If the season ended today, the Bulldogs would be making an appearance in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament for just the third time in the past 30 years.
While team members say that they are far from beginning preparations for the Big Dance, it is undeniable that the flexible offensive production and the stellar defensive performance that the Elis exhibited this weekend have given them a better start toward that goal than in recent years.
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“We’ve got a long way to go before we start thinking about [March Madness],” guard Caleb Holmes ’08 said. “Our main focus is on Cornell and Columbia next weekend.”
With their sweep of Princeton and Penn last weekend, the Elis sit atop the Ivy League standings at 5-1 and are eight games away from clinching an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. For three straight years, the Bulldogs have finished 7-7 in league play. In each of those .500 seasons, the Elis were 3-3 after six games of conference play, indicating the importance of early season success.
With two wins this weekend, the Bulldogs appear to have broken out of that mold and to be poised on the verge of something special.
The Bulldogs are exceeding expectations due primarily to their ability to out-execute their opponents when the game is on the line. In every conference game this season, with the exception of last Friday’s game against Princeton, the Elis have either cut the opponents’ lead or extended their lead at the end of the first half.
The Bulldogs have demonstrated an ability to take the game away from their opponents in crunch time with their superior execution. The squad made their last 19 free throws against Harvard on Jan. 26, punctuated by an 8-for-8 effort from Caleb Holmes in the final five minutes. Against Penn last Saturday, the Bulldogs were 18-of-26 from the charity stripe, whereas the Quakers only shot 8-for-21. If it were not for an uncharacteristic second-half collapse against Brown, the Elis could be undefeated in the Ancient Eight right now.
The Elis are also able to adjust to their opponents’ style of play and speed up or slow down their pace appropriately. The Bulldogs proved that they are capable of outrunning and outscoring teams such as Harvard and Penn, who rank first and second, respectively, among the Ivy teams in scoring offense.
Yale has proven that it also can win slow, grueling games against a squad like Princeton. The Tigers, who lead the nation in scoring defense, got a taste of their own medicine during their 43-35 loss to the Elis. Yale held Princeton to a dismal 16.7 percent field-goal percentage on 4-of-24 shooting in the second half.
In addition to its adaptability, the Elis’ offense has benefited of late from the continued development of leading scorer and point guard Eric Flato ’08. Flato can dominate the pace of a game even on a poor shooting night. Against Harvard, Flato scored 11 points and notched 5 assists, playing all 40 minutes despite shooting a horrid 1-of-7 from the field. Against Penn, Flato again struggled from the field, shooting 5-for-14, but still led the team with 21 points. The Elis’ success begins and ends with Flato’s performance.
“Eric’s the guy that drives the bus for us,” Jones said. “He got off to a bit of a slow start, but he always makes big baskets.”
In addition, the Bulldogs have been effective in shutting down their opponents’ main threat on offense. Although big names such as Harvard’s Brian Cusworth, a potential NBA prospect, and Penn’s Ibrahim Jaaber, last season’s Ivy League Player of the Year, have posted solid stat lines against the Elis, they were silent when it mattered the most.
In their game against Harvard, the Elis used a combination of Ross Morin ’09, Paul Nelson ’10 and Matt Kyle ’08 to slow down Cusworth in the second half. Cusworth had 17 points and six rebounds in the first half against Yale but only scored 11 points for the rest of the game despite Morin, Nelson and Kyle all getting into foul trouble.
In last Saturday’s game against Penn, swingman Casey Hughes ’07 had the responsibility of shutting down Jaaber. Although Jaaber led the Quakers with 14 points, he was largely a non-factor and took only two shots in the last 10 minutes of the game.
Hughes’s defensive impact cannot be overstated. Jaaber dropped 32 points on Seton Hall and 21 points on North Carolina but was unable to get into a rhythm against Yale largely because of Hughes’s defensive tenacity. In the Bulldogs’ sole conference loss to Brown, Hughes fouled out with 5:42 left to play.
“Casey is big, strong and athletic,” head coach James Jones said. “He makes it difficult to get shots off.”
If the Bulldogs can continue the success of the first half of their season, drawing on their offensive variability and defensive strengths, they should be able to fight their way through to and Ivy League title and the NCAA Tournament.