Magnificent March

The men’s basketball team finally made it to the NCAA Tournament—and defied expectations.

Evan Frondorf ’14 is a research fellow at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

Even in defeat, it was somehow a moment to savor. After their first NCAA Tournament game in 54 years—and the first-ever Bulldog win in the tournament—the Yale men’s basketball team went on to take one of the most celebrated programs in college basketball, the Duke Blue Devils, to the brink: Yale came back from being 27 points behind to climb within 3 points with under a minute to play. Against multiple players destined for the NBA, Yale had almost earned a trip to the tournament’s Sweet 16.

So, when two standout Yale seniors—Justin Sears ’16 and Brandon Sherrod ’16—and a star sophomore, Makai Mason ’18, approached the dais for the postgame press conference in Providence, Rhode Island, they smiled, in spite of their tearful red eyes. The moment showed the surging emotions of a stinging loss and the end of a season mixed with the realization that this team had made history.

“It’s unbelievable, historic,” started Sherrod, the forward who took last year off from basketball to sing with the Yale Whiffenpoofs.

Sears leaned over and said in a stage whisper: “Don’t say ‘magical.’”

“Magical,” Sherrod continued.

That’s how the most successful season in modern Yale basketball history—a season that was complicated by the expulsion of the team’s captain in February, apparently over a charge of sexual misconduct—came to an end.

The biggest achievement had come two days earlier, when the Bulldogs, seeded 12th in the 16-team East Regional, stunned the 5th-seeded Baylor Bears to notch Yale’s first-ever NCAA Tournament victory. The win came just 12 days after Yale had clinched its first bid to the tourney since 1962.

Clutch shooting, poise, and outrebounding one of the nation’s top programs helped deliver Yale the upset. The Bulldogs led throughout much of the game, withstanding Baylor runs at the beginning and end of the second half. In the closing seconds, Sherrod sealed the victory with two foul shots to give the Bulldogs a 79–75 win.

Mason, a perfect 10-for-10 from the free throw line in the closing minutes, wrote himself into Yale lore with a career-high 31 points. CBS analyst Chris Webber approvingly called him “a bad little man.”

Yale’s rare appearance in one of the nation’s most watched sports spectacles was a novelty for the national media and Bulldog fans alike. The New York Times wrote an article about alumni struggling to learn the rituals of March Madness: “Forgive the Yalies if they need a minute to get the hang of this.” During Yale’s games, CBS repeatedly showed clips of Sherrod soloing with the Whiffs, its announcers clearly bowled over by the idea of a basketball star taking a year off to sing. And once it came to pass that Yale would face Duke in the second round, social media reveled in the clash of two schools with, shall we say, a history of entitlement. “Should Duke-Yale end in a tie,” wrote CBS’s Will Brinson on Twitter, “following will decide winner: (1) BMW sprint to nearest J. Crew (2) Windsor knot race (3) Sudden-death chess match.”

But a more serious off-the-court story was also woven into Yale’s run. In February, team captain Jack Montague ’16 abruptly left the team and the university without explanation. The story behind his departure began to unfold after the team wore warm-up shirts with Montague’s number and nickname, “Gucci,” on the back and a reversed Yale logo on the front, before their February 26 game against Harvard. Anonymous posters appeared on campus soon after, showing images of the team wearing the shirts and reading, “Stop supporting a rapist.” Montague’s lawyer later issued a statement claiming that Montague had been expelled over a finding that he had had nonconsensual sex with a fellow Yale College student. (See page 24.)

The team issued an apology for the shirts, but hard feelings lingered, making it difficult for some students to cheer the team on. Montague attended both of Yale’s games in Providence as a fan, at one point exiting the arena when reporters approached. The team declined to comment on the situation during the tournament.

While Yale’s performance on the court may have caught many by surprise, it shouldn’t have been completely unexpected. Yale had been one of college basketball’s best rebounding teams all year, and they held their own against other tournament-quality teams during the season, including USC and SMU. The team’s 23 wins are its most since 1906–07. After years of Harvard exceeding expectations in the NCAA Tournament, Yale’s season and subsequent March Madness performance were another display of the Ivy League’s overall talent. “I don’t think anybody picked us to beat Baylor,” said Coach James Jones, calling out national prognosticators. “They all thought Yale was going to lose by a thousand, couldn’t possibly rebound with Baylor, because they had never seen us play. Had no idea how good we are.”

Sears, the quirky two-time Ivy Player of the Year, has a recognizably unorthodox style. Jones has lightheartedly described him as “a different kind of kid” and said there is “no one like him on this planet,” but also calls him “tremendously effective,” “uniquely good,” and someone who “is going to make a lot of money playing basketball somewhere.” The New Jersey native, who did not start playing until the eighth grade, has declared for the NBA draft and will almost certainly go on to play professionally somewhere. He’ll leave as Yale’s all-time third leading scorer and fourth leading rebounder. 

After his sabbatical with the Whiffenpoofs, Sherrod came back to Yale better than ever, coming into his own as an inside threat. In February, he broke an NCAA record by scoring 30 consecutive field goals without a miss, setting the new mark over the course of five games. He joined Sears and Mason in taking first-team All-Ivy honors.

For Jones, the long-awaited tournament appearance came after 17 years at the helm, during which Yale has finished in the top half of the Ivy League 16 consecutive times. (Fittingly, the Baylor upset briefly brought Jones’s overall win record above the .500 mark.) He seemed to relish the days leading up to and during the tournament. Special moments included an appearance in Professor Barry Nalebuff’s game theory course, in which Jones had the opportunity to perform a mock negotiation with former NBA commissioner David Stern. “I’ll have you know, Coach Jones won the negotiation,” Jones boasted.

Following his breakout performance in Providence, Mason declared for the NBA draft, taking advantage of a new rule that allows college players to participate in draft workouts and interviews without forfeiting their remaining NCAA eligibility. He will likely return to Yale after demonstrating his skills to scouts.

Next year, the Ivy League will join every other Division I conference and host a postseason tournament to decide its NCAA representative. With the soft-spoken Mason and a group of talented underclassmen on next year’s roster, Yale may make another appearance in March before long. “I think this will definitely fuel us for next year, just getting a taste of the NCAA Tournament and being able to win a game,” said Mason.

The outgoing class is left with memories of a season unmatched by any that came before. As Sears got ready to leave the press conference table after the Duke loss, he stopped and picked up the name card that had sat before him. “Can I keep this?” he asked. The answer, at least temporarily, was no.

But don’t worry, Justin—no one at Yale is likely to forget this.

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