ATLANTA, Ga. – It seemed like Yale was going to join Grambling State, Wright State and Wofford as the mid-majors who have beaten Georgia Tech this season.
After a lay-up and free throw by freshman forward Paul Atkinson, the Bulldogs led the Yellow Jackets of the ACC by three points with about three minutes to play in the first half on Saturday in Atlanta’s McCamish Pavilion. And then Tech made its run, going ahead by 22 at one point, and Yale never responded.
“We did a really poor job at guarding them,” Yale coach James Jones said. “They made a lot of one-on-one plays. We did a poor job at help defense.”
In the Bulldogs’ final non-conference contest of the season, they ended a southeastern road trip with a 74-60 loss. Yale dropped to 7-9 on the season.
Two seasons ago, Jones led the Bulldogs to their first NCAA Tournament berth in more than five decades, and a first-round upset over No. 5 Baylor. A year ago, Yale lost in the finals of the Ivy League’s first-ever postseason tournament.
A lot folks picked Yale to be the favorite to win the Ivy’s bid this year. A big reason for that was the return of Makai Mason, who scored 31 points in that Baylor upset, but sat out the 2016-17 season with a foot injury. Then, in the worst episode of déjà vu, Mason broke the foot again this past November. Sophomore forward Jordan Bruner suffered a season-ending meniscus injury in November too.
Jones said Mason is set to come back “at some point, which should be helpful for us.”
Aside from the two injuries, Yale brought back a strong squad and graduated just two seniors from its Ivy League runner-up squad. In Mason’s absence, the Bulldogs have been led by a sophomore from California, the 6-foot-7 Miye Oni. He’s averaging 16.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, a steal and a block per game. He scored 14 points against Tech.
The Bulldogs should perform well again in conference play, but they stumbled in some winnable games in the first half of the season. Despite Georgia Tech being at home and in the ACC, that’s a game Yale could have won.
One area where the Yellow Jackets had the upper hand was on the boards.
It seemed like Yale sprinted back on defense too early sometimes against Tech. There were many plays where there would’ve been an opportunity for an offensive rebound, but when the ball was clanking off the rim or glass, the Bulldogs often conceded the rebound. Tech outrebounded Yale by 11, and the Bulldogs gathered just eight offensive boards.
Was it Tech’s size that gave it the upper hand on the glass? Or were the Bulldogs getting back on defense too quickly in order to stop the Yellow Jackets in transition?
“No, that wasn’t really the game plan,” Jones said. “We need to do a better job of crashing the glass.”
Yale did limit Georgia Tech’s fast break points though, holding the Yellow Jackets to four.
Even if Yale did crash the glass, would it have been able to get past near-7-footers in Ben Lammers and Abdoulaye Gueye? Probably not. The Bulldogs have just one player at 6’10 or taller in Atkinson. Lammers and Gueye combined for 24 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks, forming a dominate front court duo that even Duke would have trouble handling.
In seven of Yale’s nine losses, it has been out-rebounded.
Like all games, Yale’s battle against Georgia Tech may have ended differently if a few shots met the bottom of the net. The Bulldogs got several open looks from behind the arc that just didn’t hit the mark.
“I thought we got good shots that we just missed,” Jones said. “We took 27 threes and I tell you, 22 of them were probably pretty good looks.”
Yale connected on nine three-pointers in all, but only three in the second half.
“We knew they were a shooting team,” Tech guard Jose Alvarado said. “We knew they’d be competitive and that they were going to shoot. Their ball movement is really good, so we had to be fast on defense and slide.”
In games that Yale has lost this season, it shoots an average of 42 percent from the field and 29 percent from outside. Still, its overall field goal percentage this season of 48.3 percent is the best in the Ivy League.
With the Bulldogs’ loss to the Yellow Jackets, they enter conference play in a slump. Jones’ side has lost five of its last seven games. Has there been a common thread in all of them?
“Yea,” Jones said, matter-of-factly. “Most of them were on the road.”
Indeed. Since Nov. 30, Yale has played at home once. It’s also worth noting that two losses in that stretch were against Power 5 teams – TCU and Georgia Tech – and another was to St. Bonaventure, ranked No. 58 by KenPom.
The two losses that look bad came against Iona and Monmouth, and the latter handed it to Yale in its comfy confines in New Haven, Connecticut. In both games, Yale missed – a lot – shooting 38 percent from the floor. A three-win Monmouth team out-rebounded the Bulldogs and shot 62 percent from outside.
Yale’s other four losses came at the hands of Creighton, Wisconsin, Vermont and Albany. According to KenPom, Yale has had the 55th-toughest schedule in all of college basketball so far this season, based on how its opponents rank in adjusted offensive efficiency.
“We’ve had a very challenging schedule in terms of who we’ve played,” Jones said. “But I see our team building and getting better in some areas here and there, and trying to put 40 minutes together. I look at our conference and I think we’ll have a shot to be pretty good.”
Don’t worry about Yale. The non-conference slate was a tough one. Did it stumble and lose some winnable games? Sure. But is it still better than most teams in its league? Absolutely.
With or without Mason, Yale will be in the mix when the Ivy League crowns its champion.
Notes from around the Ivy League
- While Yale faltered a bit in non-conference play, Penn did pretty well. As the dust settles and Ivy League play begins, the Quakers are at the top of the league table with a 10-5 record. The team calling the Palestra its home already has one league win over Princeton. Penn’s resume also includes wins over Dayton and Navy. Steve Donahue’s side this season is led by sophomore Ryan Betley, who is averaging 15.2 points per-game. Penn has two non-conference games yet to play against Philly rivals Temple and Saint Joe’s.
- Harvard lost its final non-conference game Wednesday night in Spartanburg, South Carolina, falling 63-62 to Wofford. The Crimson, who last made the NCAA Tournament in 2015, are 6-10 entering league play. In the Ivy League’s preseason poll, Tommy Amaker’s squad was picked to win the league. Sophomore guard Bryce Aiken leads the Crimson with 16 points per game, but he’s played just four minutes since the team’s Dec. 6 win over Fordham. A bright spot for Harvard has been the emergence of Chris Lewis, who is averaging 11.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per-game. Fun fact: Chris is the son of former NFL linebacker Mo Lewis – you know, the one that kick-started Tom Brady’s career.
- Princeton, the league’s highest-ranked KenPom team at No. 134, is 7-8 so far this season coming off a league-play-opening loss to Penn. The Tigers have a few solid wins this season, most notably upsetting USC in overtime. The Tigers are led by junior guard Devin Cannady, who is averaging 18.5 points per game. The 6’1 guard was a three-star prospect in high school, growing up just outside Notre Dame in Mishawaka, Indiana.
- Evan Boudreaux, who averaged 17 points per game as a freshman and sophomore at Dartmouth, announced that he will transfer to Xavier. “I’ve always believed I had the ability to play at a major college program,” Boudreaux told the Chicago Tribune. “I just felt that this decision was the best decision for my career moving forward.” Dartmouth is 4-9 this season and faces Boston College on Saturday.
- Matt Morgan, a Cornell guard and the Ivy’s two-time-defending scoring champ, is up to his old tricks and is averaging a league-leading 24.6 points per game. That’s fourth in the nation behind Oklahoma’s Trae Young, Oakland’s Kendrick Nunn and Hofstra’s Justin Wright-Foreman. The Big Red are 6-7 this season.