Yale has had plenty of opportunities to make excuses this season if it wanted. Loss of three starters (all post players) to graduation? Sure. Preseason Ivy League Player of the Year Makai Mason (who only scored 31 in an NCAA upset of Baylor last March) gone with a broken foot in the preseason? Yeah, that works. Teams and opposing crowds taking aim at the current kings of the Ivy League? Why not? Letdown after finally breaking through to the NCAA Tournament after 54 years? Could make a case.
Except Yale doesn’t just not want to hear it, they’re taking those potential alibis and shoving them down the throat of the Ivy League in 2016-17. With a hard-fought, but impressive 87-78 win at Columbia, the Bulldogs are not only 4-1 in conference play, but if it gets a win Saturday night in Ithaca over Cornell, would be 5-1 with six of their remaining eight regular season contests in the friendly confines of Lee Amphitheater, where all the Bulldogs have done is won 21 straight games.
If you’re surprised that Yale looks like it will be in the Ivy League hunt once again until the end, they’re not. And they’re curious why you would be.
“We’re fortunate to have all good players,” Yale coach James Jones said. “If you think about it, Alex Copeland is our leading scorer and he had only 2 points. We’re able to win because we put other guys in double figures. The fact that we play all good players, on any given night, anyone can step up and play well and be consistent for us. And that ‘s where our consistency as a team comes from. A number of guys can step up.”
After senior Anthony Dallier doubled his career high last Friday against Brown (30), it was sophomore Blake Reynolds’ turn at Levien Gym (the place where Yale finally clinched the Ivy League title last March), scoring 18 points on 7-11 shooting (3-5 from behind the arc) as the Lions (10-8, 3-2) decided to pick him as their poison in their fluid zone and suffered the consequences.
In fact, Dallier was the only Yale (12-6, 4-1) starter to fail to reach double figures with 9 points on 2-6 shooting. The Bulldogs’ leading scorer entering the game was sophomore Alex Copeland, but he struggled to just 2 points on 1-7 from the field, while highly touted freshman Jordan Bruner had just a single point and 2 rebounds in 24 minutes.
Yet Yale finished with a roubust 1.19 points per possession on the road in a place where Harvard fell last Saturday. Miye Oni (22 pts., 8 rebs) and Trey Phills (19 pts., second straight career high) did most of the damage by just taking 10 shots each, while Sam Downey needed just 9 (7-9) to score 16.
— IvyLeagueDigitalNet (@IvyLeagueNet) February 4, 2017
In the end, Yale finished 23-26 from the free throw line (now leading the Ivy at an even 80.0%) and had 22 assists on 27 field goals, a darn good night despite some of its top weapons misfiring.
Things will certainly get tougher against teams like Princeton and Harvard, but Yale led the Tigers late at Jadwin Gym a few weeks back, and their young and inexperienced players have shown no signs of wilting as the pressure gets ratcheted up in the conference season.
“It’s never easy to win on the road. These are hard games to win,” Jones said. “Hopefully, we can get another one tomorrow. After tomorrow, we have six of our last eight at home, and that bodes well for us.”
You may not want to put Yale in the same category as a Princeton or Harvard in recent years, but its record surely begs to differ. The Bulldogs are now 28-5 in the last three years of Ivy League play, sharing the title in 2014-15 and winning (with a 13-1 mark) in 2015-16. Lots of things happen over the course of time, but I think Yale is going to be here for a while, folks.
What else did we learn on the Upper West Side Friday night?:
1) Columbia almost there, but not quite
The Lions’ overall defensive numbers (229th nationally) are not great, but they still stand third in Ivy play (0.981 ppp), which is slightly skewed because they have already played Cornell twice. But Yale beat them in pretty much every way, except ironically on the offensive glass (just 8 for 26.7%), where they had been so dominant with Justin Sears and Brandon Sherrod.
While the Bulldogs did turn it over 15 times (20.5%), they were very patient when they had to be and got to the foul line 26 times. Twenty-four of those free throws came after halftime, where Yale – as its done so many times over the last couple seasons – slowly pulled away in the final 10 minutes. Yale largely made Conor Voss and Jeff Coby ineffective, with Coby fouling out with just 2 points and 6 rebounds. (Luke Petrasek scored a game-high 24 points to lead Columbia.)
“I didn’t think we played as a unit defensively,” Columbia coach Jim Engles said. “We started looking toward the offensive side of the ball to bail us out tonight, and that’s not a way to win consistency. Sometimes our habits come back and we have to learn from this loss and make sure we compete tomorrow. And Yale is good, too, obviously.”
It sets up a big game against Brown, which won at Cornell Friday night, Saturday. The Bears have been very good offensively this season (1.066 ppp in Ivy play) and will present many of the same problems Yale did Friday.
“Maybe by me saying this, people will take offense to it, but I could care less about the Ivy League Tournament,” Engles said. “If we play well, we’ll wind up in the Ivy League Tournament. If we play like we played tonight, we will not wind up in the Ivy League Tournament. I want my team to learn that. The Path to the Palestra is the last thing on my mind right now. I want us to play defense.”
2) Improved shooting
Trey Phills’ second straight career high came in part due to a 2-5 performance from three-point range, which doesn’t sound spectacular, but it makes him 9-26 from there this season (34.6%), and he is starting to look more confident. Phills has already shown an ability to get to the rim, and enough athleticism and power to get to the free throw line consistently, and the coaches generally like his defense, so hitting consistently from the outside will make him especially dangerous.
It’s an underrated part of Yale’s rise, they did the same with Dallier, who is now shooting 41.7% from behind the arc after being a non-shooter for his first two seasons in New Haven. Nick Victor and even Justin Sears were remarkably better outside shooters as upperclassmen than they were as underclassmen. That kind of improvement could present a scary Yale team next year and going forward.
“Trey was tremendous,” Jones said. “The steal he had (with Columbia trying to comeback late) and his free throws, I told him in the locker room, his career game was overshadowed by Tony’s (Dallier) in the last game. Tonight, he wasn’t overshadowed. His defense and ability to score are tremendous for us.”
3) Cleaning up the glass
The final numbers on the boards were still not favorable to Yale, giving up 14 offensive rebounds (36.8%). But they were downright horrible by Bulldogs’ standards at the half, with the Lions sitting at 52.6% (10 of 19). Columbia got just 4 of 19 (21.1%) in the second half, and two of those came in the final minutes with the Lions sending everyone to the glass in comeback mode.
Yale doesn’t need to be as good as it was with Sears, Sherrod, Victor, and others cleaning things up (7th, 41st, and 10th, respectively in defensive rebounding the last three seasons), but it does need to solid there. They are currently 152nd nationally (and fourth in Ivy play), so it’s a stat worth watching as the second half of Ivy play comes around.
“They’ve been turning people over and they did a good job of that tonight, and they also really attacked the offensive glass,” Jones said. “We held them to four in the second half, which made all the difference in the world. They were able to keep up with us in the first half, and that was a big reason.”