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How ’Bout Those Guys?
Coach James Jones’s Bulldogs were full of surprises this year. The underrated men’s basketball team emerged from the Ivy pack to win a share of the conference title for the first time since 1963, they notched the most wins in a season since 1949, and they won their first game ever in postseason play. But it was a smaller surprise—a single moment—that best captured the spirit of this unlikely season.
It was on February 16 at Columbia, where Yale was closing out a big win in a venue that had been a death trap the previous year. With Yale leading 73–52 and under three minutes to go, Columbia’s Craig Austin ’02 attempted a three-pointer, and Bulldog Ime Archibong ’03 blocked it. Paul Vitelli ’04 grabbed the ball and passed to Archibong, who was racing toward the basket with no man to beat. The crowd of 1,832—almost half of that number there to root for Yale—rose in anticipation. Archibong jumped, rotated 360 degrees in midair, and then dunked the ball with two hands. The stunned crowd burst out with a cheer, and a good deal of head-shaking.
A Yale player making a 360 dunk? Are you kidding?
These are not your father’s Bulldogs, nor even the Bulldogs of a few years ago. Many can dunk, most can shoot the three, and all believe they can win any game they play. This year, they won more than expected, to the delight of much of the Ivy League, which was glad to see Yale challenge Penn and Princeton, which had won at least a share of 31 of the previous 33 league titles. (They joined Yale in a three-way tie this year.)
“ To see another team have a chance to break that dominance is a good thing for the league,” said Brown coach Glen Miller, whose Bears finished in fourth at 8–6. “I can’t see how any coach in the league wouldn’t be happy.”
Before Jones’s arrival in New Haven for the 1999–2000 season, basketball was the forgotten stepbrother of ice hockey at Yale. Ingalls Rink would consistently sell out, while only a few diehards would turn up for men’s basketball games. This year, an average of 2,468 fans showed up in the 3,100-seat Lee Amphitheater for Ivy home games. And the Bulldogs were also a road show for the first time in recent memory. Four busloads of students traveled to the Palestra in Philadelphia to watch the Bulldogs defeat Princeton, 76–60, in a playoff game; Yale fans outnumbered Princeton supporters, despite having to come from farther away. And Yale’s allotment of 1,500 tickets sold out for a second playoff game against Penn at distant Lafayette College on March 9, despite the game coming on the first day of spring break.
The rest of the college basketball world was also gaga over Yale. The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times all ran features about the team from New Haven and their brash 38-year-old coach. College basketball analyst Dick Vitale named Jones one of three “rising stars in the coaching fraternity” in a USA Today column.
What makes the Yale season more remarkable is that it happened in an Ivy League that is growing stronger and more competitive. Three teams made postseason tournaments: Penn went to the NCAAs after dispatching the Bulldogs at Lafayette, 77–58, while Yale and Princeton went to the National Invitation Tournament. All three Ivy squads kept their first-round opponents close, but only the Bulldogs prevailed, defeating Rutgers 67–65 for the first postseason victory in 107 years of Yale men’s basketball.
“The league probably had its best season in years,” said Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, who covered the Bulldogs’ Princeton and Penn road weekend and wrote about the league for the magazine. “It was a very compelling race. Additionally, because Yale was in the race, this was suddenly a different angle on what’s been a Penn-and-Princeton-dominated league for eons.”
For Yale to compete for the title seemed highly unlikely at the season’s start. The 2000–01 team’s two 6’ 10” players, Neil Yanke and Tom Kritzer, had graduated, along with Isaiah Cavaco. What’s more, that team’s leading scorer, guard Chris Leanza ’03, was sidelined at the beginning of the year while recovering from an offseason shoulder injury.
Archibong, the team captain, knew the team had potential after the Bulldogs upset Penn State of the Big 10 on November 18. “After our first couple of losses, I was like, yeah, we might struggle a little this year,” he said. “But after Penn State, I knew we would be all right. Those younger guys played like veterans.”
Jones still had his doubts after Yale was swept by Gardner Webb and Macalester, two Division III schools, at the Poinsettia Holiday Classic at the end of 2001. “We had some soul-searching to do during the next week of practice,” Jones recalled. “We bonded really well then.” The Bulldogs shocked Clemson in their next game for Yale’s first win over an ACC school in almost 30 years.
By the start of the Ivy season, the Bulldogs had come together on and off the court. Jones began to take advantage of the team’s balance and depth, running a ten-man rotation and substituting five men at a time.
The result was that ten players averaged between 13 and 29 minutes of playing time and that all five starters averaged between 9 and 12 points. (Archibong, perhaps the most gifted player on the team, was only its fifth-leading scorer, while freshman Edwin Draughan and Ivy Rookie of the Year Alex Gamboa led the team.) The balanced attack worked: The team won nine of its first ten league games, including a home sweep of Penn and Princeton, Yale’s first in 14 years.
The Bulldogs’ biggest challenge came after being swept in the road weekend at Penn and Princeton, raising fears that they would collapse down the stretch, as Yale teams had in Jones’s two previous seasons. But the team held off Harvard before trouncing Dartmouth in the last weekend of the season. Penn’s defeat of Princeton the following Tuesday had the Bulldogs cutting down nets in Lee Amphitheater and preparing for a first-ever three-way Ivy playoff.
The team’s success caused home attendance to rise and basketball fever to sweep the campus. President Richard Levin made his enthusiasm clear, wearing a Chris Leanza jersey and cheering loudly for the Bulldogs against Penn at Lafayette. And the University went all out for Yale’s second-round NIT game against Tennessee Tech at the New Haven Coliseum, spending $48,000 to buy 6,000 tickets for free distribution to town and gown.
In that regard, even the Bulldogs’ season-ending 80–61 loss to Tennessee Tech was a win of sorts. Thanks to the ticket giveaway, the game was played in a sold-out Coliseum, filled with 9,847 Yale students and staff and New Haven residents. Comprising the largest home crowd in Yale basketball history, the fans rallied together behind a team that had finished 4–22 (2–12 Ivy) just three years before.
It was a measure of how far the Bulldogs had come that after a season of so many firsts, they left wanting more. “We talked about it in the locker room, and we’re not satisfied,” Archibong said the day after the loss. “We wanted to make the tournament. We wanted to come out for big games and win. There are a lot of things we felt were unaccomplished.”
And they’ll have another chance next year. Not a single player on the team is a senior, and more players are on their way. Jerry Gauriloff ’05, who was highly recruited for his post play, will compete for playing time after missing this season because of back surgery. Three more post players committed to Yale in the early decision period. Perhaps most important, Coach Jones, who was being considered for coaching jobs at Bradley and the University of Washington, recently confirmed that he’ll be back at Yale.
The long-term goal is for Yale to be targeted with the same gusto by the rest of the league as Penn and Princeton are now. “That’s the direction the program is going,” said Archibong. “You can’t really tell until it comes time, but the players want it and the coaches want it.” And Jones has instilled an attitude that anything the Bulldogs want is attainable.
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