A pivotal weekend looms ahead for the conference-leading Yale men’s basketball team, which returns home to face Dartmouth and second-place Harvard with an opportunity to separate itself from the rest of the Ivy League.
Yale (15–6, 4–0 Ivy) is off to its best start since the 1961–62 season, which was also the last time the Elis reached the NCAA Tournament. A win on Friday night would propel the Bulldogs to their first 5–0 start since the official beginning of Ivy play in 1956–57.
“Starting out 4–0 has been huge for us as a team,” forward Matt Townsend ’15 said. “But we know there’s a lot of season left ahead of us, so we have to keep bringing it every night if we want to win this league.”
The first test of the weekend comes Friday night from Dartmouth (8–10, 1–3), a dangerous team that has the potential to knock off the Bulldogs even after being swept last weekend by Penn and Princeton.
The Big Green defeated both Bryant and the New Jersey Institute of Technology earlier this season, two teams that played Yale closely and — in the case of NJIT — even defeated the Bulldogs. Even more impressive may be Dartmouth’s 70–61 win at Harvard two weekends ago, when the Big Green went on a 26–2 run to overcome a 14-point deficit, its first win against the Crimson in six years.
“We understand that at this point of the season, every game is important,” point guard Javier Duren ’15 said. “We try to approach and prepare for each game with the same focus and intensity.”
The Elis will have their hands full with Dartmouth’s leading scorer, guard Alex Mitola, who last season dropped 29 points on the Bulldogs in the two teams’ final matchup, won by the Big Green 69–61. Though Mitola averages 13.3 points per game, eighth-best in the conference, Dartmouth is last in the Ancient Eight with 61.3 points per contest. Mitola is also the ninth-best three-point shooter in the Ivy League with a 38.5 percent mark from behind the arc.
Center Gabas Maldunas, returning from a torn ACL last season, also figures to make an impact against Yale. Averaging 6.2 boards per game on the season, Maldunas will battle forward Justin Sears ’16 for control of the paint.
“We have a bigger backcourt, so hopefully that will help give us a good rebounding edge,” Duren said.
Head coach James Jones added that Dartmouth has multiple players who can hurt the Bulldogs, so the team must do a good job of stopping the Big Green’s offensive system and prevent it from beating the Elis in one-on-one play.
With the Ivy League’s grueling “14-game tournament,” featuring a back-to-back format most weekends, the Bulldogs face a short turnaround, welcoming Harvard (13–5, 3–1) to Payne Whitney Gymnasium Saturday night.
The Crimson swept its pair of games last weekend, fending off a Princeton rally to win 75–72 and dominating a weak Penn team in a 63–38 blowout. But the reigning Ivy League champion and preseason top 25 team has looked vulnerable at times this season, with a 76–27 loss to then-No. 6 Virginia and a neutral court loss to Holy Cross in November.
Harvard carries a streak of 10 consecutive road wins to New Haven, led by last season’s Ivy League Player of the Year, guard Wesley Saunders, who is averaging 15.3 points per game, third best in the league.
“Wesley is a great player,” Duren said. “He’s very effective around the basket, so we’ve stressed how important it is to try to keep him out of the lane … If we do a good job containing Wesley and their other role players, we’ll have a good shot at winning.”
The return of guard Corbin Miller from his two-year mission trip has provided a much-needed offensive spark for the Crimson off the bench. Miller has shot 39.0 percent from long range so far this season, seventh best in the conference.
Jones agreed that Miller is a player to watch. He also singled out Siyani Chambers, Harvard’s point guard and third-leading scorer, as “the little engine that makes them go.”
Though Harvard just barely registers as a top-four offense in the Ancient Eight, its stout defense has given opponents trouble all year long. The Crimson allows just 56.9 points per game and forces a league-best 13.2 turnovers per game.
The best defense in the league will face the best offense in the conference. The Bulldogs remain the top scoring offense, averaging 69.4 points per game thanks to 14.1 assists per game and a +6.6 rebounding margin.
“Getting to the free throw line is a big part of the offense,” Jones said. “Justin is a great talent [and] we have to get touches down [low] to result in free throws.”
Yale will seek revenge for last season’s loss to the Crimson at home, 70–58, after defeating Harvard at Lavietes Pavilion earlier in the season.
The Bulldogs will look to strengthen their case for best team in the Ivy League, as a win against Harvard would set the Crimson two back of the Elis in the standings, assuming wins for both teams Friday night.
“We have some veteran leaders on the team, and we’ve all played in big games, so at the end of the day, we are going to treat it like any other game,” Duren said.
Both Friday’s and Saturday’s games tip off at the John J. Lee Amphitheater at 7 p.m.