A Thanksgiving reunion, of sorts, will arrive early for head coach James Jones and the Yale men’s basketball team.
Yale (1–2, 0–0 Ivy) on Friday night will face Albany (2–0, 0–0 America East), where Jones played during his college years, graduating in 1986, and started his coaching career. Warm feelings aside, the Great Danes — undefeated in the young 2017–18 campaign — present a test for the undermanned Elis, who will remain busy over the holiday break.
The Bulldogs blew out South Carolina State on Tuesday for their first win of the season, 86–54, after two losses to high-profile opponents. Friday’s Yale-Albany showdown begins a schedule stuffed with four games in eight days and culminating in a home game against a talented Vermont team (0–1, 0–0 America East). With revenge on the line, the tilt will serve as a benchmark of the Elis’ current competitiveness.
“I have a great close-knit group of friends that I still have from school, and a bunch of them will be at the game, so I can’t help but think about it,” Jones said of returning to his alma mater. “The game against Albany, rebounding is going to be really important. So we have to do a really good job of being strong in the post, doing a great job of offensive rebounding — that’s the main key.”
Jones has good reason to emphasize rebounding ahead of Yale’s trip to Albany. The Great Danes outrebounded their two opponents by a combined 31 boards, and four of their five starters are averaging at least five rebounds per game.
Albany topped Iona, which Yale will face later in December, and Boston University — coached by none other than Jones’s brother, Joe Jones — to start its season off with a pair of wins. In both games, guard David Nicholls led the Great Danes in scoring, and three other starters have also averaged double-digit scoring over the two contests.
Jones highlighted post defense and limiting penetration as two areas of improvement after Tuesday’s victory. Though Creighton and Wisconsin dropped 92 and 89 points in their triumphs over Yale, the Eli defense shut down South Carolina State, yielding just 54 points.
“We know that if you let anybody shoot over 50 percent from the field … and give up 90 points, you’re not going to win,” guard Alex Copeland ’19 said. “One of the things we’re really focusing on is making sure we’re in the right spots off the ball and making sure we’re keeping our guys in front of us. Defensively, we’re going to be really locked in these next few games.”
Meanwhile, without the scoring presences of Makai Mason ’18 and Jordan Bruner ’20, ball movement has become even more important to Yale’s offensive approach — and the Bulldogs have been delivering. They have assisted on 49 of 77 field goals this season, or over 60 percent of their made shots.
Yale scorers have been especially thankful for Copeland and guard Miye Oni ’20, who lead the team in assists. After Creighton and Wisconsin restricted Yale’s offensive flow in the season’s first two games, a lesser South Carolina State squad struggled to contain the Bulldogs’ quick ball movement.
On the receiving end, a series of less-established players have demonstrated flashes of talent with their newly heightened responsibilities. Forward Noah Yates ’18 — who only joined the team last season after playing on the football team in his first two years at Yale — posted his best collegiate stat line, with 16 points, six rebounds and 4–5 three-point shooting in 18 minutes of work against South Carolina State.
Forward Paul Atkinson ’21 has started all three games, and on Tuesday he grabbed 10 rebounds, including five on the offensive glass.
In the backcourt, guard Eric Monroe ’20 has provided bursts of energy off the bench to back up Copeland, and in both the Creighton and Wisconsin games his quick hands on defense and ability to push the ball in transition helped ignite Eli scoring runs.
“They are relishing the opportunities,” Jones said. “Noah is a walk-on for us, and he’s had to work really hard. I’m happy that the benefits of his hard work are paying off — that’s not always the case.”
Yale’s Nov. 25 matchup with Vermont will require a complete effort from the depth chart. The Bulldogs narrowly lost to the Catamounts a year ago on a buzzer-beater, 67–65, and Vermont went on to earn a 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Catamounts pushed Kentucky — currently ranked No. 7 in the AP Top 25 — to the limit, after a furious second-half comeback in their first game of the 2017–18 campaign.
The Wildcats went up 36–24 in the first half, but Vermont guard Trae Bell-Haynes, a senior, poured in 10 points and four assists after the break to carry the Catamounts within three in Kentucky. Vermont starts two other guards — brothers Ernie and Everett Duncan — alongside Bell-Haynes.
Returning Bulldogs are quite familiar with Ernie Duncan, who hit a go-ahead layup with 0.8 seconds remaining in last November’s meeting. Yale held a two-point lead with under two minutes to play, but the Catamounts fought back to tie the game from the charity stripe before Duncan’s dagger.
“It’s not on any of our minds — we try and just focus on the next game and take it one at a time,” guard Trey Phills ’19 said. “But we always play Vermont pretty close. They’re a disciplined and talented team, and I don’t think they’re losing many people from last year, so when we get to that point we’ll give them the attention they deserve.”
Sandwiched in between the Albany and Vermont games, the Bulldogs will face Division III Curry — which went 1–24 in 2016–17 — on Sunday at John J. Lee Amphitheater. They then head south to Mississippi for a meeting with Alcorn State (0–3, 0–0 Southwestern) on Wednesday afternoon. Alcorn State, like Yale, fell to Creighton in a blowout, 109–72, as part of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic.
Yale plays Albany at 7 p.m. on Friday.
Steven Rome | email@example.com