With two games to go in the regular season, Yale sits two games behind Harvard. The math is simple, but its implications are for the Yale men’s basketball team are problematic.
Yale (15–11, 9–3 Ivy) was in control of its own destiny as recently as last Friday, but a crippling 57–46 loss to Princeton put the power to win the Ivy League in the hands of the Bulldogs’ most hated rivals: the Crimson (24–4, 11–1).
With one final weekend of regular season play still on the schedule, Yale must win its matchups against Harvard tonight and Dartmouth (10–16, 3–9) on Saturday, while simultaneously hoping that Harvard loses once more on Saturday to Brown. If all goes according to plan, Yale will face off against Harvard for the third time this season in a one-game playoff to determine who receives the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The rivals will square off at John J. Lee Amphitheater tonight with Yale fighting for its March Madness life, while Harvard looks to clinch its fourth consecutive Ivy League crown.
Tonight’s tilt is certainly not short of significant story lines, one of which is the fact that Yale dealt the Crimson its only Ivy loss almost exactly a month ago, on Feb. 8. In the 74–67 victory, Yale dominated the paint and got to the free-throw line at ease, playing a slowed-down style that Harvard could not fully adjust to.
Harvard’s big men also struggled to keep the Elis off the glass, as Yale outrebounded the Crimson 38–24.
“I think the [Harvard] frontcourt will be amped for this game just to get back at us,” forward Justin Sears ’16 said. “We outrebounded them last game, so I think they’ll definitely have a chip on their shoulder. They’re just going to come back and give us their best shot.”
Yale has seen how dangerous teams can be when they are looking for revenge. Over the past two weekends, the Bulldogs have fallen victim to vengeful Columbia and Princeton squads, who each atoned for losses to the Bulldogs earlier in the season.
Head coach James Jones pointed out that the Bulldogs must contain the three-headed perimeter monster of Siyani Chambers, Brandyn Curry and Wesley Saunders. In the Elis’ win at Harvard, the trio combined to shoot just 13–32 from the field and assisted on just nine baskets between the three of them.
“We can’t have them have a 17-assist day. They [as a team] only had 12 assists on 23 baskets, that’s pretty good for us defensively,” Jones said.
Jones also highlighted transition defense and rebounding as two final keys to potentially toppling the Crimson once more. Offensively, Yale must also take care of the ball.
In the Bulldogs’ past two wins, they have averaged just 9.5 turnovers per game, versus 15 turnovers per game in Yale’s two most recent losses. Against the Crimson, Yale was incredibly fortunate to pick up the victory despite turning the ball over 19 times.
“We were a bit loose with the ball,” forward Matt Townsend ’15 said. “We have talked about taking care of the ball. We got called for a lot of travels. We’ve been working on sharpening up that footwork so we don’t get called for many of those.”
It is important to note that Harvard has also stepped its game up considerably since the wake-up call from the Elis a month ago. The Crimson has won its past five outings by an average of 22.6 points, and only one of those five opponents managed to score more than 47 points against a resurgent Harvard defense.
If Yale can dig down deep and outlast its rival again tonight, the Bulldogs will move on to Senior Night on Saturday, when they would look to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive with a victory over a struggling Dartmouth squad.
In the last meeting between the Elis and the Big Green on Feb. 7, Yale came out on top 67–54. Since that defeat, Dartmouth has only managed to scrape together one win in seven outings.
Of course, even if Yale pulls off the two victories, the team will have to pray that when it returns to the locker room Saturday night, it will see that Brown has defeated Harvard. Even if the Bulldogs cannot pull off the improbable comeback, Yale needs only one win this weekend to clinch sole possession of second place in the Ancient Eight.
At this point, Sears and company are more focused on taking care of business than paying attention to the possible scenarios.
“We need to come out strong,” Sears said. “It’s great that we’re at home now. We’re going to have the fans on our side. We know the rims here. I think as long as we’re relaxed and we go out there and play Yale basketball, we’ll be good this weekend.”
Tonight’s tipoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.