No Ivy League men’s basketball team has swept Penn and Princeton on the road in 19 years, not since Yale took home both wins during the 1986-87 season.
And this weekend, the Elis (11-8, 3-1 Ivy) are looking to prove that they can do it again. Tonight the Bulldogs face Princeton (3-12, 1-1), a matchup made less intimidating by the fact that the Tigers are struggling through their worst season in recent memory. But Penn (10-6, 2-0) is a different story. The Quakers are the only team still unbeaten in conference play, and they have not lost to Yale at the Palestra in nine years.
With such different teams on the menu, the Elis concentrated this week on preparing to play their own game. On one hand, they don’t want to be dragged down to a lower level of play by a weak Princeton squad. On the other hand, the Bulldogs are psyching themselves up to challenge the league favorite.
“They’re going to be two hard games this weekend,” Yale head coach James Jones said. “I do have a lot of confidence that we can be successful. We had a good week of practice, and our guys played hard. They’re focused, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they perform.”
Looking back on last week’s play could give an indication of where each of the three teams stands going into this weekend. Princeton dropped a non-league game to Davidson, 65-50, while Penn fell to Saint Joseph’s, 47-44, in its lowest-scoring game of the season. The Quakers shot .349 from the floor and .158 from behind the arc, their worst marks since losing to Villanova, 62-55, on Dec. 13. But the Elis had what was arguably their best weekend all season, defeating Harvard, 82-74, and Dartmouth, 72-55, at home.
Both Princeton and Penn have been absent from league play for nearly two weeks, since they hosted Cornell (7-11, 2-2) and Columbia (8-9, 1-3) on Jan. 13 and 14. That weekend, Princeton pulled out a 68-64 win over the Lions before falling to Cornell, 57-49, the following night. Penn destroyed both teams, downing Cornell, 84-44, before wrapping up their opening weekend with an 87-55 trouncing of Columbia. But Cornell and Columbia may not be high enough standards of comparison, considering that Yale is entering the weekend with wins over Harvard and Brown.
“It’s kind of hard to compare what they did to Cornell and Columbia to our team because we’re so different,” Jones said. “If we’re going to beat them, we just need to take care of the basketball and take care of ourselves. We have to do the things we’re capable of and that we’re supposed to do.”
Princeton, which boasts three Ivy League titles in the past five seasons, has had a disappointing year after losing guard Will Venable and center Judson Wallace, both of whom garnered All-Ivy recognition last season. But what they have instead of the standout duo is an arsenal of talented perimeter players. Noah Savage leads the Tigers with 10.7 points per game. He is the only player averaging in double figures but one of nine averaging over 35 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Three-point shot attempts account for over one-third of the Tigers’ shots from the floor. By comparison, only about 20 percent of their opponents’ shots have been from three-point range.
“You can’t look past Princeton,” Jones said. “No matter what, they’re always going to be a tough game to play because of their style and their history. They have more guys who can shoot than they had last year, and they try to take advantage of their three-point shooting.”
Though Princeton may be lacking a standout player, Penn has at least two. Guard Ibrahim Jaaber and forward Mark Zoller combine to make one of the most formidable pairs in the league. Jaaber, a junior, averages 17.8 points per game and already holds the school record for career steals. Zoller trails just behind with 12.8 points per game and pulls down 5.8 boards per game.
Both players score more points per game than Yale’s top scorer, forward Sam Kaplan ’07 (12.2 ppg). Jaaber has put up some impressive numbers this season, including averaging 35.4 minutes per game, 3.38 steals per game and a season-high 31 points against Navy on Dec. 2. In 11 of Penn’s 16 games, Jaaber has been the Quakers’ leading scorer.
While some opponents might find these statistics intimidating, swingman Casey Hughes ’07 said after soundly beating Dartmouth last Saturday, he is excited to face Jaaber and his teammates.
“I can’t wait to go to Penn and play Jaaber,” he said.
But the Elis have not been preparing specifically for Zoller and Jaaber. They have had a week of practice to look at both the positives and negatives from last weekend and make any necessary changes to their play. For center Dominick Martin ’06, who averages 11.6 points per game and 5.5 rebounds per game, the Elis’ success depends on kicking the intensity up a little bit.
“You’ve got to be more active,” Martin said. “You have to get long rebounds, win 50-50 balls. That’s what you need to do.”
Hughes said another aspect of the Bulldogs’ play that could be improved from the Dartmouth victory was their ball movement on the offensive end. The Elis play a relatively loose, laid-back offense, which gives players the chance to be creative on the court without being tied to strict half-court sets. But this freedom also means the Bulldogs have to make the effort to get open and create opportunities for themselves, something they did not do as well as they would have liked to against the Big Green.
“Our offense didn’t look that great,” Hughes said. “We have a lot of freedom on offense, and we need to move the ball more.”