When head coach James Jones planned his nonconference schedule for the 2017 season, he was not looking for easy, confidence-boosting wins. Rather, he wanted to see what his team needed to improve on before heading into conference play, which begins in just over a month’s time.
That’s why the Yale men’s basketball team opened the season with bouts against Creighton, now ranked No. 25 in the country, and Wisconsin, national championship finalists three seasons ago. That’s why the Bulldogs (5–5, 0–0 Ivy) faced off against No. 23 TCU (8–0, 0–0 Big 12) this past Saturday.
But Jones could not have planned for debilitating injuries just before the start of the season that have forced his team to improvise with a makeshift rotation featuring inexperienced first years. The Elis have dropped all three contests to their biggest-name opponents by an average margin of 23.3 points. The most recent of this trio of defeats came to the Horned Frogs, 92–66. Yale stayed close with TCU for the majority of the first half but simply could not stop an elite offense on its home floor.
“Our biggest issue right now is that we haven’t really practiced in quite some time,” Jones said. “We’ve had a lot of slippage in our half-court defense. We just didn’t do a really good job of playing team defense, both in the half court and in transition. I’m looking forward to getting back and having a couple days in practice this week to be able to work on [that].”
The Elis blitzed TCU early as guard Alex Copeland ’19 scored eight points in the game’s opening six minutes, including Yale’s first six points. The Bulldogs opened up a 12–6 lead on the Horned Frogs thanks to the junior’s boost, as the home offense crawled out of the gates.
But TCU quickly came to life and overtook Yale’s lead with a balanced offensive front. Seven players scored for the Horned Frogs in the first half to flip the score in the blink of an eye. At the 2:28 mark, the Elis trailed the No. 23 team in the country by just four points. By halftime, they were down by 14.
In the crucial closing moments of the first half, Yale failed to execute on offense, committing two turnovers and making just one shot in the final 2:28. TCU, on the other hand, scored 13 points in the same stretch and seized control of the game. According to Jones, the Bulldogs’ offensive struggles exacerbated their deficiencies on defense as they put pressure on themselves for failing to put the ball in the basket.
The second half saw these themes continue as the Horned Frogs never let Yale come close for the remainder of the game. They improved to 8–0 on the season and pushed their nation-best winning streak to 13 games.
“All good teams do the same thing” Jones said. “They know who they are, and they play to their strengths. [TCU] did a great job of that. They don’t take shots they shouldn’t take. They stay within themselves, and they play good, solid team basketball. … It just shows you the kind of team that’s necessary to stay successful.”
The Elis drained at least 50 percent of their 3-pointers in each of their wins last week and rank seventh in the country in total 3-pointers. They continued to shoot in volume from the perimeter on Saturday night, but this time, those shots did not fall.
Forward Blake Reynolds ’19 tied a season high with 18 points last Wednesday against Bryant, powered by four jumpers from beyond the arc. But against TCU, he missed all eight of his 3-point attempts and went 0–10 from the floor for his first scoreless game of the season.
“When we get hot from beyond the arc, everything works,” guard Trey Phills ’19 said. “When we’re not hitting shots, we have to find ways to create better offense. … We just have to get back in the gym and practice and get back to what we do — getting paint touches, which leads to better looks from outside.”
The team shot 7–25 from deep — and the game’s standout sharpshooter was not wearing Yale Blue. TCU’s Desmond Bane knocked down five of eight 3-pointers for 15 of his game-high 18 points.
Bane’s astronomical efficiency was no outlier for TCU, which shot just under 60 percent and assisted on 22 of 38 field goals. Guard Jaylen Fisher notched 17 points on 8–10 shooting and facilitated his prolific teammates with seven assists. Six Horned Frog players surpassed double digits in scoring, and that cohort did not even include TCU’s leading scorer heading into the matchup, forward Vladimir Brodziansky, who managed just five points.
Despite Brodziansky’s off game, TCU made Yale pay in the paint. The Horned Frogs outscored Yale inside by a margin of 48–28, despite one of the strongest games of Yale rookie forward Paul Atkinson’s ’21 young career. Thrust into the starting lineup after forward Jordan Bruner ’20 tore his meniscus, Atkinson notched personal bests in minutes and points on Saturday night.
To Jones, Atkinson’s nine rebounds — including five offensive boards — were more important than his 15 points. The TCU game marked Atkinson’s highest rebound total in the last five games.
“He chased the ball on the glass,” Jones said. “That’s something that we thought he was going to be able to do for us this year, and he hasn’t really done it. But he did a great job in this game on just getting on the glass and chasing and giving us those extra opportunities. Extra-chance points are going to be crucial for a stretch run in the Ivy League.”
Yale’s grueling nonconference schedule continues on Wednesday at Lehigh. The Elis will take on the Mountain Hawks at 7 p.m. in the second leg of their four-game road stretch.
Steven Rome | firstname.lastname@example.org
Won Jung | email@example.com