Yale to start 2017-18 season with a bang, won’t finish with a whimper

Defense and offensive rebounding have been the calling cards for Yale head basketball coach James Jones ever since his arrival in New Haven in 1999. Right now, he sits as the dean of Ivy basketball coaches, the winningest Yale coach in history and the only Yale coach to guide the Elis to an NCAA win, a victory over favored Baylor in Providence in 2016.

Last year, Yale finished at 18-11 and 9-5 in the Ivies and just a game away from another NCAA tourney. In the first season of the Ivy postseason tourney, the Elis won a thrilling game over Harvard before falling by 12 to Princeton at the Palestra as the Tigers capped a 16-0 run through Ivy competition.

Jones has lost two starters to graduation: guard Anthony Dallier, who averaged 9.4 points per game as a senior, and interior standout Sam Downey, who contributed 11.8 points and averaged 6.9 rebounds a contest last season. Downey will be tough to replace, as Yale has a top-notch backcourt but a frontcourt that’s solid yet still not as strong.

Last season, Jones lost his star player, Makai Mason, to a broken foot in a scrimmage against Boston University, and with that loss probably went Yale’s Ivy title hopes. Mason would have been the top Ivy performer last season and is poised to be such in his final campaign at Yale. He will graduate in June but still has another year of eligibility and has already announced his plans to transfer to Baylor for the 2018-19 season.

Mason may be the best Yale player of all time when all is said and done. The 6-1 combo guard can score from anywhere and is clutch when a game is on the line. In Yale’s epic 2015-16 campaign, he played against Duke twice and drew the praise of coach, Mike Krzyzewski. It was clear from the Duke coach’s comments after Duke’s NCAA Tournament win over Yale that Mason might have been a starter for the Blue Devils that season.

ESPN commentator and former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg feels that Yale has one of the best backcourts in the country. He is not far off.

Miye Oni is a 6-7 guard who can score inside and out. He was the star of an NBA developmental showcase this past August, the prestigious Nike Skills Academy. He is a very difficult matchup, as Washington and star guard Markelle Fultz found out in Oni’s first game last November. Oni had 24 points in Yale’s season-opening eight-point victory on the road.

The loss of Mason last year accelerated the development of both Alex Copeland and Trey Phills. Copeland is a prolific scorer, and Phills is a top on-ball defender with tremendous speed. Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year Azar Swain will help at guard, as will returning sophomore Eric Monroe, who saw time in key moments last season.

Up front, Yale will rely on junior Blake Reynolds, a rugged 6-7, 240-pound frontcourt gem with notable court vision, along with athletic 6-9 forward Jordan Bruner. 6-10 frosh Paul Atkinson should help, as will 6-8 Austin Williams and 6-5 Noah Yates, a former Yale football player.

Yale is deep and talented, but the Bulldogs need to improve their three-point shooting. Last season, they placed eighth in the Ivies in that category. Reynolds and Oni can help in that regard. Also, Reynolds and Bruner need to step up and make up for the lost scoring which Downey provided before graduating.

The Elis will be tested early, as they open on the road against Creighton (Nov. 10) and Wisconsin (Nov. 12) and also play at at TCU (Dec. 2), at 2017 MAAC conference tournament champion Iona (Dec. 12),  home against 2017 MAAC regular season champion Monmouth (Dec. 22) and at Georgia Tech (Jan. 6). Of course, the Elis did open up last season with wins over teams ranked higher than them in KenPom (Washington and Lehigh), so Yale is getting practice at faring well against some nonconference competition.

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