The men’s basketball team will finally return to its home hardwood this weekend, playing its first Ivy League home games of the season against Dartmouth and Harvard.

The Bulldogs (5-12, 1-3 Ivy), who have played 13 of 17 games on the road this season, will don the home jerseys for the first time in almost a month Friday against Dartmouth (5-14, 2-4). They return to John J. Lee Amphitheater Saturday night to host Harvard (8-11, 3-3).

The Elis opened conference competition with four away games and managed just one victory over that span — a 77-67 win at Columbia last weekend. The Elis’ poor start in Ivy play leaves them near the bottom of the league standings, ranked seventh ahead of Princeton (10-9, 1-4).

The night after their victory over the Lions, the Elis failed to maintain a late lead at Cornell and fell in double-overtime, 87-82. Captain and guard Alex Gamboa ’05 said the team has a lot to build off of both the victory and the loss last weekend.

“I feel like we took a step forward and then took a step back,” Gamboa said. “[Cornell] was a game we should have won. But we need to learn from some of the mistakes we made and grow from some of the strides we took.”

Among those strides were career-best contributions from two Eli freshmen, small forward Caleb Holmes ’08 and guard Eric Flato ’08. The two reserves came off the bench to contribute 26 points and 20 points, respectively, over the course of the two games. Head coach James Jones said Holmes and Flato will be integral to the team’s success again this weekend.

“They’ve proved they can compete in the Ivy League,” Jones said. “I expect them to play a lot this weekend.”

Those bench points have been welcome news to the Eli starting five, which has seen one of its best scorers, center Dominick Martin ’06, struggle offensively since Ivy play began. Entering league competition, Martin ranked third among all Ivy players in scoring, averaging over 15 points per game. But in his last four games, he is averaging less than five points.

This weekend the Bulldogs will need contributions from the reserves again, especially if Martin’s lull continues. The team has an opportunity to reach .500 in Ivy League play and move into the middle of the league standings ahead of their upcoming opponents, sixth-ranked Dartmouth and third-ranked Harvard. Pennsylvania (12-7, 5-0) stands alone atop the rankings, comfortably ahead of second-ranked Cornell (9-10, 4-2) and the rest of the Ancient Eight.

Gamboa said the Bulldogs are still striving for the Ivy title, but practically speaking should not get ahead of themselves.

“Penn is playing really well, they’re 5-0,” Gamboa said. “But we have seven of our next 10 games at home. There’s no reason why we can’t win them all. We have to take it one-step at a time. We shouldn’t even think about [the Ivy title] right now, we have so much to handle before we can think about that. Our focus should be on winning these two home games this weekend and then preparing for Penn and Princeton at home next weekend.”

Jones added that playing tough every night matters regardless of the Bulldogs’ place in the standings.

“We certainly still have an opportunity,” Jones said. “We’re not mathematically out of it — we’d have to run the table. Is that possible? It certainly is. The main thing is you have to play for pride. Championship or not, my job is to coach every game. The kids’ job is to play hard and win everything they can.”

The Elis face-off first against the Big Green on Friday night. Yale hopes to continue a recent trend of domination, having beaten Dartmouth in their last eight meetings.

The Big Green’s offense is led by junior guard Mike Lang, who is averaging 12.5 points per game despite starting all but one contest on the bench. Lang’s work beyond the arc will be complimented by the inside presence of 6-foot-10 senior center David Gardner, who is averaging 10 points per game.

Head coach James Jones said defending Gardner in the paint will be the key to Eli defensive success.

“They run everything through their five-man, David Gardner,” Jones said. “They go to him almost every play in terms of playing off of him in the low post.”

Jones added that Lang will put up a lot of three-pointers and the Big Green defense will play man-to-man almost exclusively.

The Bulldogs will counter with the same key players that led the team to two victories in two meetings with Dartmouth last season. Guard Edwin Draughan ’05 is second in the league in scoring (15.7 ppg), and paced the Elis last weekend with a 20-point performance against Columbia and a career-high 25 points against Cornell. Gamboa, who is averaging 10.5 points per game, posted 15 points in both of their winning efforts last season against the Big Green, first in a 70-48 drubbing on Dartmouth’s home court, and then in a 58-54 victory in the John J. Lee Amphitheater.

On Saturday night, the Eli freshmen will be initiated into a collegiate rivalry centuries old. Through the decades, Yale’s men’s basketball players have compiled their winningest record against the Crimson of all Ivy League opponents, triumphing in 106 of the 170 games between the two teams.

Freshman forward Nick Holmes ’08, the twin brother of Caleb Holmes, said he is just happy to finally play at home.

“I’m sure it will be special to play Harvard for the first time,” Holmes said. “We haven’t really discussed it much. We’re just excited to protect our home court and get two victories this weekend.”

The two teams split last season’s two matchups, each defending its home court. Harvard won first, 78-71, in Cambridge Feb. 14 and the Elis answered with a thumping on their own campus, 80-62, Feb. 27.

The Cantabs are led by 7-foot center Brian Cusworth, who ranks first in the Ivy League in rebounding (9.4 ppg) and is eighth in scoring (13.1 ppg). Forward Matt Stehle leads the team in scoring (14.1 ppg), good for fifth in the league.

“They’re huge inside,” Jones said. “They’ve got Stehle at the four spot, who will be a matchup problem. He’s a perimeter problem but he can also work inside. It will be difficult to keep them off the boards. They’re limited in the backcourt. Their inside game is what they use to try to beat you.”

Martin will be tested underneath the basket this weekend, and the Eli defense will have to make stops where it failed to last weekend in the waning minutes of the game against Cornell. But no matter the opponent, Jones said, the road-weary Bulldogs are happy to be home.

“I’m excited about being at home and having the hometown crowd energizing us for a victory,” Jones said. “The students make it all happen. College basketball is all about the students.”

[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”16422″ ]