Yale's finish fueled by heartbreak, Harvard and a 54-year tourney drought

Once again, James Jones has Yale on the cusp of an Ivy League title. After missing out on an NCAA tournament berth last season, the Bulldogs want to finish the job and earn the league's automatic bid. Mark Dolejs/USA TODAY Sports

Yale men's basketball coach James Jones was at a retirement party Sunday afternoon when a woman he knew stopped to tell him how she learned that the Bulldogs had beaten Dartmouth the night before.

She was working at a university function in New Haven, Connecticut, unable to attend the game herself, so her brother texted her scores as the game went on ... from Florida, where he was keeping tabs on the game via his computer.

"That's when I realized how far-reaching this thing is," Jones said. "You really don't know how many people are scrolling through their phones, or checking their computers. Had we gone to the tournament for the last seven years, it wouldn't be like this. But now it's everyone and their grandmother, their cousin and their Uncle Bill."

That's because while Grandma might remember Yale's last NCAA tournament game, chances are Uncle Bill doesn't.

The Bulldogs haven't danced since 1962, the second-longest drought among teams that have been to the tournament at least once -- a stretch so long it even predates at-large bids.

Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, at Cornell and at third-place Columbia, Yale is a half-game ahead of Princeton in the Ivy League standings, but only because the Tigers have three games to play to Yale's two.

The Tigers will be at Harvard on Friday, putting Yale students, players and alumni in a very strange predicament.

"Yeah, it's tough to root for Harvard," Yale senior Justin Sears said, "but if it comes down to it, I will."

When you're carting a 54-year-old monkey on your back, these are the sort of desperate times calling for desperate measures.

Because if Harvard, Dartmouth or Penn aren't able to knock off the Tigers -- and if the Bulldogs sweep this weekend, resulting in a first-place tie -- the Ancient Eight will follow its long-standing tradition and hold a one-game, winner-take-the-NCAA-tournament-bid game on March 12 at the Palestra (that the Palestra, 44 miles from Princeton's campus versus 173 from Yale's, was chosen as the neutral site seems to defy the logic that the Ivy League is where the smart folks reside).

The Ancient Eight, as befits its name, remains the last holdout to tradition, refusing still to go the conference tournament route. Though CBSSports.com reported in December that the league is considering a tourney in the very near future, for now it's to the winner of the 14-game regular season goes the spoils.

And generally there is really just one winner. Because along with the Ivy League's longstanding tradition, the selection committee seems to have one of its own: not awarding the conference an at-large bid.

This year, both Princeton and Yale feel as if they have a case, and the numbers (at least some of them) support them.

The Bulldogs boast an RPI of 54 and a strength of schedule of 167; Princeton's is 34 and 113.

Saint Mary's, by comparison, has an RPI of 38 and a SOS of 154. The Gaels, by Joe Lunardi's estimation, are in the tournament.

But odds are this will be an either/or proposition for Princeton and Yale, a reality the Bulldogs know all too well. Just a year ago, the Bulldogs were in even better position to end their string of NCAA futility, up a game on Harvard as they headed to Dartmouth for the last game of the regular season. The Big Green scored on a banked-in layup in the final second, and that same night, Harvard beat Brown, forcing the playoff game against the Crimson.

Harvard won and went to the tourney while Yale, snubbed by the NIT, packed up its season.

"It's hard to understand how important this is to us, having gone through it and come up short last year," Jones said. "We haven't talked about it, but it's in your belly. It doesn't leave your belly."

Rather than use the negative as a motivator, Jones switched the narrative earlier this season. He showed his team the movie, "The Pursuit of Happyness," starring Will Smith. Based on a true story about Chris Gardner, a struggling single father who joins a stockbroker internship program, the film ends when Gardner celebrates with his son after landing a full-time position.

That end scene is what Jones told his team to cling to, to imagine their own sort of celebration on Selection Sunday.

"I have imagined that since my freshman year," senior Brandon Sherrod said. "I think I would just dance with my teammates, but to be there, surrounded by hopefully the student body, our fans, teammates, our family, it would be incredible."

One person, though, won't be there. As Yale has made this last push to the finish, it's gone the past six games without Jack Montague. The senior and team captain last appeared in a game on Feb. 6, the team then citing personal reasons for his absence. But last week, the school announced he would not return to the team, and the student paper, the Yale Daily News, reported he had withdrawn from school.

Jones said he could not comment on Montague's situation, and his former teammates were careful with their words.

Last weekend, the Bulldogs created a bit of an uproar when they wore T-shirts emblazoned with Montague's nickname, "Gucci," on the back and "Yale" written backward on the front.

"Not having our captain has been really, really tough," said Sherrod, who added that Montague remains in touch with his former teammates and on the team's group text. "All the things we've worked for, looking back to the preseason and now toward a championship, he was a huge part of that. So, yeah, there's been some, 'Get this one for Gucci.' But we've also rallied around one another. Sometimes teams crumble in these sorts of situations, but we've showed a lot of resilience."

But can the Bulldogs show more resilience than they did last year -- more, frankly, than they have in the last 54?

That's the burning question for the Bulldogs, not to mention Grandma and Uncle Bill.

"We hear it every day from everyone," Sears said. "But what does it for me is, I walk in the gym every day and we have a really good volleyball team, so they've got all of these banners hanging up there, and I look up and I see that one for us. That's the only motivation I need."