Reading the Ivy tea leaves – Yale roundup

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.

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Yale Roster Preview – 2014-15 Edition

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.

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Four 2014-15 preseason predictions for Ivy basketball

Predictions are a fool’s game … so let’s play!

HARVARD WILL LOSE AT LEAST THREE IVY GAMES

We all know this conference is loaded this season. Columbia, Yale, Brown and Dartmouth return nearly everyone. Even Cornell will be more dangerous with Shonn Miller back, so the Big Red will be poised for an upset or two. So what does that mean for prohibitive conference favorite Harvard?

Tough sledding, obviously, enough for Harvard to drop three conference games this season. Of course, all the Ivies will have to endure that tough sledding, meaning 11 league wins will be enough for Harvard to win a fourth straight conference championship, the same magic number that allowed Harvard into the 2013 Big Dance.

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What's Up with Yale?

Before Yale's win over D-III Baruch, the Bulldogs had lost four straight games. What's ailing Yale?
Before Yale’s win over D-III Baruch, the Bulldogs had lost four straight games. What’s ailing the Elis?

Before this season, followers of the Ivy expected a lot out of Yale in ’13-14. This was a team that won seven of its last ten games last season, sweeping both Princeton and Penn twice.

So far though, the Bulldogs have been a disappointment. At 6-8, Yale’s best win is on the road at Hartford, a five point victory against the country’s 263rd best team according to Pomeroy. Opportunities for BCS wins were squandered at Rutgers and at Providence; stinkers were laid against average squads such as Bryant and Albany. So what’s going on? What’s keeping this Yale team from being as good as it should be?

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Season Preview: Yale Bulldogs

Junior Ivy League POY candidate Greg Mangano will lead the Yale Bulldogs on their championship quest this season. (Photo Credit: ivyleaguesports.com)
The 2011-2012 Bulldog squad comes into this season with significant hype and expectations. Yale returns arguably the league’s best player in Greg Mangano (feel free to check out his Twitter if you want to hear his opinion on the subject) and is losing only one major contributor from last year’s squad in point guard Porter Braswell. In fact, the preseason optimism in the Elm City feels quite similar to four years ago, when the team found itself in a somewhat similar place as it does now.The 2007-2008 Yale squad was coming off a surprising 10-4 season the year before, in which junior point guard Eric Flato had a breakout (though not quite 2011 Mangano-esque) season, as that Bulldog team rode its junior class and underclassmen to 10 league wins, including a home upset win against Penn, which resulted in an amorphous mob of Ivy title dreaming fans at center court after the final buzzer. Things were looking up for Yale, and with Princeton down and Penn losing Zoller and Jaaber, there was an opening for a program that was not traditionally a powerhouse to step up and take control of the conference. That program was… Cornell. I won’t go too much further into the 2007-2008 season, as that isn’t the point of this piece, and moreover, it wasn’t a particularly exciting season for Yale and its supporters. Let’s just say the preseason buzz proved a bit unwarranted.

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.

Backcourt:

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.

Frontcourt:

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)?

Final Thoughts:

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.