Marisa Peryer / William McCormack

Early Thursday afternoon, Yale men’s basketball head coach James Jones hopes to lead his Bulldogs to another upset victory in only his second career NCAA tournament appearance — and the school’s second in 57 years.

After defeating Princeton and Harvard in New Haven to capture an Ivy Madness crown by scoring a combined 180 points across both games, No. 14 Yale (22–7, 10–4 Ivy) and its high-octane offense will meet the regular season champion out of the SEC, No. 3 LSU (26–6, 16–2 SEC). In attempting to shut down the Tigers and their star sophomore guard Tremont Waters — a New Haven native who Jones recruited — the Bulldogs will meet an athletic squad that has generated hype about its pace, freshmen class and dominance on the offensive glass.

But as Jones pointed out at media day, the Elis have largely held their own against high-major opponents like Miami and No. 1 overall seed Duke while defeating fifth-seeded Baylor back in the 2016 tournament — a win that featured minor contributions from the current senior class — without letting the opponent alter their approach to the game. Jones, in fact, watched the historic 79–75 win over the Bears on his laptop Tuesday night.

“We guarded them man-to-man in the post, we didn’t switch, we didn’t double,” Jones said. “We did what we normally do. And we were able to do that because we were good enough…so that being said, we want to play our basketball game. If that’s good enough, it’s going to be good enough. If it’s not, it’s not. But we want to play our basketball and we want to be the team — we want to be true to who Yale basketball is, and we’re going to go out and try to do that tomorrow.”

The last — and only — time the two programs met, Yale had something to prove. An underdog in the 1969 Rainbow Classic held in Hawaii, the Bulldogs downed Hawaii and San Francisco to set up a bout with LSU, headlined by the Hall of Famer “Pistol” Pete Maravich, in the final. In a close contest, the Elis downed the Tigers 97–94 after holding Maravich, who averaged 44.5 points per game that season without the aid of a shot clock or a three-point arc, to just 34 points.

Despite not facing each other in half a century, specific facets of each team’s playing style run somewhat parallel — or perpendicular — to one another. For much of the season, Yale led all of Division I in defensive rebounds for game; the Bulldogs currently collect an average of 30.2 defensive boards per game, third-most in the nation. LSU, meanwhile, crashes the offensive glass with skill and ranks eighth in the nation with 13.5 offensive rebounds a game. Both teams will battle on the boards at the same end of the floor.

“It’s nothing different,” forward Jordan Bruner ’20, who leads Yale with 8.3 rebounds a game, said. “We want to get every single rebound and it kind of doesn’t really make a difference how good they are at it. Every rebound is every rebound, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”

LSU freshman forward Naz Reid, currently projected as a top-20 pick in June’s NBA draft, and senior forward Kavell Bigby-Williams are a big reason why. Reid averages 7.2 rebounds a game, while the 6-foot-11 Bigby-Williams grabs 6.6 a game.

Bigby-Williams is also the rare upperclassmen on a Tiger team whose career experience lacks in comparison to the Elis, who start two juniors in guard Miye Oni ’20 and Bruner alongside three seniors. Jones remarked that guards Alex Copeland ’19 and Trey Phills ’19 as well as forward and captain Blake Reynolds ’19 have “had some schedules over their four years at Yale” including playing in an NCAA tournament before. Meanwhile, Bigby-Williams transferred from Oregon and is the only Tiger with NCAA tournament experience, which he accrued with the Ducks in 2016.

“I think our guys in the locker room are confident about who they are and about the guys that are sitting next to them,” Jones said. “So there’s no fear in the guys’ eyes. We watched some tape of LSU’s play and I saw some guys twitching a little bit when they saw a lob dunk or Naz going up and tipping it back in, or Skylar hammering it on somebody’s head. Again, we’ve got some pretty good highlights from our club as well. I think there is a lot of confidence in the room and it is derived from wins that you’ve had in the past.”

For the Tigers, head coach Will Wade is suspended indefinitely due to allegations regarding illegal recruiting practices. In its first game without Wade, LSU looked scattered, dropping a close 76–73 contest down the stretch to Florida in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament last weekend. Waters and fellow guard, junior Skylar Mars, said that the Bayou Bengal unit has become closer in spite of the swirling headlines.

Waters and Mars explained how players have been taking initiative in practice and stepping up to the challenge. The duo seemed to remain confident in their mindset and gameplan heading into Thursday.

“I would say we have to get back in transition because Oni, he’s a beast in transition,” Waters said. “He likes to push the ball, get out. Their point guard [Copeland], he pushes the ball a lot, and as long as we’re able to stop those two guys and pretty much play everyone inside, then I feel like we have a pretty good chance to win the game.”

Wade’s absence has recently accompanied any mention of the LSU program, but perhaps the most interesting storyline surrounding Thursday’s matchup is Waters’ ties to Yale and New Haven. The skilled point guard lives so close to Yale that he could throw a rock to Yale’s basketball facilities at Payne Whitney Gym. He started playing basketball at Yale when he and his father got a membership at PWG and he shot a basketball mixtape inside the Lanman Center as a 14-year-old that has garnered over 500,000 views on YouTube.

Waters has played pick up with Phills, Copeland and others on the Bulldog roster and often works out with Bruner when he is back in New Haven over the summer. While Yale was among the final teams he was considering, Waters initially committed to Georgetown and former Hoyas head coach John Thompson III before decommitting and finding a home in Baton Rouge. The connections stretch beyond New Haven and Yale as Waters played with Bulldog guard Azar Swain ’21 in elementary school.

“I’ve been playing against Tre since I was 10 years old,” Swain said. “We played on the same AAU team [CT Elite] in the sixth grade as well. That’s a guy I have known for a long time, so it’s good to see him doing well. He’s a quick guard that can shoot and facilitate. Anybody that can do those things will be dangerous on the court. But the coaches will have a game plan for us and we just need to execute it.”

As exciting as the reunion in Jacksonville might be, as Bruner put it, Waters will “be just another player” when Yale faces the Tigers on Thursday. The Elis will, of course, plan to defend well, share the ball and crash the glass, but they will also carry themselves with poise in the national spotlight.

An early Bulldog run could frazzle a young Tiger team without its head coach on the sideline, but an experienced Yale team is ready for anything. It’s March, after all.

“I think that coming here and seeing it before, it kind of put that dream into your mind,” Copeland said. “We were lucky to have really great seniors and really great leaders before us that were able to kind of bring some clarity to that vision. I think when you can have a dream combined with a little bit of a plan and a vision and blueprint of how to do it, you can try to do something really special.”

Entering the game as a seven-point underdog, the Bulldogs tip off with the Tigers at 12:40 p.m. EST on truTV from VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. 

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu

Cristofer Zillo | cris.zillo@yale.edu