Just over halfway through the Ivy League season, the men’s basketball team finds itself pretty much where everyone expected it would be. The Elis are in third place, behind Penn and Princeton, with a mountain of obstacles to overcome if they want to overtake the Killer Ps during the second half of conference play.
In a preseason poll of Ancient Eight coaches, the Bulldogs (13-10, 5-3 Ivy) were picked to finish third in the league, after Penn (15-6. 7-0) and Princeton (7-13. 5-2) and just before Brown (7-14, 3-5). Now, after having faced every Ivy team at least once, the Bulldogs have the chance to reflect on their play in hopes of creeping up the standings.
“Obviously, we’ve been kind of up and down from weekend to weekend,” captain Josh Greenberg ’06 said. “I think sometimes we just don’t execute that well offensively. And sometimes when you’re not scoring you don’t play with so much intensity on the defensive end.”
Perhaps what stands out the most when considering the Elis’ conference season thus far is the stark contrast between their home and away records. The Elis have notched all five of their wins in John J. Lee Amphitheater, and all three of their losses have been on the road. The Elis average 75.4 points at home and just 54.3 in other venues.
Certainly, every team enjoys a home court advantage and prefers friendly, supportive crowds to hostile ones. But looking at the Bulldogs’ recent opponents, no team takes advantage of this edge quite as much as the Elis. While Yale averages 20 points more at home than away, its opponents average just five fewer points in John J. Lee than on their home courts (64.4, down from 69).
Undoubtedly, Eli fans contribute somewhat to this huge discrepancy. From the courtside hecklers dressed in baseball uniforms to the handful of children’s teams that come to support the Elis, John J. Lee can be a loud, angry place if you’re not wearing Yale’s blue and white. Nearly every visiting coach has commented on Yale’s fans; Harvard head coach Frank Sullivan mentioned how fans’ taunting of freshman guard Drew Housman probably knocked him off his game, and Columbia head coach Joe Jones said the crowd’s “extra energy” gave Yale an advantage during their matchup.
“You can kind of argue that we practice in that gym every single day, so obviously we’re going to have a lot better feel for it,” swingman Travis Pinick ’09 said. “Our fan support is pretty good, us and Penn have the best fans in the league. We’re going to feed off the energy they give us and want to play well in front of them so they’ll keep coming back.”
The flip side of being able to capitalize so well on home court advantage is that the Bulldogs cannot seem to play without it. Last season, the Elis finished an even 7-7 in the league. Six of their seven wins came at home, and the only road game the Bulldogs won was a 77-67 victory over Columbia. Going back another year, to the 2003-04 season, the Bulldogs fared little better, defeating just Dartmouth and Cornell in away matches and winning five of seven home games.
If home court advantage was all the Elis had going for them this season, it would have been a short trip to mediocrity. But another of the Elis’ advantages is their dominant post presence, which generally takes the shape of center Dominick Martin ’06 and power forward Sam Kaplan ’07. The two lead the team in scoring with 12.4 and 11.4 points per game, respectively, and both shoot 57 percent from the floor. Also contributing to the Elis’ play under the basket is swingman Casey Hughes ’07. Hughes’ ability to penetrate the lane and collect rebounds (6.0 per game) makes him a threat inside as well. In conference play, the Bulldogs average 26.5 points in the paint per game, compared to 23.1 for their opponents.
Defensively, the duo of big men has taken down some of the most talented post players in the conference, most notably Harvard’s Matt Stehle and Brian Cusworth, who combine for nearly 30 points each game.
Though the Elis may have dominant post players, the paint has also been a source of some recent problems for the Bulldogs. After outrebounding nonconference opponents throughout the preseason, Yale has faltered in league play. At the halfway mark, the Elis trail behind their opponents in boards per game, 31.8 to 33.1. The Bulldogs went through a four-game stretch, from Harvard on Jan. 27 through Penn on Feb. 4, when they did not outrebound a single opponent.
“It’s a very strange thing,” captain Josh Greenberg ’06 said. “In the Ivy League, teams are a little less athletic and a little less strong. It’s something we did really well, but now we don’t outrebound anyone.”
Though the Elis’ rebounding prowess may have been diminished of late, one statistical category the Bulldogs have unquestionably improved in is turnovers. The Bulldogs entered into the Ivy League season averaging just under 20 turnovers per game, having recorded turnovers near the two-dozen mark several times. But since beginning Ivy League play, the Bulldogs have seen a steady dropoff. The Elis average 14.4 turnovers in conference play and have never committed more than 20 in a single league game.
“We’ve worked on decision-making and the style of play in the Ivy League is kind of conducive to not turning the ball over,” point guard Eric Flato ’08 said. “The Ivy League runs a lot of set plays and there is not a lot of pressure defensively.”
And then there’s Yale’s bench. Constantly touted by players and head coach James Jones as the Bulldogs’ greatest strength, Yale’s collection of strong reserves has been a valuable asset in conference play. If anyone wondered how the freshmen and some inexperienced upperclassmen would handle the transition from nonconference games to significantly more important Ivy League competition, they now have the answer — they flourished. From back up point guard Chris Andrews’ ’09 breakout game against Harvard (10 points) to forward Ross Morin’s ’09 career-high 15 points in his second career start against Cornell, the Bulldogs’ subs have become an integral part of the team.
With no player averaging more than 30 minutes per game — point guard Eric Flato ’08 comes the closest with 27.9 — it is essential that the Elis’ second- and third-string players maintain a high level of play. In league games, the Bulldogs average 21.4 points per game from the bench, compared to opponents’ 18. Reserve guard Caleb Holmes ’08 is fourth on the team in scoring, with 8.5 points per game, nearly three more than the starter he relieves, Nick Holmes ’08 (5.7 ppg).
“I think they bring a lot of energy into the game when they come in,” Flato said. “They’re really psyched for their first Ivy League season. They make some big plays and give us some rest when they’re in.”