One of the benefits of having nearly two decades of experience in charge for Yale coach James Jones is to let other people do the worrying about his team for him.
Two weeks ago, the Bulldogs were 2-4 in Ivy League play and appeared to have a very good chance of missing the Ivy League Tournament, despite the fact Yale was picked to win the conference in preseason. Injuries to Makai Mason and Jordan Bruner changed those plans a bit, but Jones and Yale have finished in fourth or better in Ivy play for an amazing 17 straight seasons.
After a fairly comprehensive 77-65 victory over Dartmouth Friday night at Leede Arena, Yale is now 5-4 in conference play and alone in third place heading to a showdown with Harvard Saturday in Boston. And it appears that Mason will be on the court for the first time since the 2016 NCAA Tournament Saturday as well, finally healed from a pair of stubborn foot injuries that have kept him out for nearly two full years.
“I don’t really worry about others writing us off or anything like that,” Jones said. “It’s what we have going forward. I knew at 2-4 with four teams making the tournament, we still had a chance. Everything we want is still ahead of us. This league, the separation between the first team and the last team is not great. I feel really good about our chances, and hopefully we get a healthy Makai Mason back. It’s new territory for us, and we’ll just have to see how it goes.”
While Mason gained national attention and – when healthy – could be the best player in the Ivy, Bruner’s loss has been just as significant for Yale (12-13, 5-4), which is just 203rd nationally in defense thanks to allowing 52.4% from two-point range (272nd), which is a far cry from the team that won the league two years ago. Couple that with extremely poor three-point shooting at the other end (currently 256th at 33.2%), and it’s been a struggle. But that now could be past tense.
“We were the worst three-point shooting team in the league going into two weekends ago. That’s not who we are,” Jones said. “It was going to come around, we were going to shoot the ball better. Other teams are struggling now. Hopefully we won’t have any more struggles the rest of the way.”
What else did we learn at Leede Arena, site of one of Yale’s most famous losses three years ago, on Friday night?:
- Even without Mason, Yale was better than their record
Blake Reynolds shot 36.9% from three last season, but was mired in a shooting slump, just 5 for his last 37 coming into Friday. He promptly drilled his first two three-pointers Friday and finished with 17 points on 4-7 from behind the arc.
“It sucks, but you just have to go and shoot through it,” Reynolds said. “You have to get in the gym, and even if you’re missing shots in practice, you just have to keep taking them and try to keep your confidence high. It helps to have your teammates believe in you as well.”
Miye Oni shot nearly 40% in his freshman season last year, but is only at 33.2% this year, 30.2% in Ivy play. He was 0-4 Friday night before finally hitting his last two. A Mason return should leave that pair more open, but if they’re gaining confidence as well (Yale was 12-33 from three and is 47th nationally in number of attempts in that category), Yale could be a real contender at the Ivy Tournament.
2) Dartmouth was probably due for an off game
The Big Green (5-17, 1-8) had been in every Ivy game despite their 1-7 record, never losing by more than 10 points. After finally breaking through against Princeton, Dartmouth was never really in the game Friday. Miles Wright finished with 18 points, but most of those came in a hot-shooting start, while Brendan Barry was held to five and Taylor Johnson four. As was previously mentioned, Dartmouth’s previously strong defense just couldn’t handle the diversity of offense Yale threw at them.
“They do a good job of knowing where everyone is on the floor offensively,” Dartmouth coach David McLaughlin said. “They set multiple ball screens and know where everyone is going to be on those actions. They have an extremely high two-point shooting performance for a reason. And tonight their forwards, Reynolds especially, hit shots.”
3) What of Makai Mason?
Your guess is as good as anyone else how much Mason will play against Harvard, but they have been extremely cautious and he has reportedly looked very good in practice.
Still, he hasn’t played in a real game in two years, so he will probably be limited to start (Saturday’s game is a late 9:30 p.m. start on ESPNU). But in three weeks at the Ivy Tournament? He may be fully ready to roll.