What happened last year (23-7, 13-1): Nothing to see here, just the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 54 years and a thrilling NCAA first-round win over Baylor. Now graduated forward Justin Sears picked up a second straight Ivy Player of the Year award and now-junior guard Makai Mason established himself as a potential Ivy Player of the Year in future seasons with his clutch play all year, including a 31-point performance against Baylor.
For a deeper look back at Yale’s banner year, read our Ian Halpern’s comprehensive chronicle from April of the Bulldogs’ rise to championship history.
What’s new: What’s really new is the news that Makai Mason will miss the 2016-17 season with a broken foot sustained in Yale’s scrimmage against Boston University.
Mason finished fourth in the league in scoring last season, eighth in assists and free-throw percentage, and seventh in three-point field-goal percentage. That’s suddenly been taken away, leaving a gaping hole in production on this roster. And it’s a huge loss for the league, which just lost a frontrunner for Ivy Player of the Year. Most of all, it’s a shame for Mason himself, with NBC Sports reporting that Mason dislocated his toe, suffered fractures in his foot and is dealing with ligament damage as well. He will have to undergo surgery, and his recovery time is reportedly five months. .
Sears and fellow All-Ivy first-teamer Brandon Sherrod are gone, taking the league’s best rebounding and inside scoring tandem with them. Nick Victor, one of the league’s best defenders, also graduated. But new freshman Jordan Bruner is a much ballyhooed lean 6-7 machine, a pick-and-pop artist who can amply rebound and block shots. Bruner also reportedly has the footwork to be a solid wing defender, and he’s an immediate Ivy Rookie of the Year candidate who should go a long way toward ensuring Yale will notch a 17th straight finish in the top half of the league, which now ensures an Ivy League Tournament appearance.
Bruner is joined by fellow rookie Eric Monroe, a guard who reportedly started for the No. 3 high school team in the nation as a freshman, and other frosh Austin Williams (forward) and Miye Oni (guard).
What’s also very new is the target on the Elis’ back. Yale may have technically shared the Ivy title with Harvard in 2015, but the Crimson represented the league in the NCAA Tournament and Yale has not been the standard-bearer since John F. Kennedy was president. Even if Yale’s not projected to repeat this season, the Bulldogs are not sneaking up on anybody anymore.
Offense: Even prior to Mason’s injury, coach James Jones indicated Mason wouldn’t be manning the point quite as much this season. Now sophomore guards Trey Phills and Alex Copeland will be required to step up in a big way, despite the fact that Phills played 10-plus minutes in only four games last season and Copeland only played in 13 games at all. Monroe and Oni now have an opportunity to feature more heavily in the rotation now.
But Bruner should mitigate that burden immediately, as should senior forward Anthony Dallier, who scored in double figures in seven of Yale’s final 10 games last season following Jack Montague’s expulsion. It was Dallier whose two three-pointers and 12 points gave him an offensive rating of 136 in Yale’s second-round NCAA loss to Duke, so he’s got some momentum going into his final year in Eli blue.
Additionally, Sam Downey (who I cruelly omitted from the initial posting of this article) was one of my favorite players to watch last season due to his hustle and should be a very productive scoring and rebounding complement to Bruner.
Yale ranked lowest in conference play last season in possession length, and that shouldn’t change too much this year.
Defense: The Elis have been almost always defensively sound under Jones, but losing Victor, Sherrod and Sears at this end won’t be easy. A grind-it-out approach on offense might make this end of the floor easier for the Bulldogs, but defensive rebounding is a concern, however valid or invalid, after seeing Yale give up 23 offensive rebounds to lowly Rutgers in a secret scrimmage.
Intangibles: James Jones isn’t pleased with Yale being selected to place third in the conference in the preseason media poll. “I’m just amazed at the lack of respect sometimes I feel that the program still receives,” Jones told Ray Curren of NYC Buckets last month. “For Harvard to vault us is hard to understand sometimes. I understand that’s the way whoever votes decides, but over the course of the last 15 years, we’ve been picked lower than what we finished like 13 times. And one of the other ones was last year when we won the championship. We out kick our coverage every year. I think if you would have polled the coaches, it would have been different.”
Jones may be onto something, but now that Mason is out, Yale’s path to the Ivy tourney just got immeasurably tougher. Bruner will likely be one of the most outstanding rookies in the league and Jones is certainly one of the best coaches, and all Yale has to do is get into the Ivy tourney and see what happens. But the outlook is very different now sans Mason, as the backcourt is now an open question.