This story has been updated to reflect the version that ran in print on Oct. 24.
It has been seven months since the Yale men’s basketball team knocked off No. 5-seeded Baylor and took No. 4-seeded Duke down to the wire in last season’s NCAA tournament. As impressive as that first upset was, Ivy League media do not expect to see the Bulldogs earn their third consecutive Ancient Eight title.
The Elis ranked third in the Ivy League Preseason Media Poll released last Thursday, finishing behind Princeton and Harvard. While the Tigers and the Crimson return many of their starters from last season — and will also welcome back players who missed last season due to injury — Yale must find answers after graduating three of its five starters. The Bulldogs, two-time defending champions, earned the program’s first March Madness victory in their first trip to the Big Dance since 1962.
“We’ll be a bit of a different team this year,” Yale head coach James Jones said in a preseason teleconference last week. “We graduated some really good seniors. I’ve done a lot more coaching this year. We have a lot more stoppages in play in practice this year.”
Princeton landed atop the Ancient Eight poll with 130 points and 12 first-place votes. The Tigers return all five of their starters from last year, when they finished second in the Ivy League and just one game away from grabbing the Elis’ conference title and spot in the NCAA tournament. The only Ancient Eight team to beat Yale last season, Princeton also welcomes back forward Hans Brase, the team’s second-most prolific scorer in the 2014–15 season with 11.5 points per game, who missed last year with a knee injury.
Harvard secured the other five first-place votes in the poll and ranks second coming into the season. Last year, the Crimson mustered just six Ivy League wins en route to a fourth-place finish in the league — a disappointing result for the then-four-time defending champions. Part of last season’s disappointing finish was due to the team’s youth: the Crimson started two freshmen and lost its top scorer to injury before the season began.
But that top scorer — three-time All-Ivy point guard Siyani Chambers — returns as a potent weapon for an already experienced squad. Chambers tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in September 2015 and took a voluntary leave of absence in the 2015–16 academic year in order to preserve a year of eligibility. Chambers, a dynamic point guard who averaged 10.9 points per game as a junior, was a three-year starter with the Crimson, helping the team win three championships and March Madness berths in that period.
“[Chambers] is a leader and there’s not even a debate or a question about that,” Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker said. “He’s always delivered for us in every way.”
The reigning champion Bulldogs placed third in the poll with 101 points, 22 short of Harvard and 29 shy of the Tigers. This assessment takes into account the youth of the 2016–17 squad, which lost forwards Justin Sears ’16 and Brandon Sherrod ’16 as well as guard Nick Victor ’16 to graduation. Yale’s departed seniors combined for 47.4 points per game in their final season — 55 percent of the team’s scoring output — but their greatest contributions came on the glass. The class of 2016 averaged 25.8 of the Elis’ 40.3 rebounds per game, leaving a huge void for Yale to fill on the front line.
Point guard Makai Mason ’18, who made a national name for himself by scoring 31 points against Baylor last year, returns after spending the summer playing with the German national team. The first-team All-Ivy point guard will likely be joined by big men Sam Downey ’17 and Blake Reynolds ’19, both of whom saw time last season, as well as captain and guard Anthony Dallier ’17, who started at shooting guard for much of last season.
But even if the Elis finish third in the regular season, they will still have an opportunity to make the Big Dance as the Ivy League rolls out the first conference tournament in Ancient Eight basketball history. This coming March, the top-four men’s and women’s teams in the regular season standings will compete in a weekend tournament at the Palestra in Philadelphia for the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
“A lot of leagues in this country don’t get enough out of their conference tournaments,” Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson said. “I think having four teams [in the tournament] makes us different. I think the Palestra and the incredible facility that it is to allow our fans a chance to be an integral part of the game makes us different.”
Penn placed fourth behind Yale, with Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell and Brown rounding out the standings in the preseason media poll.
Despite being ranked third in the Ivy League, Yale is the only Ancient Eight school to receive votes in the national USA Today Coaches Poll, garnering six votes in the ranking that projected Duke to be the best team in the country. The poll of 32 Division I head coaches, including Jones, is more of a tribute to Yale’s success last year than a suggestion of what is to come for the 2016–17 Bulldogs.
Yale will open the 2016–17 season Nov. 13 at Washington.