Courtesy of Alabama Athletics

When former Yale men’s basketball forward Jordan Bruner ’20 announced that he would be heading to the University of Alabama (24–6, 16–2 SEC) as a graduate transfer, he said it was “with the goal of winning a national championship.” 

Eleven months later, the Crimson Tide — Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament champions — are six games away from reaching the pinnacle of college basketball as they enter the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament as a No. 2 seed. Over the course of the season, Bruner has been a positive influence for the team, according to his teammates and coach.

“We’re pretty confident going in,” Bruner told the News in a Zoom interview from the NCAA Tournament’s Indianapolis “bubble” Wednesday evening. “We’re all hoping to make a deep run.”

The Crimson Tide, ranked as the fifth-best team in the country by the Associated Press, head into the Big Dance with a stifling defense, averaging over eight steals and four blocks a game collectively. They have the second-best adjusted defensive efficiency rating nationwide, according to the 2021 Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings (KenPom). 

Bruner, who contributes a block and a steal per game, has started all of the 21 games he has played for Alabama this season. He told the News that the work his team puts in on the defensive end of the court sets the Crimson Tide apart from the other 67 tournament teams hoping to make a March Madness run.

“We take pride in how we play defense,” Bruner said. “And you know, just like everybody says: defense wins championships.”

Bruner averages 6.1 points and 4.2 rebounds a game with Alabama this winter. (Photo: Courtesy of Alabama Athletics)

When Alabama head coach Nate Oats recruited Bruner as a grad transfer target last spring, he already knew about Bruner’s skills on the court. As a senior at Yale last season, Bruner earned first-team All-Ivy honors and recorded the Bulldogs’ first-ever triple-double. Bruner entered the transfer portal last spring to take advantage of an extra year of eligibility — he missed his sophomore season at Yale with a torn meniscus and could only play a fifth year outside the Ivy League. Alabama was the first of 25 schools to contact Bruner within his first three hours in the portal.

He narrowed down his list to six schools — current NCAA Tournament No. 1 seeds Baylor and Gonzaga, as well as Alabama, Arkansas, Louisville and Maryland, three of which are also playing in March Madness — and eventually chose between Alabama, Baylor and Maryland.

When Bruner arrived in Tuscaloosa, where he is pursuing a graduate degree in sports hospitality, Oats was blown away by the former Bulldog’s work ethic.

“[Bruner] found out [freshman forward] Keon Ambrose was going in [to the gym] at 6 a.m. every morning,” Oats explained in a press conference last Wednesday. “So he decided he’s going in at 5 a.m. every morning in the fall. … He kind of sets the bar a little higher all the time like ‘Okay, nobody is gonna outwork me.’”

In the middle of the season, Bruner had operations on both his knees, Oats said, but has since re-entered the starting lineup. The forward did not play between the Jan. 12 win over Kentucky and the Feb. 20 matchup with Vanderbilt.

Oats, who is in his second year as head coach of the Alabama men’s basketball team, also spoke about the roles Bruner’s leadership and character have played in helping develop a team culture of hard work and winning.

The two-time Ivy League champion echoed the importance of building a program with high expectations.

“I’m just trying to bring a winning culture,” Bruner said. “Trying to be a leader … [and] turn the team into a team that expects to accomplish a lot of things.”

Before settling on Alabama, Bruner’s final six also included Arkansas, Baylor, Gonzaga, Louisville and Maryland. (Photo: Courtesy of Alabama Athletics)

Bruner’s teammates have also felt his positive influence on the team. 

Senior guard John Petty Jr. said that while Bruner’s feel for the game, shooting and playmaking ability help the team a lot, his biggest impact has been his leadership and his “voice.”

Senior forward Herbert Jones, the SEC’s player of the year and defensive player of the year, added that Bruner has continued to serve as a calming presence for the team whenever there is “a lot going on.”

“When things get rattled, he’s the voice that comes in and just calms everything down,” Jones said.

The Crimson Tide are scheduled for a first-round matchup with No. 15 Iona (12–5, 6–3 MAAC) on Saturday at 4 p.m. The Gaels, coached by Rick Pitino, earned their spot in the tournament as champions of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.


James Richardson | james.richardson@yale.edu