When I sauntered in late to the John J. Lee Amphitheater on Friday night, I was not expecting to have to scour for a seat, let alone sit on the visitors’ side.
Maybe shopping period drew a big crowd of disappointed seminar-seekers craving a seat to cheer on their Elis for the first time since break. Maybe it was the presence of multiple youth teams for “Kids’ Night” that made Lee Amphitheater seem so full. Or maybe word has been spreading that this is the best Yale men’s basketball team since the Bulldogs upset Baylor and nearly toppled Duke in the NCAA Tournament three years ago. On the belief that the latter is true, let me join in on the word-spreading endeavor.
Superlatives tell part of the story. At 12–3, the Elis are off to their best start since World War II. They’ve won eight straight games and defeated Power Five programs Miami and California. Typically known for defense, they rank atop the Ivy League in scoring by nearly five points. They haven’t lost at home in a year. They just swept Ancient Eight upstart Brown, including a nail-biter in Providence.
And the last time Yale did lose? That was to No. 2 Duke and to the presumptive top pick in this June’s NBA draft, Zion Williamson. The Bulldogs trailed by just nine at the half, and their own blue-chip NBA prospect, Miye Oni ’20, outscored Williamson in the first 20 minutes.
But there’s more than just flashy statistics to buttress the team’s bid for your attention. Yale, knock on wood, boasts three attributes that even basketball czar James Jones — newly crowned as one of only three Ivy coaches to amass 300 wins — can’t teach: depth, health and experience.
The team starts three seniors, all of whom witnessed and even participated in the heroics in Providence at March Madness as rookies. Captain Blake Reynolds ’19 saw 10 minutes of action in the upset over Baylor and hit a three-pointer; Trey Phills ’19 played eight minutes in the second-round loss to — guess who — Duke. Senior guards win games in March, unless they’re first-year guards named Makai Mason. The potential for the veterans to bookend their tenure with an NCAA Tournament appearance is almost — almost — too storybook for a midseason YDN column.
Add in Jordan Bruner ’20, the wiry shot-blocker who forewent the opportunity to play at Clemson and is finally healthy after missing all of last season with a knee injury. And — get this — the 6-foot-9-inch forward leads the conference with a shade over four dimes per game.
Five players are averaging double figures, four of which are also securing at least five rebounds per game. They can beat you off the dribble, in transition and from the three-point line. Oni is the undisputed star, but he’s not alone.
And the Elis fulfill many of the attributes of a bracket-busting squad. Nothing, I can imagine, makes Jones happier than his squad leading the Ivies in rebounding, and three of the top ten assists leaders don the blue and white. Yale does the proverbial little things right. Phills will stymie the opponent’s best player — he just did this twice to the top-three scoring leader Desmond Cambridge, with help from Oni — and Alex Copeland ’19 brings the calmness and free-throw shooting prowess of a fourth-year guard. If you need an electrifying dunk, Oni and Bruner have you covered.
To get there, of course, Yale first has to capture the Ivy League’s automatic berth, which runs this year through trusty ole John J. Lee Amphitheater, host of Ivy Madness in March. Would you put it past Jones for orchestrating this exquisite timing?
Meanwhile, the rest of the league is in chaos. Lowly Dartmouth (or so we thought) shocked Harvard to open its campaign, and Princeton topped last year’s champion Penn — twice. The Tigers, meanwhile, just suspended their best player, sharpshooter Devin Cannady, for punching a campus police officer at a convenience store. That punch landed squarely in the Tiger’s championship-seeking guts. Stars shinier than Jones’ head are aligning for the Elis.
It won’t be easy, of course; it never is. The wild first two weekends of the Ancient Eight season reinforced that tired adage.
Harvard — Yale’s opponent this Friday — portends a formidable challenge, as always, led by Mr. Incredibles–like forward Chris Lewis. Lewis has 30 pounds on Bruner, 15 pounds on Paul Atkinson ’21 and two inches on Reynolds. Seth Towns, the Ivy League Player of the Year, has missed the entire season, but Bryce Aiken, the Rookie of the Year two years ago, just returned. On sheer talent alone, the Crimson can’t be underestimated. And don’t count out Penn, which beat No. 14 Villanova in December.
Which is all to say that this basketball season will be fun. Seven weeks from now, Lee Amphitheater will be sold out and making the most of its poor acoustics for the four-team playoff. This self-identifying pundit fully expects Yale will be there — en route, maybe just maybe, to one more matchup with Duke?
I can’t promise that, but I can promise I’ll show up on time from now on. Players, just don’t get into any fights at Durfee’s.
Steven Rome | email@example.com .