A lot can change in just one weekend.
Going into last weekend’s home games against No. 23 Harvard (18–2, 4–0 Ivy) and Dartmouth (4–16, 0–4 Ivy), Yale was riding a four-game winning streak in which it beat its opponents by more than 11 points per game.
This week, the Bulldogs are reeling from a 65–35 thrashing at the hands of the Crimson last Friday and a game Saturday in which they barely escaped with a 62–52 win over the Big Green. The combination of these games was “a wake-up call” for the team, according to captain Reggie Willhite ’12.
“We thought we were in a two-horse race with Harvard [for the title],” forward Will Bartlett ’14 said. “[But] we’re kind of among the rest of the pack.”
The Elis (13–5, 3–1 Ivy) are in third place in the Ancient Eight. They trail Harvard by a game in the rankings and are a half-game behind the Penn Quakers (11–9, 3–0 Ivy), who will travel to New Haven on Friday to face off against the Bulldogs.
Yale’s season is at a turning point. They have played 18 games, with 10 more ahead of them. At the end is their goal — an Ivy League title and an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. If the Bulldogs want to stay in the running for the Ivy crown, they need to win this weekend and best Harvard in Cambridge on Feb. 18.
But the players on the team said they cannot continue to play the way they have performed recently if they hope to break their 49-year NCAA tournament drought.
“We realized that we need to play and practice a little harder,” guard Sam Martin ’13 said. “Not that we were going easy, but we need a little extra than what we were doing.”
Bartlett said the team — while showing respect for the nationally ranked Cantabs — was too comfortable going into the Harvard game last weekend. Forward Greg Mangano ’12 agreed with Bartlett’s assessment.
“I think we might’ve been a little too lackadaisical [in practice],” Mangano said, “a little too comfortable.”
Following the Dartmouth game, Willhite told the News that the team will redouble its efforts in practice. This week’s training would help determine the outcome of the season, he added.
During the matchup against Dartmouth, the Bulldogs trailed the Big Green for about half the game and led by only three with less than two minutes to play. The team struggled to hold onto the ball all weekend, during which the Elis recorded a total of 41 turnovers between the two games.
“At this point in the season we can go one of two ways,” Willhite said. “We could either splinter, or we could come together as a team and revamp what we’re trying to do as an organization … We have a lot of work to do.”
Head coach James Jones said the team generally responds well after losses and he has faith in the Bulldogs’ ability to bounce back.
At practice Wednesday, that change was already in effect. The Bulldogs’ focus was evident, and several teammates said their determination had increased significantly from previous weeks. Although the Elis call themselves “the Goon Squad” off of the court, there was no joking around between the lines. Standing in line and laughing amongst themselves, the players’ demeanors changed when the whistle blew. If both the white and blue sets of practice jerseys had not said “Yale,” it would have been difficult for an observer to realize that the scrimmage did not count toward the Ivy title.
The team has emphasized ball movement in practice recently, Jones said. He and three players added that the offense had grown stagnant, which has led to fewer open shots and greater reliance on a few players.
Bartlett said the coaches have been emphasizing all season that the team cannot rely only on the talents of a few players such as Willhite and Mangano.
“We’ve known for a while, but it was reminded to us this weekend that that saving grace [in Mangano’s scoring ability] is also a trap,” Bartlett said. “His talent is maximized when he gets the team going. I think that just to throw it in to [Mangano] and watch is just a death sentence.”
Against Harvard, Mangano scored 17 points, just 1.7 shy of his per-game average, but he shot just two of 11 from the field against Dartmouth.
Bartlett added that he believes that there are no selfish players amongst the Elis, and that nobody on the team cares who scores.
Mangano said he agreed that the team should focus on ball movement going forward. The team has not played a strong all-around game since defeating Holy Cross at home 82–67 on Jan. 3, he added, and the Bulldogs need to work on making the extra pass to find open shots.
Even Mangano — who at 6’10” is averaging 18.7 points and 9.9 rebounds per game this season — has bought into the team’s mentality of unselfishness in a way that is surprising for a possible NBA prospect, Martin said.
“[Mangano] has been doing a good job,” Martin said. “It’s contagious when your best player is being unselfish [with the basketball].”
The work in practice has led players to look forward with confidence as the Bulldogs head into the stretch run of the Ivy League. Forward Greg Kelley ’14 said he is optimistic that the team will turn its game around.
The Elis will test themselves at home against the Quakers, who are second in the Ivy League, Friday and against the Princeton Tigers on Saturday. Tipoff will be at 7:00 p.m. for both games.