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.
At one point during a break in the action at tonight’s Yale-Seton Hall matchup at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, a 7-year old lined up against a 13-year old to compete in the classic put-on-these-oversized-clothes-and-run-down-the-court-and-score contest. A 7-year old really has no business competing with a 13-year old, but there were so few people in the stands, they may not have been able to find two kids of a similar age (kidding, but barely). After a few missed lay-up attempts by the older child, there was the 7-year old, shuffling to the elbow and launching a prayer.
The shot fell far short and the older child made his lay-up to win the prize.
I could use that as a tidy little metaphor for the game that played out between Seton Hall and Yale, but it wouldn’t really be accurate. The Bulldogs had every opportunity to win this game, and it certainly wasn’t because Seton Hall was bigger and more experienced. On the contrary, there were quite a few times tonight when you would have thought the Bulldogs were the 13-year old, forcing Seton Hall into bad decisions on defense and finishing on clever passes at the rim. Yale is still a work in progress, though, and they let a big opportunity slip away during a seven-minute scoreless stretch late in the game. As an Ivy fan, it was frustrating to watch because the Bulldogs were talented enough to win this game. Here’s what Yale needs to improve upon if they want to eventually challenge Harvard and Penn, who look like the class of the league right now.
Anyway, this Yale team shares some similarities with the squad that returned in the fall of ‘07: a couple of players who had breakout seasons the year before (‘11: Mangano, Morgan; ‘07: Flato, Pinick), a split with the previous season’s champion or co-champion, and high expectations. It seems, though, that the resemblance ends there and history may not repeat itself.
Here is a close look at who the Bulldogs are going to put on the hardwood this year.
When the Bulldogs traveled to Chestnut Hill to face BC in the third game of last season, junior guard Austin Morgan quickly became a household name (at least among the households of people who read this blog… Or households of BC fans maybe). It was quite a performance: Morgan dropped 25 with six threes and the Bulldogs led the game from start to finish. Austin went on to average 12.6 points per game last year and provided backcourt stability and balance for the team. This balance was critical to combat opponents who started to game plan against Yale’s interior strengths. This year, Morgan looks to play a major role for the Bulldogs once again.
Reggie Willhite, the senior captain this year, will be an interesting player to watch. Reggie played limited minutes as a freshman and started just four games the next year, but began to develop a penchant for getting steals, nabbing 27 during his sophomore campaign. When he worked his way into the starting lineup this past year, he continued his work on the defensive end, finishing third in the league in steals with 40, while also shooting just under 45 percent from the field on the year, good for top ten in the Ivy League. Willhite made the leap last year, starting all 28 games for the Bulldogs. This Yale team doesn’t need to replace significant scorers, and the Bulldogs will look to Reggie to average around ten points per game once again, while continuing to be a force on the defensive end.
One player who will play a large role in whether this team can challenge for the league title will be junior Mike Grace. Grace saw significant playing time as a freshman, finishing third on the team in assists, but was hampered by an injury through much of last year. He could step into the role of starting guard with the graduation of Porter Braswell, and form a strong backcourt with Willhite and Morgan. Given this team’s strength in the frontcourt, some consistency at the guard positions could bump this team from slightly above average to legitimate challenger for a league title.
Junior Sam Martin, who almost never saw the floor his freshman year, saw increased action last year, as he developed into a three point shooter. Martin shot the ball very well and earned a lot of praise for his play on the team’s China trip this summer, and Coach Jones has been vocal about how high he is on Martin’s shooting ability.
One guy I am interested in watching is sophomore Isaiah Salafia. He struggled a bit from the field in his limited minutes last year, but shined in helping Yale pull out a hard-fought overtime victory over Dartmouth. I’ll pick Isaiah as a sleeper contributor for the Bulldogs this year.
Greg Mangano has certainly been the talk of the town in New Haven, as the New Haven area native put forth a monster junior year, making him a serious candidate for Ivy League POY last year, averaging a double-double and also providing three blocks per game on the defensive end, highlighted by a seven block effort against Brown in an early conference victory. After declaring for the NBA Draft then retracting his name and playing with some of college basketball’s finest players on the World University Games team, Mangano comes in as the Lindy’s pick for this year’s Player of the Year, anchoring a Bulldog frontcourt that matches up favorably with every other frontcourt in the conference.
