In its first weekend of the season, the Yale men’s basketball team confronted a three-headed monster.
The Bulldogs (0–2, 0–0 Ivy) had to contend not only with two 2017 NCAA Tournament teams on the road but also with their own fragile health. Head coach James Jones announced this weekend that guard Makai Mason ’18 is out four to six weeks with a stress fracture in the same foot that kept him out all of last season after making the All-Ivy First Team in 2016 and that forward Jordan Bruner ’20 had surgery on Nov. 7 to repair a torn meniscus, ending his season.
Without these two integral starters, the Elis suffered a pair of double-digit losses to Creighton (2–0, 0–0 Big East) and Wisconsin (2–0, 0–0 Big Ten). Creighton’s shifty guards exposed the Yale defense in transition en route to a 92–76 victory on Friday. On Sunday night, the Badgers used their size advantage to get to the free-throw line and create easy shots while taking advantage of sloppy play from Yale in a 89–61 blowout.
“Given the last-minute injuries we’ve been faced with, I think we were trying to get a feel for the new rotations and see what works,” guard Trey Phills ’19 said. “I think what’s most important to learn from and moving forward is that we can’t feel sorry for ourselves not being at full strength — we’ve got to maintain our identity of being a team that defends, rebounds and shares the ball.”
Outside of forward Blake Reynolds ’19, the Blue struggled to find its offensive rhythm, as both opponents shut down guard Miye Oni ’20 and the team shot poorly from the perimeter. Without Bruner and All-Ivy honorable-mention forward Sam Downey ’17, Reynolds anchored the Bulldogs’ offense all weekend. In 34 minutes against the Blue Jays he led the Bulldogs with 18 points, 12 of which came on 3-pointers.
The Jackson, Missouri native sat out much of the first half against Wisconsin due to three early fouls, but he played a clean second half and provided a spark with a complete effort of 14 points, six rebounds and four assists. Forward Paul Atkinson ’21, the Elis’ tallest player, started both contests in his college debut, but foul trouble hampered him all weekend.
“I think my game inside the 3-point line has improved since last year, which in turn makes it easier for me to find open threes,” Reynolds said. “I wouldn’t say that I feel pressure, but more responsibility to help our young guys along and help them learn quickly as they are thrown into these big games.”
But on Friday night in front of a crowd of 16,611, Yale simply could not slow down Creighton’s breakneck offense. The Blue Jays shot 58.8 percent from the field behind their dynamic backcourt of Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas, who combined for 45 points.
Thomas made 10 of 12 field-goal attempts, while Foster connected on nine of 13. Creighton dominated the Bulldogs on the fast break, averaging seven fewer seconds per possession in the first half and outscoring the visitors 23–6 in transition on the night.
“Creighton plays at one of the fastest tempos in the country,” Phills said. “When you have a team that constantly sends out two guards and a post in transition, you have to be ready to sprint back and get behind the ball, and we didn’t quite do that enough.”
The Elis launched 27 3-pointers to try to keep pace, but only Reynolds had any significant success from long range. Oni, who led Yale to a 98–90 victory over Markelle Fultz and Washington with 28 points in the 2016–17 season opener, managed just nine points on 3–12 shooting, missing five out of six attempts behind the arc. Against Wisconsin, he did not fare much better, hitting three of 10 shots and turning the ball over seven times.
Guard Eric Monroe ’20 sparked a run in the first half with a layup, two steals and two assists to pull the Elis within two at 20–18. But Thomas punctuated a nearly perfect first 20 minutes — he missed just one shot — with the Blue Jays’ final seven points en route to a 47–35 halftime lead.
The Creighton offensive machine continued to hum after the break, as the Blue Jays built a lead as large as 27. Yale, however, made up 11 points in the final seven-plus minutes to nearly match Creighton’s second-half output.
Wisconsin relied far less on the fast break on Sunday night, but its size, depth and interior passing proved too much to overcome. The Badgers took advantage of Yale’s turnovers and foul trouble — they were in the bonus for nearly 12 minutes — to build a 43–22 first-half lead. On the game, the hosts shot 10 more free throws and outscored the Bulldogs 26–4 on points off turnovers.
“You play on the road, that’s one of the things that happens,” Jones said of his team’s foul trouble. “But [Wisconsin’s] size certainly was a factor. They were bigger than us in every position.”
Yale encountered perhaps the best player it will face all season in Ethan Happ, a third-team All-American, and consistently double-teamed the junior forward. Happ tallied 12 points and 11 rebounds, and his court vision created opportunities for a multifaceted Badgers offense.
Guard Khalil Iverson — the cousin of former NBA star Allen Iverson — led all scorers with 17 points on 8–9 shooting, highlighted by a poster-worthy dunk in the first half over Reynolds.
“We played in two real tough environments,” Jones said. “We’re a very young team, given the fact of the guys we lost [to injury] … We had stretches where we looked good, but we were not able to sustain play.”
Yale returns to John J. Lee Amphitheater for its home opener Tuesday night against South Carolina State at 7 p.m.
Steven Rome | firstname.lastname@example.org