At 5-1 in Ivy League play, its best start in 20 years, there is no doubt that the men’s basketball team is good.
Against the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton this weekend, the Bulldogs have the opportunity to prove just how good they are.
“When you start a season and set goals, this is where you want to be — to be playing for first place in your own gym,” point guard Alex Gamboa ’05 said.
Yale (13-7, 5-1 Ivy) sits in second place in the standings, but can take over the top spot with a pair of wins at the John J. Lee Amphitheater this weekend. That task will not be easy, as the Bulldogs will face a talented, though underachieving, Penn team (15-5, 2-2) Friday night and then first-place Princeton (9-7, 4-0) Saturday night. Both games start at 7 p.m.
With four straight road games on the horizon, this weekend will be pivotal as Yale aims for its first Ivy League title in nearly 40 years. A 2-0 performance would leave the Elis in first place and the driver’s seat in the league race. A split is a bare minimum to stay in contention, though, as two losses would likely have Yale on the outside looking in.
“It’s not the end-all, but it is extremely important,” Gamboa said.
In the new-look Ivy League of the last two seasons, there has been more competition from top to bottom in the Ancient Eight than any time in recent memory. But Penn and Princeton, winners of all but two of the last 31 league titles, are still the standard bearers.
Last year, Yale was 7-3 against Ivy League teams other than Penn and Princeton. Their record against the “Killer P’s” was 0-4.
“That was last year. This is this year,” captain Ime Archibong ’03 said. “We need to handle them just like any other team.”
In order to handle both teams, Yale will have to be spirited on defense and make sure to defend the 3-point shot.
The Quakers come into the game as the top outside shooting outfit in the league. They also come in with a do-or-die mentality. After a highly successful non-conference season, including a Big 5 title, Penn already has two league losses as they head into their toughest stretch of the season, with games at Yale, Brown and Princeton in the span of five days.
In Penn’s two losses, at Harvard and at home against Columbia, Yale head coach James Jones said, a lack of defensive intensity cost the Quakers. A lack of defensive intensity would also do the Bulldogs in against the sharpshooting Quakers.
Penn comes into the game hitting 39.3 percent from 3-point range. Just about every player in the Penn rotation poses a threat from the perimeter — which poses a difficult challenge for a Bulldog defense that ranks last in the league in 3-point shooting percentage allowed.
In forwards Ugonna Onyekwe, Koko Archibong and transfer point guard Andy Toole, the Quakers feature three of the top seven scorers in the league.
“You have to make them shoot contested shots,” Jones said. “You have got to get your hands up on defense.”
The Elis will also have to crash the boards, especially on the offensive end. Despite featuring two 6-foot-8 forwards in Onyekwe and Archibong, Penn has been consistently out-rebounded this season.
The Quakers have also faltered somewhat at the end of games, squandering late leads in both their league losses. For the most part, the Bulldogs have finished out games strongly this year, so a close score late in the game could benefit the Elis.
On Saturday night, the Elis will face a very different team but will need to turn in a similar strong defensive effort. The Bulldogs have faced a handful of teams this year that runs Princeton’s brand of backdoor cutting and crisp passing offense, but this weekend they face the real deal.
“If Princeton runs its offense as a 10, those other guys run it at a six,” Archibong said.
Like Yale, Princeton does not feature one standout scorer, but a number of legitimate scoring threats. Mike Bechtold, averaging 8.8 points per game, leads five Tigers averaging over 6 points per game.
Andre Logan, who at 9.3 points per game was Princeton’s leading scorer, suffered an ACL injury against Harvard two weeks ago. The tear has sidelined him for the rest of the season. Ray Robins has replaced Logan in the starting lineup, and the athletic junior is coming off a career-high 28 points in Princeton’s 60-38 win over Cornell last Saturday.
In addition to beating Cornell, the Tigers came from behind to knock off Columbia 49-41 last Friday, using a full-court press to wilt the opposition’s offense.
While such a strategy succeeded against a hapless Cornell team and a turnover-prone Columbia squad, the Bulldogs, with a number of competent ball handlers, should be able to handle a press if the Tigers throw one at them. Princeton prefers a slow tempo, but Yale could have the opportunity to speed play up with baskets in transition if it can exploit a potential Tiger press.
The Elis have had recent success at home against the Tigers. Yale has knocked off Princeton in New Haven twice in the last three years. Recent history against Penn is not as favorable — Yale has dropped seven straight to the Quakers. The last time the Bulldogs swept the two schools at home was 1988.
“Yale has had a long history of basketball, but this is the first year that I have really had program that is 100 percent my own,” said Jones, in his third year as Yale head coach. “I am looking forward to changing that history.”