MEN’S BASKETBALL: Bulldogs capture second straight Ivy title in abbreviated season
Seniors Jordan Bruner ’20 and Eric Monroe ’20 made leading contributions alongside the junior trio of Paul Atkinson ’21, Azar Swain ’21 and Jalen Gabbidon ’21.
For Yale men’s basketball, the 2019–20 season veered into uncharted territory.
Collectively, the Bulldogs (23–7, 11–3 Ivy) broke program records, setting a new mark with 12 nonconference wins and tying the 2015–16 squad for the school’s most wins in modern history. Individually, guard Azar Swain ’21 led a blitz from beyond the arc, hitting 93 shots from deep to break a single-season high that had previously stood for 28 years, as Yale ultimately converted 265 three-pointers on the season to surpass another team record.
Forward Jordan Bruner ’20 added to the history by recording the Elis’ first-ever triple-double with 14 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in a double overtime victory at Cornell. Wins and records alone make the ’19–20 Elis deserving of recognition as one of the most successful teams in program history, adding this group to the similar cast that led Yale to the NCAA Tournament a year earlier in 2019.
“I thought last year was great and it was wonderful, and in a lot of ways, this year was better,” head coach James Jones said. “This season, in terms of leaving what you lost and being able to come together, we had one game all year that we didn’t have a chance to [win] in terms of the way we played. One game. All year. That’s a rarity.”
But even among all the winning that occurred, what did not occur will forever stand out: the postseason. The game Jones refers to, the only contest in which Yale lacked a chance to pull ahead in the final minutes, fell a night after the Elis secured an outright Ivy League title and a No. 1 Ivy Madness seed with a win at Dartmouth. The 14-point loss to Harvard that followed marked the Bulldogs’ only double-digit defeat of the year. No one expected the game would be their last of the season.
But after Yale completed its bus ride back to New Haven late that Saturday night, what promised to be a week filled with practice and anticipation for Ivy Madness turned into a surreal stretch of breaking news, uncertainty and fluctuating emotions.
Ivy League presidents canceled the conference tournament on Tuesday, handing Yale an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. On Wednesday morning, the Elis swept the major Ancient Eight awards, as forward Paul Atkinson ’21 took co-Ivy League Player of the Year, guard Jalen Gabbidon ’21 earned co-Defensive Player of the Year and Jones won his third career Coach of the Year award. But by that night, the NBA had suspended its season, and as an understanding of the severity of COVID-19 spread, the NCAA officially canceled March Madness on Thursday. The tournament had previously been played every year since its birth in 1939.
“I think our team knew it was coming,” Gabbidon said. “Everyone had talked about it in the news all over the place, and the Ivy tournament had just [been] canceled. It was a very surreal moment. I think we understood the magnitude of what [was] happening. But personally, I can’t be too upset about it because there’s much more important things happening. So obviously for a day I was upset about it, but you kind of just have to move on because there’s so much happening in the world.”
Over the course of four months and 30 games, Yale had emerged as a team with exciting postseason promise. Preseason projections were more pessimistic, as the Bulldogs finished third in the Ivy League Preseason Media Poll.
The Elis entered the year without four starters who helped propel the 2019 team — Alex Copeland ’19, Trey Phills ’19, Blake Reynolds ’19 and current Utah Jazz guard Miye Oni, a former class of 2020 star who last June became the Ivy League’s first NBA Draft pick in more than 20 years.
In what became a tired storyline, Yale overcame the losses with relative ease. Captain and guard Eric Monroe ’20, who went from averaging 10.2 minutes a game off the bench to 29.5 as a starter every game, quickly became one of the Ivy League’s assists leaders, and Gabbidon stepped up with strong defense. Swain, Atkinson and forward Jordan Bruner ’20, the only returning starter, expanded on the significant roles they had played a year before.
Close wins — and even closer losses — began the year. According to the 2020 Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings, or KenPom, Yale’s nonconference opponents made its schedule the most difficult in the Ancient Eight. Yale played a combined five overtime periods against its first four Division I opponents, culminating in the program’s first 3OT game since 1956, a 100–89 win at home over Siena. After a heartbreaking, two-point loss at Penn State, a pair of wins at the NIT Season Tip-Off in Orlando ignited a seven-game win streak. As the wins kept coming, so too did the questions for Jones. Had he envisioned this?
“I knew who we were and who we had in our program,” Jones said after beating Princeton on Senior Night in February, turning to Monroe. “I don’t even know if I shared this with you. I was talking to an assistant coach on another team, and he said to me, ‘You guys don’t have a point guard next year.’ And I’m like, ‘Ok, ok. You’ll see, you’ll see.’ So I knew what Eric was capable of and what our team was capable of and other guys in the program, what Paul and what Azar are capable of and what Jordan’s capable of … I look at other people and they’re surprised by it, but I’m not surprised at all.”
Yale battled to the final minutes with every high-major opponent it faced in nonconference play, falling to Oklahoma State by a couple possessions and coming up three points short at North Carolina. A 54–45 win over Clemson earned it a vote in the AP Top 25 and cemented the Bulldogs as the Ivy League team to beat when conference play began in January.
Bruner led Yale with rebounding, defense and a deep range, earning Ivy League Player of the Week after guiding the Elis to its first Ivy win at home over Brown. Atkinson provided consistent scoring, establishing himself as a premier threat on the inside. Swain increasingly attacked the basket and continued to knock down three-pointers. At Princeton, his 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting from the field put Yale alone in first and marked his fourth consecutive game with more than 20.
After a hiccup at The Palestra, first-year guard August Mahoney ’23 helped seal a double overtime victory at Cornell off a nifty pass from Monroe, and the winning continued from there. Back in the John J. Lee Amphitheater, Gabbidon, Bruner and Monroe helped spark a 13–0 run in the final 98 seconds against Penn to seal one of the craziest comebacks in program history, and forward Austin Williams ’20 started off the scoring a night later versus Princeton. Contributions came from everywhere.
“It’s easy to look at the box score to see how many bench points we have, but it’s really one through 15,” Monroe said after beating Princeton. “Coach made a point of it in our meeting today. Mike Feinberg [’22], when we were down 10 yesterday [versus Penn], with 1:36 left or whatever it was, in our timeout, our heads were down. Mike’s looking each of us in the eye saying, ‘Let’s go, we got this. This is our game. This is our game.’ That’s the stuff also from the bench that matters so much and maybe doesn’t show up in the box score.”
Although Bruner, who will play next season at Alabama as a graduate transfer, has a chance to return to the NCAA Tournament, for seniors Monroe and Williams, the season’s sudden end was especially harsh. What COVID-19 cannot take away is the collective triumph of the past four years — the class of 2020 helped expand on the most successful era in the long history of Yale basketball, and even without a postseason in 2020, the Elis appear poised to continue their success from the past four years. Starters Atkinson, Swain and Gabbidon all return alongside a deep bench prepared to make a bigger impact.
Gabbidon will succeed Monroe as captain next season.
William McCormack | firstname.lastname@example.org