While most Yale fans will flock north to Fenway Park for the 135th iteration of Harvard-Yale football on Saturday, a different Bulldog team will have already flown south, adding about a thousand miles to the 14,000 it traveled for last weekend’s Pac-12 China Game in Shanghai.
Eight hours after kickoff in Boston, the Yale men’s basketball team (1–0, 0–0 Ivy) will tip-off at the FedExForum in Tennessee, where it aims to defeat a refreshed, veteran squad in the University of Memphis (1–1, 0–0 AAC). Former NBA All-Star, Tiger guard and first-year head coach Penny Hardaway will look to counteract Yale’s own experience — the Bulldogs return all five of last year’s starters — with Memphis’ top-scoring seniors and high-pressure defense.
“Hopefully the two teams play at a high level,” head coach James Jones said. “At this point in the season when you have veteran teams, you’re able to get a little bit more along than if you had a younger team. We’ll have more of the offensive and defensive package in, as I’m sure Memphis will as well.”
Through two games, Memphis seniors Kyvon Davenport and Jeremiah Martin lead the Tigers in scoring with 20.0 and 16.5 points per game, respectively. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Tuesday night, the duo led Memphis to a close loss against No. 22 LSU, with first-year guard Tyler Harris netting 20 points on six three-pointers for Memphis. Eli guards Miye Oni ’20 and Trey Phills ’19 tracked the contest, which featured the Bayou Bengals’ star sophomore point guard and New Haven–native Tremont Waters.
The Tigers forced 14 LSU turnovers and notched five steals in the nine-point loss. Yale, who practically gifted Cal 12 turnovers in the first half of its season opener, will focus on controlling the rock this Saturday night. After getting on a 15–0 run midway through the first half, the Elis cruised to a 76–59 victory. But Oni remarked that the team believed it could have won the game by more than 30 if Yale had been more vigilant with the basketball.
“We need to cut down on turnovers,” Phills said. “We had 19 against Cal. A lot of them were really unforced — just taking care of the ball, trying not to force things, playing smarter, and I think we’ll cut down on them a lot.”
Given Memphis’ tendency to play aggressive defense, the Elis need to be extra careful to not give away possessions. Yale expects the Tigers to press often and trap the Bulldogs on defense for most of the game, according to Phills.
In preseason interviews, Hardaway repeatedly expressed his team’s desire to play an up-tempo, fast-paced game. In Memphis’ season-opening win against Tennessee Tech, the team scored 24 of its 76 points on fast breaks. Yale, on the other hand, notched only four points in transition against the Golden Bears.
“Memphis likes to pressure a lot,” Oni said. “We need to make sure we settle down and get into our offense. We know their personnel. The coaching staff has been watching them for over a week now.”
Staying out of foul trouble will also be a priority for Yale. Oni, forward Paul Atkinson ’21 and forward Blake Reynolds ’19 all picked up four personal fouls against Cal, relegating them to the bench for much of the game. Cal, meanwhile, took advantage of the Elis’ undisciplined play, scoring 21 of its 59 points from the free-throw line.
Oni played a career-low 16 minutes in Shanghai, but despite the limited role of three of last season’s starters, the Bulldogs found other sources of offensive production. Guard Azar Swain ’21, named the Alibaba Group Player of the Game, scored 16 points off the bench, igniting the first-half run on which Yale capitalized to take the lead. He also added six rebounds and four assists.
“It was great, seeing him get going,” Phills said. “Honestly, it wasn’t surprising. We know he’s capable of having a game like that. It could’ve been anybody. He was in the right spot and made some big shots for us — nothing surprising.”
Hardaway comes in with a star-studded staff that includes two-time NBA champion Mike Miller and former Toronto Raptors coach Sam Mitchell. Memphis fans hope this coaching lineup can breathe new life into a program that has yet to fully recover from the departure of former head coach John Calipari for Kentucky in 2009.
Although the Tigers have failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament in each of the last four seasons, the program advanced to at least four straight Sweet Sixteens prior to 2010, including an overtime loss to Kansas in the 2008 NCAA National Championship. In Calipari’s final four seasons with Memphis, the team went a remarkable 61–1 in conference play, while the Chicago Bulls selected Memphis guard Derrick Rose with the first pick in the 2008 NBA draft.
Yale’s most recent win against an American Athletic Conference foe came in December 2014 when the Bulldogs stunned defending national champion UConn, defeating the Huskies 45–44 at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs.
William McCormack | email@example.com