Mangano and sophomore Jeremiah Kreisberg give this team a lethal 1-2 punch down low. The 6-10 Kreisberg was the rookie of the year for the Bulldogs, shooting 55.6 percent from the field last year while averaging 7.2 points and 4.5 board while starting every Ivy League game. Kreisberg played on Israel’s U-20 team over the summer, getting some valuable international experience in the off-season. If these two can stay healthy and out of foul trouble, this team features two dominant players down low and at the high post who will be a very difficult matchup for other Ivy squads.
Aside from these two, the Bulldogs will likely rely on a pair of impressive freshman. One Bulldog who will be fun to watch is 6-6 forward Brandon Sherrod, who was Connecticut’s high school Player of the Year last year, sporting six triple doubles and averaging 16 points, 14.5 rebounds and 6 blocks. It could be fun to see if Coach Jones throws the three of these guys out on the floor together to see how high the blocked shot tally will go. Meanwhile, 6-11 freshman center Will Childs-Klein will also likely be called on to step in and provide some key minutes when the Bulldogs have their top big men on the bench. If the Bulldogs are in foul trouble down the stretch in key games this year, these two frosh may go a long way in determining whether this is a middle of the conference team or a legitimate title contender. In a league with effectively no margin for error, every league game will prove vital, and it’s almost a certainty the Bulldogs will turn to these two youngsters late in a close game during the Ivy campaign.
Yale’s depth is one of their greatest strengths this season. There are other names I haven’t yet mentioned here who could very well end up playing big roles for the ‘Dogs. Rhett Anderson stepped in early last year and started the team’s first seven games, and we could see the veteran big man play some important minutes off the bench. Freshman name of the year candidate Armani Cotton averaged over 20 points per game in high school. As a 6-7 guard, his length could be a disastrous matchup for some teams. Sophomore Greg Kelley will finally see the floor after missing his freshman year to an injury and if his game is half as good as his blog (midmajorchillin.blogspot.com), the Bulldogs will be extremely deep at every position except point guard.
The backcourt and perimeter play will be key for the Bulldogs. Will they be able to knock down the big shots when teams double down on Mangano? Can they keep up with a team that tries to push the pace? Will they be able to avoid the pitfalls of the 14-game tournament without dropping a game to team in the bottom half like they did to sharpshooting Cornell (and almost at home to Dartmouth)?
This team is capable of winning the title. If Michael Grace (or someone else) develops into a consistent point guard, Mangano and Kreisberg stay healthy and one or more of the freshman bigs can step in and play right away, this team will be a nightmare matchup for most Ivy teams. It’ll be interesting to see the combinations that Coach Jones puts together when he wants to, for example, “go big”, and the pace that he employs (you have to assume he’s going to want to slow it down). The non-conference schedule will help us answer many of these questions.
Will the Bulldogs win the league and go to the tournament for the first time since that tough 1962 overtime loss to Billy Packer and the Demon Deacons? It’s certainly going to be a tough task for anyone to top Harvard. But if anyone is going to do it, it’ll be the boys from New Haven.
This is the second piece in a series looking back at how each Ivy League squad fared during the 2010-11 season. The Yale Bulldogs ended the year at 15-13 (8-6), finishing third in the conference.
The Yale Bulldogs entered the 2010-2011 campaign with some serious question marks needing to be answered, as they lost their leading scorer Alex Zampier as well as 6’ 10” center Paul Nelson to graduation. To make matters worse, starting forward Mike Sands withdrew from school for personal reasons the day before the season, leaving serious doubt about how this team would be able to compete down low. Some younger players were going to need to step up for this team to finish in the top half of the Ancient Eight.
