Marisa Peryer

Yale men’s basketball guard Miye Oni ’20 was spot on.

After the Bulldogs (22–7, 10–4 Ivy) beat Harvard (18-11, 10–4) in Sunday afternoon’s Ivy Madness final, Yale’s star junior guard — who scored 17 points despite sitting much of the second half because of foul trouble — predicted the NCAA tournament selection committee would confer the Elis a fourteen seed. A little more than three hours later, the Bulldogs, surrounded by family and friends on the second floor of Yale’s Ray Tompkins House, watched live as CBS’s Greg Gumbel announced the Bulldogs’ matchup with No. 3 LSU (26–6, 16–2 SEC).

“From a decade of watching the tournament and knowing how things ago — [we] had a couple bad losses, couple good wins, the teams you beat that are good have to beat some other teams,” Oni said. “Miami beat a couple teams in the ACC, Cal didn’t really beat teams in the Pac-12, so I’m guessing we’ll be about a fourteen seed. I think fourteen at worst.”

And although some have grumbled that Yale deserved a thirteen seed, the No. 14 Elis have garnered early attention — from college basketball analysts, average fans and even celebrities  — as a popular upset pick.

Historically, fourteen seeds in the NCAA tournament have understandably struggled against their three-seed opponents. No. 3 seeds have won 84.6 percent of their first round games, but in the past decade, No. 14 seeds have pulled off six upsets. Most recently, Stephen F. Austin defeated West Virginia by fourteen points in 2016, and in 2013, Harvard took down three-seed New Mexico 68–62. For those filling out their brackets, picking a twelve seed over a five — as some did when No. 12 Yale upset No. 5 Baylor in 2016 — or even a thirteen seed over a six may be more fashionable, but the Bulldogs appear to be bucking that trend this year.

As of early Wednesday afternoon, 16 percent — more than any thirteen seed aside from UC Irvine in the South — of those who completed a bracket on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge predicted the Elis would defeat LSU. FiveThirtyEight also rates Yale’s chance of victory at 16 percent, the highest for any matchup featuring a fourteen seed or above, while ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives the Bulldogs a 20.2 percent chance to defeat the Bayou Bengals.

“And who says Yale couldn’t win in the Big Dance?” ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi said in a short segment on the Elis earlier this week. “They did three years ago against Baylor and then took Duke for forty minutes before falling. The biggest upset of the first round is coming in Jacksonville. Yale knocks out LSU.”

Although Yale is the most recent Ivy League team to win a game in the Big Dance, tournament success for an Ancient Eight team would be far from unprecedented. No. 16 Penn trailed No. 1 Kansas by single digits for much of last year’s game, No. 12 Princeton fell to No. 5 Notre Dame by only two in 2017, and Harvard won games in consecutive years in 2013 and 2014.

Before Yale even knew its seed or opponent, Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker, less than an hour after his squad’s defeat at Ivy Madness, expressed optimism about the Bulldogs. The Crimson, meanwhile, visits Georgetown in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament Wednesday night.

“It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if they go on a run in the tournament,” Amaker said. “I think they’re good enough, they’re talented enough, and if they’re healthy, absolutely. They’ll have a chance, in my opinion, to do some damage in the tournament.”

Other famous college basketball minds agree. ESPN’s Jay Bilas has Yale advancing to the Round of 32 before falling to Belmont, and analyst Andy Katz put the Bulldogs in his Sweet 16. Even 2 Chainz, who briefly played basketball for Alabama State University in the 1990s, is bullish, also selecting Yale to soar to the Sweet 16.

Yale’s effective field goal percentage of 56.1 ranks 11th in the country, a statistic that signifies the Elis’ immense offensive firepower and hot shooting ability that bodes well for a potential upset. Other discussion has centered around Yale’s pace of play. The Bulldogs, like LSU, play an up-tempo game and their possessions per game rank among the top forty in Division I basketball, a characteristic that is typically undesirable for a Cinderella candidate.

“It’s cool to finally get the national recognition that I feel like we deserve, but it’s all on paper, so it really means nothing,” guard Trey Phills ’19 said. “We can’t have anything guaranteed. It energizes us and gives us a sense of confidence, but nothing that we already didn’t believe about ourselves.”

 

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu