The Yale men’s basketball team finished 2016-17 third in the Ivy League regular season, but a semifinal upset of rival Harvard propelled them into a runner-up spot in the inaugural Ivy Tournament. With the expected return of 2015-16 first team All-Ivy point guard Makai Mason from a major foot injury, the Bulldogs were expected to be in the thick of last year’s race. While the team was chosen second to the Crimson by only three points in the preseason media poll, Yale actually had two more first-place votes. Unfortunately, Mason and forward Jordan Bruner both sustained injuries in the preseason that effectively kept them on the bench for the entirety of the 2017-18 campaign.
Despite those major blows and a 2-4 start to league play, coach James Jones was able to rally his Elis (16-15 overall, 9-5 Ivy) to a second consecutive third-place showing. While Yale defeated co-champion Penn by one point in New Haven on the regular season’s penultimate evening, the Quakers ended the Bulldogs season with a 80-57 victory at the Palestra in the Ivy Tournament semifinal. For 2018-19, Yale will add a class of five first-years to a squad that will return its entire starting lineup and Bruner (8.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 22.4 minutes per game in ’16-’17). Even if the team cannot stay healthy, their depth allows them to be a good bet to stay in the conference’s upper division for the 19th straight season. If the coach can get his squad to avoid the injury bug (maybe skip the scrimmage against brother Joe Jones’ Boston University, where Mason and Bruner were both injured in successive seasons), a regular season and postseason title should be within their grasp.
In addition to Mason, who will play at Baylor as a graduate transfer, Yale loses Noah Yates and Eric Anderson. Yates started his career on the Eli football team before injuries forced him off the gridiron after his sophomore year and onto the hardwood for his last two years in New Haven. In a senior season in which he was named the team’s Most Improved Player, he increased his totals in games (31; +10 from ;16-’17), minutes (17.5 per game; + 12.0), points (5.4 per game; + 3.6), made threes (1.1 per game; + 0.7), rebounds (2.9 per game; + 2.0) and assists (1.2 per game; + 0.9). With eligibility left, Yates will head to the University of Richmond as a graduate transfer. Anderson, a 6′ 7″ forward, made 50 appearances in his four years with an average of 1.6 points and 1.3 rebounds per contest.
Looking at Yale’s recent history, their offense has focused on effective shooting, sharing the ball and rebounding. For a team that traditionally does not favor the three ball, the guard oriented roster went deep often, shooting 42.5 percent of its field goal attempts from beyond the arc (#68, nationally). This number was its highest rate over the last 10 years. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they only shot 32.9 percent from three (#275), which was its lowest rate since 2013-2014. On the positive side, the team shot 55.1 percent from two (#25) and had a 52.7 effective field-goal percentage (#96). The Elis excelled in sharing the rock, averaging 15.9 assists per game in Division 1 play (#31) and having an assist rate of 60.4 percent (#20). The offensive rebounding suffered from the loss of Sam Downey to graduation (league-leading 2.6 offensive rebounds per game in ’16-’17) and Bruner to injury (8th in league with 1.7 o-boards per game in ’16-’17), ending the year with a 25.4 percent rate against Division I opponents, the lowest percentage since 2010-11 and second lowest in the last 10 years.
On the defensive side, Yale’s opponents took advantage of the limited front court depth to secure a 52.5 effective field goal percentage (#252), the largest number over the last decade. Teams attempted 65.2 percent of its shots from two (#267) and hit 53.0 percent (#284). The shooting percentage inside the arc was also the highest against Yale over the same ten year period, besting the next closest rate by 3.4 percent. From three, teams hit 34.3 percent (#129), which was under the national Division I average of 35.1 percent, but the highest number for Yale’s defense since the 2013-14 campaign. On the defensive glass, even with the front court losses, the Elis managed a solid 73.3 percent rate (#81), which was a 1.8 percent increase from 2016-17 and its second best number in the last ten years. Going into 2018-19, Yale will need improved three-point shooting, but it will be vital to have a healthy and deep frontcourt to force play inside the arc where the Bulldogs traditionally do its best work.
