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Same players, different roles: New-look Yale is still a national threat

Despite heavy personnel turnover, the Bulldogs may just have their best team during James Jones’ long tenure.

NCAA Basketball: Yale at North Carolina
Azar Swain has led a very different Yale team to a similar spot.
Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Last Saturday, Yale junior guard Azar Swain drilled a three with 1:48 left to plant a 14-point lead, and dagger, on Cornell. That was among the finishing touches of the Bulldogs’ sixth consecutive win — all of which came by double digits — and 13-1 overall mark since just before Thanksgiving. They aren’t trending toward the top line of the NCAA Tournament, but by any other objective measure, the Bulldogs are one of the country’s hottest teams.

That probably shouldn’t be the case, at least based on what they lost from a season ago.

The Ivy League co-leader (4-0) wasn’t an afterthought heading into the season, having been picked third in the preseason poll. But the defending league tournament champion, and co-regular season champion, didn’t receive a first place vote, and finished well behind Harvard and Penn, and this wasn’t unreasonable.

The Bulldogs lost a score of major contributors from a team that pushed LSU to the wire in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That started with Miye Oni, who struggled against the Tigers, but took home the league POY award en route to hearing his name called on draft night. Beyond that individual star power, the Bulldogs also lost all-league first teamer Alex Copeland, as well as starters Trey Phills and Blake Reynolds, to graduation.

Chalking it up, those losses evaporated four of the team’s five minutes leaders, the top three scorers and its best perimeter defender (Phills). But, as is becoming a trend under James Jones, Yale has plugged the holes and emerged as an upper-tier mid-major that could yet again be a factor in March.

That was on display in that Feb. 1 win over Cornell. In running their record to 16-4, the Bulldogs were led by Swain (25 points, 6-8 3FG) and fellow junior Paul Atkinson (24 points, 11 rebounds), two players that have transformed seamlessly from role players to stars. And that’s been a theme throughout the roster, with other players that played supporting roles a year ago leading the charge in 2019-2020.

Year-over-year per game increases (2018-19 to 2019-20)

Player Class MPG increase PPG increase
Player Class MPG increase PPG increase
Matthue Cotton Soph. 355% 1008%
Jalen Gabbidon Jr. 306% 483%
Azar Swain Jr. 168% 193%
Paul Atkinson Jr. 155% 180%
Eric Monroe Sr. 288% 300%

Of the Bulldogs’ rotation, only senior forward Jordan Bruner (12.2 PPG, 9.5 RPG) is in a similar role to what he was on Yale’s 22-win team a year ago. The rest of the this year’s primary contributors have seen their minutes either double or triple, and have had their production match that increase in a meaningful, efficient way. Despite that heavy rotational change, the Bulldogs are playing at a higher level than last year, with a KenPom ranking (46th), 31 spots better than where they finished a year ago.

That points a spotlight directly at Jones and the masterful job he’s done building a program over his 21-season tenure in New Haven.

The longtime Bulldogs coach has seemingly leaned into the strengths of his current team. He’s let his team loose from three-point arc behind a creative force like Swain (15.3 PPG) and plenty of other capable shooters both in the backcourt (Matthue Cotton, Eric Monroe, Jalen Gabbidon) and frontcourt (Bruner). It’s produced an offense that’s hitting 37.8 percent of its long range shots overall (19th best in the country), and a blistering 44.1 percent over its four Ivy League games. And that’s without mentioning Atkinson, who has turned into an Ivy League POY frontrunner (17.1 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 64.2 eFG%).

But what’s more impressive are the strides the current group has made on defense, despite losing an all-world athlete in Oni and tough-as-nails perimeter defender in Phills.

The Bulldogs have amoeba’d their way as a unit to the 30th most efficient defense in the country, mainly by keeping the opposition quiet from three and allowing very few free throws. That’s a drastic improvement from last year, and while those metrics are shiny, the proof was in the pudding during impressive wins against Vermont and Clemson, where they allowed only 52 and 45 points, respectively.

The next-man-up, program mentality may be encapsulated best by Gabbidon. Last year, the sophomore averaged just 7.6 minutes per game but has emerged this year as a starter and key rotation piece (23.3 MPG). And while he’s done his part in the Bulldogs’ three-point barrage (42.6 3P%), his biggest contribution has been stepping into Phills’ role as a defensive stopper.

Jones talked about that in an interview earlier this season with the Yale Daily News.

“We’ve had a great changing of the guard with guys who just put their time in and be our best defensive player on the perimeter, and Jalen has taken that role… It’s great for a coach to know that going into a game, you’re going to have a guy who’s gonna sacrifice and give up himself to try to shut down somebody on the other end.”

The new-look, surging Bulldogs get a marquee game with Ivy favorite Harvard on Friday night. The last time the rivals met, it was then-senior Copeland (25 points) leading the way to clinch the league’s auto bid in the Ivy Tournament championship game, the second time they’d done so under Jones.

Despite all the changes, it seems Yale will be playing for those same stakes yet again this season.