Yale 86, Columbia 72: Sherrod Can’t Miss, Bulldog Offense Can’t Be Stopped

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – There was a time not long ago when the vaunted Yale offense was not so vaunted. In their last two games before Christmas break, the Bulldogs put up 0.94 and 0.89 points per possession in losses to Illinois and USC.

Yeah, those are BCS schools, you say? Well, in the game after finals, Yale posted 0.97 ppp against Central Connecticut, who has spent some time at No. 351 in KenPom this season and whose defense has been in the bottom five in efficiency nationally all season. The Bulldogs still won that game handily and were in the other two thanks to its defense, tops in the Ivy League last season, and by all accounts, the backbone of its Ivy challenge this season.

In the end, it was Yale’s offense that helped cost the Bulldogs their first NCAA Tournament berth in more than a half-century, the Bulldogs were well below 1.00 ppp in all three Ivy losses, most notably a snowy February Saturday night when a miserable offensive performance against Columbia – who would go on to finish seventh in the conference in defensive efficiency, ahead of only defense-less Penn – saw them lose 56-50.

That night, Justin Sears was held to seven points and Yale shot 5-of-22 from three and a comical 7-of-16 from the free throw line (leading James Jones to say he could dropkick it in from the line at that rate).

Those days seem long gone, as Yale shot so well Friday night in front of the Fox Sports 1 cameras that it ended at 1.25 ppp, even with 17 turnovers (24.6% rate) and just six offensive rebounds. The result was an 86-72 victory over Columbia and its much-improved defense, who didn’t really seem to play that bad.

But when freshman Blake Reynolds – with one previous three all season – is hitting rainbow threes to end the first half and Justin Sears – whose most famous three-pointer as a Yale player was banked in, and had two threes this year  – is draining shots from outside the arc, maybe you just tip your cap.

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“I have to look at the film,” Columbia coach Kyle Smith said. “We forced a lot of turnovers, and I looked at the stat sheet at one point and they were 10-for-12, but they had like seven or eight turnovers. So I felt it would turn at some point and it did, it got to 60-58 and I felt we were getting some good shots, too. But we made a couple of fouls 94 feet from the basket and Sears hitting those two threes was huge. Those separated us, those were big.”

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Yale obviously currently leads the Ivy League in offensive efficiency (by a wide margin over Princeton), but also in eFG%, offensive rebounding rate, getting to the free throw line, two-point FG%, and three-point FG%. Friday they managed to score 86 points on just 39 field goal attempts, or 2.21 points per try, which has to be some kind of record or close to it.

Is that sustainable? The rest of the league certainly hopes not, but as every game goes by and the Bulldogs claim another victim, who knows?

What else did we learn at an almost full Lee Amphitheater?:

  1. Records are made to be broken

Leading the offensive charge is Brandon Sherrod, who you probably already knew set an all-time NCAA record Friday with 30 consecutive made field goals over five games, an unbelievable achievement, which is made mindboggling when you add in the fact that the only basketball he was playing last season was on the Galapagos Islands or New Zealand. Or until his basketball lost air on whatever continent he happened to be on at the time.

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“It was nice, it was somewhat of a relief,” Sherrod said. “I knew I would be part of some history. I knew that the game was so young (Yale actually trailed 15-14 when he broke the record) that we needed to get a stop on the next possession, too. It was great, but I knew we had a lot of basketball to play.”

Also unbelievably, Sherrod was only a 42.8% shooter (77-180) two years ago as a junior. In his last two meetings against Columbia in 2014, he didn’t score a single point and here he is scoring a career-high 25 (against probably a better defensive squad). Even this season, he was just 5-11 in the aforementioned Central Connecticut contest and 4-12 against Division III Daniel Webster, missing a couple of really easy shots around the rim.

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James Jones had an interesting tidbit in postgame, saying Sherrod was down to Yale and Brown for his final two college choices before finally choosing Yale (14-5, 5-0), a decision that obviously looms large in the Ivy race this season.

2) Columbia’s defense keeps it an Ivy contender

That’s an odd thing to say when the Lions (15-7, 4-1) just gave up those 1.25 ppp, but they’re still third in the Ivy in defensive efficiency, second in both forcing turnovers (which is amazing for a Kyle Smith team) and defensive rebounding (routine for a Smith squad). Maodo Lo (who tied a school record with seven steals Friday) now has 52 steals and is 13th nationally in steal rate. Obviously, they struggled to contain Sears and Sherrod, but they aren’t and won’t be alone in that, especially with the form they’re in.

Smith has the athletes and the depth to pressure, but the key will be consistency. Yale was the first team to go above 1.00 ppp on them, but after last season’s win in New Haven, Columbia gave up 1.25 ppp to Dartmouth and 1.29 ppp to Harvard. It’s a different world this season, and with all the home games they have remaining, Columbia is obviously right there when it meets Yale again on the final day of the season. But it can’t take a day off against a Brown team that seems to have found some offense at least tomorrow night.

3) Of turnovers and depth

Yale’s ridiculous offense (and its pretty consistent if not spectacular defense, although both Princeton and Columbia were over 1.00 ppp) has masked two problems that could still prove fatal, or at least debilitating for the Bulldogs. Yale currently sits 330th nationally in turnover rate, and in four of five Ivy League games has been above its average of 21.5%. The three biggest culprits were all struggling Friday, with Nick Victor (6), Jack Montague (4), and Makai Mason (4) posting big turnover games. Some of it is Yale looking for the perfect shot and trying too hard to force the ball into Sears or Sherrod, but some of it (like most of Lo’s steals were just plain carelessness).

The Bulldogs also got only three points from its bench (Blake Reynolds’ three-pointer) and there was a significant difference when Jones tried to give his starters a rest Friday, as there was against Princeton.

Cornell could present some problems Saturday, Robert Hatter returned Friday, and their up-tempo, pressuring style could force turnovers, fatigue, and/or foul trouble, all of which could make Saturday night no easy task for Yale.

Bonus) Justin Sears and threes

When asked about hitting the threes, Sears – not for the first time – gave the quote of the night:

“Just confidence,” Sears said. “I remember early in the game, the guy (Columbia defender) dared me to shoot it, so I took it as a personal challenge in the second half a little. He said, ‘Shoot it’. So I said, ‘OK’.”

Sears later named the Columbia defender in question, but we’ll protect his identity here for the sake of kindness.

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Double bonus) Free throws

Yale went 28-36 at the line with an outrageous 24-32 just from Sherrod and Sears. While they still said they can do better after the game, they could be Harvard, who is shooting below 50% from the line in Ivy League play.  

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Gratuitous Ivy League campus shots on a snowy day in New Haven.

A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on

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