It would be easy to point back to last season’s heartbreaking collapse and say that this year’s title run started simmering from the moment Javier Duren’s runner rimmed out at the Palestra on March 14, 2015. Certainly, that would be a convenient starting point for this narrative of redemption that culminated in this year’s seeding upset of the Baylor Bears. But anyone who’s been following the Bulldogs knows that this journey towards a title to call our own started long before that.
How did we get here?
There have been countless close calls since James Jones took the reins back at the turn of the century: the three-way tiebreaker in ’02 with Penn and Princeton, the thrilling up-tempo ’07 squad led by Eric Flato and Casey Hughes that started 9-2, beating undefeated Penn and sparking the only (non-Princeton) court storming I’ve ever witnessed at John J. Lee, the dangerous Greg Mangano-Reggie Willhite-Austin Morgan trio that raced out to fast start in ’12. But it wasn’t until Justin Sears arrived in New Haven that following summer that Jones could finally build around a true superstar in blue. And while getting to the Promised Land required contributions from everyone on this year’s squad from Blake Reynolds to Khaliq Ghani to Makai Mason, this was clearly Sears’ team.
But first, let’s go back to where it all began, back to a time when Yale basketball conjured up images of January hope and February despair, not the March ecstasy that we’ve come to know.
The 2013 Yale team was not very good, but it did do some things that made you think something special might be brewing at Payne Whitney. The Elis swept Princeton and played Harvard tough. Jones used the second deepest rotation in the country, paving the way for his underclassmen — Justin Sears, Nick Victor, Brandon Sherrod, Javier Duren, Matt Townsend, Armani Cotton — to get valuable experience. In that season, this team started to develop an identity around one thing that they did really well: rebound. They finished in the top 100 in offensive and defensive rebounding while struggling through a 14-17 season, though they did finish strong and manage to earn a fourth-place finish (as coach Jones is wont to do, pulling that off each of the past 16 seasons).
The next year, there was worry at the point position. After an underwhelming nonconference, the Bulldogs entered Ivy play with low expectations. Austin Morgan had graduated and Javier Duren — who had shown flashes of serious talent, but was very inconsistent in his first two years—would be guiding the offense on his own. After splitting with Brown, the Bulldogs swept a home weekend against Columbia and Cornell. Then, they traveled north to face Dartmouth and Harvard.
I would argue that this weekend in early February 2014 was the most important direct antecedent to this year’s success. This version of the Bulldogs — Justin Sears’ team—did not have its moment as a true contender until it went up to Cambridge and shocked Harvard 74-67 in a start-to-finish outplaying of the defending Ivy champions in their own building. Despite being 12.5 point underdogs against a Harvard team that hadn’t lost at Lavietes Pavilion in 20 straight games, Javier Duren outplayed Siyani Chambers, sophomores Nick Victor and Jack Montague contributed valuable minutes off the bench and Sears had a “monster” (Tommy Amaker’s words, not mine) 21-point, 10-rebound statement performance. The victory was a shot across the bow that Yale had not been able to muster in Jones’ previous close calls. It was simply a massive win that recalibrated the landscape of the league.
The Bulldogs stumbled down the stretch in ‘14 as Duren missed a key game due to injury at Columbia and the Elis could not bounce back on the road at Princeton or at home against a vengeful Harvard. Still, a fateful run to the CIT final, including this miraculous bank shot buzzer beater from Sears (his fourth career three-pointer) to beat crosstown rival Quinnipiac in the first round, made clear that this team was capable of more.
The remarkable thing about 2014-15 is just how good the Bulldogs were without Brandon Sherrod and Nick Victor. Despite the missing pieces, they still managed to finish in the Top 100 on both ends in rebounding again. The rapid ascent of Jack Montague, going from third guy off the bench to starting two-guard next to Duren, was a huge piece of this success. With a guy who could get to the rim like Duren and a beast down low in Sears, Montague’s shooting provided the perfect perimeter balance. Teams that focused inside on Sears now paid the price with Montague’s 41 percent three-point shooting.
