As far back as last August, Yale coach James Jones said he wasn’t thinking about the gut-wrenching way in which the chance for his program to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 53 years was ripped from their clutches on a cold Saturday night in the forests of New Hampshire.
When Yale opened the 2015-16 season by destroying Fairfield, Jones reiterated that last year was gone, these were different players. But as Ivy League play was finally about to begin in January, really, you must be haunted by last year still, James?
Nope. Not once.
When Brandon Sherrod, a remarkable story without even taking into account anything he does on the court, dragged national television commentators and writers to Lee Amphitheater by setting an NCAA record for consecutive field goals made, they hadn’t been present for the first couple of dozen times Jones answered the question, so they politely asked, and got a not-so-polite response.
This is a new team. We have never discussed last year. Not once.
And as Yale took the lead in the Ivy race and traveled to Philadelphia and Boston and reporters there wanted to get an update on how the Bulldogs had moved on from last year’s tragic finish?
Well, you know what Jones told them.
But when Yale (who also overcame some other adversity you might have heard about) beat Columbia 81-65 to finally grab that Ivy League trophy that had to be hustled out of Dartmouth’s Leede Arena last season and break the half-century NCAA curse, it was time to finally admit that last year was devastating.
“Not once,” Jones said. “Not once did I ever say anything to these guys about last year, or what happened last year. Last year was last year. That’s not living in the moment for me. Living in the moment is these guys right here. Yes, I can look back now and thank the guys who were here last year for this, but in terms of motivation, these guys didn’t need any more motivation than they already had to be successful. They wanted this. They knew they were good enough to get it, and they fought to make sure it happened.”
Yale 71, Columbia 55 final. You know the rest: pic.twitter.com/WTiY1ftBnz
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) March 6, 2016
Score one for consistency, which ironically is one of the main ingredients in winning the 14 Game Tournament and the Ivy League title. Jones’ record at Yale has also been remarkably consistent, finishing at least .500 in league play in 14 of the past 15 seasons. With a conference tournament, the odds are he and Yale would have been fortunate in at least one of those years is pretty high.
But that’s not how it works in the Ivy League, and it was always Penn, Princeton, Cornell, or Harvard in his way. And so, although Jones’ resume contained many things, including fourth-most all-time in Ivy League victories, it never included NCAA Tournament. Until Saturday, when he permanently erased the “longest tenured Division I coach never to appear in the NCAA Tournament” from the ledger.
“I took this job over 17 years ago, and I’ve worked daily to get us where we are today,” Jones said. “My Athletic Director, Thomas Beckett, has been with me since Day 1. He had a lot of faith in me to put the ship in the right directions, and we’ve won a couple of championships in that time, but we’ve never gotten to this point. It’s certainly a relief and it’s a joyous time for Yale basketball and all our fans.”
Some video of Yale seniors being taken out with game decided: pic.twitter.com/P7LowuAprj
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) March 6, 2016
One of the biggest reasons why last season was so devastating for Yale was its window might have closed. Although they were picked to win (barely) the Ivy this season, losing the quartet of Javier Duren, Matt Townsend, Armani Cotton, and Greg Kelley – all of whom played big roles (the first three were starters) in Yale’s success.
They did return Justin Sears, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, Jack Montague, and Makai Mason, but – although he showed spurts – Mason was far from the likely first-team All-Ivy selection he is now. The rest of the roster featured unknowns in Brandon Sherrod, who was coming off a year away from basketball, and Nick Victor, who might as well have been away last season, limited to garbage time due to persistent injuries. After that? Who knew?
And, despite losing Montague, all the Bulldogs have done after a 5-5 start (against some tough competition) is win 17 of their last 18 games. The 13 Ivy wins were the most since the last NCAA Tournament berth in 1962 and the 22 victories overall is the most since the Ivy League was officially formed. By any measure, it’s a dream season.
.@Yale_Basketball is dancing for 1st time since 1962!
Bulldogs end 2nd-longest NCAA drought in men’s D-I history. pic.twitter.com/iCSigeVHUI
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 6, 2016
So maybe Jones is onto something?
Yale, somewhat surprisingly, led start to finish in beating a very good Columbia team Saturday night, the only harrowing moments coming early in the second half when the Lions went to a 2-3 zone and the Bulldogs couldn’t solve it. But at 49-45, Mason – for approximately the 456th time this season – hit a massive shot in a massive spot. Khaliq Ghani, another guy who has seen increased playing time with Montague gone, hit a couple more big three-pointers and Yale could cruise home and think about how to celebrate.
“The energy they showed at the beginning of the game collectively was amazing,” Jones said. “From the opening tip, they way they came out, I knew we were going to be successful.”
A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on
Ironically, the guy that stood to be most affected by last year’s ending, Sears (who should win his second straight Ivy League Player of the Year award this week), scored just nine points total in the final weekend (a season-low four on Saturday), but Yale didn’t need him. It was Sears who deflected the ball out of bounds at Dartmouth last year, setting up the now infamous Gabas Maldunas layup that beat them.
But on this night, there was only “euphoria” as Sears said.
The Montague controversy will continue to follow Yale in the next couple of weeks, and to be honest, the Bulldogs did little to quell things after the game when several players said they regularly talk to him and the team put four fingers up (Montague’s number) at center court after the final buzzer sounded.
For now, though, Yale has a little while to celebrate and dust off the banner in Lee Amphitheater for a new addition.
“It’s amazing. You look up in the gym when we’re at home and you see the last time we got to the (NCAA) Tournament was 1962 and it really motivates you to win, and I think every college basketball coming into Division I wants to go to the Big Dance,” Sherrod said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s a great time for our team and for our school.”
In the end, Jones was correct, of course. His team, which had those question marks before the season, answered every last one of them, and then came up with responses to ones that weren’t on the study guide when they had to play the second half of the Ivy League season without their captain.
They were most certainly good enough. And on Saturday night at Levien Gym, they made it happen.