If the men’s basketball team had the opportunity to draw up its own Ivy League schedule, it could not have come up with a more exciting home stretch.
The Bulldogs (15-12, 7-5 Ivy) will host Penn (18-7, 10-1) on Friday and Princeton (10-14, 8-3) on Saturday in their final homestand of the season. Penn and Princeton are first and second, respectively, in the conference standings, just ahead of Yale. If they can beat just one opponent, the Elis will secure at least a third-place finish and their fifth consecutive season in the top half of the league.
The Bulldogs are coming off a weekend split of the New York Ivies. They fell to Cornell, 68-64, but beat Columbia, 71-65. The Elis played a lackluster game against the Big Red, struggling to protect the ball against Cornell’s defensive pressure. The Big Red had 12 steals last Friday, compared to Yale’s four.
If the Elis are aiming for wins this weekend, they will need to do a better job taking care of the ball, particularly against Penn, which leads the Ivy League in steals per game (9.9). Penn and Princeton have the highest turnover margins in the league, and Yale is seventh in the same category, averaging three more turnovers per game than its opponents.
Each team’s style of play also makes it imperative that the Elis limit their turnovers, captain Josh Greenberg ’06 said.
“Princeton’s number of possessions are so low that we can’t really afford to turn it over,” he said. “And Penn, with their athleticism, will go down and score every time we turn it over.”
The Bulldogs will need to improve their free throw shooing if they expect to take down the Killer P’s this weekend. Princeton has the highest free throw percentage in the league and Penn ranks just above Yale. But the Elis have shot just 62 percent from the line this season, compared to opponents’ 74 percent.
“We missed some crucial free throws [against Cornell], something that’s been really hurting us in our offensive production,” Yale head coach James Jones said. “We haven’t been able to stop runs on the defensive side and continue runs on the offensive end.”
Playing solid team defense will be crucial when Penn and Princeton come to New Haven. This weekend, the Elis will focus in on Penn’s Ibrahim Jaaber, who leads the league in scoring (18.6 ppg), and reigning Ivy League Player of the Week Mark Zoller (12.5 ppg). But it was not Jaaber and Zoller’s 17 combined points that hurt Yale at the Palestra on Feb. 4. Guard Eric Osmundson led all players with 17 points and was backed up by reserves Brian Grandieri and Friedrich Ebede, who combined for 23 points.
The Elis learned the hard way against Cornell that they cannot afford to neglect players who come off the bench. Like Penn, Cornell has dominant individual players on whom the Bulldogs focused much of their energy. But as the Elis were busy holding Cornell’s strongest players, guards Lenny Collins and Adam Gore, to 5-of-24 shooting, the Big Red’s bench dropped 39 points.
“We were especially focused on keying in on [Gore],” swingman Travis Pinick ’09 said. “But I think that we lost focus in knowing that there were four other guys out there.”
Heading into the final weekend of conference play, Penn is almost assured of the Ivy League title and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Quakers are two games ahead of Princeton, and would need to drop all three of their remaining games, while Princeton would need to win all of theirs, in order to lose the crown. But for the Bulldogs, who are no longer in contention for the title, finishing with two wins against the two top teams would be enough of an accomplishment.
“We have to see about this weekend,” Greenberg said. “Hopefully, we have a decent shot to win both games and to come in and tie for second.”