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.
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.
With the exception of a few high-profile bloviators, most people around college basketball (and everyone that regularly reads this blog, for that matter) knew that Yale had a solid shot against Baylor on Thursday.
We all know that the Bulldogs delivered — and have about as favorable a matchup as they could possibly get in the round of 32, getting a Duke team they’ve already faced.
Having had the opportunity to watch both teams play in the round of 64 on Thursday in Providence, I’ve come up with a bit of a game plan for Yale to become the first Ivy team to reach the Sweet Sixteen since Cornell made its magical run in 2010.
Yale made history just by showing up. Then the Bulldogs made a whole lot more.
In Yale’s first NCAA Tournament game since 1962, the Bulldogs won their first contest in the tourney ever, besting the Bears, 79-75, after leading most of the way in front of a Yale partisan crowd at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence.
Our Richard Kent chronicles Yale”s trip to Durham to face defending national champion No. 6 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium Wednesday. Yale lost to Duke, 80-61, but Kent astutely observed a whole lot more than a final score.
Tuesday 6 p.m. Time for the Yale hard practice in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The building seemed a lot smaller in person and loads of camera phone pictures were taken before the practice started. Then the team and certainly the coaches were all business. Coach James Jones was as intense as I have ever seen him. The practice was orchestrated to the minute. Assistant coach Justin Simon, a former Bulldog himself, was in charge of the Duke scouting report. He was focused to a large extent on the Duke post players and wanted to be certain that forwards Justin Sears and Brandon Sherrod were positioned properly. Both players seemed to pick up the report easily and Sears was focused on working on his short-range side jumper and free throws.