Yale will return seven of its top eight players from last year, including junior Miye Oni, senior Blake Reynolds, sophomore Paul Atkinson and sophomore Azar Swain. Oni, a 6′ 6″ guard who can play four positions on the court, was a second team All-Ivy selection after his rookie season and a unanimous first team All-Ivy choice in his sophomore year. Last season, he averaged 32.8 minutes (10th Ivy), 15.5 points (5th), 6.0 rebounds (5th), 3.6 assists (5th), 2.0 made threes (7th), 0.8 blocks (10th), and 0.9 steals (12th) per game. While he had some problems with efficiency during the team’s 2-4 start in Ivy competition (average ORtg of 67 percent), he turned things around over the last four weekends when the team went 7-1 (average ORtg of 113 percent with 4 game KenPom MVPs).
Reynolds, a 6′ 7″ forward who started 28 games last year, averaged 28.4 minutes, 10.7 points (19th Ivy), 5.5 rebounds (10th) and 2.4 assists (15th) per game. His field goal shooting of 48.5 percent was 11th best in the conference, and his two-point shooting rate of 62.9 percent was 2nd best. Atkinson, a 6′ 10″ forward/center who was pushed into the starting lineup ahead of schedule due to Bruner’s injury, completed his first year starting 30 of the team’s 31 contests. He averaged 24.2 minutes, 9.3 points and 4.6 rebounds a game with his 69.2 field goal percent leading the Ancient Eight. Swain, a 6′ 0″ shooting guard who played in all 31 games, averaged 19.7 minutes, 7.5 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.2 assists. At last year’s Blue Madness, coach Jones labeled the first-year an assassin from the outside. Swain backed up his coach’s statements by leading a team that struggled from beyond the arc with 1.7 made threes per game (12th Ivy) and a 39.1 percent shooting rate (11th).
Playing on a team with an experienced roster and a coach that generally keeps a eight person rotation, each of the five new members of the Class of 2022 will look to learn the Bulldog style of play while possibly earning a spot in the back of the rotation. Matthue Cotton is a 6′ 5″ shooting guard from South Jersey, who graduated from Eastern Regional High School after spending his first two years at Academy of the New Church and his junior year at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark. According to Verbal Commits, the three star recruit (ESPN, Rivals and 247 Sports) chose Yale over Penn, Brown, Columbia, Miami, Oklahoma State, Seton Hall, Rutgers, St. Bonaventure, VCU, Temple, St. Joe’s, La Salle, UMass, Tulane, NJIT, Towson, and Hartford. In his senior season, he averaged 19 points and 9 rebounds a game. Isaiah Kelly is a three star (Scout and Rivals) 6′ 7″ forward from Pace Academy in Georgia. According to Verbal Commits, Rivals and 247 Sports, he had offers from Harvard, Princeton, Penn, Brown, Wisconsin, Rutgers, Iowa State, Vanderbilt, Georgia, Cincinnati, Xavier, Memphis, UAB, FGCU, Bucknell, Hofstra and Alcorn State. In four years at Pace, he had 2,780 career points, while receiving four all-state honors, three all-Metro Atlanta selections and two All-Defensive awards. In his senior year, he recorded 17.2 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists a game.
Eze Dike-Nwagbara is a 6′ 2″ point guard from Montreal, who attended Kimball Union Academy (NH) last year. Yale’s first commitment for the fall of 2018 chose the Bulldogs over Dartmouth, Lafayette, and Boston University. This past year, he earned All-NEPSAC honors with 12.0 points a game on 47 percent shooting from the field and 35 percent from three. The athlete, nicknamed the “The Nigerian Nightmare”, can play above the rim and is a potential threat to end Trey Phills’ two year reign as Blue Madness dunk contest champion. Michael Feinberg is a two-star (ESPN) 6′ 4″ shooting guard from Southern California, who attended Sierra Canyon High School for the first three years of his career and Viewpoint School for his senior season. In his time at Sierra Canyon, he played in 70 games, averaging 7.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.0 steals per game. At Viewpoint, he was a first team all-Gold Coast League selection with 19.2 points, 12.0 rebounds and 6 assists a contest. Jake Lanford is a 6′ 10″ forward/center from the Porter-Gaud School in Charleston (SC). Verbal Commits listed Columbia, Wofford, Mercer, Western Carolina, Appalachian State, College of Charleston, North Florida, Cal Poly, Georgia Southern, Ausitn Peay, Winthrop and Furman among his other offers. During his time at Porter-Gaud, he totaled over 1,000 points for his high school career and averaged double-doubles in his last two seasons. He also was rated the top center in the state for three years, while earning three all-state awards and state championships.