MEN’S BASKETBALL: Ivy Madness title, March Madness berth cap comeback season
The Bulldogs outmatched Penn and Princeton in the Ivy League’s postseason tournament this year, earning the trip to March Madness that COVID-19 tore from their grasp in March 2020.
Courtesy of Tim Tai, Staff Photographer
In mid-March, on the crowning afternoon of Yale’s men’s basketball season, guard Azar Swain ’22 stood amid the crowd that had gathered on the court after the Ivy League’s postseason tournament title game and reflected.
Swain had scored 23 points to lead the Bulldogs to a 66–64 win over Princeton earlier that afternoon. The victory earned Yale a third trip to the NCAA Tournament in its last five opportunities since 2016. He was holding Yale’s Ivy Madness championship trophy, a golden basketball orb sitting atop a tall wooden base, with one arm at his side.
Swain and his fellow senior leader, captain and guard Jalen Gabbidon ’22, were on the cusp of this championship moment back in March 2020. Yale finished the regular season in first place before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Ivy League to cancel its postseason basketball tournament a few days before it was set to begin.
Along with many of their teammates, Swain and Gabbidon elected to take gap years during the Ancient Eight’s subsequent yearlong cancellation of athletic competition. They joined the class of 2022, each with one year of Ivy League eligibility, hoping to achieve what the pandemic had ripped from their grasp two years ago.
“This is what I came back for,” Swain, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of Ivy Madness this season and a First Team All-Ivy selection, said on the court with the goal achieved in March. “I had incredibly high expectations for this group and myself and this is the ultimate goal: to see so many young guys on the team happy after so much work and sacrifice this year. I’m just grateful … They trusted me to carry this thing home and that’s what I tried to do.”
The Bulldogs, a No. 14 seed, watched the Selection Sunday bracket reveal that night in Boston. Later in the week, they met third-seeded Purdue at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. The Boilermakers eliminated the Bulldogs, 78–56, behind 22 points from their star guard Jaden Ivey, a projected top-five pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. 7-foot-4 Purdue center Zach Edey created a persistent mismatch inside; the Elis’ average height last season was the lowest it has been since 2010–11.
When Yale head coach James Jones separately substituted Gabbidon, and then Swain, out of their final career games against Purdue, he wrapped each in a hug as they left the floor.
“I’ve said this to my [senior] guys, I’m 58 years old and I may see each of them maybe five more times in my life,” Jones said after the game. “I’m not sure where I came up with that number five, but it seems fairly accurate to me that I’m not going to see them anymore. They’re going to go on in life and maybe they’ll be back for an alumni game or come and watch a game, but that’s going to be it. It’s winding down. So it’s just one of those times I wanted to take in and make sure they know how I felt about them and how special they have been for our program.”
Jones, who notched his 350th career victory at the end of the regular season, now has 352 career and 191 Ivy League wins, both of which rank second in league history behind former Princeton coach Pete Carril, who won 514 total and 310 Ivy League games. After the season, Jones signed an extension with Yale through the 2030–31 season. It makes his steady footing at head coach — he took over the program in 1999 — even more secure, giving him one of the longest coaching contracts in all of NCAA Division I men’s basketball.
Since the class of 2022 arrived on campus in fall 2018, Yale has been the only men’s basketball team to represent the Ivy League at March Madness. The NCAA Tournament was canceled by the coronavirus in 2020, and no Ivy League team participated in 2021. When competition resumed last fall, Yale was picked first in the preseason poll.
Players and coaches still dealt with the continued presence of COVID-19. The surge of the Omicron variant at the turn of the year forced the team to pause practices and postpone its first three scheduled Ivy League games due to cases in the program. Even when the Elis played their first Ivy League game, a 27-point win over Cornell, the game was held without fans at an empty John J. Lee Amphitheater. Yale undergraduates did not return to the stands until a win over Harvard in early February, while members of the general public were allowed again for the team’s mid-February back-to-back against Penn and Princeton.
The Bulldogs powered towards the top of the conference when Ivy League competition began, overcoming the inconsistency that occasionally limited them during nonconference play. After a mid-December loss to Monmouth dropped Yale to 6–7, the consensus was that the Elis were not performing to their full potential.
“We’re trying to find our rhythm offensively,” senior guard Eze Dike ’22 said at the time. “We’re not playing as good as the sum of our parts right now.”
Rookies Matt Knowling ’24 and Bez Mbeng ’25 entered the starting lineup in late December, and Yale won nine of their 10 first league contests, including a big road win at Princeton that snapped a ten-game winning streak for the Tigers. A Yale loss on the road at Cornell in late February still allowed Princeton to clinch an outright regular-season championship, and Yale entered Ivy Madness as the No. 2 seed.
The Elis’ defense, which held opponents to the lowest average shooting percentages in the conference, shined during Ivy Madness. The Bulldogs held Penn to 61 points in the semifinal, the Quakers’ fourth-lowest all season, and kept Princeton to 64 points — tied for the Tigers’ season low — in the championship game.
Gabbidon, Yale’s captain and a Second Team All-Ivy selection this past year, was the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year in 2020. First-year Mbeng demonstrated his own skill as a perimeter defender.
“I think Bez is naturally more gifted at defense than me,” Gabbidon said after a weeknight win at Harvard in February. “It’s very apparent. He obviously needs to learn, but he’s gonna be way better than I am, I can promise you that. I haven’t taught him much.”
After two years as captain, Gabbidon now graduates alongside Swain, Dike, forward Jameel Alausa ’22 and head student manager RJ Kranz ’22. With regular-season titles in 2019 and 2020 and Ivy Madness championships in 2019 and 2022, the class graduates as one of the most successful in program history. Swain, Yale’s leading scorer, also leaves with several program records. He graduates with the most three-pointers in a career (271) and single season (93, 2019–20) and the most career appearances in the modern era of Yale men’s basketball with 121. Swain also ranks fifth in program history with 1529 career points.
Mbeng, Knowling, starting forward Isaiah Kelly ’23, forward EJ Jarvis ’23, guard Matthue Cotton ’23 and guard August Mahoney ’24 all averaged double-digit minutes this past season and are set to return next year. Guard Michael Feinberg ’23, who was originally in the class of 2022, succeeds Gabbidon as captain.