PRINCETON, N.J. – Upon arrival at Dartmouth’s Leede Arena last Friday night, always helpful Yale Sports Information contact Tim Bennett came over to inform me that Jack Montague was not with the team for the weekend for “personal reasons”. I asked a couple of cursory questions, but that was it.
Odd, I thought. Montague had started 52 straight games and was the captain, a big deal at Yale, which only chooses one for each sport (and has a long history of doing so), meaning that Montague beat out Justin Sears for the coveted position. Personally, I had gotten to know him a bit over the last three years and before the Bulldogs went to Australia for the summer, chatted with him at length about his summer trip to Croatia and Serbia for his history class (secretly, I’m a history nerd when not chasing college basketball games in the winter).
This wasn’t exactly the best time for a leave of absence, every game in the Ivy League is crucial, obviously, and this was his senior year, last shot. So my first concern was about Montague himself, hoping he was OK, which is more important than any basketball game, even trying to break a half-century NCAA drought.
Montague was not missed last weekend, or – to be more accurate – Yale won both games, so the story of his unavailability died down a bit, although no answers were forthcoming from anyone.
Friday night, however, was a different story. Yale’s bench had trouble with a deep, athletic Princeton team in their first meeting (hanging on for a 79-75 win), and with Montague out, it got worse. Other than the other four regular starters (Sears, Brandon Sherrod, Makai Mason, and Nick Victor), Yale managed just 12 points on 4-17 shooting, and if you take Sam Downey – a post player who is not really affected by Montague’s absence – the Bulldogs were 3-of-17 for 6 points.
It’s extremely presumptuous to say Yale would have won the game had Montague played, Princeton nearly won in New Haven despite the Bulldogs shooting 11-19 from three with Montague in the lineup (and hitting three of those shots from behind the arc). So give the Tigers full credit for the fairly decisive victory that was won largely with an 18-2 run that featured some amazing plays by rising freshman star Devin Cannady. Princeton is a deep team that plays extremely disciplined and it showed Friday, allowing Yale nothing easy and limiting their two best players – Sears (15 pts. on just 9 FG attempts) and Mason (18 pts., but 7-18 FG and 6 turnovers).
“We don’t talk about it, but considering what was at stake, it’s a great win for us,” Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said. “I think Yale is very good. They’re figuring out missing a senior and a very valuable player (Montague). We felt like if we could get to their bench, we could wear them down a little bit. I thought the last few minutes of the first half was really the whole game.”
But what’s up with Jack Montague? As someone who works in education, I know all about FERPA and HIPAA, understand about privacy and that he’s entitled to it without idiots like me trying to pry into his personal life.
Some solid reporting from the Yale Daily News at least got Montague on the record, saying “I’m taking a personal leave and I’m trying to get back as soon as possible.” He still appears on the roster and in the media notes, and although he won’t play in a huge game Saturday at The Palestra against Penn, there is some hope that he will return for the final four games of his career. Montague has been a big part of Yale’s rise over the last three seasons, complementing Sears and the other veterans (he hit the winning shot to beat UConn last season, remember) until this year being voted captain.
Of course, this is entirely speculation. And to finish where we started, we hope he is OK. Because basketball is just a game after all.
What else did we learn at Jadwin Gym Friday, where Chris Christie and Barack Ollama were both in attendance?:
- Princeton has to be considered favorites
Spencer Weisz talked about getting into a bit of an argument with Devin Cannady at practice on Thursday, which they both said was helpful and necessary. You can tell Mitch Henderson is a but reluctant to completely release the reigns on Cannady, who does make his share of freshman mistakes, but brother, can he light it up (just ask Columbia). His three plays (two threes and a block) in an 8-0 run that took the game from 27-21 Yale to 29-27 Princeton were the biggest of the night.
— Princeton Tigers (@PUTIGERS) February 20, 2016
Princeton just has more offensive weapons (especially without Montague) than Yale at the moment. Henry Caruso, who torched the Bulldogs for 26 in the first meeting, had just 14 on 6-16 shooting, but he was picked up by Cannady, Weisz, and Amir Bell.
This is not to say that Princeton WILL win the Ivy League. Yale has proven it can get by just fine with who they have, and it obviously wouldn’t be shocking to see them prevail. But they now face road games at Penn, Cornell, and Columbia, and asking them to win all three just to possibly get to a playoff with Princeton is difficult. But, if last year taught Yale anything, you never know, do you?
2) Saturday is a big game for Yale
Yale left Jadwin Gym without much confidence, especially the bench players (Yale was outscored 30-6 in bench points, although 20 were Cannady’s). And if they shoot as poorly as they did Friday, they could be in some trouble against a Penn team that is up to 4-4 in the Ivy and now won four of five since the Bulldogs saw them last, and one of those losses is to Princeton in overtime.
If the Bulldogs come out, hit some shots, and take care of business at The Palestra, they should have the confidence to carry through home games with Dartmouth and Harvard, and then could just gear up for the final weekend and the season-ending game at Columbia. But a second loss in 24 hours could be fatal for title hopes, especially the way Princeton is playing.
“We’re still in first place last time I checked,” Sears said. “We’ve been here before the past few years. We just can’t crack under pressure. We have five more games to go, and we’ll take them one game at a time.”
3) Home sweet home
Make of it what you will, but Yale is currently shooting 15-55 on threes in Ivy League play away from Lee Amphitheater (27.3%) and 44-87 at home (50.6%). Which again makes their Saturday game in Philadelphia very interesting.
“I thought we had some wide open looks,” Yale coach James Jones said. “You’re going to play 30 games throughout the year, and you’re going to have a game where you lay an egg. You just hope it’s not in a game that matters as much as this one did. They put a lot of pressure on us, but most of the threes I thought were good looks.”