Sporting Life

Delayed gratification

Basketball was back this winter, and the men's team returned to March Madness.

Evan Frondorf ’14, a risk analyst in San Francisco, writes frequently about sports for this magazine.

The Yale men’s basketball team had to wait 1,092 days between its last two appearances at March Madness, but not through any fault of their own. After they fell in a close battle with LSU in the opening round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament, the 2020 tourney was canceled when the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in the US. And last year, the Ivy League was the only conference not represented, because it chose to cancel the entirety of its 2020–21 athletic season. While a far cry from the 54-year drought between Yale tournament appearances that was broken in 2016, the absence was particularly felt by Yale fans, who saw a strong roster miss out on two potential NCAA bids. Thus, when Yale reappeared as the Ivy League entry all those days later on March 18, 2022, it was no surprise—and a welcome sight.

Yale earned their spot in the NCAA Tournament after vying with Princeton throughout the season for the top spot in the conference, with the Tigers eventually taking the regular season title. The Bulldogs entered the year without Paul Atkinson ’21, the 2020 Ivy League Player of the Year, who decided to graduate and use his remaining NCAA eligibility at Notre Dame. However, Yale had strong returners in guard Azar Swain ’22 and captain Jalen Gabbidon ’22; both had taken leaves of absence to preserve their ability to play at Yale. (Gabbidon, a computer science major, also cofounded a startup during his break.)

After beating Penn in the Ivy League tournament semifinals, the smaller Bulldogs were underdogs against Princeton, but they quickly took a lead and held on for the rest of the game, despite a final flurry from the Tigers that cut the final score to 66–64. Yale had secured its third March Madness appearance in seven years. The Yale women also played in their second-ever Ivy League tournament after their fifth consecutive winning season, falling to Columbia in the semifinals.

Swain, the team’s leading scorer, dropped a tournament-high 48 points across the two games and was named Most Outstanding Player, adding to a list of accolades: one of Yale’s most prolific shooters ever, a first-team all-Ivy selection, and Yale’s career leader in games played and three-pointers. “I’m just so grateful to give back to Yale,” said Swain as he soaked in the win. “Yale and Coach [James] Jones changed my life.” Jones returned the love in the pre-NCAA press conference, proclaiming, “He’s the best player in the entire country that can’t dunk a basketball.”

Named a 14th seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Bulldogs drew a tough first-round opponent in third-seeded Purdue. Not only did The Boilermakers have Jaden Ivey, a likely first-round pick in the NBA Draft, but they also boasted the tournament’s tallest player: Zach Edey, who, at 7' 4" and 295 pounds, eclipsed Yale’s biggest starter, EJ Jarvis ’23, by 8 inches and 75 pounds. (Jones memorably called Edey the “second largest man I’ve ever seen” outside of Yao Ming.)

In their matchup in Milwaukee, Yale briefly took an early lead, led by 13 first-half points from Swain, but they soon found themselves overmatched. Purdue’s size allowed them to dominate inside: they scored 26 points near the basket and chipped in another 27 from the free throw line on their way to a 78-56 victory.

“We’re an undersized team playing against one of the biggest teams in the country. I thought we played tough and it didn’t go our way,” said Gabbidon after the game.

As the game drew to a close, Jones sent in substitutes for Swain and Gabbidon in turn so that he could share a special moment with each of them. “These guys have given so much of themselves for the betterment of our team. And it’s the last time I’m going to see them,” said Jones in a poignant reflection after the game. “I’m 58 years old, and I may see each of them maybe five more times in my life. They’re going to go on in life and maybe they’ll be back for an alumni game, but that’s going to be it. It’s winding down. It’s one of those times I wanted to take in and make sure they know how I felt about them and how special they’ve been for our program.”  

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