With a win over Howard earlier this week, the Yale Bulldogs have set a school record for the most wins in a non-conference slate. Their 12th win broke the program’s previous record of 11, set in 2014-15. Head coach James Jones was at the helm that season as well.
The Bulldogs have had their fair share of challenges in the first two and a half months of the year, playing six top 100 KenPom teams and only winning two of those games. But the Bulldogs were in every one of them.
Yale nearly beat both San Francisco and Oklahoma State in a western swing, losing via late runs in each. They also fell victim to North Carolina and Penn State on the road by one possession.
The Elis looked much better in their two top 100 victories, though, beating America East favorite Vermont by 13 and bubble squad Clemson by nine.
With Ivy League play on the horizon, the preseason sleeper is now the regular season favorite.
Yale was projected to finish third in the Ivy League in the coaches’ preseason poll for the second year in a row. The only difference from last year is that the Bulldogs are defending league champions. One could view that as a sign of disrespect.
There was reason for the low expectations. Miye Oni, a second-round NBA Draft pick in 2019, averaged 17.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last year. Yale also lost First Team All-Ivy member Alex Copeland. He was one of the nation’s best free throw shooters and scored 24 points in Yale’s NCAA Tournament game. Outside of those two, the Bulldogs returned three key performers from last year.
Last season, Azar Swain was one of only four Bulldogs to appear in all 30 games. He ranked eighth in the conference in turnover rate and 152nd nationally in three-point shooting percentage. This season, he spends the most time out of any Bulldog on the floor and takes nearly 30 percent of the team’s shots. He has only scored single digits three times this year and has started every game.
On MLK Day in Washington DC, NBA scouts were out to see Bruner match up against the Howard Bison. He put on a show, scoring 10 points and picking up 13 rebounds and six assists. This wasn’t anything new for him, though. Bruner averages 12.8 points and 9.7 rebounds per game and Ken Pomeroy has him ranked as the second-most impactful player in the league early on.
It wasn’t always easy for Bruner. One week prior to the start of his sophomore year, he suffered a season-ending injury in a scrimmage against Boston U. He rebounded off that, finishing second in the Ivy in rebounds per game the next season.
This season, Bruner ranks 70th in defensive rebounding percentage and 64th in block percentage, nationally. The senior also ranks in the top five in school history for blocked shots. He is only 75 away from tying the school record.
Ken Pomeroy’s current 2019-20 Ivy League player of the year is Paul Atkinson. He has always been a good offensive player, but he’s taken it to another level this season. In 2018-19, Atkinson had the 52nd-best offensive rating and was 15th in the country in two-point percentage. This season, he is ranked 34th nationally in effective field goal rating, and 20th in true shooting percentage. In both of his years at Yale, he led the Ivy in field goal percentage, shooting in the upper 60s.
This season, the West Palm Beach native leads the Bulldogs in points per game, scoring 16.5 in nearly 31 minutes per game. For the Bulldogs to dominate league play and make a run in March, he’ll have to continue his unreal scoring ways.
In 20 years as Yale’s head coach, Jones had never had a start like this — including in his four 20-plus-win seasons and pair of NCAA Tournaments.
This is a down season for the Ivy League. No team other than Yale is ranked in the KenPom Top 100. If the Bulldogs can continue their great play, there is a chance they could reignite the famous 2-bid Ivy conversation (MAYBE!). Yale has never made it to the tournament two years in a row.
And if Bruner, Swain and Atkinson continue their great play, they have a chance to be one of the most successful trio’s in the Ivy League’s illustrious history.
Next up for the Bulldogs, it’s a week-long break before their New York swing against Columbia and Cornell.