Yale stunned in-state rival UConn, 45-44, at Gampel Pavilion at Storrs on Friday night. The result was shocking, but the last-second shot was a familiar sight for the Huskies.
With 3.5 seconds left in the game, Jack Montague, who was 0-for-6 from the field to that point, cut across the court — from the right elbow to the baseline — on the baseline out-of-bounds play. The misdirection freed up Montague for the open 3-pointer. He drilled it, giving the Bulldogs a one-point win. The shot came from the same corner where Texas forward Jonathan Holmes hit his game-winning three to knock off the Huskies last Sunday.
Yale was just 3-of-21 from three, but was in control for much of the game, holding the lead for the first 33 minutes on Friday night. The Bulldogs were also the aggressor on the glass with a 36-25 advantage on the boards, including a 13-1 edge in offensive rebounds.
Sears finished with a double-double with 12 points and 15 rebounds. Javier Duren led all scorers with 15. Amida Brimah and Cassell led UConn with 14 and 12 points, respectively. Ryan Boatright, who missed the front-end of a one-and-one with 11 seconds left, finished with a season-low six points of 3-of-9 shooting.
For Yale, this win not only boosts its non-conference resume, it cements the Bulldogs as the biggest threat to end Harvard’s reign over Ivy League hoops. This is the third straight loss for UConn, who previously lost to West Virginia and Texas, as the American Athletic Conference as a whole continues to struggle, though, SMU was able to knock off Wyoming at home on Friday, battling with the Cowboys for much of the night.
A quick disclaimer before I begin, because determining who qualifies as a mid-major and who doesn’t is always a touchy subject. Here is how we broke it down for these rankings: The Mountain West, the Big East, the Atlantic 10 and the American were all, by default, barred from these rankings. The WCC was eligible with the exception of Gonzaga and BYU. The Missouri Valley was eligible with the exception of Wichita State. Everyone else was fair game.
Why did we eliminate the Shockers from contention? Well, the complicated answer is that “high-major” delegation is more about financial resources, support from the university, the fan base and the community, and consistent, high-level success during the season and on the recruiting trail, but the simple answer is that the Shockers would be the clear-cut No. 1 team here and it’s more fun to do this without them involved. Our rankings, our rules. Deal with it.
Keifer Sykes, Green Bay, Sr. (20.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.9 apg): High-flying, high-scoring point guards aren’t that easy to find. Sykes is the reason that the Phoenix have a shot at winning a game-or-two in the NCAA tournament.
R.J. Hunter, Georgia State, Jr. (18.5 ppg, 39.5% 3PT): Yeah, I know he plays for Georgia State, but we picked him on this team because he may actually be the nation’s best spot-up shooter.
John Brown, High Point, Jr. (19.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.6 spg, 1.5 bpg): The nation’s highest-flying wing, Brown is the reigning Big South Player of the Year and a human-highlight reel.
Alan Williams, UC-Santa Barbara, Sr. (21.3 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 2.4 bpg): Williams has been a star at the mid-major level for three years now, but the Gauchos simply haven’t had the kind of success as a team that would garner him more national recognition.
Shawn Long, Louisiana-Lafayette, Jr. (18.6 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 2.7 bpg, 42.3% 3PT): It will be Long’s Ragin’ Cajuns team this season with Elfrid Payton now in the NBA. His ability to block shots and shoot threes at 6-foot-10 could mean that he winds up in the NBA Draft after this season as well.
Jalan West, Northwestern State, Jr. (19.4 ppg, 6.4 apg, 40.3% 3PT): His numbers are inflated by Northwestern State’s uptempo style of play. That doesn’t make him any less talented, however.
Daniel Mullings, New Mexico State, Sr. (16.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.5 apg): Mullings is the reigning WAC Player of the Year, and he’ll have a chance to play more point guard this season.
Wesley Saunders, Harvard, Jr. (14.2 ppg, 3.8 apg): Saunders was the Ivy League’s Player of the Year last season and should once again be the leading scorer on a Harvard team that has one a game in the tournament in back-to-back seasons.
Jacob Parker, Stephen F. Austin, Sr. (14.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 46.9% 3PT): Parker won last year’s Southland Player of the Year award and was the best player on a team that went 32-3 and beat VCU in the NCAA tournament.
Justin Sears, Yale, Jr. (16.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.9 bpg): Sears is our Preseason Ivy League Player of the Year and the biggest reason Yale has a chance to contend with Harvard for the Ivy title.
Siyani Chambers, Harvard, Jr. (11.1 ppg, 4.6 apg): The heart and soul of the Crimson. He’s one of the nation’s most underrated point guards.
Ryan Harrow, Georgia State, Sr. (17.8 ppg, 4.2 apg): The former Kentucky and N.C. State point guard found his niche back in his hometown of Atlanta.
Julius Brown, Toledo, Sr. (14.9 ppg, 6.0 apg): ‘Juice’ Brown helped lead the Rockets to a share of the MAC regular season title last season.
A.J. English, Iona, Jr. (17.2 ppg, 4.3 apg, 3.9 rpg): English is the best player on an Iona team favored to win the always-competitive MAAC.
Cameron Payne, Murray State, So. (16.8 ppg, 5.4 apg, 1.7 spg): The Memphis-native had a terrific freshman season trying to replace the production left when Isaiah Canaan graduated.
