The Yale men’s basketball team is only nine games into the season, but with convincing wins against quality teams such as Lehigh and Vermont, and impressive moments against No. 19 SMU, No. 8 Duke and Illinois, the Bulldogs appear on track to fulfill preseason hype.
For the first time in program history, head coach James Jones’ Bulldogs (5–4, 0–0 Ivy) were named the favorites to win the Ivy League championship in the preseason media poll. With returning Ivy League Player of the Year, forward Justin Sears ’16, back for his senior season, and with captain and guard Jack Montague ’16, forward Brandon Sherrod ’16, guard Nick Victor ’16 and point guard Makai Mason ’18 pegged as the remaining starters, the Elis had high expectations.
Sears averaged 14.3 points per game last season, while Montague led the Ivy League in three-point shooting with a 43.5 percent clip from deep. Sherrod, returning from a year abroad with the world-renowned Whiffenpoofs, was set to provide a much-needed presence down low while Victor looked to return to form as a perimeter defender and explosive guard after an injury-riddled campaign last year. Perhaps most intriguing was the role of Mason, as the sophomore’s ability to step in at the point guard position seemed critical to any championship hopes for the Elis.
Although this year’s Bulldogs have now lost four contests, the quality of competition in those losses cannot be overlooked. Yale has fallen to SMU, Duke, Albany and Illinois, which currently sport a combined record of 26–9 this season. The loss to Albany, the defending America East Tournament champion, occurred without Sears in the lineup, while Duke and SMU are both currently ranked among the top 25 teams in the nation. In fact, SMU, which defeated Yale by only two points, is one of only 10 Division I programs still undefeated in the 2015–16 season. And while Illinois, at 5–5, is not having a particularly strong season, the Big 10 school still possesses a talent-laden roster.
With the Ivy League season now six games and just over a month away, three factors have stood out thus far during Yale’s nonconference schedule.
Embracing their roles
Mason has seamlessly stepped into the point guard position. Many expected increased playing time and scoring output in Mason’s encore performance following a strong freshman year as a reserve, but few could have predicted that there would be little, if any, drop off from Javier Duren ’15. Mason has taken over for the graduated first team All-Ivy point guard, who averaged 14.0 points per game last season. Mason leads this year’s Bulldogs in scoring with 16.6 points per game, good enough for third in the Ivy League.
As for Sears, he has managed to maintain the sort of production that earned him Player of the Year honors a season ago. The Plainfield, New Jersey native is averaging 16.3 points per game, despite a pair of games in which he was not at 100 percent due to a sinus infection. In addition, he has grabbed 6.8 rebounds per game on top of more than two blocked shots a contest. While Sears has not yet had to consistently take over games for the Bulldogs, his importance to the team was perhaps most well-illuminated in a game he missed. Without Sears, due to the aforementioned sinus infection, Yale turned in its most disappointing performance of the season, an 88–54 loss to Albany. No matter the play of Mason and Yale’s complementary pieces, Sears will be central to however far the Bulldogs can go.
Beyond the play of Yale’s two leading scorers, Victor has proven to be a key spark plug for the team. Victor has repeatedly made the types of hustle plays that can swing the momentum of a game, such as blocking shots in transition and grabbing tough rebounds in traffic. While Victor is only averaging 6.1 points per game, he has made his presence felt in other areas, including 1.3 blocks per game and a team-leading 7.8 rebounds per game. Victor has also served as a go-to lockdown perimeter defender for the Elis.
Production off the bench
One area of the concern through the first nine games has been the bench production for the Bulldogs. Jones has chiefly relied upon forward Sam Downey ’17, guard Anthony Dallier ’17 and guard Khaliq Ghani ’16 to provide a lift off the bench, while forwards Eric Anderson ’18 and Blake Reynolds ’19 have also earned some significant minutes. Thus far, the offensive production has been limited, as Yale’s reserves have contributed 13.2 points per game, while its opponents’ benches have added 18.4 points per contest. Downey leads the reserves in scoring with 5.4 points per game, though that statistic is partially inflated by his season-high 16-point performance in a start against Bryant.
In Yale’s close 34–31 first half against Vermont last Saturday, the Bulldog starters combined for all but 20 of the possible 100 minutes. With that half being one of Yale’s most competitive periods of basketball this season, it could serve as a good indication of how Jones might coach his team come crunch time in Ivy contests.
There is time remaining for a more potent threat to develop off the bench — guard Khaliq Ghani ’16 provided a crucial spark on multiple occasions late in last year’s Ivy League schedule, for instance. However, with Mason assuming his starting role and no longer able to provide go-to boost off the bench, Yale could stand to benefit significantly from such a contributor. This will prove especially true when the Bulldogs move into Ancient Eight play, known for its demanding slate of back-to-back contests.
Lack of close-game experience
If there are such things as good problems to have, the absence of a competitive win might be one. The average margin of victory in the team’s five wins this year is 20.8 points. However, the Bulldogs have fallen short in their two closest contests of the season, a two-point loss to SMU and Wednesday’s 69–65 defeat at the hands of Illinois.
Part of the appeal of the nonconference portion of the schedule for coaches is the ability to see how one’s team responds to intense, competitive games. Last season, the Bulldogs played seven games against Ivy League opponents within six points. As such, wire-to-wire games prior to the beginning of conference play might can provide valuable experience for a team that graduated four key contributors — Duren, guard Armani Cotton ’15, forward Matt Townsend ’15 and captain and forward Greg Kelley ’15.
While blowout victories are certainly a positive, Jones noted after an 18-point win against Vermont that not all wins will be by such a wide margin. So although it is no definite indicator of future performance, the Bulldogs would likely be bolstered by winning narrowly before Ancient Eight play begins.