Yale’s James Jones is the longest-tenured head coach in the Ivy League, currently in his 17th year at the helm of the Elis’ program. Though Jones has guided the Bulldogs to three Ivy League titles, this year marks his first trip to the NCAA Tournament as well as Yale’s first chance to dance since 1962.
Meanwhile, legendary Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski was hired 36 years ago Friday. During that period, the Blue Devils have gone to the NCAA Tournament 33 times and won five national championships, with the fifth coming just a year ago.
But come today, none of that matters. This afternoon, No. 12-seeded Yale (23–6, 13–1 Ivy) will take the court against No. 4-seeded Duke (24–10, 11–7 ACC) in a win-or-go-home contest for a berth in the Sweet 16.
“Duke is a storied program, and it would wrong for us to go into this game not thinking about that,” forward Brandon Sherrod ’16 said. “But obviously, like [Justin Sears ’16] said before, it’s March, and anything can happen, and we’re just looking to go in and compete and play hard.”
The Bulldogs are coming off their first NCAA Tournament win in program history, a 79–75 upset over No. 5-seeded Baylor in which point guard Makai Mason ’18 scored a career-high 31 points. Yale’s win came just a few hours after the reigning national champion Duke walked off the floor at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center with a win of its own. The Blue Devils ultimately dispatched No. 13 UNC-Wilmington, 93–85, in a tight contest that saw Duke trailing by three at the halftime break.
In addition to outshooting Baylor by nine percentage points from the field, Yale won the battle of the boards against the Bears in a matchup of two of the premiere rebounding teams in the country. The Bulldogs’ prolific ability to attack the glass is no coincidence, as Sears noted the emphasis Jones puts on rebounding, often having the team practice the skill two to three times per practice.
The Elis currently rank top-10 in the nation in both rebounding margin and offensive rebounding, and three players — Sears, Sherrod and guard Nick Victor ’16 — each average seven or more rebounds per game.
In Thursday’s contest, the Elis outrebounded Baylor 36–32 as Yale received a big contribution from forward Sam Downey ’17, who came off the bench to add eight points and a team-high seven rebounds.
“If someone doesn’t run in for a rebound, [if] Brandon [Sherrod] is just in there watching, the coaches are going to yell at them, I’m going to yell at them, and Makai [Mason] is going to yell at them,” Sears said. “Our goal is to get every offensive rebound, get a second chance, a third chance, maybe even a fourth chance to put the ball in the basket. It’s just the team’s mindset when you go out there.”
Sears and Sherrod will match up against a lengthy Blue Devils frontline that includes seven-foot center Marshall Plumlee and six-foot-nine swingman Brandon Ingram. In Thursday’s Duke victory, Plumlee shot 9–10 from the floor, including eight dunks, en route to a career-high 23 points.
Prior to the NCAA Tournament, Plumlee averaged 8.3 points per game, but the 23-year-old graduate student noted on Friday that he is playing with a “sense of urgency” in what will be his final trip in March Madness.
In Yale’s 19-point November loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Plumlee scored five points and Ingram added 15 points, second-most on the team. However, the freshman — who tallied 20 points in Duke’s first-round win over UNC-Wilmington — did not start against Yale. Forward Amile Jefferson, a senior, was starting until he broke his right foot on Dec. 12.
Despite a slow start, Ingram has put together a very strong freshman season that likely will be his only year in Durham, North Carolina before he enters the NBA draft. In the absence of Jefferson, Ingram has stepped up, averaging 16.9 points per game entering Saturday.
However, it was Jefferson’s contributions on the glass that have been most been missed, as he averaged 10.3 rebounds per game in his nine starts, including a 12-board outing against Yale. Without Jefferson, the Duke rotation is down to seven players, something to which Krzyzewski said his starters have acclimated.
“They’ve [played in a short rotation] since [Jefferson] has been out, so they’re accustomed to it,” Krzyzewski said. “I think one of the very best things that can happen to a player is that he knows he’s going to play, and he knows when he’s going to play and how he’s going to be used and who he’ll be on the court with … Our starters know that they could play 40 minutes, and they like that.”
