It was disappointment, not frustration or anger, that loomed over the Yale men’s basketball team’s final press conference of the 2017–18 season.
Winners of seven of their final eight regular season games, the Elis stormed into the Ivy League Tournament eyeing a second victory over Penn in two weeks. But in 40 minutes of semifinal action, the Bulldogs were thoroughly outplayed by the conference champion Quakers, who advanced to the NCAA Tournament with the Ancient Eight’s automatic bid.
“We were feeling really good coming into this game, we finished out the season really strong,” forward Blake Reynolds ’19 said. “So not performing up to the level that we have been is definitely disappointing. We just didn’t take care of business on the court.”
With the loss, a year that saw Yale climb back into championship contention after a 2–4 league start was reduced to a painfully lopsided 80–57 score. The Bulldogs didn’t show up for the biggest game of the season, and all of their mounting momentum came to a sudden halt.
It was a fate that might have been expected at the start of the campaign, when All-Ivy caliber talents Makai Mason ’18 and Jordan Bruner ’20 suffered injuries that would limit the duo to 21 total minutes of game time on the season. But the Bulldogs had defeated the Quakers just one week prior and had every reason to believe they could do it again on the Ivy League’s biggest stage.
In the end, Yale failed to stay within striking distance of Penn and walked away from the Palestra with crushed dreams of an NCAA Tournament appearance for the second consecutive season. Still, in many regards, the Elis made the most of their situation in head coach James Jones’ 19th campaign as head coach.
“I’m extremely proud of this Yale basketball team and our program for what we’ve been able to do,” Jones said. “I often go into games hoping that two of the best players on the other team won’t be playing — if I can take him out, and I can take him out, let’s lace them up and play. But that’s not how it’s played. No one that played Yale is feeling sorry for us, and we can’t feel sorry for ourselves. But [starting the Ivy season] 2–4 and getting to the tournament in third place outright, that you can tip your hat at.”
In the absence of Mason and Bruner, Jones was forced to rely on a young but battle-tested core of players that gained invaluable experience this season. Leading the charge was guard Miye Oni ’20, who followed up a breakout first season with a sophomore campaign that earned him unanimous first-team All-Ivy honors. With team-leading averages of 15.1 points, six rebounds and 3.6 assists, Oni was the centerpiece of Yale’s gameplans and opponents’ scouting reports throughout the season.
Another standout contributor was guard Trey Phills ’19, who bounced back from poor play in the nonconference season to garner recognition on the All-Ivy Second Team. Known primarily for his perimeter defensive prowess and supreme athleticism, Phills showed a more complete game this season with upticks on the offensive end of the floor.
After Jones took him out of the starting lineup in the nonconference season, Phills worked his way back into the first five and averaged nearly 10 more minutes of game action in the Ancient Eight campaign.
“To be honest, it just felt good to complete an Ivy season that was just so much better than the first half of the year for me,” Phills said. “I felt like it was frustrating in the first half because I knew how hard I worked all offseason. I’m just glad that some of the fruits of my labor were showing in Ivy play, so it was nice.”
Alongside Phills, Reynolds and guard Alex Copeland ’19 will offer Jones a luxury next season that he never had this year: on-court senior leadership. After leading the team in scoring off the bench a year ago, Copeland once again brought speed and an effective mid-range game to Yale’s backcourt. But as Phills grew more integral to the offense in the Ivy slate, Copeland started to fade, scoring in double figures in just one of his last eight games.
Without Bruner, Reynolds and first year Paul Atkinson ’21 were thrust into leading roles in the frontcourt, and both played well but inconsistently over the course of the season. With regular season champion Harvard returning 235-pound First Team All-Ivy forward Chris Lewis, these forwards will need to step up and bulk up for Yale to rise to the top of the league next season.
In terms of stature as recruits, Bruner is Yale’s counterpoint to Lewis, but he does not play like a traditional post player. After two years dogged by knee trouble, the hyper-athletic Bruner is both the Bulldogs’ biggest question mark and biggest source of potential.
Harvard, meanwhile, will hope that its own injured stud, Bryce Aiken, will return to the form that earned him Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors in 2017. And while Penn graduates its senior floor general Darnell Foreman, the one-two punch of A.J. Brodeur and Ryan Betley will be back as juniors for the gritty tournament champions.
Brodeur carved up the Eli defense in the teams’ final meeting, while the Quakers shut down Oni and held Yale to 5–25 shooting from outside. For Jones, this was the the final chapter of a promising season marred by bad luck.
“We missed shots,” Jones said. “Penn does a really good job at defending the three, but I thought we had shots that were open that just didn’t go down. We got a little tight … I’m not so sure that it was anything other than bad luck — sometimes the only luck you have is bad.”
While Yale went home, Penn flew out to Wichita and played competitively against Final Four-bound No. 1 Kansas for long stretches of their first round matchup. With Mason graduating, the memories of the Elis’ 2016 NCAA Tournament run are receding. Next year, it will be up to the bench players on that team and a talented set of underclassmen to make their own noise in March.
Perhaps this time, luck will be on their side.
Won Jung | firstname.lastname@example.org
Steven Rome | email@example.com