This weekend was supposed to be the decisive one for the Yale men’s basketball team’s Ivy League championship hopes. Wins against Princeton on Friday and Pennsylvania on Saturday should have guaranteed the Elis an NCAA berth. I’ll be honest; I’d have had this weekend marked on my calendar for months, if I had a calendar.

Instead, the Bulldogs are all but mathematically eliminated from contention. The team is fourth in the Ivies at 6-4, with 9-0 Pennsylvania in the lead. However, these games are still important, and not just because the Bulldogs have an outside chance at an NIT birth.

Defeating Princeton and Penn at home for the second straight year could be another step forward in Yale’s efforts to establish its legitimacy in the Ivy League. Wins will prove that last year’s tremendous season was not a fluke. Additionally, a strong finish could set the stage for next season when the Ivy League will be wide open for the Bulldogs to win.

It certainly won’t be easy, but top teams will be losing some of their core players to graduation. Penn will lose All-Ivy players Ugonna Onyekwe, Koko Archibong, and Andy Toole. Brown will say goodbye to Earl Hunt, the top scorer in the Ivy League.

Okay, before we get too excited, it should be noted that Yale will also lose some players. Chris Leanza ’03, Ime Archibong ’03, and T.J. McHugh ’03 will all be leaving the program. Meanwhile, Princeton and Penn cannot be counted out because they are established programs that recruit well. These two teams have dominated the Ivy League for years and will probably always be competitive.

However, the 2003-2004 season would seem to be Yale’s best chance to go to the NCAA tournament for the first time in the program’s history. The team will return healthier versions of Alex Gamboa ’05 and Paul Vitelli ’04. Josh Hill ’04 should come back from a season-ending injury to be a dominant post presence. After sitting out this year, Princeton transfer Dominick Martin ’05 will be eligible to play. The Bulldogs will also have veteran leadership. The likely starting backcourt of Edwin Draughan ’05 and Gamboa will be juniors. Matt Minoff ’04, Scott Gaffield ’04, Justin Simon ’04, and Vitelli will be seniors.

Therefore, the team is playing not just to salvage this season, but also to establish a program and regroup for next year. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at this year.

Last weekend’s games against Cornell and Columbia were an embarrassment. Yes, the team didn’t play particularly well, but I am talking about the crowd. On Friday night, the Cornell game was sparsely attended, with the student section mostly empty minutes before the game. The Columbia game on Saturday drew a larger crowd, but brought no enthusiasm. I understand that our team was coming off losses at Penn and Princeton that ended the team’s Ivy League hopes. Also, the games against Cornell and Columbia were hardly marquee matchups. Cornell (8-15) is awful, and Columbia (2-21) is worse. Nevertheless, those games were pitiful showings for a crowd that hasn’t been great all year.

What happened to the amazingly energetic crowds of last season? Last year, the student section stood throughout games and actually cheered. Now, with the exception of the band, only the fans in the far right section make noise and stay on their feet. The low point definitely occurred on Saturday when a police officer told the remaining faithful students to sit down. Basically, for whatever reason, the crowd just hasn’t been the presence it was last year.

Just like the basketball team itself, the crowd can salvage its season with dominant performances this weekend. During the Princeton-Penn weekend last year, the crowd had an impact on the games. There is no reason why this weekend’s games shouldn’t be the same.

If you are a sports fan or have some loyalty to Yale, you’ll need a great excuse to miss these games, i.e., going to the men’s hockey game against No. 2 Cornell on Saturday. But seriously, this weekend’s games are important for this year and future seasons. Be there and be loud.