Nick Victor, Brandon Sherrod, Javier Duren, Omar Calhoun

Yale is in an unfamiliar spot in the Ivy League: At the top, looking down

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When you think of the Ivy League, Yale isn’t the first program that comes to mind.

These days, it’s Harvard, as the Crimson went out and hired Tommy Amaker, who formerly coached at Michigan Seton Hall, while turning top 25 recruiting classes into league titles and, in 2013, an upset win over No. 3 seed New Mexico. Before that, it was Cornell, whose run to the 2011 Sweet 16 landed Steve Donahue the head coaching job at Boston College. All that comes before we mention the league’s two-most storied programs in Penn and Princeton, who dominated the conference for decades.

The Ivy League is unique in that it’s the only conference that does not have a conference tournament, meaning that if you don’t win the league’s regular season title, you don’t go dancing. Yale has won exactly one league title in the last 50 years, and that came in 2002, the first time there was ever a three-way tie atop the conference. The Bulldogs eventually lost to Penn in the playoff, meaning that they were bound for the NIT.

When you think of Yale, you think of their law school or their medical school. You think of their proximity to Sally’s and Pepe’s. Hell, you even think of their hockey teams.

You don’t, however, think of their basketball program.

“I tell people back home I play in the Ivy League, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you guys play Harvard’, or ‘Did Princeton win this year? Did Penn win this year?'” Justin Sears told NBCSports.com in a phone interview this week. A New Jersey native, the 6-foot-8 sophomore forward leads Yale averaging 15.3 points, 7.1 boards and 1.8 blocks. “It’s a little bit frustrating, especially because people think we’re a hockey school. I think the guys, we just wanted to change the culture here.”

“We just needed to start winning games.”

And that’s started to happen.

Yale has won four straight games heading into this weekend’s showdowns with Penn and Princeton in New Haven, the biggest being last Saturday. The Bulldogs went into Lavietes Pavilion and knocked off Harvard, putting themselves into a first-place tie with the Crimson. For Yale, beating Harvard is always going to be a big win, regardless of the sport. That’s just how the rivalry between those two schools works. But with the increased attention that has been given to the Crimson in recent years, it was especially sweet.

Harvard gets more national attention than every other program in the Ivy League combined. They’ve become the marked man in the conference. Being the reason that every college hoops scribe has to tweet about Harvard losing certainly makes the win feel just that much better.

“Over the summer one of the Harvard assistant coaches tweeted how their 10 players could start at anyone of the other seven schools in the league, how they should sweep the all-conference selections,” Sears, who finished with 21 points, 11 boards and two blocks, said. Sears chose Yale over, among others, Stanford, but he was offered by every school in the Ivy League. Except Harvard. He didn’t forget.

“It’s just more bulletin board material,” he said. “Harvard this, Harvard that. Each team is going to give Harvard their best shot.”

The Elis are lining themselves up on the inside track to a league title. Six of Harvard’s last eight games are on the road, including March 7th’s trip to New Haven for the season’s final weekend. In other words, Yale controls their own destiny when it comes to winning the conference and making the NCAA tournament, but that’s precisely the kind of forward thinking that head coach James Jones wants him team to avoid.

When a single loss can put a quick end to those tourney dreams, looking any further down the schedule than the next opponents is dangerous. Jones is proud of how hard his team has worked, and he wants the kids to get the credit they deserve, but “you want your guys to stay focused,” he said. “Flying under the radar’s not a bad thing.”

The good news for Jones is that he’s built a team whose success depends almost entirely on the one thing that they can control: their effort. This group is going to be bigger and more athletic than anyone they’ll face in the Ivy League. Their perimeter stands 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-7. Sears may only be 6-foot-8, but he’s as tough and aggressive as any big in the mid-major ranks. Where many Ivy League teams will field a lineup with a perimeter-oriented four-man, the Bulldogs use two bigs. They’re relentless going to the glass.

“We’ve got a lot of size and a lot of length,” Jones said. “That’s a strength of our team and if we’re going to be good we have to utilize it.”

