Yale, Baylor set to begin March Madness
The 14-game tournament has come to an end. The postseason awards have been distributed. The Ivy League championship trophy is sitting in New Haven. And after 54 long years, the Yale men’s basketball team is dancing again.
The No. 12 seed Bulldogs (22–6, 13–1 Ivy) will dust off their dancing shoes for Thursday afternoon, as the team takes on No. 5 seed Baylor (22–11, 10–8 Big 12) in Providence, Rhode Island in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“You know, I’ve been waiting all year for the shoe to drop, so to speak, with this team, trying to figure out how good we are,” Yale head coach James Jones said at a Wednesday press conference. “We started the season off, and we had a bunch of wins in double-digits [and] by 20 points. And I just kept going to myself, how good are we, how good are we going to be? And I was surprised night-in and night-out for the most part [at] what we were able to do, and getting through our league the way we did gives me a great deal of confidence in what our guys can do.”
Yale enters having won 17 of its past 18 games, which includes seven of eight without former captain Jack Montague. The guard was expelled on Feb. 10 for sexual misconduct and his lawyer released a statement on Monday stating that Montague plans to sue the University.
Montague’s dismissal, and the team’s ensuing public displays of support, have sparked campus-wide debates on Yale’s sexual climate and have made national headlines. Despite the added attention, the team has maintained that its focus is and will remain on basketball.
“It’s been, I think, five or six weeks since all this stuff came out, and our record is 7–1,” Jones said. “We lost one game on the road to the second-best team in our conference, [Princeton]. So handling distractions, if you want to call them that, I think our team has fared tremendously well.”
Even with the increased scrutiny, the Bulldogs can expect a favorable crowd in Providence. Baylor had to travel from Texas for the matchup — 1,830 miles — while the Elis made just a 109-mile trek from New Haven. That, coupled with a strong Yale alumni presence in New England, may make the matchup more of a home game for the Bulldogs, a fact not lost on the team.
Forward Brandon Sherrod ’16, a Bridgeport, Connecticut native, said he hopes the team will be able to play like it is a home game in front of the many expected Yale faithful. The Bulldogs had pronounced success at home this season, going 12–0 at John J. Lee Amphitheater while winning by an average of 19.4 points.
Beyond the proximity, it is difficult to find many clear-cut advantages for the Elis. Perhaps their most impressive facet of the game, rebounding, will be matched by an imposing Baylor squad.
Yale ranks second in the nation in rebounding margin, though the Bears are not far behind. With a plus-7.9 rebounding margin, Baylor is 15th in the nation. The Bears average 13.7 offensive rebounds, while the Bulldogs average slightly less at 13.5. Based on percentages compiled by KenPom, Baylor is the third-best offensive rebounding team in the nation, while Yale sits in seventh, out of 351 Division I schools.
“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 … I don’t think we’ve played anybody that’s been as big [as Baylor], but I think we’re definitely going to be relentless on the glass and continue to do what we’ve done in the past to be successful.”
Baylor’s Rico Gathers, a 6-foot-8, 275-pound forward who Jones noted was “the size of a small town,” leads the Bears in rebounding with 9.1 boards per game. Two other forwards — Taurean Prince and Johnathan Motley — also snatch more than five rebounds per game.
Prince paces the Bears with 15.5 points per game and is one of four players on his team to average double-digit scoring.
Jones drew a comparison between Baylor and Southern Methodist University in terms of performance on the offensive glass. Yale was edged out by two points versus SMU, which opened its season with 18 consecutive wins, in a November meeting.
“So yeah, we certainly have seen teams like [Baylor] this year,” Jones said. “Certainly, it’s going to be a challenge with them, and they do what we do a little bit better than we do it.”
Meanwhile, there are three Elis who average more than seven rebounds per game, led by forward Justin Sears ’16, who averages 7.5 boards per contest. Sherrod and guard Nick Victor ’16 have also been dominant on the glass, averaging 7.1 and 7.3 rebounds, respectively.
The three seniors are part of a starting unit that practically swept the Ancient Eight’s postseason awards. After averaging 15.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and nearly two blocks per contest, Sears was selected as the Ivy League Player of the Year for the second consecutive season — the first Yale player ever to do so.
Additionally, Sherrod and point guard Makai Mason ’18 joined Sears on the All-Ivy First Team, giving Yale three First-Teamers for the first time in program history. Victor was selected as an Honorable Mention, while head coach James Jones repeated as Ivy League Coach of the Year.
These accolades followed perhaps Yale’s best season since the 1961–62 campaign, when Yale last went to the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs’ 13 conference victories matched a school record, last earned by that same ’62 squad.
“Yale is one of the best rebounding teams in the country, very physical, very athletic,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “They are outstanding [defensively], and that’s why they’ve had the year they’ve had. Any time you can go with only one loss in the Ivy League, that says a lot about your program and your players. They’ve also played some outstanding nonconference teams and done very well against them.”
Meanwhile, Baylor has dropped three of its last four games, though all 11 of the Bears’ losses this season have come against teams playing in the NCAA Tournament.
The Bears finished fifth in a competitive Big 12 conference that sent seven teams to March Madness, including four that earned No. 4 seeds or better in the tournament. Despite getting swept by overall No. 1 Kansas, No. 7 Oklahoma and No. 8 West Virginia, Baylor still picked up five wins against opponents in the RPI top-50. Yale went 1–3 against top-50 opponents.
“Obviously everyone puts on their pants the same way, puts their jersey on the same way, ties their shoes the same way and it’s just basketball at the end of the day,” Sherrod said following the Selection Sunday announcement. “As long as we’re playing our game plan, playing with confidence and going in there trying to be successful, then we’ll be fine.”
With a significant amount of interior size, the Bears have successfully relied on their big man to score while utilizing a 1–3–1 zone defense to limit the opposition. While that style of defense can make it difficult to score in the paint, it has also made Baylor susceptible on the perimeter. The Bears’ three-point shooting defense ranks 289th in the nation, as opposing teams make 36.7 percent of their shots from downtown.
Yale enters the game shooting threes at a 37.4 percent clip, led by Victor at 47.0 percent. Since Montague’s expulsion, the team has made 34.4 percent of its three-point attempts. In the 20 games in which Montague, who led the league in three-point shooting last season, started, the team shot 38.4 percent from beyond the arc.
The game will tip off at 2:45 p.m. following the matchup between No. 4 Duke and No. 13 UNC-Wilmington.