Outlook: Perhaps no Ivy League team has more upside than the highly touted Bulldogs, but title contention is not guaranteed.
Last Year’s Record: 18-11 (9-5 Ivy League)
Who’s Out: Sam Downey (29 min., 11.8 ppg); Anthony Dallier (32 min., 9.4 ppg)
Who’s In: Makai Mason (G-Sr., missed 2016-17 to injury); Paul Atkinson (F); Azar Swain (G); Jameel Alausa (F); Jalen Gabbidon (G); Wyatt Yess (F)
Key Non-Conference Games: Nov. 10 at Creighton; Nov. 12 at Wisconsin (BTN); Nov. 25 vs. Vermont
If everything goes right, this year’s Yale Bulldogs will be the most fun team the Ivy League has seen in years.
The starting lineup is loaded with talent. Point guard Makai Mason has already committed to a Power 5 team (Baylor, for a grad transfer in 2018-19); sophomore forward Jordan Bruner turned down a few of them as a top-200 recruit; and wing Miye Oni heard NBA buzz this offseason. NBC Sports named Yale the best mid-major backcourt in the nation and #20 overall, and while that’s perhaps optimistic, it represents the Bulldogs’ high ceiling.
Their appeal goes beyond sheer talent: Yale’s players are a joy to watch, at nearly every position. Oni is a fearless shooter and a big-time dunker — go back and watch that one from the Ivy semifinal again — and when he stays on the right side of the fine line between celebration and taunting, his enthusiasm is infectious. Bruner will be a beast under the rim, Alex Copeland’s shifty moves are mesmerizing, and the last time we saw Mason, he was authoring the Ivy League’s finest single-game performance this decade.
The Bulldogs will also play plenty of big games, including four visits to potential NCAA tournament teams from major conferences (Creighton, Wisconsin, TCU, Georgia Tech) and a delightful Thanksgiving weekend date with Vermont, another premier mid-major this year. Don’t miss the visits to St. Bonaventure, Albany or Iona, either.
(As always, the bottom of the schedule is pillow-soft, with four opponents projected in the bottom 50 nationally and a fifth outside of D-I. In the past, Yale could blame in-state rivals’ struggles for the weak side of its schedule, but the Bulldogs aren’t even playing a single Connecticut team this year — three of the four sub-300 teams are south of the Mason-Dixon line.)
There are some ways this season could go south, however.
The obvious candidate is health. Mason was cleared for practice last week after rehabbing his broken foot into the summer and then tweaking his back this fall, but he did not play in the team’s Blue Madness showcase last Thursday. Recent history is encouraging: Ivy stars like Shonn Miller, Gabas Maldunas and Siyani Chambers have looked like their old selves after returning from season-ending injuries. If Mason does the same, he’ll be the Ivy favorite for POY.
The timing is rough — Mason will only have about two weeks of full practice with mostly new floormates before playing a huge opening weekend at Creighton and Wisconsin. And reinjury is always a concern (see: Hans Brase and Alex Rosenberg). Bruner was also limited by a knee injury last season, though he is at full strength after offseason surgery. Any time missed by starters could critically damage the Bulldogs, who traditionally run a very short rotation.
More questions lie in the frontcourt. For several years, the Bulldogs have built their offense around reliable bigs: Greg Mangano, Justin Sears, Brandon Sherrod, Sam Downey. Downey was absurdly efficient throughout his career, and with the major caveat that raw plus-minus numbers are not very reliable, he was the Ivy’s top player by that metric last season.
Bruner is capable of taking the baton, but he scored double figures only twice in 14 Ivy games last year (albeit while coming off the bench). Blake Reynolds will also get shots inside and out, but he isn’t the same impact defender. James Jones has said he will continue to play two-big lineups, which means also finding a third forward for the rotation (rookie Paul Atkinson?) and a fourth for emergencies.
Which leads to a final way Yale’s high hopes could fall: Plainly, a lack of improvement. Despite a fast start, the Bulldogs finished at #151 in KenPom last year, and they outscored the league by just 2.5 points per possession. Their inside-out offense naturally leads to lots of turnovers, and it creates a lot of pull-up jumpers and tough post-ups. In years past, the Bulldogs simply got more shots with offensive rebounds, but their rate slipped from “dominant” to merely “above-average” last year, reducing the margin for error. They were okay defensively for such a young team, but Ivy opponents started to figure them out the second time through.
Mason’s return alone, offsetting the loss of two starters, isn’t enough to bridge the gap between that level and the Ivy League’s top spot. Even with a strong rookie class, the Bulldogs need returning players to step up: Bruner to thrive in a full-time role; Oni to live up to his summer hype; Trey Phills and Alex Copeland to improve the weak halves of their respective games. Not everything needs to happen for Yale to win a title, but something does.
A lot of people think it will. The Bulldogs got the most first-place votes in the preseason media poll, and they’re this year’s trendy team nationally. If Yale does live up to that promise, it will sure be fun to watch.