Sporting Life

Successful basketball seasons cut short

High hopes for the postseason were dashed by coronavirus.

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

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Paul Atkinson ’21 and Roxy Barahman ’20 were named to the All-Ivy basketball first teams. View full image

For most of the winter season, it appeared head coach James Jones and his men’s basketball team would continue to follow the well-worn path so many teams before them had traced. After losing Miye Oni ’20 to the NBA, the Bulldogs were picked to place third in the Ivy preseason poll.

But it turned out to be no year for rebuilding. “Eleven of the last fifteen years, they picked us lower than we finished,” says Jones, who was named Ivy Coach of the Year. “And I think they got it right once—when we were picked first. We outkick our coverage every year.”

The Bulldogs quickly rose to national acclaim this season, at one point winning seven straight on the way to a 12–4 record before the beginning of the Ivy League slate. The team won votes in the national rankings, and on the Ivy League’s final weekend of play, they earned their second straight regular-season title—Yale’s fourth in the last six years. Four Bulldogs earned top Ivy League honors. Paul Atkinson ’21, among the best ten field goal shooters in the nation, was named co-Player of the Year, and Jalen Gabbidon ’21 shared the Defensive Player of the Year title. The league’s top rebounder, Jordan Bruner ’20, along with three-point specialist Azar Swain ’21—who set Yale’s all-time record for threes in a season—made first team All-Ivy.

Meanwhile, the Yale women put together one of their best seasons in years to finish 19–8, one win away from setting the school wins record. Roxy Barahman ’20 and Camilla Emsbo ’22 were named All-Ivy, and the Bulldogs secured a best-ever three-seed in the postseason Ivy League Tournament.

That one tournament was all that stood between both Yale teams and a trip to March Madness. However, on March 10, just three days before the start of tournament play at Harvard, the Ivy League canceled its basketball tournaments, becoming one of the first American organizations to cancel a major sporting event in light of the coronavirus outbreak. The move, which gave the Yale men the automatic tourney bid as regular-season champions, received widespread attention—and criticism.

Yet the Ivy League proved to be in the right. One day later, the NBA suspended play after a player tested positive for COVID-19. The following day, the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments were canceled, for the first time since the men’s tourney was first held in 1939. “A decision that was clearly the right one (in hindsight),” wrote captain Eric Monroe ’20 on Twitter. “I was heartbroken for the seniors on the other qualifying teams, it didn’t feel right. But it is looking like the clear right call.”

After the week no one in the sports world will forget, the Yale men and women are left only with thoughts about what could have been—for the men, another chance to advance in March Madness; for the women, the possibility of their first-ever bid. In an ESPN simulation, the Yale men were the tournament’s Cinderella, upsetting three teams to advance to the Elite Eight. Unfortunately, a simulation is all we’ll ever have. But perspective is important. “If you think about the greater good, nothing that we had to handle was too difficult,” says Jones. “There are bigger things than basketball.”

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