Yale Puts Its Name With Greats Of Mid-Major Past With Upset

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Yale may have a $23 billion endowment (second to Harvard nationally), and if we were playing the Game of Life (still available at a store near you, I think), they would certainly be far from a cute underdog we love so much this time of year.

But if you’re around college basketball enough, you know a big-time program with the budget of a Central American country when you see one. And Yale ain’t it.

The Bulldogs didn’t have five (?!?) managers running to clean up sweat and get stats to assistant coaches 0.05 seconds faster than they would normally like Duke did. Nor did they have three guys (not coaches) chilling in the media video room cutting up the Miami-Buffalo game play by play in case they needed it later in the night (their work was for naught, as Wichita St. defeated Arizona in the nightcap).

And so while it’s easy to peg the Yale-Duke game that will take place here Saturday as the rich against the mega-rich, that might be true off the court, but that diminishes just how much the Yale basketball team has accomplished.

James Jones knows. He’s not only been living in the mid-major shadows for the better part of two decades, he’s seen the likes of Penn, Cornell, and Harvard get to the Ivy promised land. And so on the biggest day of his professional career (I mean you saw the locker room video, right?), he still took time to stand up for the inequities of the system with an epic rant.

“So it’s hard to get those wins to prove it because, when you have to go on the road and play at Baylor, it’s a whole different story than playing them on a neutral court or playing them in your building,” Jones said. “So the matrix of it, say that we should have been somewhere between a 10 and a 13 seed, and we got a 12. But we have a 40 RPI. Our KenPom is 39. If those numbers don’t mean anything, why do we have them?

“Like last year we were in a situation where we should have got NIT, and there were like 13 teams that were picked after us in RPI, and every single team before us got in. If it doesn’t matter, then why is it every other team before us got in and then they skipped us and went on to 13 other teams, and one of those teams was UConn and we beat them on their court? It’s hard for me to understand why no one understands how hard that is to do. That’s like impossible to do. It’s happened one time in 80 games or something ridiculous like that. In any event, I could go on for a while on that question.”

Yes, Yale – despite its academic credentials and prestige – is the quintessential mid-major on the basketball court, playing in an 80-year old gym whose scoreboard can’t shut off properly and the only way to the bathroom takes you right past the entrance to the locker room.

Their star player, two-time Ivy League Player of the Year Justin Sears was under-recruited because he is awkward and undersized by major conference standards, but as he did Thursday, he comes up with big play after big play when his team needs it.

“The thing is it’s a little bit bigger than us,” Sears said. “We’ve had everyone and their mother come out to say kind words to us, from the Governor of Rhode Island to people from the team in ’62 to speak to us. This was bigger than us, and we wanted to do it for all the Yale faithful out there, and we’re happy just to pull off the W.”

His partner in rebounding, Brandon Sherrod, took a year off to go sing, as you probably already know. But you might not know that he was another undersized recruit with an excellent academic resume, and came very close to attending Brown before choosing Yale.

“It’s always nice seeing alumni and other Yale affiliates come up to you and talk about how long they’ve waited for a victory, and they give you their thank yous,” Sherrod said. “It’s really special. So we’re really happy to be a part of that.”

A third senior, Nick Victor, barely played his freshman year and shot 28% (not a typo) from the free throw line his sophomore season before barely being able to play at all last season. And all he’s done this season is become the glue that’s held the whole thing together. He’ll be remembered for airballing a free throw late in the game Thursday, but he also made the two biggest defensive plays of the contest, and did hit the first free throw before the airball. Victor had, you guessed it, nothing close to a major offer (Davidson was looking at him at one point) before ending up in New Haven from Dallas.

Meanwhile, the undeniable star of Thursday’s proceedings was sophomore Makai Mason, who at the age of 15 decided to give up on big-time AAU basketball because he, gasp, didn’t want to be traveling every weekend to various sites when he could be home with his friends and working on, you know, studying and such. After that, schools with a much higher profile than Yale backed off and most were watching on television as Mason hung 31 (including 13 in a row at one point) on Baylor on the biggest stage in college hoops.

“It was kind of a joint decision with me and my dad just because we thought that working out every day would be better than kind of traveling and not being able to work on my game on the weekends and the crazy schedule of AAU,” Mason said. “But Yale was kind of there from the beginning. They were one of the first teams to be — to be interested in me. It’s worked out pretty well. I grew to trust the coaching staff, and it’s really paid off for me here.”

Added Sears: “We’re not on national TV every night, so guys haven’t heard of Makai Mason before, and he just dropped 31. He should be a scholarship player at any high major program. But it’s a chip on our shoulder for us, just when we stepped out there. You could see that Baylor, they didn’t take us seriously from the start of the game, and as we started hitting shots, they realized we’re for real. And that’s with a lot of mid-major teams. They don’t really do a good job scouting them or think highly of them. We have a bunch of seniors on the team and at the same time guys who are playing hard out there. Anything can happen. And that’s how we put up a win today.”

Sears is selling himself and his current team a little short there because they are very good. After a team like Yale beats Baylor, there’s always the blame game on what the Bears did wrong and how they let Mason loose and how they could let guys like Sears, Sherrod, and Victor match the Bears on the glass.

But the answer, as the analytical gods would tell you, might be that Yale is just good. No, they don’t have Top 50 RPI wins, but they’ve proven – mostly on other team’s courts – that they can play.

“I think they have very, very good players,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “They’ve got guys who are going to make some money playing this game, number one, and then, number two, I think — again, I think Mason really controlled the tempo, and he created offense for everybody else. If you trapped him on the ball screen, they threw out and got some open looks. If you switched, well, now you had a rebounding disadvantage. If you gave long help, now they were able to hit a three with 32. So they did a good job exploiting him on ball screens and making it tough.”

And, just like some of the other great mid-major stories of March past (including Cornell and Harvard recently), they have overcome the odds and won an NCAA Tournament game. It deserves to be treated that way.

One thought on “Yale Puts Its Name With Greats Of Mid-Major Past With Upset

  1. George Clark

    Great essay and reporting, Mr. Curren. I thought Mason deserved consideration for POY, although Sears had another excellent season. Glad Jones had a national stage on which to play and rant!!! Columbia extending its season again and my Tigers took a good ACC team to OT on its own court. If you don’t think we could handle the Hokies at our place just ask the Bulldogs. Go Yale….grab those BlueDevils by the neck and hang on!!!!

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