Tonight, I am traveling to Philadelphia for what should be the defining moment of the Yale men’s basketball season when they face the University of Pennsylvania.

For a team that really can’t afford to lose another of its eight Ivy League games, this game should be the hardest one to win. Yale is currently fourth in the Ivy League, trailing undefeated Brown (6-0) and Penn (5-0), as well as Princeton (4-1). While another loss would seemingly drop the Bulldogs out of the championship picture, a win would put Yale back in the hunt.

Penn has clearly established itself as the team to beat for the Ivy League title. The defending champs started slowly but have won 10 of 11. The Quakers returned three All-Ivy players from last year, including player of the year Ugonna Onyekwe.

The Bulldogs’ task is further complicated by the fact that tomorrow’s game will be played at the Palestra. The Penn crowd will be fired up and intense throughout the game. The only time I visited the Palestra was last year for the playoff game against Princeton. Despite the fact that its team wasn’t even playing, the Penn crowd was overwhelming.

However, Yale does have some factors working in its favor. Saturday’s 73-68 win over Harvard seemed to be a turnaround for the team. The second unit, which was outscored by Dartmouth on Friday, picked up its level of play. Scott Gaffield ’05, who had appeared tentative in previous games, came up with two big threes and a tough layup. Justin Simon ’04 had a tough game against Dartmouth, traveling or charging on several attempted post maneuvers. Against Harvard, with T.J. McHugh ’03 injured throughout the game, Simon played solidly. Edwin Draughan ’05 starred with 16 points. Meanwhile, the team created a lot of open shots and played tremendous second-half defense, yielding only 22 points.

At the same time, Penn’s more recent victories haven’t been that impressive. Last weekend, Penn had to hang on to win 70-67 against Cornell. Then, the Quakers scored only 47 points in defeating a struggling 2-17 Columbia squad. On Tuesday, Penn posted a 65-55 win over Princeton, but the Quakers didn’t dominate the Tigers like they did in the teams’ two meetings last year.

The Bulldogs will have to play tough defense in order to win. In particular, Yale has to find some way to contain Onyekwe, who had 22 points and 12 rebounds against Princeton. Perimeter defense will also be important because Penn has several excellent shooters. Andy Toole (41 percent), Tim Begley (44.6 percent), Jeff Schiffner (46.4 percent) and David Klatsky (42.9 percent) all shoot better than 40 percent from behind the arc.

This is where Yale must really miss Josh Hill ’04, a big guy who could put a body on Onyekwe and potentially get him in foul trouble. When Yale beat Penn last year, a major key was the team’s ability to foul Onyekwe out. This year that might not be possible. McHugh has clearly been injured, and Simon might not have the offensive skills to endanger Onyekwe. Hopefully, the Bulldogs will find some way to establish an effective post presence.

Yale will have to play an incredible game in order to win at Penn. However, a victory against Penn could be the spark that leads the Bulldogs on the road to another Ivy League title.

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