The Ivy League is the only conference in Division I basketball that does not use a conference tournament to determine its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament in March.
For the Yale men’s basketball team, these next two weekends may as well be the Ivy tournament.
Trailing conference foe Harvard by one game, Yale (14–10, 8–2 Ivy) has virtually no margin for error after falling to Columbia this past Sunday. Yale can right its ship on Friday when the Bulldogs travel to Princeton (15–8, 3–6) before facing Penn (6–16, 3–5) the following night.
The Bulldogs have come out on top in each of their past three matchups against the Tigers, including a thrilling victory two weekends ago in New Haven where a layup by forward Justin Sears ’16 with 4.4 seconds to go in overtime propelled the Elis to a 66–65 victory. The victory was even more surprising because point guard Javier Duren ’15 had to exit the game in regulation due to an ankle injury.
The fact that the Bulldogs were able to gut out the victory in overtime without the services of their top playmaker bodes well for this weekend, as Duren has not yet returned from the high ankle sprain.
But head coach James Jones said the odds that Duren will play are greater than 50 percent.
“He’s progressing and we’ll see if he’s ready to go this weekend,” Jones said. “I suspect he will be ready and that he will be able to give it a shot.”
Duren, who leads the team in assists and steals while being the second leading scorer for Yale, also helps the Bulldogs to spread the court. His 30 three-pointers lead the team and help provide adequate spacing for big men like Sears and forward Brandon Sherrod ’15 to work down low.
In Yale’s loss against Columbia, Duren’s absence was noticeable, and Sears, among others, struggled to find easy baskets in the paint.
At this point, Duren said he is attempting to balance his health and the Elis’ playoff prospects.
“It’s really difficult. These are key games down the stretch,” Duren said. “Knowing personally how I can impact the team with my play, as soon as I feel I can play or dribble the ball, I’ve got to get out there, but it’s really about putting the team’s goals first and assessing whether me playing is an asset or a liability right now.”
Beyond whether or not Duren can take the court, Jones pointed out two main keys for victory against the Tigers: attacking Princeton’s 1–3–1 zone more aggressively and committing fewer turnovers.
In the heart-stopping win against Princeton on Feb. 15, Yale committed 16 turnovers, three more than its season average.
Yale will also have to work to contain guard T.J. Bray. The Ivy League’s leading scorer at 17.6 points per game scored 20 in the last meeting between these two teams, though he did commit seven costly turnovers.
Yale’s final weekend of travel will conclude on Saturday, when Yale crosses the Delaware to take on Penn.
The Quakers, who were predicted to finish second in the Ancient Eight and ahead of Yale, have been unable to put together a consistent stretch of play. Currently, Penn is in the midst of a three-game losing streak that began with a 69–54 defeat at the hands of the Bulldogs on Valentine’s Day.
Penn has found itself devoid of consistent perimeter scoring all year long. The Quakers have the two most efficient scorers in the Ivy League in forward Fran Dougherty and center Darien Nelson-Henry, but they have also shot the three-ball at the second-worst clip in the conference.
Those shooting woes were on full display during Penn’s trip to New Haven, as the Quakers were just 2-for-13 from behind the arc.
In that game, Yale benefitted heavily from the play of Sears and guard Armani Cotton ’15. The duo combined for 42 points and 18 rebounds to lead the Bulldogs to their second-largest margin of victory in conference play.
For Yale to return to its winning ways, Sears said the team must be aware that teams like Princeton and Penn will not roll over and allow themselves to be swept in the season series.
“When we played Columbia [last Sunday], we just walked in thinking we’d be able to do the same thing and dominate inside. A lot of the players on Columbia that we were able to push on last time, they were pushing back,” Sears said. “We need to understand that teams are going to give us their best shots knowing we already beat them.”
If the Bulldogs want next Friday’s home matchup against Harvard to count for anything more than school pride, they will have to sweep this weekend.
That reality is at the forefront of the Bulldogs’ minds, according to Duren.
“We’ll play with a bit more sense of urgency given our limited margin of error,” Duren said. “It will be good for us, facing adversity and really having a situation that forces us to come together and play as a team in order to achieve what we want to achieve.”
Friday night’s tipoff against the Tigers is scheduled for 7:00 p.m.