So long as they stay atop the league standings, Yale is now going to be one of the biggest games of the year for every team they face.

It’s quite a change of pace for a team that’s been to no NCAA tournaments and exactly one NIT since 1962.

“High school rankings, it’s not the biggest thing. It’s the coaching, the effort you put forth,” Sears said. “When we just go out and give our best effort, it doesn’t matter how many shots we hit. All that matters is if we play defense, make our free throws and rebound the ball. We do that every night.”

Duke knocks off No. 13 Louisville in first game of critical four-game stretch

Duke's Grayson Allen (3) and Marshall Plumlee (40) react during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Durham, N.C., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Duke won 72-65. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Grayson Allen scored 16 of his 19 points in the first half and Brandon Ingram added 18 points, 10 boards and four assists as Duke picked up a critical win over No. 13 Louisville in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Monday night, 72-65.

A call this a critical win for the Blue Devils because it kicks off what may be the most important two-week stretch of Duke’s schedule This weekend, the Blue Devils square off with No. 9 Virginia. Next Wednesday, they’re at the Dean Dome to take on No. 7 North Carolina. Four days after that, they head to the Bluegrass State to pay a visit to Louisville.

 

With the way that Duke has been struggling on the defensive end of the floor without Amile Jefferson, that’s a stretch that could derail Duke’s season; entering Monday, all four of those games were losable. But a four-game winning streak — or even going 3-1 in that stretch — could completely change the tenor of what has been a fairly disappointing year for the defending champs, and that’s before they get Jefferson back to 100 percent.

And the difference was defensively, at least in the first half.

I’ve written in this space a number of times about how opponents know what they’re going to get from Duke defensively. Coach K, traditionally, plays half court man-to-man defense, switching every exchange — ball-screen, off-ball pick or simply when two players run by one another — that doesn’t involve the center. In recent years, he’s played some zone in situations where he defense has struggled or, like this season, when he doesn’t have the depth to risk foul trouble. We’ve even seen some 2-2-1 pressure from him of late.

But on Monday night, Duke played straight man-to-man for much of the game, and in the first half, it seemed to fluster the Cardinals. They scored just 24 points in the first 20 minutes, and while Louisville did find a way to break Duke down defensively in the second half — they shot better than 55 percent from the floor after the break — but part of the reason Duke was able to win this game was the lead they built. After a three from Allen opened scoring in the second half, the Blue Devils were up by 14, and while Louisville made a run down the stretch, they could never get control of the game.

Duke is becoming appointment viewing for basketball nerds like me that pay too much attention to X’s-and-O’s to see what kind of wrinkle Coach K is going to put in to try and compensate defensively, so I’m not sure that this performance sticks. But it is worth noting that this was the first time in eight games the Blue Devils gave up less than 1.0 PPP, and the first time since Dec. 19th they did so against an NCAA tournament-caliber team.

As far as Louisville is concerned, you have to tip your hat to those kids. They played their hearts out and fought back from a big deficit in one of the toughest places in the country to play. They did all that three days after their school ripped their hearts out with an NCAA tournament ban for this season.

So good for them. You never know how a team is going to react to something like that, but the Cardinal players showed that they have some serious fight in them.

Iowa State’s starting center Jameel McKay remains suspended

Iowa State forward Jameel McKay celebrates on the court at the end of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State won 82-77. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Steve Prohm announced on Monday that starting center Jameel McKay will not be in the lineup on Wednesday when the Cyclones take on Texas Tech.

“He’ll practice today because I want him in practice,” Prohm said, “but game-wise, he’s suspended.”

McKay did not make the trip to Stillwater with the team on Saturday, where Iowa State beat Oklahoma State, 64-59. Prohm has not gotten into specifics regarding the cause of McKay’s suspension, but it’s reportedly an issue with the way he has been practicing. McKay is dealing with a nagging knee injury, which may play a role in the situation as well.

“My hope is he’ll be with us on Saturday,” Prohm said.