I’m trying to stay optimistic about Ivy League title hopes, but it’s hard in the wake of the men’s basketball 85-75 loss to Brown last Friday. After a dismal performance over winter break, the Ivy League opener was the Bulldogs’ chance to regain their early season form and begin a run at the NCAA Tournament. Instead, the team is off to an 0-1 start in conference play and is in desperate need of a major turnaround.

The Brown loss was awful. In pre-season rankings, many picked Yale to win the Ivy League while Brown was a middle-of-the-pack team at best.

Overall, Friday’s loss was a disastrous performance. The most frustrating part for me was all the missed chances around the basketball. I’d estimate around a dozen lay ups were blown — more than a few uncontested.

Only two players really stood out, and they’re both local products. First, Casey Hughes looked really quick, with a pair of steals and blocks and a dunk that energized the crowd. Unfortunately, the other impressive player was part of the halftime show, a three-and-a-half-foot kid with an And 1 mixed tape handle. We need to start recruiting now.

Ok, maybe that’s not fair. Dominick Martin deserves a lot of credit for energizing the team in the second half after sitting out the first half with an ankle injury. Matt Minoff had an all around solid game with 15 points, seven boards and five assists, while Paul Vitelli set a career high with 22 points, but was most impressive on the offensive glass. Other than that, there weren’t a lot of positives to take away from the defeat.

Some of the problems that have continually plagued this team were apparent in the loss. The inability to defend quickness was obvious in the manner Jason Forte took over the game at the end of regulation and in overtime. The offense’s stagnation, especially in crunch time, is perturbing. Nobody is spurred into action until the shot clock starts winding down. Everyone seems to have the paralyzed terror of a deer in headlights or of Nancy Pelosi stammering her way through the response to the State of the Union.

The scary thing is that this season is shaping up similarly to last year’s disappointment. Last season began with high expectations after an Ivy title in 2002. Yale opened with strong showings in losing efforts on the road at Oklahoma State and Wake Forest, before a five-game win streak that included a thrilling overtime victory over Manhattan at Madison Square Garden. But over break the team had a difficult schedule playing quality teams on both coasts, losing four games in a row. After a cupcake win over RPI, losses to Brown in Yale’s first two Ivy games shattered hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament.

So far, this year is a close parallel. Similarly high expectations were only elevated by keeping the game at No.1 UConn close. Once again, everything looked good going into December, before the wheels fell off with a six-game losing streak leading into Ivy League play. And then further humbling by Brown. A repeat of 2003 with another loss in Providence tonight would be devastating, especially leading into huge home games against Penn and Princeton next weekend.

What is the reason for these collapses? Was the strength of schedule before league play too taxing? I don’t think so. You have to play good teams to get better, and the travel schedule was easier this season.

Or is this just a team dealing with inflated expectations on the basis of one good year in 2001-02? Was a share of the Ivy championship a fluke this team will never be able to live up to?

I don’t believe it. On paper, this team belongs in the NCAA Tournament. It’s true. Last year, Holy Cross made it to the Big Dance and gave Marquette, a team that went to the Final Four, a close 72-68 call. Manhattan was also in the tourney, battling eventual champion Syracuse in the first round. Yale beat both Holy Cross and Manhattan last season. Playing close games against big programs like Oklahoma State, Wake Forest, and UConn only proves that this team is for real.

Coach Jones wasn’t wrong after the UConn game when he said his team could make the NCAA Tournament and even win some games in March Madness. It could still happen. After all, the Bulldog squad that won a share of the Ivy title in 2002 opened league play with a loss to Brown. Last Friday’s loss, no matter how disappointing, was only one game.

But if Yale can’t post a win at Brown tonight, the Bulldogs’ only chances for wins in March will be road games against Cornell and Columbia that will conclude another dismal season.