Most teams don’t have to make their last stand during their first conference game, but that’s exactly what the Yale men’s basketball team has to do in Saturday night’s Ivy League home-opener against Brown.

Over the last two seasons, the Bulldogs have collapsed under the weight of lofty preseason expectations and had their NCAA tournament hopes crushed at the hands of the Bears in the opening week of league play. This Saturday’s game marks the last chance for the Bulldogs, and in particular the remaining holdovers from the Ivy championship team — guards Alex Gamboa ’05 and Edwin Draughan ’05 — to avenge four consecutive disappointing losses to the Bears and start the team off on a run to prove that 2002 was not a fluke.

Three years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine the current state of affairs for Yale basketball. In 2002, the future of Yale basketball looked brilliant.

The championship team that had finished only one win away from an NCAA tournament berth was returning all of its players. Meanwhile, head coach James Jones was getting national buzz for transforming a perennial loser, and the 4-22 team he inherited, into a legitimate program.

I was confident that by 2005 the senior class would have at least two, maybe even three, Ivy titles to its credit. It was utterly inconceivable that Yale would finish 8-6 and 7-7 in Ivy play over the course of the last two seasons. Along the way, Columbia, under the guidance of the younger coach Jones, has somehow replaced Yale as the trendy pick to supplant Penn and Princeton at the top of the Ancient Eight standings. How did it come to this?

Did everyone overestimate the Bulldogs? Was the 2001-02 Ivy championship really just a fluke? I don’t think so.

On paper, the teams of the past three seasons have been more talented than the other top contenders in the Ivy League. At times, it’s been easy to see how good this team can be. The 2002-03 team challenged Oklahoma State and Wake Forest, and beat NCAA tourney teams like Holy Cross, Central Connecticut and Manhattan. Last season, the team led No. 1 UConn 31-28 at halftime and kept the game close throughout in a 70-60 loss.

But somehow, this team that can look so good in November and December has always managed to unravel by the time Ivy play begins in January. How does it happen? There are probably many factors at work, but the two chief culprits I blame are lofty expectations and Brown.

When the Bulldogs opened their last two Ancient Eight campaigns, Yale students and college hoops experts expected them to compete for a league championship. Enter Brown, a team that has made Yale’s title hopes vanish faster than Keyser Soze. The Bears have swept the Bulldogs in both of the past two seasons, forcing Yale to climb into an insurmountable 0-2 Ivy hole. And just like that, the Bulldogs’ season is pretty much gone.

This season, the schedule-makers finally had the wisdom to move the second Yale-Brown match-up to the end of the season. A little too late, but thanks anyway.

Of course, that doesn’t make the Bulldogs’ schedule any easier. After the home opener, the team travels to Penn and Princeton, then Columbia and Cornell, on consecutive weekends. Since Penn, Princeton and Columbia figure to be three of the top teams in the league, that probably makes the Brown and Cornell games must-wins if the Bulldogs want to compete for an Ivy title. So, once again, the Bears have the chance to knock the wheels off the Bulldogs’ season before they can even make it out of the gate.

Maybe I’m just a sucker, but I have a feeling it will be different this time around. This Yale team doesn’t have to face the burden of the expectations imposed on the last two Bulldog squads. Are the other top teams in the league actually taking Yale seriously? The opposition’s coaches might tell their players Draughan is one of the Ivy’s most dangerous scorers, Martin is one of the only legitimate post threats in the league or that Casey Hughes ’07 is the conference’s best athlete. They might already remember how nasty Gamboa was during his freshman year.

Then again, when most people look at the Yale team, they’ll probably be inclined to ignore all the reminders. At 4-9, not too many teams around the league are likely to fear an underachieving Yale team that has lost depth, size and outside shooters. With any luck, nobody will respect the Bulldogs’ impressive wins over Santa Clara and Fairfield, or the scare the team put into an unbeaten, and currently ninth ranked, Boston College team during an 82-80 2OT thriller.

That’s right, keep dismissing this team. Expectations for Yale hoops haven’t been this low since … oh, maybe January 2002.

It might be too difficult to repeat the success of that year, but it would be nice to keep the dream alive longer than the handful of games it’s lasted over the last two seasons. I’d love to be able to attend the home games against Penn and Princeton on Feb. 18-19 with at least a puncher’s chance. But, for the Bulldogs to still be in contention then they probably need to start the season at 4-1, or at least no worse than 3-2. And that makes winning the Brown game a necessity.

On Saturday, the Bulldog Class of ’05 has one final chance to exorcise the demons of Earl Hunt and Jason Forte, while sticking it in Chris Berman’s face. Once that bullet has been dodged, the Bulldogs are good enough for another run at an Ivy title. Hopefully nobody else sees it coming.