Makai Mason sat recounting in amazement people he did not know recognizing him on streets and in places he rarely frequented last Saturday night after Yale began its 2016-17 campaign with its annual “Blue Madness” exhibition for its fans.
“Not all the time, but occasionally random people will recognize me and want to take a picture or something, which is still a little weird,” Mason said. “Right after the (NCAA) tournament was surreal being on all the shows and seeing myself on almost every channel it seemed like was nuts.”
As he finished his sentence, a couple of young fans sheepishly wandered over toward Mason and asked if they could have a picture with him. From there, it was a non-stop parade of well-wishers both little and big for the next 10 minutes or so. Yes, when you score 31 points in an NCAA tournament upset, your days of anonymity—at least in the college basketball world—are usually finished, and such is the case with Mason as he returns to New Haven for his junior season.
The 2015-16 Yale basketball team should stand the test of time as one of the greats in school history. If you’ve forgotten, the short list of accolades includes the most wins in a century, first NCAA tournament appearance in 43 years, and first NCAA victory ever (and first win over a ranked team in more than half a century in the process).
Yale locker room celebration pic.twitter.com/jxcYdrYTVe
— Michael Shamburger (@mshamburger1) March 17, 2016
Two-time Ivy League Player of the Year Justin Sears graduated, as did Brandon Sherrod, Nick Victor, and Khaliq Ghani, and with them goes the short but wonderful reign of Yale atop the Ivy League, as least as far as the polls and common wisdom are concerned. Now they see Princeton as a prohibitive favorite and young but talented Harvard checking in behind them. Yale is generally considered third, not a terrible place to be with the inaugural Ivy league Tournament taking the top four teams in March.
Or is it? If you thought Yale coach James Jones is going to take a season to do a proverbial victory lap after finally breaking through to his first Big Dance, you probably don’t know him very well.
“I’m just amazed at the lack of respect sometimes I feel that the program still receives,” Jones said. “For Harvard to vault us is hard to understand sometimes. I understand that’s the way whoever votes decides, but over the course of the last 15 years, we’ve been picked lower than what we finished like 13 times. And one of the other ones was last year when we won the championship. We out kick our coverage every year. I think if you would have polled the coaches, it would have been different.”
What gives Jones such confidence even in what could be classified as a dreaded “rebuilding” year to adjust to life without Sears and Sherrod? Well, Mason, for one. He begins the season as the favorite to make it three straight Bulldogs to win Ivy POY, and spent his summer honing his game with the German national team (his mother was born in Germany) as they qualified for next summer’s European championships, sharing the floor and playing against several NBA players.
“It was good experiencing a different style of play,” Mason said. “I had to adjust my game and that really let me learn some things. Just hanging out with those guys was awesome, and building relationships with some of those guys will hopefully last a long time.”
Mason’s big jump from his freshman to sophomore season came from his outside shooting. After hitting just a single three-pointer in Yale’s final seven games (and none in his last five) to end the 2014-15 campaign, he hit 55 triples last season, including 31 in Ivy play, shooting 40.8%, and seemingly being there every time the Bulldogs needed a big shot.
Yale guard Makai Mason is hooping out there https://t.co/yQXNQ74s5Y
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 17, 2016
What to do for an encore? Well, Jones wants to take him out of the point spot on offense at times, not only to give him a little break without subbing him, but also to make defenses think twice before doubling him at every turn. If there’s one area where Mason could use significant improvement, it might be turnover rate, where he checked in at 21.1%. He recorded fewer than two turnovers only once in Ivy play (Yale was also just 289th in turnover rate last season despite all its success).
“We have to make sure we get Makai off the ball at times to give teams a different look and to give him some rest when possible so he can perform at the high level he’s capable of,” Jones said. “I’m confident no matter what defenses do, he’ll make the right decisions.”
Captain Anthony Dallier is expected to start alongside senior center Sam Downey, which leaves two starting spots that could eventually be filled by freshmen. You’ve probably heard the hype surrounding Jordan Bruner already, who is 6’9” and chose Yale over Clemson (Yes, the Clemson of the ACC.) and is quite ambitiously being compared to Justin Sears with a little better overall game. That’s praise that might be a little too high before he’s put on a college uniform yet.
“I have to caution myself about what I think he can do because I don’t want to set him up to fail,” Jones said. “He’s a freshman, he’s got a learning curve, but as a pure talent, he’s better than Justin Sears was when he was at this point of his freshman year and Justin told him that. He’s so versatile on what he can do, shoot threes, handle it like a guard, so hopefully he can take some of the pressure off Makai right away. But we just want to let him play and get better.”
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) October 23, 2016
The other member of Bruner’s class that might not be able to fly under the radar for long is 6’6” Miye Oni, who showed in the opening scrimmage that he is always around the ball and scored 52 points in a prep school game last winter. It will be essential for Yale’s players other than Mason to make shots when he draws extra attention and Oni could certainly be one of them.
One of the biggest question marks is if Yale can continue its dominance on the boards that it has enjoyed under Jones in recent years without Sears (13.9% offensive rebounding rate) and Sherrod (11.6%). Downey is not a natural offensive rebounder, and asking Bruner and Oni to pick up the slack might be very difficult (although sophomore Blake Reynolds did post a 10.8% mark in limited action last season).
In the last 15 seasons under Jones, Yale has finished lower than 88th nationally just once in offensive rebounding (2009-10) and it was the only season in that span that the Bulldogs have finished with a losing Ivy League record. Last season, Yale finished fifth nationally on the offensive glass (39.3%) and seventh on defense.
“Last year at this time, I watched our game at Harvard the year before when we beat them,” Jones said. “Our defense was absolutely extraordinary: the rotations, the quickness, the speed, all the things that we teach, we were doing. I was thinking to myself then how we would ever get to that point, but we not only did that, we surpassed it. It’s one of those things that we’re just trying to work every day to be the best we can.”
Yale, which got six votes in the coaches’ poll to start the season (Jones swears they weren’t his), will be tested early with road games at Washington, Virginia, Pitt, and Temple, before opening the Ivy League season at Penn and Princeton in mid-January.
“We want to be challenged to find out what we need to work on,” Jones said. “We hope we win them all, but you look at what Monmouth did last year, they put together a great resume, don’t win their conference tournament and they don’t get in (NCAA tournament). We want to learn from our mistakes and build for the league.”
Jones potentially has a deeper bench than a year ago, sophomores Trey Phills and Alex Copeland, as well as freshman Austin Williams (who will be wearing Justin Sears former No. 22) have not even been mentioned here yet, and Jones will likely find them minutes early in the season to see if they can contribute when the Ivy League lights go on after the new year.
Blue Madness was a good start, as Yale—even with its students on break—drew 1,500 people to Lee Amphitheater, which would have stood as a great crowd for many games until recently. Tickets for the Ivy League games may be tough to come by for the first time anyone around the program can remember.
“What we’re really trying to do is get people from the community to come out and watch,” Jones said. “If we get 20 percent of our students at every game, that’s 1,000 and our place holds about three (thousand). So we need the community involved, and they were great at the end of last season. I’m glad we have so many people interested in Yale basketball.”
These are uncharted waters for the Bulldogs, who have been so long the hunter of Princeton and Harvard, but now hold the Ivy crown. And they may not want to give it up as easily as you might think.