The men’s basketball team lost more than just a game to Columbia last weekend; it lost control of its own destiny.
Before this Saturday’s disappointing defeat at the hands of the visiting Lions, Yale was guaranteed the 2006-’07 Ivy League championship if it won its final three games of the season. Unfortunately for the Elis, the ball is no longer in their court. Yale will need impeccable execution and a considerable helping of luck if it hopes to capture its first league title since 2002.
When the Bulldogs hit the road this weekend, they will face off against two teams at opposite ends of the Ancient Eight spectrum — league-leading Penn (19-8, 10-1 Ivy) and bottom-dwelling Princeton (11-14, 2-9).
In order for the Elis to keep their title hopes alive, they must sweep the Penn-Princeton weekend on the road, a feat that no team has accomplished since the Bulldogs themselves did so 20 years ago. Not only must Yale register a clean sweep, but either Princeton or Brown must also defeat the Quakers for the Elis to capture the most coveted prize in Ivy League sports. However unlikely, the Bulldogs still have an outside chance of capitalizing on their best start in five years and turning it into something special.
Yale played perhaps its best complete weekend of basketball this season when this week’s opponents visited Lee Amphitheater a month ago. Though Princeton leads the nation in scoring defense, it was the Bulldogs who held the Tigers to four field goals in the second half, en route to a 43-35 victory. The 35 points were the fewest Yale has allowed in any game since 1991, and the loss gave Princeton an 0-3 start in the league for the first time in history.
“We attacked them well last time,” head coach James Jones said. “We want to make sure we do more of the same this time around.”
The Tigers haven’t had a great deal of success following that game, emerging victorious in only two of their last eight contests. Though Yale has not defeated Princeton in New Jersey since 1993, Saturday appears to be a golden opportunity given the Tigers’ uncharacteristically weak squad.
The Bulldogs sent a message to Penn in one of their most rewarding wins at Lee Amphitheater this season when they downed the Quakers, 77-68, to pull into first place in the league standings last month. Once again, a solid defensive effort paved the way for an Eli victory and was greatly appreciated by the rambunctious, near sell-out crowd.
“We had great fan support,” guard Caleb Holmes ’08 recalled. “The crowd has been great all season.”
Yale’s ability to keep this season’s league scoring leader, Mark Zoller, and last season’s Ivy League Player of Year Ibrahim Jaaber in check was crucial to containing the Quakers. Zoller never found an offensive rhythm and converted on only two of his 10 field goal attempts, while Jaaber was limited to six shots the entire game due to the outstanding defensive play of forward Casey Hughes ’07.
“Players tend to try less on you if they respect you as a defender,” Hughes said. “I was able to stay in front of [Jaaber] and limit his opportunities.”
The Bulldogs will have to exhibit similar defensive prowess this weekend if they hope to be successful against Penn again. The explosive Quakers lead the conference in scoring offense and field goal percentage, and Yale has not swept the season series against Penn since 1967.
Although this weekend’s games may be the last of the season and have enormous implications for the Bulldogs’ title aspirations, team members said they are going about business as usual.
“We’re not preparing like this is our last weekend,” Jones said. “We’re preparing like we have to win two games just like any other weekend. It’s going to be difficult, but we gotta do what we gotta do.”