assists per game last season, but he was held to eight points in SMU’s only game thus far, a season-opening 85–50 victory over Sam Houston State. In a game that will double as a homecoming of sorts for Victor — he is a Dallas, Texas native — Yale is facing SMU for the first time in school history.
“It’s going to be an amazing atmosphere,” Sherrod said. “[SMU is] a tremendously athletic team so the game will be a great challenge to see how we stand up against some non-conference teams.”
Although the atmosphere in Dallas may be electric, it will likely pale in comparison to the craziness that will take place on Wednesday when the Elis square off against another legendary coach, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. In Cameron Indoor Stadium, home of Duke’s student section known as the “Cameron Crazies,” the Bulldogs will confront the iconic Blue Devils.
Duke’s size and athleticism are areas of concern for the Bulldogs. Although guard Grayson Allen did not play well in a Tuesday loss to No. 2 Kentucky, the sophomore still leads the Blue Devils in scoring with 20.0 points per game through three contests, while upperclassmen Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones are each averaging at least 15 points per game. The Bulldogs will also have to match up against 6’9” freshman Brandon Ingram, the No. 3 recruit in last year’s recruiting class. With Ingram currently averaging 13.3 points per game from the small forward position, Victor, arguably Yale’s best perimeter defender, will likely bear the responsibility of guarding the NBA prospect.
Coach K, as Krzyzewski is known, has won an all-time best 1,020 games in his 40-year head-coaching career, including five national championships with the Blue Devils.
“I think the team is most looking to gain experience against top talent and some of the best coached teams [Larry Brown and Coach K] in the country,” Montague said. “Hopefully we can pull off some great wins but our focus is just getting better together as a team. These non-conference games will really help us achieve that.”
Montague and the Bulldogs know a thing or two about knocking off defending national champions. In a December meeting last season against the 2014 national champions, the University of Connecticut, Montague hit a corner three with seconds remaining to give Yale a 45–44 win, perhaps its most high-profile victory in recent memory.
The game between Yale and Duke will be aired on ESPNU at 7 p.m.
The final leg of the non-conference road trip for the Bulldogs concludes on Sunday, Nov. 29 with a contest against Albany in New York, which will be the fourth state that the Bulldogs will have played in during the 10-day stretch.