Yale men’s basketball forward Justin Sears ’16 has accomplished many feats during his four years in New Haven, including reaching the 1,000-point scoring mark, receiving the Ivy League Player of the Week award a record 14 times, being named the 2014–15 Ivy League Player of the Year and earning a share of the Ivy League championship with his teammates a season ago.
Nevertheless, the Plainfield, New Jersey native’s impressive resume is still missing one notable achievement: a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“I don’t even think about last year. I just see this as a new year, and this is my shot,” Sears said. “I have one more chance to play hard in each of these games. When I step out there, I remember that this is my senior year, we have one goal that we are capable of making happen, and it adds a sense of urgency.”
On multiple occasions last season, the Bulldogs came within mere seconds of an outright league championship, but they fell devastatingly short in a pair of losses to Dartmouth and Harvard.
During that campaign, in which Yale shared the league title for the first time since 2002, the 6-foot-8 forward led the Elis with 14.3 points per game to go along with 7.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per contest. Sears’ efforts won him the distinction of Ivy League Player of Year, making him the first Yale player since 1988 to win the award.
This year, undefeated in league play through eight games and currently sitting in first place, the Bulldogs are again relying on Sears’ eye-catching numbers. Through 22 games, the senior ranks fourth in the league in scoring at 16.5 points per game, second in blocked shots with 1.7 per game and first in offensive rebounds with 3.6 per game.
“He has shown his dominance on both ends of the court,” point guard Makai Mason ’18 said of his teammate. “He is nearly impossible to guard because he is so long and he elevates so well on his jump shot. He is an animal on the backboards.”
Just as Yale, currently riding a 12-game winning streak, has dealt with a target on its back after being chosen as the preseason Ivy League favorite, Sears has also received increased attention in his senior campaign.
With rival teams focused in on Sears’ well-proven ability to score and rebound — opposing defenses have consistently thrown double- and occasionally triple-teams at the forward — Sears has diversified his game by involving his teammates more.
No category better illustrates this than his assists numbers. Sears’ average assists have increased each year, beginning with 0.9 assists per game as a freshman and now topping out at 2.9 dimes per game, nearly double the 1.5 he averaged last season.
“Justin draws a lot of attention in the low post and because of that he’s played a huge part in getting other guys easy baskets,” forward Brandon Sherrod ’16 said. “I’ve certainly been a beneficiary of a few Justin Sears assists. I also think that his passing ability is one of the most underrated parts of his game.”
Sherrod may know better than anyone how much space Sears can create for his teammates due to the attention he draws from the opposition. During Sherrod’s recent NCAA record-setting stretch of 30 consecutive made field goals, Sears was on the floor for 19 of those baskets.
Jones noted that the biggest development in Sears’ game has been his increased incorporation of his teammates without sacrificing his scoring or his aggressiveness on the glass.
Jones, now in his 17th year at the helm of the Yale program, is still pursuing the same elusive goal as Sears. Jones is the longest-tenured active Division I coach to have never gone to the NCAA Tournament.
Though Sears acknowledged that he and the coach often clashed during his freshman and sophomore years because of Sears’ stubbornness, the forward credited Jones for his part in the strides he has made from year to year.
Their relationship, Sears said, is one he will value for the remainder of his life.
“Justin is a quirky kid and a different kid. He is not like everyone else,” Jones said. “Reaching Justin was a little different than reaching some of the other guys on the team, but he has always wanted to be the best that he could be. He certainly has always paid attention to myself and the rest of the coaching staff in ways to help him try to become better, which helps our relationship on and off the court. We are both just really trying to help each other.”
Thus far, the partnership has thrived. Yale needs just one more win to tie the program-best 13-game winning streak set by the 1906–07 Bulldogs.
The opportunity to match that mark will come against a team close to Sears, at least in terms of distance. On Friday night, the Bulldogs face Princeton, a team that sits in second place in the Ivy League, and is located fewer than 30 miles from Sears’ hometown.
“Everyone and their mother from Plainfield are coming, so I’ve been getting a ton of calls and texts about tickets,” Sears said.
While Sears noted that finishing up his career as a Bulldog is a “bittersweet” experience, a victory against Princeton could play a large role in extending that career to previously unexplored territory: March Madness.
Yale has not advanced to the NCAA Tournament since 1962.