A year ago, uncertainty abounded for the Yale men’s basketball team. The Bulldogs had graduated three starters from their 2016 Ivy League championship team, and then lost standout guard Makai Mason ’18 — whose 31 points led the team to an upset victory over No. 6 Baylor in the NCAA Tournament — for the season due to injury. The 2016–17 team was young and unproven.
But the 2017–18 Elis enter their season, which begins on Friday at Creighton, with a very different script.
Now captain, Mason is healthy and returns to a team studded with breakout talent. In their rookie seasons, guard Miye Oni ’20 and forward Jordan Bruner ’20 emerged as an electrifying tandem, with both attracting the attention of NBA scouts. Meanwhile, a trio of previously unheralded players in Alex Copeland ’19, Trey Phills ’19 and Blake Reynolds ’19 thrived in more prominent roles.
After finishing with a 9–5 conference record and losing twice to its Cambridge rival in the regular season, Yale toppled Harvard in the semifinals of the inaugural Ivy League Tournament. The Bulldogs’ campaign ended at the hands of undefeated Princeton in the tournament’s championship — and this year, the team is gunning to avenge that loss in what promises to be a highly competitive Ivy League.
“We’ve got some injuries right now that we’re dealing with, but I like the group,” head coach James Jones said before his 19th season at the helm of the basketball program. “We’re athletic. We’re long. We have a good deal of returning players and a good crop of young guys to blend in together. I think we have a chance to be special.”
Jones did not specify the injuries plaguing the roster, though he did say of Mason that “all signs point … that he is good.”
Mason recorded 16 points and nearly four assists per game in his All-Ivy First Team sophomore season. Back from a foot injury that he suffered in the preseason last year, he will take over duties as Yale’s floor general after the graduation of point guard Anthony Dallier ’17.
“It’s great having him back on the court,” Phills said. “Another veteran is always great — last year we were a young team, mainly juniors and sophomores leading the charge, so we really could have benefitted from a veteran presence out there … Our chemistry is getting a lot better on the court, and he just makes us a lot more competitive, a lot deeper — that’s one more weapon that people have to worry about.”
Oni, who will start alongside Mason in the backcourt, established himself as a dynamic scorer from the get-go last season, dazzling in his college debut at Washington with 24 points. The current sophomore backed up this electrifying debut with a very promising season that earned him an All-Ivy Second Team nod. Mason and Oni headline a deep and athletic set of guards at Jones’s disposal.
Coming off the bench as the sixth man, Copeland proved to be Yale’s most reliable scorer after playing fewer than five minutes per game as a first year in Yale’s title-winning campaign. He matched Oni’s team-high of 12.9 points a game, in an average of 25 minutes of game action. Phills, meanwhile, started all season for the Elis and earned the team’s award for top defensive player.
“We feel like our backcourts is really dynamic,” Copeland said. “We think we’re pretty deep throughout, we think our frontcourt is really strong, we have some young guys that are really stepping up so we’re confident across the board.”
To further bolster the backcourt, the Elis will incorporate sharpshooting guard Azar Swain ’21 into the rotation. Swain was named Massachusetts player of the year in his senior season at the Rivers School, where he is the all-time leader in points scored. Fellow guard Jalen Gabbidon ’21 will be out of commission until January with a broken foot, Jones said at the preseason media teleconference.
Jones stressed the “next man up” mentality in his program, and the Bulldogs will rely most on this system in the frontcourt. After playing for three years behind forwards Justin Sears ’16 — a two-time Ivy League player of the year — and First Team All-Ivy Brandon Sherrod ’16, forward Sam Downey ’17 emerged as a stalwart for the Elis in the post in his senior season. Downey averaged an efficient 11.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game last year en route to an All-Ivy Honorable Mention.
With Downey gone, Yale turns to Reynolds, Bruner and a set of other forwards who thus far have not seen significant time on the court. Paul Atkinson ’21 enters his first season as the tallest player on the roster at 6-foot-10, and Jones has described him as a versatile scorer and defender. Another contender for increased minutes in the frontcourt is 6-foot-8 Austin Williams ’20, who played in 14 games off the bench last season.
Yale’s big men will be tested early on, as the Blue travels to face two 2017 NCAA Tournament teams with top-32 RPIs in Creighton and Wisconsin this weekend. On Sunday, the Elis will take on Badgers and Ethan Happ, who was recently anointed the second-best college basketball player in the country by an ESPN panel. The third-team All-American from a season ago posted 14 points and nine boards per contest in his sophomore campaign, and he will step into an even larger role this season.
Creighton’s frontcourt, on the other hand, will be fortified by Manny Suarez, a graduate transfer from Adelphi, after the Blue Jays lost center Justin Patton to the NBA. The Chicago Bulls selected the freshman standout with the 16th overall pick in this past June’s NBA Draft and traded him to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Creighton’s real strength, however, is its guard play, headlined by the returning tandem of Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas. Foster led Creighton, a No. 6 seed at the NCAA Tournament last season, with 18.2 points per game on his way to earning unanimous first-team All-Big East recognition.
“You play teams like [Creighton and Wisconsin] because if we have any warts, we want to see what they look like,” Jones said. “The only way you can better yourself is to understand what you’re not doing well … When I first started coaching [at Yale] 19 years ago, there was a great separation, a great divide, between the teams at the top of the country and Yale basketball. But not anymore. We feel like, outside of a dozen, maybe two dozen, teams in the country, we can play with and beat anybody.”
Yale will leave New Haven early Thursday morning to fly to Omaha for Friday’s 9 p.m. matchup at Creighton.
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