Yale Nation Set To Invade Providence For Long-Awaited NCAA Game

James Jones has had about enough of questions about the expulsion of captain Jack Montague. Which is somewhat understandable given that he has finally reached the pinnacle of his professional life, putting Yale, yes Yale, in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1962, and thereby drawing some national attention to the rest of his stellar record at a program that was struggling mightily before he got there a LONG time ago, at least in coaching terms.

But with every new development, and with very little transparency to be had from Yale, new questions develop. This week it was revealed that the sexual misconduct incident (described suspiciously as “unconsented-to sex”, according to Yale’s side at least) actually happened back in the fall of 2014, with the accuser coming forward a year later, just before this basketball season was to begin. Montague, predictably, has now sued Yale, over the process designed to protect everyone’s anonymity, but failing miserably on that front.

“I’ve been a head coach at Yale for 17 years,” Jones said Wednesday. “This is the first time we’ve made the tournament since 1962. We are one of the best defensive teams in the country. We are one of the best rebounding teams in the country. So I think that’s a great story. And I’d like to tell that one going forward. If anybody has any questions around those types of things, I’d love to answer those questions.”

While I’m not trying to diminish the situation at all, not a whole lot has changed since I wrote this after the Cornell game. I thought this piece did a pretty good job of summing up the issues on both sides, but I’m not really sure what they expected Montague’s lawyer to say.

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Anyway, while everyone involved (yes, including the people that wore them) would probably handle the “Gucci” T-shirt thing a little differently, it’s time to talk basketball, and Yale (22-6) deserves it. I was privileged enough to attend all of Yale’s Ivy League games this season, and it’s been an amazing run for a group that could have been permanently scarred by last year’s ignominious conclusion, but instead – largely with a new group, especially since Montague has departed – found a way to go 13-1 in the Ivy League, finally getting back to the promised land of the NCAA Tournament.

Yale is now a trendy upset pick, partly because of their seed (12), which has seen remarkable success (in 13 of 15 seasons, at least one has won) and conference: Harvard picked up an NCAA win in two of the last three Marches and Cornell went to the Sweet 16 in 2010. Add in the Bulldogs will be playing just 100 miles from campus in Providence, and the fact that Yale alums that have waited a half-century (looking at you, Monty Burns) for this opportunity seem to be scooping up as many tickets as possible, and you have what appears to be a perfect storm to push Yale through.

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Alas, there will be another team on the court Thursday afternoon, and although fifth-seeded Baylor (22-11) has plenty of losses, it played in the toughest conference in the country (by a pretty wide margin according to KenPom), the Big XII, and will be more than battle tested with a veteran squad that felt the sting of a first-round upset when it fell to the Hunter family and Georgia State last March as a No. 3 seed.

“All past experiences can be beneficial and motivational,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “The returning players all know that feeling we had last year against Georgia State. But just because we got upset last year doesn’t guarantee we’ll play better and hopefully we’ll know to value every possession this time of year.”

Statistically, the teams are extremely similar, with Baylor’s bruising frontcourt of Rico Gathers and Taurean Prince leading the way against Justin Sears and Brandon Sherrod. Yale is sixth nationally in offensive rebounding rate, but drew one of the five teams above them (Baylor is third and Gathers is the top offensive rebounder in the nation).

“We’re a great rebounding team and they’re a great rebounding team, they’re just a little bit better,” Jones said. “Rico Gathers is the size of a small town, and I’m going to have, like, seven guys try to block him out because I think we’re going to need it.”

Vegas has installed the Bears as about a 5.5-point favorite, which  may seem high to you, but low to Big XII followers who have seen Baylor beat Iowa State twice and throttle Shaka Smart and Texas in both meetings.

What are you looking for tomorrow in the 2:45 (approximately) p.m. tip? We’ll tell you:

AREAS OF CONCERN FOR YALE

1) Oooooh, scary zone

Baylor plays primarily zone, which was the first thing James Jones mentioned about them when the bracket was announced on Sunday. There are a few reasons why this is potentially problematic for Yale. The Ivy League doesn’t play much zone outside of Cornell, and when Columbia switched to it in the regular season finale, the Bulldogs looked lost, scoring just eight points in a 12-minute span, which would be fatal on Thursday.

While scoring is a concern, the biggest issue for Yale against a zone might be live-ball turnovers and hands in passing lanes. With some irony, the Bulldogs have actually turned the ball over less since Montague’s departure (and were up to 4th in Ivy turnover rate by the end of the season), but finished 294th with a 20.1% turnover rate. Baylor’s zone has put them at 70th nationally in causing turnovers (19.8%), but a more important number might be 17th in steals (11.7%). Makai Mason, Nick Victor, and Anthony Dallier all enter with fairly high turnover rates, and handing Baylor six or eight points thanks to ill-advised passes on the perimeter may be fatal.

“I think they’re definitely a little bit different,” Mason said. “They play an interesting zone that we haven’t really seen anything like this year. But they’re really athletic, they really hit the boards hard, which is something we do well, too, so it’ll be an interesting battle down there.”

