They weren’t supposed to be here. At least, not this year.
At the start of the season in November, the Bulldogs’ lineup featured a question mark at point guard and only two returning starters from last year’s fourth-place team.
Not exactly the profile of an Ivy League champion.
But now it’s February, and the Bulldogs have grown up before our eyes. Beginning the year with equal parts talent and inexperience, Yale has matured into the most consistent team in the Ivy League and now stands only four games away from its first league title in 40 years.
“We are playing great team basketball,” guard Edwin Draughan ’05 said. “We have great individual talent, but we really play together.”
That balanced team play is the reason the Elis are 9-1 in league play (17-7 overall) and control their destiny as they seek the league title and an NCAA tournament berth. While their talent and depth have been keys to success, the Bulldogs biggest weapon right now may be the confidence earned on their current seven-game winning streak, Yale’s longest in over 20 years.
“This year we walk into every gym expecting to win,” Scott Gaffield ’04 said. “That is a good frame of mind to go in with. You never play your best when you’re playing scared.”
But expecting to win has never been realistic for Ivy League teams traveling to the venues Yale will visit this weekend: Princeton’s Jadwin Gym and the University of Pennsylvania’s Palestra. In the last nine seasons, other than games between the two schools, Penn and Princeton have combined for a 101-3 record on their home courts. Then there is the fact that both second-place Princeton (12-9, 7-2) and third-place Penn (19-6, 6-3) want to avenge early losses to the Bulldogs and reclaim the league lead that has perennially belonged to them. In the nation’s only league without a conference tournament, it all adds up to a pair of games with a distinct postseason flavor.
“This is why I play, for the excitement of these two games,” said Paul Vitelli ’04, the league’s leading rebounder.
Two wins over the weekend would clinch Yale at least a tie for the league championship, needing only one more Bulldog win or a Princeton loss to claim the outright title. If they split the weekend, the Elis will still be in first and can ensure at least a tie for the league title with two wins in their final contests at home versus Harvard and Dartmouth. Two losses will not drop Yale from contention, but it would increase the chances of a tie for the championship, resulting in a playoff to determine who receives the league’s automatic NCAA bid.
Right now, those scenarios are the least of the Bulldogs’ concerns as they focus their energy on the monumental task ahead of them — beating Princeton and Penn.
It is a task the Bulldogs have already accomplished once, beating Penn, 83-78, Feb. 8 and knocking off Princeton, 60-50, the following night.
In both those games, the play of Yale’s big men, T.J. McHugh ’03 and Josh Hill ’04, gave the Elis a serious edge in the low post.
“They will certainly have to do something differently [defensively]. They are going to have to make some changes,” Yale head coach James Jones said. “They are going to have to limit their touches, collapse more on those guys.”
Columbia used that strategy against the Bulldogs last Saturday, but it resulted in a 12 of 27 3-point shooting performance by Yale en route to a 76-56 Eli win.
Opposing teams have the difficult task of containing Yale’s balanced attack, but the Elis face a similar challenge in this weekend’s opponents.
Princeton burns teams for easy layups and connects on open threes when running its deliberate, backdoor offense effectively. This season, it has not always been very effective.
In their 10-point loss to Yale and a subsequent 24-point shellacking from Penn, the Tigers suffered from prolonged scoring droughts. Against Yale, the Tigers did not score a field goal in the game’s final nine minutes. Princeton’s drought was in part the result of a tenacious Bulldog defense.
By virtue of playing five teams that use a version of Princeton’s offense, the Bulldogs are so seasoned to the Tigers’ style, players said, the team could run it if they chose. Yale’s defensive strategy, Jones said, is to deny the backdoor cuts that lead to easy Princeton layups at the expense of giving up a little space on the perimeter. Another key is not getting greedy.
“Don’t try to cheat it, don’t try to go for steals, because that is where they beat you,” Gaffield said. “They burn when you try to get overaggressive.”
While the Princeton game (Friday, 7:30, WYBC) could be a defensive struggle, the Penn game (Saturday, 7:00, WYBC) has serious barnburner potential.
The Quakers have been scorching all of their opponents recently. After suffering a costly league loss at Yale, Penn has posted wins of 10, 24, 27 and 38 points in the four games since.
“They understand the precarious position they’re in,” Penn head coach Fran Dunphy said of his players. “I think we are as focused as we’ve been all year long.”
Penn is 30th in the nation in field-goal percentage at 47.5 percent, a figure that has been much higher during its current four-game winning streak. Three Quakers, point guard Andy Toole and forwards Koko Archibong and Ugonna Onyekwe, are in the top seven in scoring in the league.
Penn was unable to stop the Yale offense in the team’s first meeting — Yale shot 57 percent from the floor on the strength of easy baskets from the interior — but Dunphy said his team has improved defensively, especially in stopping dribble penetration.
If Penn backs up its talented offense with an improved defense, the Elis will need a nearly flawless performance to capture a victory.
“It’s a pretty scary thing to look and see that they are beating teams by 30,” Hill said. “But I don’t think we have gone into a game this year not expecting win.”
This weekend, Yale will try to meet those lofty expectations.
Notes: No team has swept Penn and Princeton on the road since Yale did it 15 years ago — With 23 3-pointers last weekend, the Bulldogs now have 180 on the year, breaking the previous season mark of 172 set last year — The Elis’ two New Jersey natives, Vitelli and Matt Minoff ’04, will have loud cheering sections of family and friends at this weekend’s games.