Two years ago, it was then-captain Sam Martin who was constantly reminding Yale’s sophomore basketball class that his competitive career was quickly nearing an end.
“He kept saying, ‘Last 14 games,’ to us over and over,” Greg Kelley said. “Last 14-game tournament.”
Now it’s their turn. And the quartet of Kelley (the current captain), Matt Townsend, Armani Cotton, and Javier Duren hope that there’s a 15th game in mid-March that comes with a big shiny NCAA logo in the middle of the floor.
They come from different backgrounds and cultures: two white, two African-American. A Rhodes scholar, two valedictorian, all of whom will enter the “real” world in the near future with Ivy League degrees and passions that stretch well beyond the 94 feet from baseline to baseline.
But for the next eight weeks, and 14 games, it’s all about one thing: getting Yale to the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than a half-century.
“We know we have to have a good sense of consistency,” Cotton said. “Harvard has won a couple [three] years in a row, but every game is so big in the Ivy League and the other six teams are all pretty good, too.”
The seniors haven’t had much time to process how far they’ve come since they descended on New Haven nearly four years ago. Cotton and Townsend met playing on the same AAU team while in high school, but didn’t exactly spend too much time together off the court.
“I would drive an hour to practice from where I lived on Long Island, and Armani would be coming from Manhattan, an hour the other way,” Townsend said. “So it was mostly drive to practice then go home right after.”
It is Townsend who has gotten the most notoriety off the court by being named a Rhodes Scholar, one of only 32 people in the country to receive that honor. He actually missed two games earlier this season to interview for the scholarship — which led to a hilarious “DNP – Rhodes Scholar Interview” in the Yale media notes. Townsend had never been to Britain before he and Duren went there as part of a European tour with a group of Ivy League All-Stars last summer.
“It was a great experience,” Townsend said. “It gave me a new perspective on some things.”
Duren and Cotton both come from places that have been in the news for unfortunate reasons in the past few months. Duren lives just minutes from Ferguson, Mo. and the shooting of teenager Michael Brown last summer. Until he was eight, Duren lived just a mile or two away from where most of the protests have taken place, and still has family nearby.
Cotton grew up in Manhattan (attending the prestigious Dalton School), site of the ongoing debate over the death of Eric Garner. Duren and Cotton both talked about the incidents diplomatically, but they understand the responsibility they have and will have when they return to their communities.
“You have a tendency to get insulated when you come to a school like this,” Duren said. “I think when you see something like that, especially in my hometown, you’re obligated to take notice and try to understand why it happened. It hit me pretty hard because it happened in my hometown. I grew up a couple of minutes away. I have family there.”
Duren is a founding father of Yale’s first Christian fraternity, Cotton worked for Hillary Clinton and founded a basketball clinic that also focused on academic development in New York City, Townsend (who along with Cotton was valedictorian of his high school class) has interned in various hospitals and is co-coordinator of Yale’s Homelessness and Hunger Action Program, while Kelley has worked at GQ, Fenway Park, and hosted his own R&B radio show.
“One of the tough things about playing in the Ivy League is that you’re not getting any academic breaks,” Kelley said. “If a paper’s due or something like that, you have to get it in on time and it’s going to be graded the same at everyone else.”
There is also a tremendous diversity on where you’ll likely see the current Yale basketball seniors in the future. Cotton is majoring in psychology, Duren economics, Kelley American studies, and Townsend molecular, cellular, and developmental biology.
None of the four was a key cog in Yale’s senior laden 2011-12 squad, led by Greg Mangano, Reggie Willhite, and Austin Morgan, which had similar aspirations to break one of the longest NCAA Tournament droughts in the country, with the Bulldogs’ last appearance in the Big Dance coming in the Kennedy Administration (1962). Townsend saw the most playing time of the four, but only appeared in 22 games, never logging more than 11 minutes in any Ivy League contest.
That team started Ivy play 9-3, but was swept by Harvard and then lost at Penn and Princeton to finish 9-5. A year later, the sophomores dropped three of their first four Ivy contests and were never a factor in the conference race (although it finished 8-6). Last season, Yale beat Harvard in Cambridge, but lost at Brown, Columbia, and Princeton, finishing 9-5, although it did make a run to the CIT final before losing to Murray State without an injured Justin Sears.
This year’s team doesn’t want three letters in the postseason, they want four. Yale opens Ivy League play with two games against Brown, the first of which is at the Pizzitola Center in Providence Saturday afternoon, the site of one of their worst performances of last season.
“There’s definitely a sense of urgency now, knowing that this is it for us,” Kelley said. “It was a long out of conference season. We’ve been with this same core of players for a long time. We’ve been through so much together both on and off the court. We just have to take one at a time and take care of business.”
To unseat favored Harvard, Yale will have to limit the inconsistency that not only plagued them last season, but has this year as well. The Bulldogs beat UConn and nearly did the same to Providence and Vanderbilt, but lost to Albany at home and at NJIT. Although they are an excellent rebounding team, their turnover rate (22.2%) is 302nd in the nation.
Technically, Yale shared Ivy titles in 1963 and 2002 (under current coach James Jones). That 1963 squad lost in a playoff to Bill Bradley and Princeton, and Bradley helped Princeton edge out Yale for the 1964 title as well. Frank Kaminsky finished his Yale career as one of the program’s all-time greats, and Yale might have upset Wake Forest (who had a guard named Billy Packer on the team and eventually went to the Final Four) if Kaminsky hadn’t fouled out in overtime.
Kaminsky, a three-time all Ivy selection, had his career overshadowed a bit because of Bradley’s greatness. He was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in the sixth-round of the 1964 draft, but chose to go to medical school instead, serving as an Army doctor and eventually settling in Houston, something Townsend could likely identify with.
Kaminsky once said of that 1962 Yale team, “”We just wanted to win so bad, we never backed off. We weren’t afraid of any team. It was infectious…There were no egos. We never cared about how we won our games, as long as we won. There was a tremendous cohesion.”
More than a half-century later, four Yale seniors hope the same attributes lead them back to where the program hasn’t been since.