Yale is an interesting team in this year’s tournament. They did not play a single second of basketball last season, but seemingly picked up right where they left off on March 13, 2020 when they were primed to reach a second straight NCAA Tournament. They were supposed to be a 2020-21 non-conference opponent of Purdue, but that was cancelled. Fortunately, we get them in the NCAA Tournament now, so I spoke with William McCormack of the Yale Daily News to learn more about them:
T-Mill: This is actually a delayed matchup, as Purdue was supposed to host Yale in the original 2020-21 non-conference schedule before COVID stopped it. What is it like going an entire year without basketball and how did the program overcome it?
William: COVID-19 significantly disrupted campus life last year at Yale, and that included athletics. Student experiences during that 2020–21 school year really depended on individual circumstances and whether or not you decided to enroll in classes, which all took place on Zoom. Almost 20 percent of the student body took a leave of absence during the fall semester in 2020. According to a data project published in the Yale Daily News, student-athletes were more likely to take a leave (about 40 percent of returning student-athletes did in fall 2020), and about two-thirds of returners on the Yale men’s basketball team took a full gap year. That allowed them to preserve a year of Ivy League eligibility while they pursued other things or remote internships last year. Yale senior forward Jameel Alausa studied for the MCAT; Yale captain and senior guard Jalen Gabbidon became the co-founder/chief technology officer for a startup called Launchpad, which he has continued to devote significant time to during this season. A few others — like former Yale forward Paul Atkinson, who graduated last spring and now plays as a grad. transfer at Notre Dame — opted to stay enrolled for the year and take online classes either remotely (living at home or somewhere else) or while living in New Haven.
For the few in New Haven, opportunities to practice were extremely limited in fall 2020 but grew slightly in spring 2021. Other Ivy League schools were in the same boat — all schools followed a set of phased guidelines the league created for athletic training during the pandemic. Yale, like many other Ivy League teams, entered the year with nine players (of 19 on the roster) who had no experience competing at the collegiate level.
T-Mill: Yale only has two tournament appearances in the last half century, but was feisty in both. How did they cause problems?
William: True, the Bulldogs have only been dancing twice in the last half century, but this week’s game vs. Purdue will also mark their third appearance in the last five opportunities — 2016, 2019 and now 2022 — given the canceled tournament in 2020 and the Ivy League’s canceled season in 2020–21.
Defense, rebounding and breakout scoring performances helped Yale compete during its recent trips to March Madness. Yale fell to LSU by only five when the teams met for the first round in 2019, despite an off day from Yale star and 2019 NBA Draft pick Miye Oni. Yale, a No. 12 seed, upset fifth-seeded Baylor in 2016 thanks to a phenomenal performance from former Yale guard Makai Mason (31 points). The Bulldogs then took Duke to the wire in the next round, falling by seven after a second-half comeback. Yale’s rebounding advantage was key in both games. The Elis outrebounded Baylor 36–32 and outrebounded Duke 42–28. (“How does Yale outrebound Baylor?” one reporter asked). Anyone who watched Yale closely wasn’t too surprised. Yale head coach James Jones has made rebounding a core tenet of the program. The Elis’ rebounding advantage over Princeton, 38–29, was also crucial to their win in the Ivy League Tournament championship on Sunday.
T-Mill: Purdue has both size in Zach Edey and Trevion Williams and tremendous athleticism in Jaden Ivey. How can Yale counter them?
William: Edey and Williams would present matchup problems for most teams in the country, and that seems to be especially true for this year’s Yale team, which is relatively undersized. (Its average height ranks 249 out of the 358 DI teams in men’s college basketball, according to KenPom). In recent years, the Bulldogs have benefited from a big interior presence with forwards like Justin Sears ’16, Jordan Bruner ’19 (Alabama grad. transfer), and Paul Atkinson ’20 (Notre Dame grad. transfer). But Yale’s average height this year is the lowest it has been since the 2010–11 season. The tallest player in the Yale rotation this year is 6-foot-8 junior forward EJ Jarvis, and 6-foot-7 starter Isaiah Kelly has adopted a role as the 5-man even though that isn’t his natural position.
After Yale watched the Selection Sunday show from Boston, James Jones jokingly told me that Yale may “need a dump truck to get [Edey] out of the paint because he’s just so big.” That being said, Yale is a defense-oriented squad and the Ancient Eight’s best defensive team. In addition to rebounding, defense and sharing the ball are Jones’ two other main points of emphasis as a coach. Jalen Gabbidon, the 2020 Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, and first-year guard Bez Mbeng are strong perimeter defenders who will likely be tasked with trying to contain Ivey. If Yale can send strategic double-teams on Edey and Williams while helping and rotating, their defense may give the Elis a shot. Yale’s also a team that has everyone crash the boards. (Mbeng, a 6-foot-4 point guard, had 11 rebounds in the Ivy Madness championship.) If Yale’s guards can help grab defensive rebounds while Jarvis and Kelly focus on boxing out Purdue’s bigs, that may help the Bulldogs counter too.
T-Mill: Who are Yale’s offensive standouts? What style do you guys prefer to play?
William: Senior guard Azar Swain, who averages 19.2 points per game and ranked second in the Ivy League in points per game this season, has been Yale’s go-to scorer all season. He has cemented himself as an all-time Yale great this season and holds school records for most three-pointers in a single season (93, 2019–20) and career three-pointers (269 and counting; he officially broke the school record last December). When the ball tips off on Friday, he will break another major program record: career games played. (He’s currently tied for first with Justin Sears ’16; both have 120 appearances). He was voted the Most Outstanding Player at Ivy Madness.
Yale plays somewhat fast — its adjusted tempo ranks 86th in the nation, per KenPom — and will get out in transition off a steal if it can. Sophomore forward Matt Knowling scores most of his points in the paint and has a great hook shot — Yale occasionally tries to get him some looks early before spacing the floor and creating room for three-point looks from guards like Matthue Cotton and August Mahoney who come off the bench. Jalen Gabbidon can take it strong to the rim and finish creatively. But when Yale really needs a bucket, the ball will be in Swain’s hands. He can create his own shot from almost anywhere on the floor.
T-Mill: What would it take to pull off the upset?
William: Defense, rebounding from the full team and a career game from Swain, who set his current career-high of 37 points during a game vs. Columbia in January. Purdue presents a big challenge, but it’s also interesting to note that Yale’s rotation is a lot more developed since the start of Ivy League play than it was during the nonconference slate. Yale struggled against Seton Hall, Auburn, and St. Mary’s earlier this year after really competing with high-major opponents during the 2018–19 and 2019–20 seasons (nonconference wins over Cal, Miami, Clemson and close losses at UNC, Oklahoma St., and Penn State during those two seasons). But three key players in its rotation weren’t really playing during the nonconference schedule. EJ Jarvis kept dealing with injuries, and Yale’s two rookie standouts, PG Bez Mbeng and forward Matt Knowling, both averaged less than two points per game and less than eight minutes per game during Yale’s first 11 contests. Mbeng, a pandemic-era recruit, committed to Yale in January of his senior year of high school in 2021 and had actually never met Jones in person before he moved onto campus late last August — that’s the first time that has happened since Jones became the Yale head coach in 1999. Mbeng and Knowling both entered the starting lineup right before Ivy League play, and a quick look at the box score from Sunday’s Ivy Madness final shows how important they’ve become to this team: Mbeng had 13 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 steals in 32 minutes. Knowling, who was named to the all-tournament team with Swain, had 12 points on four-of-six shooting and five assists in 30 minutes of play time.