In the nonconference, these Bulldogs pulled off the program’s best win in history (to that point…), beating the defending champion UConn Huskies at Gampel Pavilion on a stunning Montague corner three in the game’s final seconds. Then, as the calendar year flipped over, Yale went down to Nashville and led the Commodores by 13 with nine minutes to play before bowing in double overtime, 79-74.
The Bulldogs won their first five in Ivy play before dropping an ugly 52-50 contest at home to Harvard while shooting 31 percent from the field. After three more wins, the Bulldogs fell againat home to Columbia for their second conference blemish, but Cornell’s upset of Harvard at Newman Arena one week later put the rivals at 10-2 with one weekend to play. Surely, the game that would decide the title would be Friday night at Lavietes.
Javier Duren exploded for 22 points and 9 rebounds, Armani Cotton scored a season-high 14, and the rest of the Bulldogs batted down the hatch on defense, holding Harvard to 32 percent shooting and clinching a share of the Ivy League title. The back end of a road weekend is always difficult no matter who you’re playing in the Ivy League, but Yale knew it was the better team. The bid was in reach. All they had to do was execute for 40 minutes.
After an Ivy title ring, a Player of the Year award, a victory on every Ivy court, all that was left for Sears and the Class of 2016 was that elusive solo title and NCAA bid.
This year’s success hinged on three questions:
- Would Montague be able to replace Duren’s production in the backcourt?
- Would Sherrod be able to contribute at a high level after a whole year off?
- Can Sears continue to produce as defenses focus more and more of their resources on stopping him?
Yes, yes, and yes, we found out, while the emergence of Makai Mason shifted this Yale backcourt from a serious unknown to one of the team’s strongest assets.
While depth was another concern for this year’s Bulldogs, upperclassmen Sam Downey, Anthony Dallier, and Khaliq Ghani were all reliable rotation players who rose to the occasion at different points throughout the year. Downey had 18 points at Brown, while Dallier came on strong when his minutes went up after Montague left the team, especially with a huge game at Columbia. Ghani had both of his best games against Cornell, shooting 8-13 against the Big Red this year.
After all was said and done, it was the following four starters–three seniors and a sophomore who had to carry the backcourt load once the team lost its captain–who delivered Yale the trophy.
As referenced above, the question coming in for the backcourt was all about how Jack Montague would be able to guide this team on offense given Javier Duren’s departure. If we had known at the beginning of the season that Montague would no longer be on the roster in February, the backcourt situation would surely have been dire enough to bump Yale out of the top spot in the preseason poll. All of that turmoil and uncertainty with the guard positions further demonstrates the remarkable job that Makai Mason did this year, stepping up and leading this team as a sophomore.
Mason ended up playing the sixth-most minutes of anyone in the Ivy League this year, which speaks to Yale’s dearth of guards after Montague’s expulsion. Picking up right where Montague left off, Mason shot 41 percent in Ivy play from deep, providing that critical balance to the interior one-two punch of Sears and Sherrod. Even more so than Montague, Mason is a slasher who can get to the rim or pull up for his patented mid-range elbow jumper. His shot in the waning seconds against Dartmouth was the biggest bucket of the year for the Bulldogs. A few weeks later, Mason scored a career-high 31 points against Baylor, on the biggest stage of them all, in what will go down in history as one of the greatest single-game Yale performances of all-time.
This will be Mason’s team in the fall.
Much has been made of this Renaissance Man’s decision to skip the 2014-15 season to sing with the Whiffenpoofs. One could understand that it would be an incredibly unique opportunity for him personally — the chance to travel the world doing something he loved for an entire year with one of the oldest and most distinguished a capella groups in the world. But who knew the kind of impact it would have on his basketball game when he returned?
Sherrod was a different player in his senior season. The Bridgeport native shot an absurd 64 percent from the field in conference play, hitting double figures in 13 of 14 games, and setting an NCAA record for consecutive field goals made with 30 straight (here are the first 25). The record spanned five games, sandwiching three consecutive 100 percent shooting performances (9-for-9 versus Brown, 7-for-7 versus Penn, 8-for-8 versus Princeton).
Sherrod’s dominance inside and ability to absorb contact and finishalso proved itself with his uncanny ability to get to the free throw line. He drew a whopping 7.6 fouls per 40 minutes in conference play, the highest figure in the Ancient Eight this season.
