NEW HAVEN, Conn. – We’ve reached the point in the season where we have enough useful data to attempt to make sense of your favorite team, but not quite a full profile of who they will be going forward.
One of the top methods we use – especially in mid-major land – to compare conference teams that will eventually meet up is the transitive property. If A beat B and then B topped C, then A will certainly win against C, right? In a vacuum, maybe. But early-season games are not a vacuum, you have injuries, coaches fiddling with rotations and sets to see what and who will work, and the equalizer that is home-court advantage.
Not to mention teams just having good days and bad days, good old college inconsistency that later makes us scratch our collective heads when we look at strange results later in the season.
To wit: Yale (5-3), Columbia, and Princeton (with a little Harvard) are considered the top of the Ivy League, while Stony Brook, Albany, and Vermont are probably the trio competing for an America East title. Last week, Albany pummeled Yale by 34 points. Saturday afternoon as Yale was handling Vermont easily, Stony Brook was putting 1.23 points per possession in blowing out what had been an undefeated Princeton squad.
“It’s something that we kind of hang our hats on (rebounding),” Yale coach James Jones said. “We pretty much rebound in some regard every day in practice, whether it be a foul-line blockout or a 2-on-2 blockout to develop a grit, and we do have some guys that have a talent for it, which helps. It’s something we’ve been able to establish the last couple of years here.”
So Vermont is terrible, right? Well, maybe, but despite the final score it was in the game Saturday until it mysteriously couldn’t shoot, ending the second half just 6-29 from the field. And the Catamounts (4-5) didn’t have point guard and lethal shooter Ernie Duncan, who is out with a concussion. (It should be pointed out as well that Yale was missing reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Justin Sears with an illness in that Albany game as well.)
Vermont’s biggest problem on offense for this season (and some of last) has been turnovers, entering Saturday 330th in turnover rate (23.3%). The Catamounts were well below that Saturday, only committing 10 (14.5%), Trae Bell-Haynes only guilty of two of them. In fact, it was Yale that somehow turned the ball over 12 times in the second half (and 20 for the game, 29.0%) and yet won the second half by 15 points.
In the end, we’ll do our best, but it’s still tough to predict how the rest of the season will transpire. At least without an updated Gray’s Almanac.
What else did we learn from Payne Whitney Gym on Saturday afternoon?:
- Yale’s advantage in the Ivy League will be defense
Yale’s mission to finally catch and pass Harvard started by emulating the Crimson on the defensive end, and with Harvard apparently taking a step back this season (although they nearly won at Kansas Saturday, so stay tuned on that one), the Bulldogs seem to have a statistical edge over Columbia and Princeton on that end. Vermont’s poor shooting had something to do with it, but the Bulldogs have conceded 0.62 and 0.78 points per possession in their last two wins, and rank 59th nationally, even with the Albany debacle and games at Duke and SMU included.
Vermont was relegated to shooting from the outside, but it wasn’t for lack of trying to get in the paint. Yale blocked nine shots and held them to 30.2% shooting on two-pointers. With Justin Sears, Brandon Sherrod, and Nick Victor guarding the rim, it will be tough for anyone in the Ivy League to get close, either (and you likely won’t get many second chances).
“The turnovers don’t concern me because we haven’t been that team all year,” Jones said. “We were averaging 12.6 per game coming in. I’m a positive guy, the glass is not only always half-full but it’s overflowing, so my thought it if we actually made free throws (12-22) and turned the ball over less, we could have had 90 points in this game. If we were sitting here with an 18-point loss, it would be a lot more concerning.”
2) Vermont has some work to do, but …
The Catamounts starting five (Darren Payen, Ethan O’Day, Kurt Steidl, Dre Wills, and Trae Bell-Haynes) were able to hold their own early, and Cam Ward came off the bench on fire, finishing with a career-high 20, 16 of which came in the first half. But despite the turnovers, Yale dominated in the paint after halftime. Payen, who played high school ball just a couple of miles up Whitney Avenue from Yale, finished 0-8 from the field and no Vermont player had more than five rebounds. Yale is very strong for a mid-major at the post positions, but unfortunately for the Catamounts, if they want to beat Stony Brook or Albany, they’ll have to find a way to be more competitive close to the basket.
“We couldn’t score around the rim, and that really turned us into a one-dimensional team,” Vermont coach John Becker said. “We struggled to score. They’re big and strong in there, and we just aren’t a real good team right now.”
3) Nick Victor channeling Brian Voelkel
You may remember Brian Voelkel, who was a great player for Vermont a couple of years ago even though most times the last thing he wanted to do was score. He is atop the Vermont career leaders in rebounds, assists, and games played, and fourth in steals on his way to a pair of All-America East teams and conference Defensive Player of the Year. Yet the highest he averaged was 7.0 points per game in his senior season and never attempted more than five shots per game in any of his four seasons in Burlington.
This season, Yale brings you senior Nick Victor, who went 27 minutes attempting just two shots (one a putback) Saturday while amassing 10 rebounds, four assists, and two blocks. Alas, when the game looked out of hand, Victor launched four more shots late, even hitting a three. Victor’s numbers aren’t as extreme as Voelkel’s, but he is averaging 6.3 points per game while leading the Bulldogs (yes, more than Sears or Sherrod) with 7.8 rebounds.
He creates a fascinating strategy matchup for both Yale and opponents. Do you leave him open completely to double Sears or Makai Mason (or even Jack Montague?), and hope he doesn’t go backdoor or make the open shot you’re giving him? Or maybe foul him? Victor shot only 28.0% percent (14-50) at the line two years ago (injuries limited him last year). Victor has worked on that part of his game, though, and is 6-9 at the line this season.
Anyway, it’s good to see the spirit of Voelkel (who is playing professionally in Great Britain) carrying on, even if it was against Vermont on Saturday.
Bonus) Ivy League Tournament
It’s beginning to look likely that the Ivy League will have some kind of postseason tournament starting in 2017. It remains to be seen whether it will include all eight teams or four, and where the tournament will be. For now, James Jones – who has been around the Ivy League longer than any other current coach – is just worried about this season, which has no postseason tourney.
“When I was a kid, I used to watch Hogan’s Heroes and there was a guy for the German army and his comment to everything was ‘I know nothing!’, so I’m not really worried about that right now.”