Last year, the Elis won their first outright Ivy title since 1962 and their first NCAA Tournament game ever. They narrowly lost to Duke in the round of 32 in Providence. This year’s version will present more of a challenge to heralded head coach, James Jones, who enters his 18th year as Elis coach and the dean of all Ivy coaches. Jones won the coveted mid-major Coach of the Year honor last year, along with a host of other honors.
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.
The Yale Daily News is reporting another round of posters showing up on campus criticizing the team’s reaction to Jack Montague’s departure from campus last month.
Before their game against Harvard at Payne Whitney Gym on Senior Night Feb. 26, members of the team took the court wearing shirts with Montague’s jersey number and nickname, “Gucci,” on the back and “Yale” spelled backwards on the front, which Justin Sears characterized as a show of support for Montague after the game. The YDN reported posters featuring a picture of the team dressed in the shirts and asking Yale men’s basketball to “stop supporting a rapist” appeared all over campus, including at the entrance of Payne Whitney Gym.
The wait is over for Yale. After 54 long years without a NCAA Tournament appearance, including last year’s heartbreaking finish, the Yale Bulldogs put on their blinders, ignored the off-court events of this tumultuous week and buried the Columbia Lions with a focused 40-minute performance that left no doubt that they are finally the kings of the Ivy League.
Makai Mason started off hot with 13 first-half points, nailing his patented elbow jumper while Columbia looked for an answer. The Bulldogs threatened to run the Lions out of the building as Brandon Sherrod had his way on the glass inside, but Maodo Lo and Alex Rosenberg fought hard to keep the game tight going into the half at 41-27.
The second half was a back-and-forth affair as Columbia cut the lead to single digits and came within four at 49-45 before two huge corner threes from Mason and Khaliq Ghani (who had a huge weekend off the bench for the depth-depleted Bulldogs) stretched it back out to a 10-point margin.
It never got closer than eight points the rest of the way, as Yale, poised and determined to Dance for the first time in over a half century, closed out the Lions on the road.
Yale 88, Cornell 64
Yale entered into this game with seemingly little momentum despite having won 15 of its previous 16 contests. The Elis eked out an overtime win at home against lower-tier Ivy Dartmouth with Makai Mason shooting just 4-for-18 from the floor and sporting a gimpy ankle, while the program continues to deal with controversy stemming from the team’s show of support for departed ex-teammate Jack Montague. But in Ithaca Friday night, Yale steamrolled Cornell for 40 minutes, building a 30-point lead late in the second half courtesy of another perfect Brandon Sherrod performance from the floor. Sherrod’s 18 points on 6-for-6 shooting led all scorers and anchored an offense that posted 32 made field goals on 54.2 percent shooting, taking advantage of Cornell’s inferior defense early and often. Robert Mischler, Cornell’s only senior, helped spark an 18-9 run for Cornell midway through the first half that brought Cornell to just a 22-20 deficit, but the Elis finished the stanza on an 18-2 run of their own in the final 7:32. That first half featured some promisingly even scoring distribution, with Sam Downey, Anthony Dallier and Khaliq Ghani consistently joining Sherrod and Mason in the scoring action. Yale was additionally rewarded for its efforts when …
The Yale Bulldogs tipped off their season in Hamden last night, falling in a 88-85 double overtime shootout to the Quinnipiac Bobcats.
The matchup was a valuable early-season barometer for the Elis, allowing us to see which players are ready to step up and where the team will look to improve in the coming months before conference season. Let’s start with the good news:
Javier Duren came out firing. Yale’s starting point guard had 19 points at the half and finished with 26 points before fouling out in the first overtime. He calmly directed the offense all night, limiting his turnovers to just two, and shooting 50% (9-18) from the field.
Jack Montague shot the ball with confidence and filled in admirably for the injured Nick Victor who is reportedly sidelined for 3-4 weeks. Montague figures to be first off the bench once Victor returns. His clutch three-point bomb at the end of the first overtime extended the game for the Bulldogs.
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.