This was supposed to be the weekend that determined the fate of the men’s basketball team’s quest for an Ivy League title. But in a season that has not lived up to expectations, the Bulldogs (12-11, 6-4 Ivy) are fighting to preserve whatever slim hopes they have for a postseason NIT berth.
After losing to both Pennsylvania (17-5, 9-0) 68-57 and Princeton (13-9, 7-2) 56-49 on the road earlier this season, Yale has had a chance for some re-examination and fine tuning.
“We’ve been going over in practice things that hurt us in that previous weekend,” captain Chris Leanza ’03 said. “We’re trying to make some adjustments to combat what they’re going to try to do.”
Offensive productivity has been a priority for Yale head coach James Jones and company. In Yale’s last meeting with Pennsylvania and Princeton, the Elis went on long scoring droughts in the second half against both teams that ultimately buried the Bulldogs.
One of the problems during these dry spells was the inability of Yale ball-controllers, once they had succeeded in penetrating the opposing defense, to kick out to perimeter shooters for open jumpers. This week in practice, Jones worked with the players on opening up the passing lanes for kick-out plays.
“The biggest thing we’ve changed is our offense,” guard Edwin Draughan ’05 said. “We want to spread the floor a little bit and open up the driving lanes. We want to run all of our sets out of a spread offense. The main purpose of half of our practices this week has been offensive spacing and offensive motion.”
Perhaps counterintuitively, Yale has adopted “less is more” as the rallying cry for their defense this weekend. Last time against Pennsylvania, the Elis became so preoccupied with stopping Quaker big men Ugonna Onyekwe and Koko Archibong that they lost track of Pennsylvania’s shooters. As a result, all three Quaker starting guards posted double-digit point totals, including Tim Begley who shot three-of-four from beyond the 3-point arc. This weekend, Yale will no longer be shying toward the middle.
Yale is planning to make a similar adjustment against Princeton. In the previous contest, the Elis were overly aggressive in denying Princeton passes. This left Yale open to Princeton’s notorious backdoor plays. In fact, three of Princeton’s four first baskets resulted from backdoor cuts.
“We know that’s what they will be looking for every time down the floor,” Leanza said. “The emphasis this weekend is to try to make them run at you instead of giving them a lane. What happened last time was that we got a little frustrated on offense and we tried to make up for it at the other end on defense. We got a little too aggressive and tried too much to get a hand in the passing lanes and made it easy for them to go to the backdoor.”
Another key component to the Yale defense is silencing Pennsylvania’s twin cannons: Archibong and Onyekwe. At the Palestra, Pennsylvania’s starting forwards combined for 27 points, 10 rebounds, and four blocked shots.
Learning from that experience, Yale is planning an unconventional defense. Rather than using the help defense or going immediately to zone as other teams have done, Yale is planning to mostly defend Archibong and Onyekwe one-on-one with some zone sprinkled in. In addition, Yale is planning to attack Onyekwe and Archibong on offense, hoping to wear the Quaker big men down and put them in foul trouble.
“I don’t know if it’s possible to shut down those two guys [Onyekwe and Archibong],” Leanza said. “All we can do is contain them. They’re extremely explosive and in the second half [in the previous matchup] they came out with a vengeance. The best thing we can do is to attack them and go at them and put them on the defensive.”
One of the key components of stopping Onyekwe and Archibong on defense and challenging them on offense will be Yale center T.J. McHugh ’03. McHugh is currently the second top scorer on the team and has the second best field-goal percentage (.574) in the league. McHugh is an excellent candidate to draw fouls from Pennsylvania’s big men. This season, McHugh has been put at the foul line 70 times and has converted 52 of those attempts, which puts him seventh in the league in foul shooting.
To succeed, Yale will also need a repeat performance this weekend from its floor general, Leanza, who had a game-high 17 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists against Columbia last Saturday. Leanza has scored double-figures in five of his last six games and needs only 38 points to reach the 1,000 career-points milestone.
“A lot of people have been asking me about it [the 1,000 point milestone] recently but I try to not let that bother me,” Leanza said. “If I get it great; but I’m not going to let that effect the way I play. I would be much happier that we win our next four games than if I surpassed the 1,000 point mark in my next game.”
Despite careful preparation, Yale will be fighting an uphill battle this weekend. Pennsylvania is currently on an 18-game Ivy League winning streak. The last time the Quakers lost to an Ivy League team was on Feb. 8, 2002 in New Haven. Princeton is coming into Friday’s game on a three-game win streak.
Although the records give the visitors the advantage, Yale is hoping that the changes they have made and their unconventional tactics will lead them to victory this weekend.