Before practice on Wednesday, men’s basketball head coach James Jones told the team that the word of the day was challenge — a fitting choice. The Elis (10-9, 4-2 Ivy) travel to perennial Ivy League powerhouses the University of Pennsylvania (13-5, 5-0) and Princeton (10-8, 4-1) this weekend.
But the Bulldogs need no reminder of the weekend’s importance. A sweep this weekend could earn Yale a first-place league spot.
“The coaches don’t have to say anything,” Ime Archibong ’03 said. “We realize that it’s going to be a huge, huge weekend not only for us but for the league in general. We have to play nothing less than our best basketball.”
The annual road trip to the “Killer Ps” has some added emotion for this year’s Yale squad. A win last season at either the Palestra or the Jadwin Gymnasium would have given Yale the outright Ivy title. But the Elis dropped both games, blowing a late-game lead against Pennsylvania to fall 72-63 and folding under the Princeton defense 59-46. The back-to-back losses contributed to a three-way tie for the league championship and a playoff in which Yale beat Princeton 76-60 before falling to Pennsylvania 77-58.
“I was talking with Edwin [Draughan ’05] and Basil [Williams ’04] after dinner today and telling them that we’ve got to play to the best of our abilities down there this weekend,” Archibong said. “We can’t play like we did last year and hope that we can get it done.”
Yale’s first matchup of the weekend — Pennsylvania tonight — is deja vu for both teams. All five starters for Pennsylvania, including last season’s Ivy League player of the year Ugonna Onyekwe, started last year’s game in Philadelphia. The Eli starting five all played in last year’s contest; the whole team hopes for a different result.
“The last time we went down to the Palestra, we outplayed Penn for 37 minutes but lost the game,” Archibong said. “Guys use it as fuel to say ‘Hey, they took that game from us. We owe it to ourselves this year to right that wrong.'”
One of Yale’s keys to winning the game will be containing Pennsylvania beyond the arc. The Quakers lead the league in three-point shooting, converting 40.7 percent from downtown. Yale allows opponents to shot 34.8 percent from 3-point range, placing the Bulldogs fourth in the Ancient Eight in 3-point defense.
“We’ve been doing closeout drills everyday,” T.J. McHugh ’03 said. “We need to make sure to make them put it down on the floor. These guys are tremendous shooters, and if you let them set their feet, it’s pretty much sure to go in. If this means forcing shooters to drive to the basket, we’ll have to do that and make sure we rotate on defense.”
Yale also will need to win the battle of the boards. The Quakers average 1.8 rebounds more than their opponents; the Elis have been outrebounded by 0.2 boards per game. Rebounding has troubled Yale before, including last weekend when Harvard outrebounded the Bulldogs 24-13 in the first half, and 41-35 overall.
“Rebounding is definitely going to be an issue,” Jones said. “[Pennsylvania has] some guys that really hurt us in that second game last season, scoring off put backs. We have to box out well. We found out from those [non-conference] games that rebounding the ball was a weakness of ours and we’ve worked on it and are continuing to work on it. So far in the Ivy League, we’ve only been outrebounded by one team — Harvard — and we won that game.”
Even if they come away with a win tonight, the Elis will have their work cut out for them Saturday when they travel to Princeton, N.J. The Tigers lead the league in field goal percentage (.461) and turnover margin (plus-2.06). Spencer Gloger, who left Princeton for UCLA and then returned to the Tigers, is averaging 15.9 points per game, third highest in the league.
“[Gloger is] their go-to guy,” Jones said. “When it gets down to the wire, they’re going to run sets for him to either score or kick out, and we have to be ready for that. He’s played awful in the Ivy League so far, and he hasn’t shot the ball particularly well. But he’s still a very dangerous player.”
Besides Gloger, Yale also has to contend with Princeton’s often imitated but never properly replicated offense. The Tiger offense is designed to eat the clock and grinding away at opponents’ resolve with screens and backdoor cuts. Yale has had success against similar offenses in previous games this season with full-court press.
“You see forms of [the Princeton offense] in the Ivies like Columbia and Dartmouth, but nobody runs it like Princeton,” McHugh said. “With the pace of the game they play, a 3-point shot can seem like a 10-point swing. It’s wearing and frustrating, but you just have to keep your wits about you and keep plugging away.”
A Yale sweep this weekend would be especially meaningful for the Eli seniors, who have never tasted victory at either Pennsylvania or Princeton.
“It’s my last chance, and it’s the same for Ime [Archibong] and Chris [Leazna ’03], to go on this road trip, and we’d like nothing more than to come back with two wins,” McHugh said.