Though Duke’s starters have plenty of game-time experience, only one — co-captain and guard Matt Jones — had started in an NCAA Tournament game prior to Thursday.
Star point guard Grayson Allen was second on the team with 16 points in last season’s national championship game against Wisconsin, but he did not start in any tournament games last year. Still, after electing to forgo the NBA draft and return for his sophomore season, Allen has flourished as a starter and leads the Blue Devils in almost every offensive statistic.
His 21.6 points per game average rank 15th in the nation, and his 83 made three-pointers rank third in the ACC. Stopping Allen, who has scored in double figures in 23 consecutive games, will be one of Yale’s biggest challenges.
With Allen and two freshmen — Ingram and guard Luke Kennard — in the starting lineup for Duke, the Blue Devils are significantly younger than the Bulldogs’ starters, which features three seniors in Sears, Sherrod and Victor.
“They’re a smart team,” Duke guard Matt Jones said of Yale. “They’re very experienced, and you can’t put a price tag on experience. They’ve been together for a while, so they’re comfortable playing with each other.”
Sears has started for the Bulldogs for three years, while Sherrod and Victor, who both took a post-graduate year out of high school, have a combined 112 starts between them during their Yale careers.
Sears has been the Ivy League Player of the Year for the past two seasons. He and Sherrod both earned First-Team All-Ivy honors for their play this past season, with Victor picking up an Honorable Mention nod.
“Justin Sears is unique,” James Jones said. “There is no one like him on the planet. I assure you of that. If you watch us closely, he will never roll the right way. He will go off the wrong foot to shoot a lay-up like I was taught when I was in fourth grade. But he is uniquely good.”
But the frontcourt is not Yale’s only strength. Mason has come into his own over the last few months, and his 31-point explosion against Baylor firmly pushed him ahead of Sears for the highest scoring average on the team at 16.9 points per game.
Mason is one of three Bulldogs averaging double-digit scoring. Sears, at 15.9 points per game, and Sherrod, who averages 12.4, round out the trio.
“[Mason’s] doing a great job of handling the bulk of point guard responsibilities, creating for other guys,” Allen said of his counterpart. “But at the same time, he’s doing a great job of pulling up and finding his own shot within their offense … He makes tough shots and he’s really crafty with the ball, whereas it’s going to be tough to keep him in front one-on-one.”
Duke does not necessarily have to play Yale man-to-man, as the Blue Devils’ 1–3–1 zone defense stymied the Bulldogs in the November meeting. While the Elis attempted to break down the defense, Duke’s offense — third-most efficient in the country, according to KenPom — put up 42 second-half points.
The two rosters have changed significantly since Yale and Duke squared off in November. On Duke’s side, the loss of Jefferson has made way for Ingram’s game to further develop. Meanwhile the expulsion of former Yale captain Jack Montague on Feb. 10 has forced the Bulldogs to play their last nine games with Anthony Dallier ’17 in the starting shooting guard role. Yale has not missed a beat, going 8–1 while adjusting to a modified rotation.
WIth just a day of rest between the games on Thursday and Saturday, Yale and Duke are two teams prepared to handle the short turnaround. Duke has routinely played games on Saturday and Monday throughout the season, primarily due to the national TV schedule, while Yale’s Ivy League schedule kept the Bulldogs busy with Friday-Saturday back-to-back weekends for the final 12 games of conference play.
The Elis, who finished 13–1 in the 14-game tournament, have now won six games in a row and 18 of their last 19.
“[The day off provides] a great turnaround for us, and at this time of the year there’s so much energy going around, so much adrenaline, it doesn’t much matter,” Jones said. “The ball is going to get thrown up, our guys are going to get ready to go. We’re just looking forward to it.”
The game, scheduled to tip off at approximately 2:40 p.m., will take place following the opening contest in Providence on Saturday between No. 3 Miami and No. 11 Wichita State.