Selected third in the 2018–19 Ivy League men’s basketball preseason media poll, Yale enters the season prepared to use the momentum from its past six consecutive top-three finishes to surpass those expectations.
This season, head coach James Jones, who begins his 20th season at the helm, will welcome back last year’s full starting lineup, including unanimous first-team All-Ivy selection Miye Oni ’20 and Yale’s senior trio of captains Blake Reynolds ’19, Alex Copeland ’19 and Trey Phills ’19. Yale, who trailed only Harvard and Penn in this month’s Ivy League preseason media poll, seeks a return to Ivy Madness and a place in the NCAA tournament. The Elis also look forward to the return of forward Jordan Bruner ’20, whose torn meniscus kept him from the floor all of last season.
“It’s definitely a much different experience than last year because [Bruner] brings a lot of versatility to the court when he’s out there,” said Phills. “He can shoot the ball, which stretches the floor some, and he can alter a lot of shots at the rim, which is something we could’ve improved upon last season.”
Before the 2017–18 season began, the Ivy League’s preseason media poll predicted that the Bulldogs would finish second in the Ivy League. Eight different members of the media received eight first-place votes, the most of any of the eight teams. But even prior to the team’s opening weekend, Yale had lost both Bruner and captain Makai Mason ’18 to injuries sustained in the preseason. Mason, who exacerbated a foot injury that sat him out the entire 2016–17 campaign, contributed 21 total minutes in his final year as an Eli, while Bruner underwent knee surgery just three days before Yale’s first game against Creighton.
Robbed of two probable starters, the Elis performed admirably en route to a 9–5 conference record that secured them third place in the regular season standings, the program’s sixth consecutive top-three finish. During Bruner’s first year at Yale, the six-foot-nine power forward contributed crucial minutes off the bench, pairing his team-leading 2.2 blocks per game with 5.6 rebounds and 8.8 points per game.
This year, however, Bruner will reunite with a veteran nucleus that seeks the chance to defend their home court when the John J. Lee Amphitheater hosts the conference’s third-ever Ivy Madness tournament in March. Despite strong play from Paul Atkinson ’21, who started for Yale as a first year in Bruner’s absence and led the league with his 69.2 field goal percentage, having Bruner on the court will return size and athleticism to the Yale lineup. Coach Jones and multiple players have confirmed Bruner’s healthy status as the team’s opener nears.
“Jordan is great,” said Jones. “[He’s] playing better every day and ready for the season.”
Oni will likely remain Yale’s primary offensive weapon this season. His 15.1 points and 3.6 assists per game led the team last year. Oni continues to draw the attention of NBA scouts after he was selected as one of 20 collegiate players to attend the Nike Basketball Academy during the summer before his sophomore year in 2017.
Along with Oni, Copeland and Phills anchor the Elis’ experienced backcourt. Both led the Bulldogs in steals last year with 1.1 per game and also contributed much of the offensive production. Combined, the two of them scored 637 points last year.
“Our veteran lineup has been very exciting to see in practice so far,” said Reynolds, who moored the paint with 5.5 rebounds and 10.7 points per game last year. “Experience goes a long way in the Ivy League and having players on the floor that have been there before allows for success in pressure situations.”
Jones said he plans to play a total of nine or 10 players each game. Any of them could potentially start, he said, and he and his staff are currently working through possible lineups. In addition to the impactful minutes Reynolds, Bruner, Oni, Copeland and Phills will contribute, the newfound maturity of sophomores Atkinson and Azar Swain will also benefit the Bulldogs. Averaging 19.7 minutes per game, sharpshooting Swain led Yale in three-point percentage last season.
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, experience is not a rare commodity in the Ivy League this year. Twelve of the conference’s top 15 scorers return, and Ancient Eight teams only graduated a total of six of last year’s 40 regular starters. Harvard received 12 first-place votes in the preseason media poll, and a talented junior class that includes last year’s Ivy League Player of the Year Seth Towns makes the Crimson a formidable foe. Penn, meanwhile, challenged one-seed Kansas in the opening round of last year’s NCAA tournament and returns with its first-team All-Ivy junior forward AJ Brodeur.
After playing a closed-door scrimmage at Rutgers this past weekend, the Bulldogs will depart for China this Saturday in advance of Nov. 10’s season opener against Cal in the Pac-12 China Game on ESPNU.
William McCormack | email@example.com .