After 54 years on the outside, Yale basketball could make the NCAA tournament this season. A pivotal matchup at Princeton on Friday could be the deciding factor.
The last time Yale qualified for the NCAA tournament, “Hey! Baby” by Bruce Channel was the country’s No. 1 song, the Beatles would not arrive in America for nearly two more years, the first Super Bowl was five years away and John F. Kennedy was president. The year was 1962, which means the Bulldogs haven’t been to the Big Dance in 54 years.
Although the Ivy League may add a conference tournament in the near future, it doesn’t currently host one, which means that the regular season determines the league’s autobid. A year ago, Yale and Harvard finished the Ivy League schedule tied at 11–3 and played a one-game playoff in Philadelphia to determine which team got that bid. Crimson forward Steve Moundou-Missi hit a game-winner in the final 10 seconds and Harvard danced its way to its fourth straight NCAA tournament (where it nearly knocked off North Carolina in its first game).
Yale may have been denied its chance at reclaiming long-lost glory, but there was reason for optimism heading into 2015–16. Leading scorer and rebounder Justin Sears was coming back, and Renaissance man/forward Brandon Sherrod returned to New Haven after taking a year off from the team to travel the world with Yale’s acclaimed collegiate a capella group, the Whiffenpoofs.
Sherrod hasn’t missed a beat since returning to the hardwood, averaging 11.7 points and 7.3 rebounds and even setting the NCAA record for consecutive field goals (30) earlier this month. In the meantime, Sears continues to shine in averaging 16.5 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, while guard Makai Mason has blossomed in his sophomore year, scoring 15.9 points and dishing out 3.8 assists per game.
The trio have helped Yale accumulate a 17–5 record, including an ongoing 12-game winning streak and an 8–0 mark in Ivy League play. A 79–75 home win over Princeton is the difference so far in the standings, with the Tigers sitting one game back in the loss column heading into Friday’s rematch in New Jersey. If the Bulldogs are able to sweep the season series, they’ll head into their final five games up two in the loss column and with their biggest test in the rearview mirror. Lose Friday and things get stickier, but Yale would still control its own destiny (including a potential Yale-Princeton one-game playoff if both win out the rest of the way).
At this point though, the Bulldogs look like the team beat. They’re first in the Ivy League in numerous key stats, including offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage, offensive rebounding percentage, free throw rate and two- and three-point percentage. The only areas in the conference where they are subpar are free throw shooting percentage and defensive steal percentage.
One of the most experienced teams in the country, Yale’s seniors know their window to end their school’s NCAA drought is closing. After missing a chance to tie the game at the buzzer during last year’s one-game playoff, the now graduated Javier Duren remarked that as much as he wanted to be upset, “it was really awesome to be a part of this experience. How many people get to play Yale-Harvard for an NCAA bid?”
Current Bulldogs like Sears, Mason and senior captain Jack Montague have already had that opportunity. The next step is to get that elusive bid.
Player to Watch: Hofstra sophomore center Rokas Gustys
Gustys, a 6'9" Lithuanian who attended Oak Hill Academy, has grown leaps and bounds from his freshman to sophomore season. After posting solid 5.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game averages in his rookie year, he’s putting up 13.5 points and 12.3 rebounds per game this season. Gustys has turned it on even more in conference play, where he’s scoring 16.9 points and grabbing 14.9 boards a game. In a key road win over William & Mary last week, Gustys scored 25 points on 12-of-16 shooting and added 15 rebounds—and followed it with 18 points and 21 rebounds in a win over Delaware two days later. Nationally, he ranks fourth in rebounding and he is the clear leader in the CAA in both rebounding (offensive, defensive and total) and field goal percentage (63.9%).
Gustys’s sharp rise has helped the Pride earn an 18–8 record and second place in the CAA so far. Hofstra is gunning for its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2001, but it faces stiff competition from the likes of UNC Wilmington, James Madison and William & Mary, the latter of whom has never been to the Big Dance.
Game of the Week: Saint Mary’s at Gonzaga, Saturday, 10 p.m. on ESPN2
This game has huge West Coast Conference implications, as the Bulldogs are currently one game ahead of the Gaels in the conference standings. Saint Mary’s edged Gonzaga at home a month ago, but now must go to Spokane and attempt to repeat the feat. If the Zags are victorious, they will be in great shape heading into their final two games of the season. If the Gaels sweep the season series, it will throw the pressure back onto Gonzaga, which still has to play BYU on the road to close out the regular season. Of course, this is assuming both Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s win their earlier game this week, something both teams are heavily favored to do.
The Bulldogs have won the last three WCC regular season titles and 14 of the last 15. At this point they control their own destiny, but the Gaels could prove to once again be too much to handle this season.
With the end of the regular season looming in a few weeks, there are several other big mid-major games this week I wanted to note, which include: Stony Brook at Albany (Wednesday), South Dakota State at IPFW (Thursday), Cal State Bakersfield at New Mexico St. (Thursday), Iona at Monmouth (Friday), Oakland at Valparaiso (Friday), Hawaii at UC Irvine (Saturday), Tennessee Tech at Belmont (Saturday), UNC Asheville at Winthrop (Saturday) and UAB at Middle Tennessee (Sunday).
Stat of the Week: 23
It’s not often that a player scores 22 points in a game and still has a higher rebound total, but Weber State forward Joel Bolomboy accomplished the feat last week. In a win over Sacramento State, Bolomboy tied a career-high in pulling down 23 boards, his third 20-point, 20-rebound game this season. Bolomboy averages 13.5 rebounds per game, which ranks second in the nation.