With its sweep of Pennsylvania and Princeton, the men’s basketball team is coming off one of the biggest weekends in the program’s history — but now is no time for Yale to relish past accomplishments.
The Bulldogs (15-7, 7-1 Ivy) are in first place in the Ivy League, have beaten every league team, and control their own destiny as they seek an Ivy title and NCAA tournament berth. But with six games left the team knows it cannot take anything for granted.
“I think a lot of people around campus have stars in their eyes about us going to the tournament,” reserve guard Scott Gaffield ’04 said. “But you don’t win championships for winning seven games.”
Instead, you win championships by playing well on the road and winning the games you are supposed to win.
Yale has to do those same things this weekend at Cornell and Columbia.
Playing at Columbia (10-12, 3-5) — which Yale will do at 7:30 p.m. this Saturday — has not been a game that any team in the Ivy League has considered eminently winnable in the last two years.
Until last weekend, the Lions were 13-1 within the confines of Levien Gym since the start of last season.
Last weekend though, after Columbia had seemingly salvaged its league title hopes with a win against Penn on the road, the Light Blue returned home only to lose to Dartmouth and Harvard.
Now the senior-laden team that had hopes of being a serious contender in the Ivy race has been reduced to the role of spoiler.
To avoid being a victim, Yale needs to use the same game plan that earned it a 65-54 win over Columbia in the teams’ Ivy League opener Jan. 11.
In that game, the Bulldogs set the tone from the opening tip-off, building a 40-25 halftime lead. Yale used its defense to create offense, forcing a turnover-prone Lion team into 21 giveaways with a tenacious full court press.
“We like to try to utilize our press to get into other team’s benches,” Yale head coach James Jones said.
The Elis have 10 players who average over 14 minutes per game, as compared to Columbia, which has only seven players who average double figures in minutes. Two of them, Mike McBrien and Derrick Mayo, the team’s starting point guard, did not play last weekend because of injuries. The pair may be on the sidelines this weekend, too.
The player that is almost always on the floor for the Lions is Craig Austin, last year’s Ivy League Player of the Year. Earlier in the season, Austin had a quiet 15 points against the Bulldogs, with most of his points coming once the outcome had been decided.
The key matchup in the game could be the battle of the centers between Columbia’s Chris Wiedemann and the Elis’ T.J. McHugh. Wiedemann is the league’s leading shot blocker, while McHugh is playing the best basketball of his Yale career, averaging 15 points over the last four games, during which he has made 20 of 26 field goal attempts.
McHugh is battling an infected toe that kept him out of practices this week, but he is expected to play this weekend, Jones said.
McHugh’s injury is somewhat less worrisome considering the outstanding play of big man Josh Hill ’04, who has been averaging 10.3 points per game in the last six contests while coming off the bench.
“Josh works as hard as anybody, and it is showing now,” Chris Leanza ’03 said. “He is as fired up as anyone out there.”
While Columbia is the marquee matchup this weekend, Yale cannot afford to look past last place Cornell (4-17, 1-7).
The Big Red are coming off their first Ivy League win, a 63-62 upset of Harvard, and, playing at home, they figure to be as confident as they have been all year.
“It has been proven throughout the league — Cornell beats Harvard, Harvard beats Penn — everyone can beat anybody,” Jones said. “We have talked a lot about not taking anyone for granted.”
In the two teams’ first matchup, Yale pulled out a 79-74 win in New Haven on Jan. 12. After a 31-31 tie at the half, Yale built a 15-point lead in the second frame before Cornell used some stellar 3-point shooting to make the home crowd sweat.
In the game, the Big Red — the worst 3-point shooting team in the league at 29.9 percent — made 12 of 22 attempts from beyond the arc, including a school record seven by Jacques Vigneault. Cornell also shot 56 percent from inside the arc on the evening.
That the Big Red had one of its best offensive games of the year against Yale and still trailed by 15 points with four minutes to play bodes well for Yale, but Jones said his team will be better prepared to defend the Big Red this time around.
“Now that we are in first, teams are going to be gunning more for us,” Gaffield said. “We have the targets on our backs.”