HONORABLE MENTION: D.J. Balentine (Evansville), Joel Bolomboy (Weber State), Karl Cochran (Wofford), Brett Comer (Florida-Gulf Coast), Juan’Ya Green (Hofstra), Martez Harrison (UMKC), Tyler Harvey (Eastern Washington), Damion Lee (Drexel), Tshilidzi Nephawe (New Mexico State), Andrew Rowsey (UNC-Asheville), Bernard Thompson (Florida-Gulf Coast), Marcus Thornton (William & Mary), Seth Tuttle (Northern Iowa), Isiah Umipig (Seattle), Jameel Warney (Stony Brook), Kyle Wilson (Army)
The favorite to win the Ivy League, as has been the case for the last three or four years, is Harvard. The Crimson are coming off of a second straight trip to the NCAA tournament in which they won a game (No. 3 seed New Mexico in 2013, No. 5 seed Cincinnati last year) and return the two best players from that team in Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders, both of whom have a strong argument to be named Preseason Player of the Year. The Crimson will also boast a deep and talented front court, headlined by Steve Moundou-Missi and Zena Edosomwan, but their perimeter depth will be a concern. An injury to either Chambers or Saunders would be a major blow.
Harvard went 13-1 in league play last season, with their one loss coming at home against Yale. The Elis have a chance to put together a truly special season, as junior big man Justin Sears, our Preseason Ivy Player of the Year, is flanked by a pair of all-league caliber guards in seniors Javier Duren and Armani Cotton. Yale is big and they are physical and they love to attack the glass at both ends of the floor, but until they find a way to shoot the ball consistently from the perimeter, the game plan to beat the Bulldogs is fairly straight forward.
There are some other good teams in the league, as the Ivy should once again be one of the toughest mid-major conferences in the country. Columbia is the sleeper, as the Lions bring back everyone from last year’s 8-6 campaign. Kyle Smith’s club controls tempo, is loaded with dangerous perimeter shooters, has a handful of big-and-slow-but-tough front court pieces and a pair of big-time scorers in Maodo Lo and Alex Rosenberg.
Princeton loses T.J. Bray, which would hurt anyone in the conference. They bring back some pieces up front and landed a terrific recruiting class, headlined by high-major prospects Amir Bell and Alec Brennan. Brown, Dartmouth and Penn should all fight for that fifth-place spot, while Cornell looks like it’s destined for the cellar once again despite getting Shonn Miller back.
PRESEASON IVY LEAGUE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Justin Sears, Yale
Harvard is the most talented team in the Ivy, and while Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders are both deserving of consideration for Preseason Player of the Year, neither does as much for their team as Sears does for Yale. The Elis are built around their ability to attack the glass and control the paint, and Sears (16.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg) is the reason why they’re able to do that. A physical, 6-foot-8 forward, he rebounds, blocks shots and can step out and beat a defender on the perimeter. The rising junior will be the focus of every opponent’s game-plan again this season.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-IVY TEAM:
Siyani Chambers, Harvard: There have been very few Ivy League point guards that are capable of doing what Chambers (11.4 ppg, 4.6 apg) has done in his first two seasons. His influence goes well beyond his stat line.
Wes Saunders, Harvard: A 6-foot-5 wing, Saunders is the leading scorer (14.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.8 apg) and most talented player on the best team in the conference.
Shonn Miller, Cornell: Miller missed the 2013-2014 season, one in which the Big Red went 2-26. But he’s a beast that will put up numbers (11.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.9 spg, 1.9 bpg in ’12-’13).
Alex Rosenberg, Columbia: A 6-foot-7 forward, Rosenberg is the leading scorer (16.0 ppg, 43.2% 3PT) for a Columbia team that has an outside chance of winning the league.
The race for the Ivy League title will likely not be decided until the March’s first weekend, when Yale travels north on I-90 to face Harvard, so while there are still a handful of games to be played, it is interesting to speculate which Ivy players are in the lead for the league’s player the year award. The race is more intriguing this season because Harvard, the presumptive favorite for the conference’s auto bid, might not have a player of the year candidate. Sure, names like Wesley Saunders, Kyle Casey, and Siyani Chambers are players the average college basketball fan can identify with, but since neither of the three is having a true POY-type season, Yale’s Justin Sears is worthy of consideration.
If Sears, a 6-foot-8 forward, were to win the award, he would be just the third sophomore to be named the league’s player of the year since the honor’s inception in 1974-75. Sears uses roughly three-quarters of Yale’s available minutes, and is the team’s most efficient player, converting 50 percent of his twos. He is arguably the most athletic Bulldog, a forward who often gets to, and finishes, at the rim. He has also spent a significant amount of time working on his mid-range game — he is taking the same percentage of two-point jumpers as he did as a frosh, but he is now making 35 percent of those attempts (up from 26 percent).
Since those stats reflect what Sears has accomplished overall this season, it is also worth examining how he’s played in the Ivies: while his conversion rate within the arc remains the same, what is most extraordinary about Sears’ play is his ability to get to the stripe at a high clip. His free throw rate in conference play is 90.5 percent, and Sears has put tremendous pressure on opposing teams, compelling squads to foul him to abate his offensive progress. In the Bulldogs’ only match-up against Harvard, a win for Yale, Sears played arguably his top game in 2014 — 21 points and 11 rebounds — and showcased his candidacy for the Ivy’s POY.