Last season, the men’s basketball team won only four non-conference games the entire season. Now, just one-third of the way through their pre-Ivy competition, the Elis are shooting for their fourth victory.
The Bulldogs (3-2) will host Wagner (3-1) for the first time since 1998 on Saturday afternoon. The Elis are coming off a 72-67 win over Constitution State rival Sacred Heart on Monday night. The Seahawks are also looking to get their second straight win after improving to 3-1 with a 72-59 victory over Brown Nov. 30.
The Elis’ success this weekend hinges on their ability to limit Wagner’s outside shooting — the Seahawks are 27 of 62 (.435) from behind the arc — and to capitalize on their height advantage inside the paint.
“I think they play pretty much perimeter guys,” captain Josh Greenberg ’06 said. “They like to drive a lot, and they’re a pretty quick team. We have to try to take advantage of our size a little bit.”
Wagner’s sub-.500 record for last season is not indicative of the team the Bulldogs will face Saturday. The Seahawks returned 10 letterwinners and four starters from last year’s 13-17 squad, which finished sixth in the Northeast Conference. The Seahawks were picked to finish second in this year’s conference pre-season poll, and if their early-season games are any indication, they have a strong chance to perform well this year.
“They’re well coached,” Yale head coach James Jones said. “[Wagner head coach] Mike Deane is very focused on what he wants them to do. They don’t have a lot of size, they play a lot of perimeter guys.”
In their first week of play, Wagner steamrolled over John Jay, 86-44, and American, 75-59. The 2005 NEC Defensive Player of the Year, senior guard DeEarnest McLemore, shot eight for 10 in the season-opener, leading all players with 17 points. Against American, junior center Vincent Durell paced the Seahawks with 22 points and 15 rebounds. Durell leads Wagner in both points (14.5) and rebounds (9.5) so far this season.
For the first time this year, the Bulldogs will have the distinct height advantage their opponents. Durell, at 6-foot-7, is the tallest player on Wagner’s starting lineup, and freshman center Matt Kittrell is the tallest on the roster at 6 feet, 9 inches. Kittrell, however, only averages 4.5 minutes per game, which should give Eli center Matt Kyle ’08 and forward Sam Kaplan ’07 a chance to dominate inside. Swingman Casey Hughes ’07, who leads the team in rebounds (10.8), can be expected to take advantage of Wagner’s small roster as well.
“We’re just going to have to get the ball inside to Matt and Sam on the block and try to work our offense through them,” guard Caleb Holmes ’08 said. “We need to try to get some inside touches.”
This weekend, the Elis will strive to add some consistency to their offensive efforts. The Bulldogs average over 20 turnovers per game, a shortcoming that has affected their ability to capitalize on their possessions in their past few games. The Elis will also look to put some movement into their offense, which has been relatively static recently.
“The major focus has been on the offense, just trying to get it a bit more fluid,” Greenberg said. “In general, I think we do a good job executing our half-court offense, but we still have a long way to go.”
Although the Seahawks may not have great height, they do have exceptional outside shooters. Four players consistently shoot better than .400 from three-point range. In Wagner’s win over Brown, freshman guard Jamal Smith sunk four of four to anchor his 25-point effort against the Bears. But a pre-season scrimmage last year between Yale and Wagner showed that the Seahawks may not base all their offensive efforts on outside shooting and will try to split the Yale defense and drive to the basket as often as possible.
“I think they were a really athletic team that liked to penetrate, so we’re going to have to play hard defense against that,” Holmes said.