For the first time in over a decade, the men’s basketball team entered the final weekend of the season with meaningful games to play. Typically, the team has been resigned to simply play for pride down the stretch, with the hopes of an Ivy League championship often having fallen by the wayside earlier in the season. But this year, the Bulldogs were one of four teams with a shot at the title with three games left in the season.
It was a major step forward for a team that is in the lengthy process of rehabilitating a floundering program.
It was also a missed opportunity.
From the start of the season, luck did not seem to be on the Elis’ side.
The Bulldogs opened the school year with the unexpected loss of guard Onaje Woodbine ’02 — the team’s leading scorer in the 1999-2000 season — who quit the team for personal reasons.
On top of Woodbine’s departure, Chris Leanza ’03, the starting point guard and go-to-player for the Bulldogs, was coming off a botched shoulder surgery that left him feeling the effects of a shoulder injury all season long.
In a preseason poll, the media felt the Bulldogs could not recover from these serious blows, picking the Elis to finish last in the Ancient Eight.
But the pundits were wrong.
Nine games into the Ivy season, the Bulldogs were a surprising 6-3 in conference play, tied with Pennsylvania and Princeton for first. With five games left, the team controlled its own destiny in its quest to win its first Ivy title since 1963.
The team lost four of those final five contests.
In a year when traditional Ivy League powers Princeton and Penn fielded their most vulnerable teams of the decade, there is a nagging feeling that this could have been the year for the Elis.
With the 6-foot-11-inch Neil Yanke ’01 and the 6-foot-10 -inch Tom Kritzer ’01 starting up front, and several big men in reserve, the Bulldogs had the size and strength to overpower almost every Ivy League team.
The game plan was to look to the post for scoring opportunities, but the points were not always there.
A trio of freshmen, Scott Gaffield ’04, Matt Minoff ’04 and Paul Vitelli ’04, proved they could knock down the open perimeter jumper. At points during the season, the newcomers were able to come off the bench and ignite the team. But down the stretch, that spark was lacking.
Ime Archibong ’03 displayed moments of offensive brilliance, scoring the game-winning basket in overtime against Harvard and setting a career high with 27 points at Cornell. But the athletic guard was prone to trying too hard to make things happen. At times, his drives to the basket resulted in more turnovers than points.
Yet, in retrospect, an Ivy League title was a tall order for this year’s team.
Youth — 11 of 14 players on the roster were freshmen and sophomores — and the inexperience that comes with it, put the Elis at a disadvantage during the stretch-run.
Leanza, an honorable mention All-Ivy selection, had a sub-par finish to his season. While Leanza never once blamed a poor performance on his shoulder problems, the injury prevented him from participating in most of the team’s practices. That, combined with the immense minutes he logged throughout the season, may have accounted for his lackluster finish.
In addition, second-team All-Ivy selection Yanke suffered an ankle injury midway through the Ivy campaign, sidelining him for the pivotal Penn-Princeton road trip. The Elis did their best to make up for the absence of their second-leading scorer, but lost both games.
In the end, the Elis registered a 7-7 league record and finished in a fourth place tie, feats that should not be overlooked. The Bulldogs .500 record in Ivy play was the first in three seasons.
The Elis also demonstrated they could succeed away from the John J. Lee Amphitheater. They won four road games, a stark contrast to their 1-30 record away from home in the previous two seasons.
The Elis proved their mettle against a difficult non-conference schedule, which head coach James Jones promised would be a hallmark of his tenure when hired two years ago. The team battled valiantly in road losses to NCAA tournament entrants Ohio State, California and Holy Cross, and gave Elite Eight participant Penn State a scare at the Lee Amphitheater.
The year also saw success on the recruiting trail. Highly-touted guard Edwin Draughan of Lakewood, Calif., is the centerpiece of what Jones has said is the best recruiting class in the Ivy League.
All the positives this season indicate the Bulldogs have fit another piece into the rebuilding puzzle.
Even though the Elis did squander an opportunity for the Ivy League title this year, it will not be their last chance at the crown.
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