On the boards, Sherrod was a key piece of Yale’s three-man wrecking crew, as Sears, Victor, and Sherrod all finished in the top eight in the Ivy League in rebounding. This constant edge on the glass propelled Yale to second in the nation in rebounding margin (+10.9 per game).
Sherrod’s memorable senior season, with an incredible increase in efficiency even as his minutes as a starter increased, led him to a first-team All-Ivy selection and the IHO Most Improved Player Award.
We’ve written before on this website about how Nick Victor was this team’s X-factor. After being sidelined by injuries in his junior campaign, Victor returned with a vengeance for his senior year. While his defensive contributions had been clear in his first three years in the program, his three-point range (43 percent) and knack for ripping down boards (fifth in the league) became apparent quickly this season. In the conference opener against Brown, Victor was everywhere, dropping in 15 points, tearing down 11 boards, dishing out four assists and adding four blocks for good measure. Against Columbia in the penultimate Ivy weekend, his 12-point, 12-rebound, five-assist performance picked up the Bulldogs as the Lions keyed in on stopping Sears. That kind of all-around contribution was a signature of Victor’s game this year. He wasn’t high usage on the offensive end, but when he was called on, he made the plays needed to win.
We may have learned the most about Justin Sears’ value to this team on Nov. 29, in the one Division I game this season that he didn’t play in. The Bulldogs — a team that had already taken SMU to the wire on the road, would eventually play Duke within one possession on a neutral floor, and would beat Top 25 Baylor in the Round of 64 —lost by 34 points at Albany. To be fair, Albany was a good America East outfit, placing second and finishing the season at 24-9. But this was not a team that was anywhere close to better than Yale, and certainly not 34 points better. Even when he wasn’t stuffing the stat sheet, Sears’ mere presence in the paint opened up the floor for his teammates.
While Yale didn’t manage to pick up a win in its four major non-conference chances, Sears managed to leave a serious impact on his opponents. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told our own Richard Kent that Sears would start on his team after the Elis fell at Duke in November, while Sears was clearly the best player on the floor when the Bulldogs narrowly lost to Illinois (21 points, nine rebounds, two blocks, two steals).
Once conference season rolled around, Sears was in fine form, as Ivy coaches tried unsuccessfully to find new ways to stop him in his fourth and final lap around the league. Mitch Henderson and Princeton had no answer as Yale grabbed a firm hold of first place behind Sears’ ridiculous 16 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three blocks and three steals in January. Two weeks later, Yale stayed undefeated in Hanover as Sears went for 21 points, 13 rebounds (seven offensive), three assists, and three blocks. Eight days later, Sears had a season high 31 points to go with nine boards at the Palestra, taking out his anger from the previous night’s defeat at Princeton in a 79-58 thrashing of Penn. And while the Great Dartmouth Escape will be remembered for Mason’s clutch elbow jumper, it was Sears who played a game-high 42 minutes, tallying yet another double-double (15 and 11) to go with an imposing five blocks.
When the buzzer finally sounded a week later at Levien signaling Yale’s first solo title in 54 years, Sears was the first to center court to celebrate the historic moment, jumping higher than anyone else as usual.
It only seemed right that in his senior year, Sears would get to show the world what we’ve known for years in the Ivy League: don’t be fooled by the unorthodox jumper; this guy can play.
Baylor learned the hard way what happens when you don’t box him out or give him the baseline. His postgame press conference was genuine and joyful. The spirited comeback against Duke that he helped facilitate — constantly somehow finding space, corralling rebounds, dunking with such energy, urging his teammates on —embodied what Sears’ entire career meant to Yale basketball: pushing ever higher the ceiling of what seems possible.
Sears became the sixth player in Ivy League history to win multiple Player of the Year awards, and there was an argument that he should have won it in ’13-’14 as well. This season, he finished in the top 25 in the league in every advanced statistical category that is tracked, and finished top five in usage (fifth), offensive rebounding (first), block percentage (fifth), fouls drawn (fourth), and free throw rate (second).
Most importantly though, Sears delivered an NCAA bid and tournament victory to New Haven, something we hopefully won’t have to wait another half-century to experience again.