When Major T.J. King Kong said those words back in 1964, it's likely he wasn’t referring to the 2011-12 Yale men's basketball team. That said, if any team is flying way under the radar, but quietly performing up to the high expectations presented to them, it is Coach Jones' Yale Bulldogs.
Harvard has been getting the bulk of the Ivy season’s national coverage, which is certainly deserved given the Cantabs’ non-conference performance and first ever appearance in the national top 25. At Penn, one has to assume Zack Rosen will get some national press too if he keeps playing at this high level (UCLA notwithstanding). Meanwhile, Columbia has rattled off seven wins in a row after the loss of their top offensive weapon. Sadly, the New York media has chosen to largely ignore Columbia’s unlikely run, though in the Ivy basketball world, the Lions have caught the attention of fans across the league.
And then there are the Bulldogs, picked by many as the team best equipped to challenge Harvard for the Ivy crown, having quietly now won five in a row and sitting at 7-2 with only one game in the next two and a half weeks before they fly south to take on major conference foes Wake Forest and Florida. Florida currently sits in the top 15, having only lost to top-10 powers Syracuse and Ohio State, both on the road. Yale could come into the toughest test they will likely see all year on a seven-game winning streak.
A solid showing in Gainesville could be a valuable chip for a team that may be the Ivy’s best shot at an NIT bid come March.
So what has changed for the Bulldogs since starting 2-2? What has caused this team to roll off five straight, including a convincing win over a Vermont team that played Harvard tight?
Well, at the start of the year, the Bulldogs were predicted to finish in the top tier of the Ivy League, thanks to their overall depth, strong frontcourt, and several returning experienced scorers. The Bulldogs were exposed in their second game of the season against Quinnipiac by a strategy that they were bound to face sooner rather than later–the double team of Mangano, forcing others to beat them. In that game, Mangano was held to 5 points, and while the other two go-to guys, Reggie Willhite and Austin Morgan, combined for 31, Yale didn’t have enough overall offense to win. At that point, it seemed like the burden may fall upon the young, unheralded players on this team, as Willhite and Morgan couldn’t do it all when Mangano was doubled.
Fast forward a month. Over this five game winning streak, Mangano has been held under 20 only once, a pedestrian 17 point effort against Hartford. Willhite and Morgan are both continuing to average over 14 points per game, respectively. Jeremiah Kreisberg has also had an efficient first part of the season, averaging just under ten points per game while playing right around 25 minutes a night.
So all five starters have been contributing on offense throughout the year, accounting for well over 80% of the team’s scoring. But is that sustainable? So far, the Bulldogs have been able to avoid foul trouble for their bigs and Mangano has been able to make his presence known on the offensive end despite constant attention from opponents during this winning streak. At some point, though, this team is going to have to play with either Mangano or Kreisberg on the bench. Coach Jones has been impressed with Brandon Sherrod as of late, and as the freshman gets more playing time, he will provide some significant assistance to the dynamic frontcourt duo that this Bulldog team trots out on a nightly basis.
In his most recent game against Bryant, Sherrod contributed 10 points in a 17 point win in which the Bulldogs tallied 49 second half points. The Bulldog bench contributed 24 points, a surprising output for a team which has been relying almost exclusively on its starters for scoring.
In the preseason, I thought Yale’s depth would be a real asset. As of now, they have been getting by pretty well without a lot of bench scoring. If Brandon Sherrod continues to develop as a key inside presence, and Isaiah Salafia and Mike Grace can provide consistent play at the guard position, this team may be able to play a rotation of 7-8 players and not need to go as deep into the bench as I had expected.
The Bulldogs may not have the same depth of talent that Harvard has displayed so far this year, and the Elis haven’t had the opportunity to prove themselves against the same quality of opponents as Harvard, so Yale’s ceiling remains somewhat of a mystery. For Yale fans, though, you have to be happy with how the upperclassmen are leading this team to early success during the best start in the history of Coach Jones’ tenure.