MEN’S BASKETBALL: Elis prepare for 2019–20 campaign
Though the Bulldogs return just one starter, they’ll compete in an Ivy League that has proven its parity
When the NCAA Division I men’s basketball season opens early next week, only one of Yale’s five starters from the 2018–19 season will suit up for the Elis.
There will be no Alex Copeland ’19, Blake Reynolds ’19, Trey Phills ’19 or Miye Oni. Copeland, Reynolds and Phills graduated in May, while Oni departed Yale after his junior season for the Utah Jazz and became the first Ivy League basketball player drafted into the NBA since 1995. Forward Jordan Bruner ’20 remains the only returning starter.
Still, success at the Ivy League Championship is still within reach for the Elis this season. The team plays in a conference that has demonstrated its relative parity in recent years. Entering the final weekend of regular season play last year, the Ivy League led the country’s 32 basketball conferences in close-game percentage by a significant margin: 42.5 percent of league competitions were decided in overtime or by four points or less. Head coach James Jones, the longest tenured coach in the Ancient Eight, returns Bruner alongside his biggest bench weapons last year — forward Paul Atkinson ’21 and guard Azar Swain ’21 — both of whom are poised to contribute full time from the starting lineup.
Other players said spots in the rest of the rotation are entirely up for grabs, and a “friendly competitiveness,” as guard Mike Feinberg ’22 put it, has defined the atmosphere during preseason practices.
“I feel like people don’t think that we have a lot of depth this year, but if you come to our practices, there’s always competition,” Atkinson said. “Each practice is a grind. Everybody is trying to get minutes settled, and no minutes are determined yet. Everybody’s just trying to fight for playing time, and everyone’s really good on the court.”
Copeland, Reynolds, Phills and Oni contributed almost 66 percent of the Bulldogs’ scoring last season, leading Yale to a 22–8 overall record and a 10–4 mark in the Ivy League. Yale shared the regular season trophy with Harvard before defending its home court to win the conference’s Ivy Madness postseason tournament and advance to March Madness. Marking only the school’s fifth trip to the tournament and second under Jones, Yale met third-seeded LSU in the first round and ultimately fell 79–74.
Atkinson, Bruner and Swain compose the trio of key contributors who return after last year’s championship run, and they are supplemented by the return of captain and guard Eric Monroe ’20, who averaged just over 10 minutes a game in valuable spurts directing the offense. His 1.86 assist-to-turnover ratio was the best among all Elis. Atkinson finished his sophomore year with 69.7 percent shooting from the field, a mark that improved on the school record he set during his first year with the Elis. His sophomore campaign also marked the second straight season in which the big man led the Ivy League in field goal percentage.
Bruner, meanwhile, started all 30 games last year after missing his entire sophomore season due to a meniscus injury. Bruner roared into the 2018–19 season free from injury and did a little of everything for the Bulldogs, finishing top three in assists, rebounds, steals, blocks and minutes. His 8.3 rebounds a game ranked second in the conference.
“We still have guys on our team that have been in war and know what it takes to get back to the top, and we have other guys on our team that are very capable and will get some opportunities,” Swain said. “We know that we have a very capable and talented team, and we are just focusing on ourselves right now and improving a little bit everyday.”
Swain served as a valuable offensive asset last season and has appeared in every game during his Yale career. The six-foot shooter converted 40.9 percent of attempts from deep and finished the year tied for seventh in the conference with 1.8 three-point field goals per game. Contributors off the bench also included forward Austin Williams ’20 and guard Jalen Gabbidon ’21, whose season ended early due to an injury.
Still, the dynamic has inevitably changed, Atkinson and Feinberg said. The size of the Yale team has shrunk from 18 to 15 athletes, with four seniors and Oni departing and only two first years — guard August Mahoney ’23 and forward EJ Jarvis ’23 — joining the squad.
“We lost a lot of our leaders from last year, [including] some of our starters, and we only brought in two freshmen,” Atkinson said. “We went from 18 to 15, which doesn’t sound like a huge change, but it just feels a lot different in the locker room. It hasn’t been a problem at all. We’re all still really close together, but it’s a slight change [from] our seniors last year and the connection we had with them.”
Yale travelled to China to open the season last November against Cal Berkeley in the Pac-12 China Game. While the team thought positively of the experience and the season-opening win, staying stateside this November offers a more manageable pace to the start of the season. Last year, 348 of the 351 programs in DI basketball played a home game before the Bulldogs hosted Lehigh in New Haven on Dec. 5. The Bulldogs open at home on Friday, Nov. 8, against Oberlin, this season’s DIII opponent, and play two more games at the John J. Lee Amphitheater before winter break — against Siena in a midweek matchup and versus America East power Vermont the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
Despite staying inside the country, Yale will again log significant early-season mileage, set to play in California, Oklahoma, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina on five separate trips during a 50-day stretch between Nov. 11 and Dec. 30.
“We don’t have the China trip, [and] that really put a damper on everyone’s academics, schedule and also our sleeping schedules [last year] because we had to adjust to the different time zones,” Feinberg said. “We don’t have that this year, but we still do have a pretty hefty nonconference … So we still probably have the most, if not one of the most, miles [of travel] in the Ivy League, I’d say.”
The Elis kick off their 2019–20 season with a trip to Long Island next Tuesday for a 7 p.m. game at Stony Brook.
William McCormack | firstname.lastname@example.org