With under 10 seconds remaining, Yale men’s basketball forward Jordan Bruner ’20 surged in front of Harvard’s Bryce Aiken to intercept a pass and secure a thrilling 73–71 victory in the semifinals of the Ivy League Tournament last March.
Seven months later, the storied rivalry looks set to remain at the center of Ancient Eight basketball this season. The Crimson narrowly edged the Bulldogs in the Ivy League Preseason Media Poll, though Yale earned two more first-place votes than its Cambridge counterpart. With both teams returning a slate of dynamic young players — especially in their backcourts — Ivy League media are predicting the teams will collide in the conference final this year. Reigning league champion Princeton narrowly trails the Elis in the poll, having collected the final three first-place votes.
“I pay attention to everything,” head coach James Jones said at last week’s preseason media teleconference. “[But] in terms of embracing [high expectations], those things don’t really much matter. We feel like we have a good basketball team, so we’re going to have high expectations no matter what anybody says.… At this time of year, everybody feels that they can win a championship.”
Harvard earned 121 points, edging Yale’s 118 and Princeton’s 114, in a preseason poll of 17 Ivy League reporters. Last season’s preseason poll correctly predicted the order of the top four teams, all of which earned bids to the inaugural Ivy League Tournament.
The Crimson downed Yale in both of their regular season meetings last year behind the silky shooting of Aiken, who was named Ivy League Rookie of the Year. In the Elis’ revenge tournament victory, his 28 points nearly rallied Harvard back from an eight-point halftime deficit. Aiken, forward Chris Lewis — who led the conference in field goal percentage — and forward Seth Towns constitute a lethal sophomore triumvirate for Yale’s top foe.
Crimson head coach Tommy Amaker said he was “fortunate” and “flattered” by Harvard’s top slot in the poll though he said he is “not sure what that really means.”
Given the Ivy League’s rising stature — the conference’s representative in the NCAA Tournament has won its first-round matchup in four of the past eight seasons, and Ancient Eight teams are scheduling more high-profile nonconference games — Amaker speculated on the possibility of an Ivy League team earning an at-large bid to March Madness.
“It’s going to take an extraordinary kind of year for one of our teams nonconference-wise to generate that kind of exposure,” Amaker said. “But with the kind of teams we have, with the kind of schedules we’re playing, we certainly think it’s possible. Is it something that we’re looking at as highly likely? I’m not sure if I would stretch it that far yet, but a possibility, absolutely.”
Yale’s postseason hopes hinge in large part on star guard Makai Mason ’18, who returns after missing the entire 2016–17 season due to a foot injury. Mason became a darling of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, leading the Bulldogs past No. 5-seed Baylor with 31 points in the Elis’ upset. The Greenfield, Mass. native averaged 16 points and nearly four assists per game while starting all 30 games in his sophomore season.
Jones said that Mason’s foot was 100 percent healthy, though the guard was in the process of recovering from a back strain that he suffered in the weight room. The head coach said he expects Mason to be a “full go” at practice with the team this week and to be healthy in time for Yale’s season-opener at Creighton on Nov. 10.
Mason rejoins an athletic backcourt that has drawn national acclaim. Second-Team All-Ivy guard Miye Oni ’20 raised his profile after playing at the Nike Skills Academy in Los Angeles over the summer. Other attendees included Duke’s Grayson Allen — whose 29 points helped the Blue Devils eke out a win over the Elis in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament — and NBA stars LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Paul George.
“We’ve had a number of NBA scouts in our practices this year taking a look [at Oni],” Jones said. “The feedback that I’ve heard from them is that he checks all the boxes. Getting [Oni] to be more consistent, playing defense a little bit more [and] really being active in every area that he can be is what we’re going to try to do over the next few months and the next few years to try to get him where he wants to be.”
The addition of first-year guard Jalen Gabbidon ’21 to the backcourt will have to wait, though, as Jones announced on the teleconference that Gabbidon had broken a bone in his foot — soon after he had finished rehabilitating a stress fracture in the same foot. Jones said he expects Gabbidon to be ready in time for the Ivy League season in January.
Although Harvard and Yale garnered the most votes, Princeton remains poised to vie for first place after an undefeated conference season in 2016–17. Though the Tigers graduated Ivy League Player of the Year Spencer Weisz and All-Ivy First-Team selection Steven Cook, they retain guards Myles Stephens and Devin Cannady, who combined for more than half of the team’s points in its win over the Blue in the Ivy Madness championship.
Opening the teleconference, Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris hailed the success of the inaugural conference tournament.
“In looking back at last season, the tournament met and exceeded our already high expectations, particularly on the impact they had on the regular season,” Harris said. “We actually enhanced the intensity and the value of our regular season for our teams.”
Penn’s Palestra, nicknamed the Cathedral of College Basketball, will host the tournament again this year. The Quakers placed fourth in the poll, followed by Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth and Brown.
Yale finished in third place in the 2016–17 regular season with a 9–5 conference record.
Steven Rome | firstname.lastname@example.org