Courtesy of Evan Ellis

Forward Jordan Bruner ’20, sidelined last season by a meniscus tear, hasn’t played an official game for Yale men’s basketball in 607 days.

Friday night, he and the Bulldogs return to the court — the hardwood at Shanghai’s Baoshan Sports Center — to take on California in the Pac-12 China Game. Yale’s focus, however, is not on Bruner’s return or even on the Cal Golden Bears, whose 8–24 record last season belies their strength as a power conference program. Instead, the Elis seek to establish a tone at the outset of their 2018–19 campaign, caring most about their own play.

“We’re just focused on us,” Bruner said. “We’re trying to go out every day and learn something new about ourselves. I think that as long as we play how we need to play, California isn’t really our biggest concern. What we do is more of a concern.”

Head coach James Jones said Yale will emphasize ball movement, rebounding and defense — three tenets that have been at the core of the Elis’ identity in Jones’ 19 years at the helm of the program. Last year, the team suffered a negative rebounding margin for the first time since the 2004–5 season as opponents grabbed an average of 0.4 more boards than the Bulldogs per game. Meanwhile, in 2016, Yale’s impressive rebounding margin of 10.9 was more than four times that of league leader Harvard’s in the 2017–18 season. That season, the Bulldogs’ 40.4 rebounds per game ranked 20th among Division I teams, and Yale famously out-rebounded Baylor 36 to 32 in its NCAA March Madness win.

Last season, Yale led the Ivy League with 16.4 assists per game, an average that ranked 26th among all 351 Division I teams. Assists were distributed across the entirety of the roster — only one player, forward Blake Reynolds ’19, contributed more than three per game while eight players tallied at least one a game.

“One of the things that has been big for us is sharing the ball and making sure everyone gets involved,” guard Alex Copeland ’19 said. “I think that if we can do that against [Cal] it will set the tone for the rest of the year and get us rolling in the right direction.”

Defense will be Yale’s final emphasis. Though the Bulldogs’ 6.6 steals per game were second in the Ancient Eight last season, the Elis also allowed opponents to shoot 46 percent from the field. Bruner’s return will provide a boon for both rebounding and defense, as the Bulldogs relied heavily on his 6-foot-9 frame in 2017. That season, as a first year, he collected 140 rebounds and 55 blocks.

The Bulldogs expect to play a large rotation of nine to 10 players. In addition to last year’s starters — Copeland, guard Trey Phills ’19, guard Miye Oni ’20, Reynolds and forward Paul Atkinson ’21 — Bruner, guard Azar Swain ’21 and guard Eric Monroe ’20 will likely make a significant impact off the bench.

Before the team left for China last Saturday, Jones said that the group’s five first years were learning the system and finding their roles. The team could also see a pair of three star first-year recruits — forward Isaiah Kelly ’22 and guard Matthue Cotton ’22 — feature prominently against Cal. Cotton led the Bulldogs with 19 points in a 93–84 scrimmage win this past Tuesday in Suzhou. In front of 4,000 Chinese fans, Yale defeated a combined team of students from Beijing’s Peking University and Suzhou’s Soochow University.

“We definitely have a talented group,” Phills said. “We have a deep team this year. I think the most important thing is just going to be playing together as a team. We definitely have guys that can have big games on any given night, but that’s not going to help us win.”

Despite the Golden Bears’ struggles last season, Cal will challenge Yale with athleticism, length and size. First-year center Connor Vanover is 7 feet, 3 inches tall, a full five inches taller than Atkinson and Jake Lanford ’22 — Yale’s two tallest players. Cal returns a trio of talented sophomores, and Jones said several players could hurt Yale offensively. Wyking Jones enters his second season as the Golden Bears’ head coach over a team highlighted by sophomores Darius McNeill, who broke the program’s first-year three-point record last season; Justice Sueing, who led the team with 15.8 points per game; and Juhwan Harris-Dyson, who became a starter during conference play after the flu forced him to miss the team’s opening games and drop 20 pounds. Top-100 first year Matt Bradley, who led Cal with 18 points in a scrimmage against Cal State East Bay last week, will also play a big role for the Golden Bears.

The Pac-12 annually sends multiple teams to the NCAA tournament, and Cal has made a total of 18 appearances, their most recent in 2016. Recent Cal alumni playing in the NBA include Jabari Bird, Ryan Anderson, Ivan Rabb, Allen Crabbe, and most notably, Jaylen Brown, who was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in 2016.

“Anytime we get a chance to play a Pac-12 team and play on national television, we just want to show the world and show people that we’re a legitimate team,” Copeland said. “If we’re playing our game, we can beat anybody in the country, and it’s a great opportunity to show people that.”

When Yale last played California in 2000, the Golden Bears defeated the Bulldogs 76–62.

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu .