For the men’s basketball team, the mission is simple — win three games.
It does not matter that those three games are against Princeton, Pennsylvania and Brown, all of whom are vying for the same Ivy League title that the Bulldogs seek.
It does not matter that Penn and Princeton have won or shared 36 of the last 38 Ivy League titles.
It does not matter that even if the Elis win all three, they could very well find themselves in a playoff game to determine the recipient of the league’s automatic berth into the NCAA tournament.
It does not matter that the team was picked to finish last in the Ivy League by a preseason media poll.
All that matters now are those three games.
“My job is to coach this team and get us ready,” Yale head coach James Jones said. “We will go out and win three basketball games and see what happens from there.”
The mission begins tonight when the Bulldogs (10-14, 7-4 Ivy) host Princeton (13-10, 8-3) at 7 at the John J. Lee Amphitheater. The next night Penn (11-15, 8-3), currently tied with Princeton for first place in the Ivy League, will come to New Haven for another 7 p.m. contest.
The Elis trail both the Quakers and Tigers by a game, but two wins over the weekend would eradicate that difference.
“We are going on the road to play two good teams,” said Penn head coach Fran Dunphy, whose team will also play at Brown over the weekend. “We have our hands full.”
Both Penn and Princeton were able to vanquish the Elis the first time around this season. The Quakers earned a hard fought 61-51 victory over the Bulldogs Feb. 2. The next night, Yale turned in a sub-par performance in falling to Princeton, 62-49.
But this time around, the Elis believe the stage is set for a different result.
“Winning on the road has proven to be very difficult,” Jones said. “[Penn and Princeton] have struggled on the road. Hopefully they will struggle a little bit this weekend.”
Penn and Princeton have been less than stellar on the road during league play this season. The Quakers are 2-2 away from the Palestra and the Tigers only 2-3 when off campus. Combine that with the Elis’ 4-1 league record at the Lee Amphitheater, and the Bulldogs have a distinct home-court advantage.
“We are ready to go on the road,” Dunphy said. “If you are going to be a good basketball team, you need to step up and get it done on the road.”
Aside from the home-court advantage, the Elis will have a healthy Neil Yanke ’01 in their arsenal. Yanke, the team captain, sat out the previous contests against Penn and Princeton because of an ankle injury. Since returning to the lineup six games ago, the 6-foot-11 center has been averaging 17.5 points and eight rebounds per game, while shooting a torrid 67 percent from the field.
Yanke should have the advantage in the low post tonight versus Princeton. No Tiger regular is taller than 6-foot-8, which means that Yanke and 6-foot-10 forward Tom Kritzer ’01 should be able to use their size to gain an advantage on the interior.
In the teams’ first meeting, Yale generated little in the post, too often settling for shots on the perimeter.
“We got away from [our inside game] last time against Princeton,” Yanke said. He went on to say the team must look first for offense in the interior befor attempting shots from the perimeter.
Against Penn, the Bulldogs will meet a bigger challenge up front. The Quaker front line of Geoff Owens, Ugonna Onyekwe and Koko Archibong have the size and strength to match-up with the Bulldogs.
In addition to their ability on the interior, Penn’s Lamar Plummer has been on fire from the outside. Last weekend, the senior guard drained 14 of 25 three-point attempts, averaging 22 points in the Quakers’ contests versus Harvard and Dartmouth.
The Bulldogs will need to be able to answer Plummer and will need Chris Leanza ’03 to be firing on all cylinders. Leanza had the worst weekend of his season versus Penn and Princeton, shooting five for 22 combined.
“I definitely think about [that weekend]. It was a pretty big letdown for the team as well as me,” Leanza said. “I feel like I owe something and hopefully I’ll be able to get the job done this time.”
There are two scenarios in which Yale could win or share the Ivy League title. If the Elis win all three of their remaining games, they are assured at least a share of the Ivy crown.
If the season should end with a first-place tie, playoff games at a neutral site would determine the recipient of the Ivy League’s automatic NCAA tournament berth. The are possibilities for a two-way tie between any two teams except Brown and Yale.
If the Bulldogs win two of their three remaining games, they need Brown to go 2-1 and both Penn and Princeton to go 1-2 in order to force a four-way tie for first place.
In that case, the teams will be seeded by their combined record against the other three, with the first seed playing the fourth seed and the second playing the third. The winners of those games would then play for the NCAA berth.