Heading into this weekend’s competition, the men’s basketball team finds itself in an unfamiliar but well-deserved position: all alone atop the Ivy League standings midway through the season.
Through solid defense, balanced scoring and composed play down the stretch, the Bulldogs (9-10, 5-1 Ivy) have overcome a trying non-conference season, clawing their way to the league summit in their best Ivy start in half a decade. Having won seven of its last nine games, Yale hopes to maintain its status as top dog this weekend when it travels to New York State to take on Cornell (11-9, 4-2) and Columbia (12-8, 3-3), ranked third and fourth, respectively. The Elis know that no lead in the Ivy League is ever safe, and both opponents this weekend appear anxious to close the gap.
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“It’s a great feeling to be at the top, but the season’s only half over,” forward Travis Pinick ’09 said. “It puts you in the conversation but doesn’t mean anything as far as winning the league. We have a lot of confidence in how we’re playing right now and there’s definitely that extra motivation to stay on top.”
Fresh off an impressive home sweep of traditional Ancient Eight powerhouses Penn and Princeton, the Bulldogs hope to carry that momentum with them on the road. Forward Casey Hughes ’07, who led the Elis to their third Penn-Princeton sweep in the last six years, averaged 11.5 points and 10.5 rebounds last weekend, earning him Ivy League Player of the Week honors. Hughes shot almost 60 percent from the field and anchored the Yale defense, holding last year’s Ivy League Player of the Year Ibrahim Jaaber to only six shots.
“Hughes is a very good athlete,” Penn head coach Glen Miller said after his team’s loss at Lee Amphitheater on Saturday. “He’s an experienced player who plays to his strengths.”
Yale hopes for more fine play from Hughes when they face off against Columbia on Friday night. The Lions come into this weekend’s play with a substantial amount of momentum of their own, completing their first road sweep in the league since January 2004. Columbia’s explosive play resulted in a 90-70 pounding of Harvard to start the weekend, followed by clutch late-game shooting on Saturday to down Dartmouth, 61-55.
Junior forward John Baumann, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, posted 21 points and 14 rebounds against the Big Green and will surely be looking to do more damage this week. The Elis showed their defensive prowess last weekend against Princeton, holding the Tigers to only 35 points, but will need more of the same if they are to continue to be successful.
Head coach James Jones, who needs one more victory to reach the 100-win plateau at Yale, will be matching wits with his younger brother Joe, who is in his fourth season as head coach of the Lions. So far, the Bulldogs have taken five of the six meetings between the brothers.
“We’ve done it so often now,” Jones said. “For me, it’s preparing for Columbia and not so much about playing against my brother. Before or after the game, you feel for your brother, but during the game, it’s just Columbia.”
The Bulldogs continue their journey through the Empire State on Saturday, traveling to Ithaca for a showdown with Cornell. The Big Red boast an explosive young roster, with three players having earned Rookie of the Week honors, including swingman Ryan Wittman, who puts up a team-high 15.8 points a night. Cornell, which leads the league in field goal percentage defense and three-point shooting percentage, also pulled off a road sweep of Dartmouth and Harvard last weekend, featuring an exciting buzzer-beater against the Crimson.
“They’ve got some good young players,” Jones said. “We really need to make sure we do a good job defensively and close out to shooters.”
Despite outstanding crowd support last weekend, team members said they welcome the challenge of playing on the road.
“We’re definitely going to miss the support of our fans, but you gotta win some tough games on the road,” Pinick said. “We look forward to the opportunity to get a big road win. I think it says a lot about who we are as a team.”