The Yale men’s basketball team finds itself in limbo heading into its season opener this Sunday. Coming off the best season in program’s history, in which they captured their second straight Ivy League title and upset No. 5-seeded Baylor in the NCAA Tournament, the Bulldogs will have to make do without four-fifths of their starting lineup from last year’s unforgettable tournament run.
In addition to first-team All-Ivy point guard Makai Mason ’18, who will likely miss the rest of the season with a foot injury, three key cogs from last season’s NCAA Tournament have since graduated: forwards Justin Sears ’16 and Brandon Sherrod ’16 and guard Nick Victor ’16. In his 18th season at the program’s helm, head coach James Jones is focused on making sure his players embody the “next-man-up” mentality in order to replace production in 2016–17.
“Our program is based on three principles: rebounding the ball, playing good defense and sharing the ball on offense,” Jones said. “With those guys being lost there are obviously some shoes to fill. That’s why you’ve got guys who are willing to take the next step.”
As a trio, the graduated starters accounted for 55 percent of the team’s scoring and 64 percent of its rebounding over the course of last season. Role players from last season and even incoming freshmen will have to step up to fill the void.
To replace the presence of big men Sherrod and Sears, Yale will enlist forwards Sam Downey ’17 and Blake Reynolds ’19, with Eric Anderson ’18 likely factoring into the rotation. Downey and Reynolds served as key role players last season, combining for eight points and 5.1 assists per game. Reynolds was recognized with the John C. Cobb Award, given to the most outstanding freshman each year.
“We’ve learned a lot from the guys in the front court that graduated,” Downey said. “Just going up against them everyday in practice for three years taught us to never take a play off and be relentless when rebounding.”
But perhaps the most immediate question for the Bulldogs is who will take over point guard duties without Mason on the floor. Captain and guard Anthony Dallier ’17, now the lone returning starter from last season, will be a top candidate to handle the duties of floor general. Dallier played in every game last season, starting the final 10 and receiving the team’s Most Improved Player award.
Yale’s depth in the backcourt is highlighted by guards Trey Phills ’19 and Alex Copeland ’19. Phills broke into the rotation near the end of his freshman season, seeing minutes against both Baylor and Duke in the Big Dance. He could be first in line to see more action in Mason’s absence. Copeland and guard AJ Edwards ’17 both averaged fewer than five minutes per contest last year, but will likely be called upon to contribute as well.
Yale also will welcome a promising cast of new faces: forwards Jordan Bruner ’20 and Austin Williams ’20 as well as guards Miye Oni ’20 and Eric Monroe ’20.
Bruner, a three-star recruit named one of the best prospects from his home state of South Carolina, is one of Yale’s most highly touted additions in recent memory.
Still, the newest iteration of the Bulldogs will face tough competition. Princeton currently stands as the media’s favorite to win the Ivy League. The Tigers handed Yale its only conference loss last season and did not graduate a single starter. Head coach Mitch Henderson will welcome the return of forward Hans Brase, who was the team’s second-leading scorer two years ago but missed the 2015–16 with a knee injury.
Harvard enters the season ranked second in the poll, but is coming off its worst season in the past five years. Though the Crimson graduated several key contributors, it will regain three-time All-Ivy point guard Siyani Chambers, who missed last season after tearing his ACL in September 2015. Harvard will also feature several talented but unproven freshmen, as its 2016 recruiting class ranked 10th best in the nation according to ESPN.
But being underdogs is nothing new for the Elis, who received no first-place votes in the 2016–17 Ivy League Preseason Media Poll even before the news of Mason’s injury.
While the Bulldogs polled atop the Ivy League preseason rankings last season for the first time in their history, they did not even receive the most first-place votes. Still, Yale went on to validate its endorsement: The Bulldogs’ 13–1 Ivy League record tied for the best mark in school history and the program’s first NCAA Tournament victory over the Big 12 powerhouse Baylor capped off the best season of the storied program’s existence.
Regardless of speculative preseason rankings, all three top Ivy teams will get a chance to prove their worth in March. For the first time in history, the Ivy League will utilize a four-team conference tournament to decide which team will represent the Ancient Eight in the men’s and women’s versions of the NCAA Tournament.
“The Ivy tournament will be great not only for Yale but for the entire league,” Reynolds said. “The tournament creates a lot of buzz and excitement around Ivy League basketball.”
Outside of Ivy League competition, Yale will face several tough nonconference opponents, games that Jones said he views as a critical tool for getting his team ready for the Ivy League season.
“I don’t circle any games,” Jones said. “They’re all part of building for the Ivy League schedule. These nonconference games are great benchmarks to see where we are.”
The Bulldogs open the season this Sunday at Pac-12 foe Washington, and will face their toughest opponent on Nov. 20 when they travel to No. 7 Virginia. The team will also battle the University of Pittsburgh on Nov. 22 and Temple on Dec. 22, both of which appeared as No. 10 seeds in last year’s tournament.
The Bulldogs will look to get the ball rolling early as they travel to Washington on Sunday to take on the Huskies. Tipoff in Seattle at 7 p.m. EST.