On Saturday, it will be exactly five years since one of the toughest nights in recent Yale men’s basketball history. Leading by five points in the final minute against a Dartmouth team that was playing just for pride, the Bulldogs lost in perhaps the most excruciating manner possible: a buzzer-beater by Gabas Maldunas off an inbound play. The Ivy League title trophy – set to be awarded to Yale – was quickly covered and hustled out of Leede Arena and Hanover.
After losing a tiebreaker to Harvard the following week, their NCAA Tournament drought reached 53 years, and – having graduated four contributing seniors – who knew when they would get another chance the way Harvard and Princeton were trending?
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.
Maybe I and others overrated the Ivy a tad bit before this season started. I actually said that it might be a two-bid league come NCAA Tournament time. Now it appears that there will be an automatic NCAA bid and perhaps no NIT bid.
The Ivy League is currently ranked 17th among 32 Division I conferences according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, the lowest the Ivy has been ranked since the 2011-12 season, when it was also ranked 17th. The Ivy hasn’t been ranked lower than that since 2009-10, when it was slotted 22nd by KenPom. (The rankings are based on the average adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies of teams within each conference.)
Why is the Ivy’s arrow pointed slightly down at the moment?
Jim Morgan, Yale basketball ’71: After last year’s thrilling battle for the conference title and the heartbreaking loss to Harvard in the playoff, I’m both excited and apprehensive about Yale’s chances this year.
Yale’s selection as the preseason favorite to win the Ivy title has many Yale fans hopeful that we might finally see Yale in the NCAA tournament again in our lifetimes. However, several critical questions must be answered for Yale to fulfill this promise.
The Game 2.0 was supposed to be for all the marbles. Yale defeated Harvard in that one, but the next night, Dartmouth stole the marbles back from the Bulldogs. The Big Green’s miracle win versus Yale last Saturday will give Harvard a second shot at Yale this weekend. You have questions about this game? Read on for the answers.
The matchups I wrote about prior to the Yale victory will certainly be important once again, but an eventful week has passed since that article, so let’s look at some unique keys to this game:
On Nov. 22, 2014, Harvard defeated Yale in a thriller on the gridiron just a few hundred yards from Lavietes Pavilion. This Friday, Yale will get its chance at revenge – not only for this fall’s loss, but also for losses in 13 of the last 14 football “Games,” as well as for four straight years of Harvard dominance in men’s basketball. However, when the Bulldogs arrive in Cambridge this Friday, they will not be focused on past results; they will have their sights set on the 2015 Ivy League championship. This would be Yale’s first conference title since 2002.
There is also no shortage of motivation on the Harvard side. The Crimson will go for its fifth straight Ivy title. The last a team to do that was Penn (six straight from 1970 to 1975).
Evidently, this is it. The winner of this game will clinch a share of the Ivy title. So the question looms: Harvard or Yale? Who will win Friday’s showdown? Who will hoist the 2015 Ivy League Championship banner? Who’s going dancing? Luckily, I’m here to answer that question. To begin, let’s take a look at a few key matchups:
It’s New Year’s Eve, and that means New Year’s resolutions abound. If the Ivies could have one doable New Year’s resolution each, here’s what they would be, along with the likelihood of each team making good on that resolution (Ivy power rankings included).
8. Penn (3-7) – Get the freshmen substantially more minutes
Sam Jones is averaging 6.1 points in just 15.1 minutes per game so far this season and has proven himself to be the kind of sharpshooting threat Penn has been missing for a long time, shooting an eye-popping 45.9 percent from beyond the arc. Yet Jones logged just 10 minutes at La Salle last night. He must be in coach Jerome Allen’s doghouse, but he has to play more regardless.
Meanwhile, now that Mike Auger’s back from a foot injury, he has to play more too. He’s just seventh on the team in minutes per game despite being second in rebounds and third in points per contest. Freshman guard Antonio Woods is actually logging more minutes than anybody due to junior guard Tony Hicks’ chronic foul trouble, but he’s just one of many frosh that will have to pick up the slack if Penn is to make a run at the top half of the conference.
Much in the way that the frenzy around MLB’s winter meetings and the NBA’s star players hitting free agency captivate fans as much as or more than regular season games, so too do the machinations of the summer and winter transfer windows in soccer. As the winter transfer window opens on Thursday, I thought about an alternate reality where the NCAA also had a transfer window to deal with in between the fall and spring semesters. While English teams are roughly halfway through their round-robin season when the window opens, Ivy basketball teams have nearly completed their nonconference schedule and will have an opportunity to correct weaknesses, address injuries, or move the focus completely towards next year without worrying about getting relegated.
Along with IHO resident soccer expert Peter Andrews, I thought up moves each team could make in this hypothetical, never could, would or should happen situation. We will also be ignoring that in reality, Duke, Kansas or Kentucky would buy up all of the good players anyway.
BROWN: LOANS Kendall Jackson from Columbiaand Andre Chatfield from Harvard No Bear averages more than 3.5 assists per game and no starter has an assist/turnover ratio better than 1.1. Thus, the Bears bring in two guards buried on their respective team’s depth charts in the hopes that one sticks as the ball handler of the future and a permanent transfer can be worked out after the season.
COLUMBIA: BUYS Gabas Maldunas from Dartmouth. Columbia remains weakest in the frontcourt, where Cory Osetkowski has put together an inconsistent campaign in scoring and on the glass. They”d pay a hefty transfer fee to pry Gabas Maldunas away from Dartmouth, a team going nowhere fast this year. Maldunas would instantly upgrade the post presence for Columbia. In addition to cash, the Lions would send monstrously tall center Conor Voss on a loan to Dartmouth, in the hopes that some regular playing time will reveal basketball skills.
There is a changing of the guard in the Ivies and nowhere is that more obvious than in New Haven. Yale has been picked by many to finish second only to Harvard by many preseason magazines. Over Princeton and Penn no less.
James Jones, the dean of the Ivy coaches, is not surprised. He is a confident guy to begin with, also noting that “top to bottom [this is] the best the league has been in my tenure.” That says a lot, considering Jones has helmed the Bulldogs since 1999.
Yale is coming off a loss in the finals of the CIT at Murray State. The Elis won 19 games in 2013-14 and if they take a page from Mercer, the CIT winner the year before, Yale could see NCAA action in March.
Optimism abounds in New Haven as the Yale Bulldogs return most major pieces from a team that advanced all the way to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT) final last March. Let there be no mistake: led by Ivy League Player of the Year favorite Justin Sears, the 2014-15 Bulldogs have their best shot at an Ivy League title in the last decade. Despite the media’s unanimous crowning of the Bulldogs’ arch-nemesis up in Cambridge, Yale was voted second in the preseason poll and already proved last year that it can hang with the big boys in Lavietes, notching a dominant, league-rattling 74-67 victory over the Crimson in the midst of a seven-game winning streak that brought dreams of March glory to southern Connecticut. Coach James Jones has done a remarkable job of keeping Yale competitive consistently during every season he’s had at the helm, but he’s still looking for that elusive NCAA berth to hang his hat on. If it’s going to happen, it will probably be this year with his hard-working point guard Javier Duren in his senior season and the team building off the momentum of last year’s thrilling postseason run. After exploding in 2013-14, Justin Sears will get a lot of defensive attention this year, so it remains to be seen if the rest of the squad will be able to take advantage of their opportunities.