After a one-week delay, the men’s basketball team will finally begin its 14-game Ivy League campaign tonight against the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
The Elis (4-9) were set to begin conference play at home last weekend against Brown, but the game was snowed out. Instead, the Bulldogs open on the road against the two most dominant teams in the league in recent history — Penn (7-7) tonight, and defending Ivy League Champion Princeton (9-5) tomorrow evening in New Jersey. Penn had won the previous two titles before Princeton’s run last year. The Quakers have won eight of the last 12 titles overall. In the annual preseason league poll, the Tigers were ranked first ahead of the number two Quakers and the number three Bulldogs.
The Elis hope to reverse several unfavorable trends this weekend. They have not beaten Penn on the Quakers’ home court in their last seven contests in the Palestra, the last victory coming in the 1996-97 season. Penn has won five of the last six overall meetings, the lone Eli victory coming last year when the Bulldogs won at home, 54-52, in the first meeting between the two teams that season.
The Elis have also lost their last four meetings with the Tigers and have not won on Princeton’s home hardwood in their last 11 trips to Jadwin Gym.
To make things even more challenging, the Elis have not played in nearly two weeks. The team lost its final non-conference game against Saint Peter’s, 79-68, at home Jan. 15. The Quakers, in contrast, are coming off of a 67-59 victory over Saint Joseph’s last Tuesday night in the Palestra. While the Hawks have not cracked the national rankings this season, they made it as far as the Elite Eight in last year’s NCAA Tournament before falling to Oklahoma State, 64-62.
The Quakers have now won three straight games. Penn head coach Fran Dunphy said that his squad has momentum going into Friday night’s game.
“Saint Joe’s had won five out of six games before they played us, and we just came out ready to go,” Dunphy said. “We’re going to have to do the same thing Friday against Yale and Saturday against Brown. We have confidence, but if we don’t come out and play well, it’s not going to matter much.”
Penn is led by senior guard Tim Begley, who is ranked ninth in scoring in the league with 12.8 points per game. The Quakers lost three starters to graduation and, like the Elis, have had to introduce younger players to the starting role. Two of those graduates were ranked in the top three in scoring on the team and averaged double-digits last season.
Along with Begley, sophomore standout guard Ibrahim Jaaber is the only other player averaging double-digits in points this season (10.4 ppg). Jaaber was named Ivy League Player of the Week last week.
The Elis will answer with the second and third best scorers in the league: guard Edwin Draughan ’05 (15.4 ppg) and center Dominick Martin ’06 (15.3 ppg). Captain Alex Gamboa ’05 leads the Bulldogs at the point and is also averaging double figures in scoring (11.6 ppg).
Yale boasts the highest-scoring offense in the league, averaging 71.3 points per game. Penn’s 66.1 points per game is good for fifth in the league. But the Quakers boast the third best defense in the league, allowing just 64.8 points per game, while the Elis have allowed a league worst 77.3 points per game.
The Elis split last season’s two match-ups with the Quakers. In their first meeting Jan. 30 in New Haven, the Bulldogs ended Penn’s streak of 28 straight League regular season victories with a 54-52 victory. Draughan paced the Elis with 18 points. The team nearly upset Princeton the next evening, at home, in a 49-47 defeat. The Elis were unable to win either of the second contests against Penn or Princeton on the road.
Following tonight’s game against Penn, Jones and squad will travel to Princeton where the Tigers await. Eli guard Dexter Upshaw ’06 said Princeton’s unique style of offense will pose a more difficult challenge for the Bulldogs.
“They have a more complicated offense than Penn,” Upshaw said. “We haven’t played anybody with their type of offense. It may cause problems because some of the younger guys haven’t seen it before — they’ve never had to guard a Princeton back cut. I see them as the bigger challenge from that standpoint because they set the tempo. We’re more comparable to Penn in style of play on the court.”
The team watched videos of both Penn and Princeton yesterday afternoon before departing for Philadelphia. The Tigers are averaging a league-low 54.5 points per game, but they also lay claim to the best defense in the league, allowing just 54.4 points per game, more than ten points better than the next closest team. Jones attributed Princeton’s low scoring games to their unusually unhurried style of play.
“It’s a slow down, passing attack that they use to try to lull you asleep and catch you off guard — very methodical,” Jones said. “They clear the basket — they have everyone above the free throw line, they try to get you overplaying to defend the three point shot, and when that happens, they cut back door and have a clear basket.”
The Elis will have to try to prevent Princeton from controlling the flow of the game. One of the key match-ups will come in the paint between Martin and Tiger senior center Judson Wallace, who leads the Tigers with 14.4 points per game, which ranks him sixth in the league.
Martin transferred from Princeton to Yale two seasons ago seeking more playing time, and he has thrived at the University. But he will have his hands full in the frontcourt against his old teammate Wallace. In their first meeting last year, the two big men contained each other, with Wallace scoring just nine points and Martin seven points in the low-scoring affair.
In their second match-up, Wallace scored 29 points to Martin’s five as the Tigers won at home, 70-58. However, this season Martin sports the better numbers, averaging more points, rebounds and assists per game.
The match-up between Wallace and Martin is just one of many that the team will have to win this weekend in order to find victory. While history says the Elis have their work cut out for them, Gamboa replies that for the Bulldogs, poor play this weekend is not an option.
“We don’t really have a choice,” Gamboa said. “I think the guys know how important the weekend is. If they don’t, I’ll make sure I tell them. [But] the competitiveness tells me the guys are ready to go.”