With the first full weekend of Ivy action on tap, the Yale men’s basketball team finds itself perched atop the Ancient Eight with seven teams gunning for them. Two of those clubs will have a chance to dethrone the Elis this weekend, as Yale travels to New York to square off against Columbia and Cornell.
“We’re very much aware that there’s a target on our back, sitting at the top of the league,” point guard Javier Duren ’15 said. “Teams are going to be coming for us — and that’s where we want to be at — but we also have to realize the danger of being in that situation.”
Six of the eight conference teams have already dropped at least one Ivy matchup at this point in the young season, with Princeton — which has only played one league matchup — and Yale (13–6, 2–0 Ivy) the lone squads without a blemish on their conference records.
As the only school to be 2–0 in the Ivy League, the sentiment of a target on their backs was shared by many members of the Bulldog basketball squad.
“Everyone’s out to get us so we need to treat every game like it’s our last,” guard Jack Montague ’16 said. “It’s a 14-game tournament and we can’t afford to drop one here or there against a team that we should beat, so it puts a little bit of pressure on us.”
The pressure begins tonight at Columbia (9–7, 1–1), where the Bulldogs have dropped two straight matchups. The road trip could take its toll, as the late 8 p.m. start against the Lions will have Yale’s players arriving in Ithaca in the early morning hours on Saturday before a 6 p.m. tip against the Big Red (9–9, 1–1).
Yale has not swept the Columbia-Cornell road trip since 2003, and the Elis have not opened conference play 3–0 since the 2000–01 campaign.
Forward Justin Sears ’16, who was named Ivy League Player of the Week for the second time this season after a 27-point outing against Brown on Saturday, said the keys to the weekend will primarily come down to focus between the ears rather than the X’s and O’s.
“They’re two road games, and we haven’t played that well at Columbia in the past couple of years, and going up to Cornell is a long trip, like five hours,” Sears said. “Blocking out the distractions, whether it be the fatigue or the fans out there and just focusing on ourselves is the key.”
Delving into the numbers, however, reveals what should be an intriguing matchup of offense versus defense. The Elis average 70 points per game, entering play as the most proficient scoring team in the conference, whereas Columbia and Cornell average 64.6 and 62.9 points per game, respectively.
On the flip side, Columbia and Cornell rank second and third in scoring defense. One only has to look at the scores of the teams’ two battles the past two weekends to see how rarely the ball goes through the basket — Columbia outlasted Cornell in the first meeting 48–45 before falling 57–47 last weekend.
Those two defensive struggles are a far cry from Yale’s open to Ivy play, as the Bulldogs averaged 74.5 points per game in its two victories over Brown.
Both New York foes have capable scorers, however. In fact, Cornell’s Shonn Miller and Columbia’s Maodo Lo are the top two scorers in the Ivy League.
Lo appears to be the most crucial to his team’s success. While Cornell has three players averaging double figures, Lo is the only such player for the Lions, who are without star forward Alex Rosenberg due to a preseason injury and his subsequent withdrawal for the remainder of the school year.
“We’ll go over all our matchups [in practice], but we do know that he’s a huge part of Columbia’s offense,” Duren said of Lo. “I know a lot of it’s going to be detail on stopping him, containing him and making sure he doesn’t have a big game.”
While the numbers point to a classic confrontation of great offense versus stout defense, Yale still prides itself on its own defensive capabilities as well as its +6.8 rebounding margin, which is more than double the next best Ivy squad.
Duren said that defense and effort are two variables the Bulldogs can focus on this weekend if they wish to build on their quick start.
“You never know if your offense is going to be there on any given night, but what we can control is our defense and how hard we work,” Duren said.
Such constant grit and defensive effort can take its toll on a team as the conference schedule progresses, but the Elis seem intent on doing all that they can to prevent relinquishing control of the league.
The upcoming slate against the Lions and the Big Red is the first of six consecutive two-game weekends, with all games coming on Fridays and Saturdays.
Despite the grind, Sears said that he relishes the opportunity to make a statement, weekend after weekend, in the Ivy League.
“Each game is a new opportunity to prove to the league that we’re the best team out there,” Sears said.
Tonight’s matchup at Levien Gymnasium will mark the 228th time that Yale and Columbia have played, tied for the oldest continuous series in Division I history.