MEN’S BASKETBALL: Despite soaring in national rankings, Yale’s fan support still lacking
The Bulldogs rank an Ivy-best 53rd in KenPom and the NET as of Tuesday afternoon. But with the lowest attendance numbers in the league, fans don’t seem to realize how good the Elis have become.
Head coach James Jones, the winningest coach in the history of Yale men’s basketball, has made successful teams the norm in New Haven.
Yale (14–4, 2–0 Ivy) has finished in the top half of the Ivy League standings in 19 consecutive seasons. The Elis have gone 54–18 in Ivy League play since the start of 2015, securing three Ancient Eight trophies and two NCAA Tournament berths in the process.
But this year’s team — despite losing starters Alex Copeland ’19; Trey Phills ’19; Blake Reynolds ’19; and Miye Oni, the 58th pick in last June’s 2019 NBA Draft — has managed to scale national rankings like never before in Jones’ tenure. On Tuesday afternoon, he sat in his office on the second floor of Ray Tompkins House, scrolling through the latest Rating Percent Index (RPI) for all 353 NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams on his smartphone.
“Right now, our metrics are off the charts,” Jones said. “I mean, our metrics are as good as they’ve been since I’ve been here, especially this late in the season… RPI is 41. That’s [the] best as it’s been since I’ve been here.”
In his 21st season as head coach, Jones repeats the revelation twice, but he doesn’t exactly sound excited by it. At least 12 games and six different Ivy League opponents remain in the 2019–20 campaign, but other models confirm what Jones and his staff have known for what must feel like centuries: Yale is really good. As of Tuesday, the Bulldogs rank 53rd in the now-favored NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) and the 2020 Pomeroy College Basketball Rankings (KenPom). For most of the season, they have been the top-ranked team in New England — according to KenPom, Yale is ranked three spots ahead of Rhode Island (56) and almost 30 ahead of Providence (77) and Connecticut (81).
Other coaches recognize the Bulldogs’ talent; scheduling games against local competition has become difficult for Jones, who told the News that Yale again does not have a contest against an in-state opponent on its 2020–21 schedule. But casual fans, on Yale’s campus and beyond, still don’t seem to realize just how good the Bulldogs have become.
“I don’t think that people have any good idea of what has transpired for Yale basketball,” Jones said after the Elis’ 70–56 win over Brown to tip off conference play in New Haven. “I think that the people who know, know. The people who don’t know, don’t know. It’s just the way it is. This community has had an opportunity to watch one of the best college basketball teams in the country play for the last five or six years, and you wouldn’t know it by the amount of fan support we get on a given night. We had a decent crowd tonight, but I would love it if it was sold out.”
On January 17, 1,584 spectators showed up at the John J. Lee Amphitheater to take in Yale’s conference-opening win, filling the gym to just over 60 percent capacity. While the student section along the sideline was full, the majority of the tall, iconic hardback seating in JLA was not. The arena’s official capacity is 2,800, but about 2,550 can fit in practically for sellouts. In two games against Harvard last year, 2,532 fans watched the regular season matchup, while 2,572 squeezed in for the Ivy Madness final.
In a Providence rematch between the Bears and Bulldogs, attendance at the Pizzitola Sports Center topped Yale’s by almost a full 1,000, as 2,575 (largely unhappy) fans took in another Eli win. Six tall student sections on both baselines were full.
The second-highest ranked Ivy League team, Harvard, trails Yale by 50 spots in the KenPom rankings, yet despite the disparity between the Elis and others in the Ancient Eight, Yale ranks last in the Ivy League in average home attendance this season with 914 people a game. Since the 2013–14 season, average home attendance peaked during the 2015–16 campaign, which resulted in Yale’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win over Baylor. Heading into March Madness, the Bulldogs ranked 41st on KenPom and jumped to 26th after the March Madness win. In late January 2016, an 11–5 Yale team ranked 78th nationally, 25 spots behind this season’s squad.