At least Yale has had a few days to practice it, but they have not faced nearly the athletes that Baylor will throw at them in guys like Prince or 5’10” Lester Medford.

2) Trying to guard Taurean Prince and others

One of the things that worked extremely well for Princeton (and poorly for Yale) was Sears playing the 4 and having to guard Henry Caruso in a small Tigers lineup. Jones and his staff have a similar dilemma Thursday in Prince, who at 6’8″ can hit outside shots, shooting 36.8% on threes in Big XII play. With every possession and every point crucial, six or nine points on Prince being left alone on the perimeter could spell trouble.

Just as against Princeton, it will be tough for Yale to key too much on Prince, even though he is Baylor’s leading scorer at 15.5 points per game. While Ishmail Wainwright is primarily in there for his defense (and a player who is sure to get his hands on any poor Yale passes), everyone else can score (even Wainwright is a 40.6% three-point shooter when he does decide to pull the trigger).

3) Keeping Lester Medford in check / foul trouble

Medford enters 11th nationally in assists per game (6.5) and is they key for a Baylor offense 13th most efficient in the country. One of the biggest strengths is obviously offensive rebounding, which Yale hopes to counteract with the likes of Victor and Sherrod, but the Medford vs. Mason matchup is a difficult one for Yale, especially if Mason can’t keep him from driving. Medford shoots well enough to be respected, but the real danger for Yale is him getting the ball to Gathers (5.7 fouls drawn per 40 minutes), Prince (5.0), and 6’9″ block machine Jonathan Motley (5.2). Baylor is not a real deep team, either, but foul trouble to any combination of Sears, Sherrod, or Victor may allow the Bears free reign in the lane and on the glass.

“Well, one thing Coach (Jones) has been talking about, just putting a body on guys, and we work on rebounding almost every day in practice, and we know whoever hits first usually wins the battle,” Sherrod said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to do that on Thursday afternoon. (Gathers is) a load, 275. I don’t think we’ve played anybody that’s been that big, but I think we’re definitely going to be relentless on the glass and continue to do we’ve done in the past to be successful.”

REASONS WHY YALE CAN WIN

1) Shooting the ball

If Yale does not turn the ball over, it can create good looks for itself. Baylor’s aggressive zone will leave holes if the Bulldogs can move the ball quickly (and accurately). Then it will just come down to making shots, and even though it is true Yale went a whole Ivy weekend hitting two three-pointers (one in each game), they finished the season 60th nationally at 37.1% from behind the arc (ironically, the same percentage Baylor conceded from there this season).

Victor, Dallier, and Khaliq Ghani (of course, Mason, too) all hit big shots late in the shot clock in the final weekend of the regular season and in what should be a slow, plodding game (Baylor’s zone makes opponents work, 276th in average defensive possession length while Yale is 315th offensively in the same category), that might be the difference. If they can hang onto the ball that long, of course.

2) The SMU scenario

The closest parallel you’ll find to Baylor on Yale’s schedule is SMU and the Bulldogs led most of the way before free throws (something I didn’t get to here, but obviously could be huge in a close game) and some late Mustangs plays beat them 71-69. It was one of Jack Montague’s best games of the season, but Mason put together a performance that could make him a household name if he repeats it Thursday: 24 points, seven assists (although he did have four turnovers).  

Yale finished dead even on the glass against one of the nation’s best rebounding teams and even managed to get 14 offensive boards of its own (five by Sherrod).

Some caution: SMU scored 48 of its points in the paint and got 23 off of 16 Yale turnovers in that game, and virtually the whole Yale frontcourt was in foul trouble (with Victor fouling out).

Even with all that, Yale took an SMU team that was among the hottest in the nation to the wire at Moody Coliseum, so some slight improvement in those areas could get the job done.

“KenPom has them 38 (actually 44 as of Wednesday afternoon) for a reason,” Drew said, “so they must be pretty good.”

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3) Intangibles

It seems silly to talk a lot of analytics and then (after 1,500 words) finish on intangibles, but consider that Yale is not only 100 miles from its campus, but its much of its alumni base that has waited forever for this opportunity might have the means to get there. Plus, Yale is not facing a traditional power like a Kentucky or North Carolina (if you don’t know how well Scott Drew has done at Baylor, you should) which would fill the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. Add Yale being an underdog and if they can stay in the game until the second half, there should be most of the crowd pushing it home down the stretch against a team that was upset at the same point last season.

And at the pace this game should be played at (sloooow), it’s hard to see Yale getting blown out.

Also remember that Yale has played Providence a couple of times over the past three years in the Dunkin’ Donuts Center as well.

“We’ve played fairly well here,” Jones said. “Haven’t had an opportunity to win a game, but we’ve played Providence really close. And Justin Sears, I think his sophomore year, had 31 points or something like that in the building, and Makai Mason had 20 something as a freshman. We feel pretty good about the venue, and it’s close to New Haven, so we should have a lot of fans that come out and support us. So we’re really looking forward to the opportunity to play.”

Hey, just think, if your team pulls it off, James Jones, you get two more days of questions about Jack Montague. I think he’ll gladly sign on the dotted line for that.

 

 

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