Saturday’s return to New Haven could not come at a better time for the Yale men’s basketball team. After rolling through their first two games, which included a road upset over Washington, the Bulldogs have snowballed with four straight losses, all of which have come outside John J. Lee Amphitheater.
Three of Yale’s (2–4, 0–0 Ivy) four defeats have come by fewer than 10 points, with the one exception being a 24-point defeat at the hands of No. 6 Virginia, a team known for stingy defense. Nevertheless, Yale’s lowest win percentage through six games since 2012–13 suggests plenty of room for improvement as the Bulldogs continue nonconference play.
“There is always value in playing competitive games,” head coach James Jones said. “Obviously it’s better if you win. You’d prefer to learn more from your wins than your losses.”
The Elis will look to bounce back against Albany (4–3, 0–0 America East), a team that blew out the Bulldogs in a 34-point win in Albany last year. Yale shot just 32.8 percent from the field and 48.0 percent from the free-throw line against the Great Danes, stats which the Elis will need to improve in their rematch this weekend. The Great Danes, who appeared in three straight NCAA tournaments between 2013 and 2015, defeated Ivy League opponent Brown in a 80–76 win on Nov. 20.
The Bulldogs will not have to contend with graduated Albany guards Evan Singletary and Ray Sanders, who scored a combined 36 points against Yale last season. However, Great Dane guards David Nichols and Joe Cremo have electrified the new backcourt in 2016–17, averaging 17.9 and 16.1 points per game this season, respectively.
Yale enters its bout with Albany after a tough loss to Bryant on Wednesday. The Elis controlled most of the game, leading by as many as 15 points midway through the second half. The Eli offense flurried from the field, shooting a season-high 53.8 percent; but a 60 percent free-throw rate and 18 turnovers gift-wrapped the game back to Bryant, who completed a furious late comeback to win by nine points.
Yale has played good defense through six games, but it will have to stay alert when dealing with a strong Albany backcourt. The Elis have ceded big games to opposing guards this season, including a 30-point performance from Washington guard and projected National Basketball Association lottery pick Markelle Fultz and a 24-point game from Pittsburgh guard Michael Young.
“To get back on track this Saturday, we just need to focus on playing with composure,” forward Sam Downey ’17 said. “We’re a better team than we’ve shown recently, but in order to be successful we have to play with more control.”
On the offensive end, Yale has featured a diverse arsenal of weapons this season. While the Elis have tallied just two 20-point individual performances in six games — guard Miye Oni ’20 and forward Blake Reynolds ’19 posted 24 and 22 points, respectively, against Washington — steady contributions from a variety of starters and bench players have powered the Bulldogs’ scoring efforts.
Yale’s offense, which has averaged 71.7 points per game thus far, is a testament to the leadership of Jones, who was tasked with replacing the production of three first-team All-Ivy players from last season: forwards Justin Sears ’16 and Brandon Sherrod ’16 and guard Makai Mason ’18. In addition to Oni and Reynolds, guard Alex Copeland ’19 and Downey have each contributed at least 12 points per game, with the latter averaging nearly 15.
After the graduation of the team’s three leading rebounders from last season, Oni has also emerged as Yale’s most consistent player on the glass. The freshman standout, who has received each of the first three Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors this week, averages 8.3 boards per game, second most in the Ivy League.
Oni has taken to the floor the last few games alongside forward Jordan Bruner ’20, who has impressed in his own right after missing the first four games of the season due to injury. In just 32 minutes across his two appearances, the South Carolina native has gifted the Elis 14 points and 13 rebounds. Jones said he anticipates that Bruner will improve as the year goes on, but after missing three-and-a-half weeks of practice with the injury, the freshman is still working on his conditioning.
“Jordan has played OK so far, but he’s not himself yet,” Jones said. “He’s in a hard situation.”
Yale hosts its second home game of the season against Albany on Saturday. Tip-off is at 2 p.m.