MEN’S BASKETBALL: Rookies Knowling, Mbeng settled into starting five
Two rookies, forward Matt Knowling ’24 and guard Bez Mbeng ’25, made their first starts during Yale’s final nonconference game and have since helped the Elis to a 3–1 record in Ivy League play.
Tim Tai, Staff Photographer
When Yale men’s basketball guard Bez Mbeng ’25 moved onto campus for the start of the school year last August, he had never met his head coach, James Jones, in person.
As a consequence of the pandemic, Mbeng’s interactions with Jones occurred entirely remotely over the course of his college recruitment. Jones, who is in his 23rd year as Yale’s head coach, said Mbeng was his first incoming player whom he had never spoken to face to face. But finally, on the same day that he met the teammates in his first-year class putting up shots in the Lanman Center, Mbeng came across his new coach.
“We were in the gym getting shots up, and then Coach Jones comes in and he’s like, “Hey Bez, first time meeting you!” Mbeng recalled. “We were just laughing. It was crazy how I never saw him before … I wasn’t in Connecticut at all — all my life until move-in day.”
Mbeng has quickly grown comfortable wearing the Blue and White. As the Bulldogs (9–9, 3–1 Ivy) prepare to visit Princeton (15–3, 5–0) this weekend for a battle between the league’s top two teams, he and a fellow rookie, sophomore forward Matt Knowling ’24, have established themselves in Yale’s starting lineup.
Since Ivy League play began for Yale on Jan. 15, Mbeng and Knowling have started every game for the Elis alongside forward Isaiah Kelly ’23 and guards Azar Swain ’22 and Jalen Gabbidon ’22. As point guard, Mbeng has more than twice as many steals, eight, than anyone else on the team and is tied with Knowling and others with a team-leading seven assists through the Bulldogs’ first four league games. An efficient scorer in the post, Knowling tops the team in both field-goal percentage — 60.7 — and rebounds — 7.8 — per contest during Ivy League play.
The two made their first career starts during Yale’s last nonconference game at St. Mary’s on Dec. 28.
“Coach always says be ready when your opportunity comes,” Knowling said in an interview with the News two days after their first start. “We just keep putting in the work in practice and in games and nothing changed — just play the right away and play together. It was awesome.”
Neither began the year with significant playing time: Mbeng had played more than five minutes against a Division I opponent only twice before he saw 17 minutes of action against Iona in mid-December, while Knowling averaged just a bit more playing time, 7.3 minutes per game, before logging what was also a then-career-high of 20 minutes versus Iona.
Knowling has now logged an average of 29.5 minutes in league games and plays nearly as much as Swain, who averages a team-high 32.6 minutes per game this season. Mbeng has logged 25.3 minutes per contest across the team’s first four league contests.
Gabbidon, the team’s captain, said players transitioning from high school to college basketball often need to identify the area of their game where they can first excel and contribute. For him, that was defense. For Swain, the captain added, that skill was spot shooting. Speaking after Yale’s Tuesday night win over Columbia, Gabbidon said “you could never have expected” how quickly Mbeng and Knowling developed their respective niches, alluding to Mbeng’s defense and Knowling’s post play.
“I would never have expected this guy’s gonna be a lockdown defender for us, this guy’s gonna be a force down low [so soon],” Gabbidon said. “Next thing you know, Knowling’s killing me at practice down low … we’ve seen that happen and obviously over time built more trust to the point where it just fits. [Having them in the lineup] feels normal.”
After Yale’s Ivy opener, a 96–69 win over Cornell, Jones said he was still trying to find Yale’s “best team” and optimal lineup. The Elis struggled with slow starts during several games during the nonconference season, falling to quick deficits in the opening minutes even in games that they ended up winning handily, like a 20-point victory over the University of Massachusetts in November. Starting Knowling and Mbeng offered a change of pace.
Jones added that having Knowling, who plays a power forward position despite only being 6-foot-5, in the starting lineup allowed Gabbidon to play his more natural position on the wing. Guards Matthue Cotton ’23 and Eze Dike ’22, who started most nonconference games for Yale, have since come off the bench, allowing Jones and Yale to match up two functional starters against other teams’ second units. At Brown last week, Cotton and Dike finished with the two highest plus-minuses on the team.
“It would have befuddled me if you had told me that in August,” Jones said when asked about what his reaction might have been if he saw Yale’s starting lineup in its first Ivy League game last summer. Back then, he said he was still expecting former forward Wyatt Yess ’21 SOM ’22, who opted to conclude his basketball career after completing his undergraduate degree, to play. He also assumed forward EJ Jarvis ’23, who missed most of the nonconference slate with injuries, would be fully healthy. “Especially if you told me I was going to start Bez at the point, it would have been a little bit of a shock, yes sir. Those were not the plans. But we did a good job.”
As a sophomore in high school, Mbeng had some in-person contact with the Yale staff. He said he met assistant coach Justin Simon ’04 before Yale’s recruitment of him “kind of fell off.” When Yale coaches saw him play livestreamed games and small tournaments in 2020, they made contact again, Mbeng said. The guard from Potomac, Maryland also held offers from Bryant, La Salle, St. Francis, Towson, Robert Morris, James Madison, Canisius and the University of Texas at San Antonio. Yale was his only Ivy League offer, though he also had a Zoom call with Columbia and knew former Yale and current Lions assistant coach Tobe Carberry, Mbeng told Prep Hoops in Sep. 2020.
Mbeng made his commitment late in the life of a Division I basketball recruit, announcing his college decision with a video posted to Twitter on the first day of 2021 during the middle of his senior year. At the end of the same calendar year, he started his first game for the Elis.
“I knew it was going to be difficult,” Mbeng said after the team’s 66–63 win at Brown. “It’s college, you know, and nothing’s given to you. So I knew I had to come in and work for the spot. I just wanted to get wins, so I was just doing what I had to do to impact the team.”
Listed at 6-foot-4 with great lateral speed, Mbeng had a “breakout game” during that win in Providence, Jones said at the time. Knowling earned the Ivy League’s Rookie of the Week award after Yale’s first two league wins over Cornell and Brown.
Mbeng, who said he played a very abridged season of three or four games last winter as a senior at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Maryland, is one of the only players on the Yale roster who actually played competitive basketball last year. The Ivy League canceled all winter-sport athletic competition. Knowling, who was enrolled as a first year last year, participated in limited practices with the team as coaches and student-athletes managed a fluctuating schedule of phased practices.
“I was just excited,” the forward from Ellington, Conn. said of the prequel year to his first competitive season. “Being in those small group workouts was hard, but it really paid off now being together. It helped me envision what our goals were as a team.”
Yale’s conference season continues when it faces off against the first-place Tigers Saturday at 4 p.m.