William McCormack

15 down. 15 to go.

A 50-point win over Johnson and Wales ushered the Yale men’s basketball team to the midway point of its regular season on Sunday, and with league play beginning this weekend in New Haven, the Bulldogs have an opportunity to make a statement to start the second half.

Picked third in the Ivy League Men’s Basketball Preseason Media Poll, Yale (11–4, 0–0 Ivy) has turned into the Ancient Eight favorite on the eve of conference play. The Bulldogs, who lost four starters from last season’s NCAA Tournament team, welcome Brown (7–6, 0–0) to the John J. Lee Amphitheater at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night. To start 2020, the Bears earned their best victory of the season, a 85–75 upset of in-state rival Rhode Island, but projections consider the Elis heavy favorites on their home court.

“We’re excited to begin conference play this weekend,” guard Jalen Gabbidon ’21 said. “Our mindset is to treat every game like our season is on the line. We understand that nothing you do in the nonconference matters once conference play starts. The only thing we’re focused on is continuing to get better and preparing for the next game. Our goal is to be undefeated from now until the end of the season.”

Head coach James Jones, in his 21st season at the helm, has led the Bulldogs to at least a fourth-place finish in the Ancient Eight for 19 consecutive seasons and has surpassed preseason poll expectations in 10 of the last 14 years. Yale opened the season ranked 146th among all 353 NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams in the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings (KenPom), 34 spots behind Penn and 71 behind Harvard. Over November and December, the Elis inched their way up the national rankings, surpassing league rivals and every other DI program in New England.

The Bulldogs now rank 59th on KenPom and 58th in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) while entering this weekend’s contest with Brown, who currently sit at 208th on KenPom and 214th in the NET. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives Yale a 92.1 percent chance to take Friday’s opener, while a model developed by former Yale Undergraduate Sports Analytics Group president Luke Benz ’19 predicts the Elis win by over 15, 76 to 60. Yale is 4–0 at the John J. Lee Amphitheater this season and dropped only two games there last year.

Although projections don’t always convey the full story, handling its first Ivy League opponent would sustain Yale’s rise. A win, no matter how close, would maintain its current status as a conference favorite. And for a Bulldog squad striding into Ivy play with 11 wins and a Quadrant 1 victory over Clemson, who defeated No. 3 Duke Tuesday night and jumped to 75th in the NET, a dominant showing could send a strong message. Some bracketologists, like The Athletic’s Eamonn Brennan, have included Yale in early “bubble watch” breakdowns for March Madness. Their shot at an at-large bid might be slim, but the Elis have entered the conversation.

The Bears bring their own plans for victory to New Haven, having won two straight games after a largely disappointing stretch leading into the holidays. Brown graduated 2018–19 Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Obi Okolie and lost guard Desmond Cambridge, who transferred to Nevada after finishing fifth in the Ancient Eight with 15.3 points a game last season as a sophomore. There absences took their toll in late November and December, resulting in a six-game stretch over which Brown went 1–5.

The Bears put forth a respectable effort in the final contest of that stretch, visiting Cameron Indoor Stadium to face off against No. 3 Duke, no small feat for any team. The Bears entered halftime trailing by just six points — a deficit that hovered at nine with nine minutes to play — before the Blue Devils took over  the game with a 20–4 run. Senior guard Brandon Anderson scored a team-high 16 points and dished out three assists against the perennial powerhouse but shot only five-for-15 from the field.

“I can’t speak for everybody, but personally, I follow the league closely so I know what they’ve done,” captain and guard Eric Monroe ’20 said. “They just had a good win against Rhode Island, so they got some momentum coming in.”

Looking to snap a run of losses, Brown hosted URI on Jan. 2. The Rams have been impressive in recent years, making it past the first round of the NCAA Tournament two seasons in a row — but the game belonged to the Bears in what was a statement win for the team. Brown closed out on shooters excellently, limiting the Rams to a paltry 4–20 mark from three-point range. Senior guard Zach Hunsaker exploded for a career-high 22 points, raining in six threes on eight attempts. Anderson added 18 while junior forward Tamenang Choh scored 15 points to go along with eight boards, helping the Bears to a 10-point win.

Yale will certainly be gameplanning for how to stop Anderson, whose 20.3 points per game rank second in the Ivy League. The New Jersey native was unstoppable against Canisius College, scoring 32 points to carry the Bears to a victory. In most games, Choh has offered significant support, using his versatility and athleticism to pull down eight boards per game and 12.9 points a contest. His work on the glass leads the top rebounding team in the Ancient Eight. As of Thursday afternoon, Brown ranks 14th in the nation with over 13.5 offensive boards a game. Yale sits in 310th with 8.1 a contest, but ranks first in the Ancient Eight with 31.8 defensive rebounds per game.

Choh played AAU basketball on the Mass Rivals with his sophomore teammate guard David Mitchell and Yale guard Azar Swain ’21 throughout high school.

“Tamenang has an incredible motor,” Rivals head coach Vin Pastore said. “Long, athletic with an incredible motor and can play multiple positions, which really has made him a problem in the Ivy League because he can cover every position and he’s unguardable at the other end.”

The Bears and Bulldogs shared Stony Brook and most recently, Johnson and Wales, as common opponents. Yale defeated the Sea Wolves in overtime to start its season in early November, while Brown fell by 16 on the road about a month later. Both Ancient Eight teams dealt easily with the Division III Wildcats — the Elis won 108–58 on Sunday, falling six points shy of their single-game points record of 114.

Yale swept Brown last season, taking the conference opener by three in Providence before winning the second leg 79–71 in New Haven.

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu

Eamonn Smith | eamonn.smith@yale.edu

WILLIAM MCCORMACK
William McCormack currently serves as a Sports and Digital Editor for the Yale Daily News. He previously covered men’s basketball and the athletic administration as a staff reporter. Originally from Boston, he is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.
EAMONN SMITH