Yale Athletics and Senior Associate Athletic Director for Fan Engagement Nathalie Carter have sought new ways to attract attendance and engage the crowd with promotions and special themes. A T-shirt toss has become routine, a “baby crawl” took place at halftime of Yale’s 65–52 win over Vermont, and a Sunday afternoon win over Johnson and Wales in January was Superhero Day. (Children dressed as superheroes received free admission, and the first 100 kids in attendance earned free capes.) Still, attendance at those games, even ones against strong March Madness-caliber opponents such as Vermont, lagged.
Saybrook Head of College and Chair of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Thomas Near has worked at Yale for 14 years. A curator at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, he has seen how the Peabody “serves as the front door to the University for most people in Connecticut.” But Near, who is also a Yale basketball superfan who sits in “Spike Lee seats” courtside and serves as a faculty liaison for the men’s program, envisions both basketball teams serving as a new bridge between Yale and the greater New Haven community.
Ezra Stiles Head of College Stephen Pitti ’91, who also serves as a faculty liaison to the program, originally introduced Near to Jones. When the Elis hosted the Gators in 2013, watching New York-based fans of No. 13 Florida sell out JLA left an impact on him, Near said. After that, he and Jones went to work.
“We just started talking basketball, and he invited me to be a liaison, and we just started brainstorming, ‘How can we get more of the students here?’” Near said. “How can we get more of an atmosphere like we saw with Florida? How come every conference game is not like that? … What I try to sell to the students is that not only are you supporting your classmates, but what a low-impact commitment [it is]. You walk over to JLA, it’s comfortable, and it’s two hours.”
When the conference slate approaches, Jones and women’s basketball head coach Allison Guth write a letter to Heads of Colleges and invite them to forward it along to their student bodies, Near said. Near sent it to Saybrugians during the first week of the semester.
Students interviewed by the News were almost all aware of Yale’s trip to March Madness and first-round game with LSU last season. Some knew about Oni’s eventual path to the NBA, but students said the campus lacks a consistent culture of school spirit.
“I wish there was more school spirit to appreciate it,” Alina Kramp ’22 said. “If it was a more regular thing to go and watch a game, I would totally go watch a game.”
Scheduling conflicts with a cappella concerts, comedy shows and other weekend events abound when Yale begins back-to-back Ancient Eight play on Friday and Saturday evenings.
While some said they followed Yale’s progress on the ESPN app and had been to a game or two over the course of their Yale careers, perceptions of Yale basketball as a lower-tier program remained among those who didn’t consider themselves college basketball fans.
“Personally speaking, as someone who doesn’t really know about Yale basketball, I don’t think they’re that good,” Andrew Wei ’22 said. “But I don’t even pay attention to the really top teams. I know Duke, Villanova, big names like UNC.”
North Carolina, of course, narrowly defeated Yale by three at the end of December. The win gave UNC head coach Roy Williams his 879th win, tying him with former Tar Heel coach Dean Smith for fourth on the all-time list. Within a few minutes of the game ending, its final score was broadcast to over 2 million followers on social media. The NCAA’s March Madness account posted a clip of the postgame celebration to Instagram and Twitter, the final score of the game and each team’s record still resting at the bottom of the ACC Network video — Yale (10–4) 67, N. Carolina (8–5) 70.
“Bruh it’s Yale,” one user wrote in the comments, garnering 81 likes. “Imagine only winning by 3 against yale,” another wrote. Yale ranks 30 spots ahead of North Carolina on KenPom and 40 ahead in the NET rankings. No one on Instagram seemed to realize.
Yale players, coaches and superfan supporters like Near do. But as the Elis prepare for the brunt of Ivy play, their focus is clear.
“Our goal for now is to play undefeated,” guard Jalen Gabbidon ’21 said. “As you play every game, people will notice. If we keep doing what we’re doing, those things will come.”
Yale’s four losses — at San Francisco, Oklahoma State, Penn State and North Carolina — have come by a combined 17 points.
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