Almost immediately, Yale made headlines in the non-conference season. After starting the season with a loss to Quinnipiac, the Bulldogs put up a scrappy effort in a narrow 58-55 defeat against Big East foe, Providence. In their next game, Yale continued the Ivy League’s dominance over the ACC’s Boston College thanks to a breakout performance from sophomore guard Austin Morgan, who exploded for 25 points, including six 3-pointers, to key the upset road win for Yale. In non-league play against other major conference opponents, Yale lost games to Stanford from the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) and Illinois from the Big-10.
The Bulldogs started out Ivy play with two wins over Brown, but quickly had their chances at competing for the Ivy title effectively end the next weekend, getting swept by Princeton and Penn on the road. Both were competitive games, but they left Yale two games behind Princeton and Harvard, and since the Ancient Eight does not employ a conference tournament, the Bulldogs were all but eliminated from league title consideration. As the league quickly became a race for 3rd, the Bulldogs won three of their next four before getting swept again by Penn and Princeton, as they remained clumped with multiple teams in the league’s second tier, while Harvard and Princeton sprinted away from the pack.
The rest of Yale’s conference season was not without multiple barnburners. The Elis lost to Penn in New Haven on a Zack Rosen jump shot with just two seconds left. A week later though, in their most complete effort of the year, the Bulldogs upset Harvard on Senior Night, 70-69, erasing a six point deficit in the final six minutes to pull out an emotional one point win at John J. Lee. In the season’s final weekend, the Bulldogs had a twelve point lead late against Columbia, but Brian Barbour caught fire, scoring thirteen points in the last four minutes to key a Lions run and send the game into overtime. The Bulldogs pushed back though, and pulled out the 87-81 victory after two bonus periods. Amazingly, not until the final game of the year, a thirteen point loss to Cornell, did the Bulldogs play a league game decided by double digits.
Austin Morgan was one of a handful of nice surprises for the Bulldogs last year. Other major contributors included junior Reggie Willhite, who worked his way into the starting lineup and averaged nearly ten points per game after rarely seeing the floor his previous two years. Freshman Jeremiah Kreisberg started for much of the year at center, helping replace some of the frontcourt minutes vacated by the loss of Sands and Nelson. Kreisberg averaged 7.2 points per game and ripped down 4.5 boards per game.
However, the biggest impact came from Greg Mangano, a first-team All Ivy selection whose play last year earned him Lindy’s preseason pick for the 2011-12 Ivy Player of the Year. Mangano was a force all season on the glass, averaging 10.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game. He kicked off the conference slate with a monster 23 and 17 in Providence and followed it up with a 17 point, 12 rebound, 7 block masterpiece in leading the Bulldogs to two early season victories. After declaring for the NBA draft in the offseason (and then retracting his name), Mangano was selected for the U.S. World University Games team, playing with some of college basketball’s big names, including Syracuse’s Scoop Jardine, Kentucky’s Darius Miller and current Purdue coach Matt Painter. Mangano was the only Ivy League player selected for the squad.
Mangano, Morgan, Kreisberg and Co. helped the Bulldogs finish alone in 3rd place at 8-6, having swept Brown, Columbia, and Dartmouth, split with Harvard and Cornell, and been swept by Princeton and Penn. The Bulldogs went 1-3 against co-champions Princeton and Harvard, losing the three games by a combined fourteen points and stunning Harvard on Senior Night in New Haven, dealing their archrivals their second loss and forcing them to have to beat Princeton twice to make the NCAA tournament.
Reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Keith Wright added another honor to his resume on Monday when he was included on the Wooden Award Preseason Top 50 list. The Wooden Award is given to the nation’s most outstanding basketball player who also maintains a minimum 2.0 GPA and demonstrates strength of character both on and off the court.
Wright acknowledged the recognition in a tweet earlier today, “Truly honored & blessed to be on such a prestigious list w/ so many talented players. Wouldn’t be there without my teammates & the man above.” He was the only Ivy League player to make the list.
Looking ahead, the Preseason Top 50 list will be whittled down to 20 student-athletes by college basketball media members around midseason. Those voters will mark their ballots, and choose the Top 10, who will then be named to the Wooden All-American team during the weekend of the Elite Eight in March.