The Yale men’s basketball team will host Cornell and Columbia this weekend at the John J. Lee Amphitheater, looking to complete its second two-game sweep in as many weekends.
Both opponents sit at the middle of the Ancient Eight table with six games to play, and both seem epitomize the unpredictable results of Ivy League play so far this season.
The Elis (18–7, 7–1 Ivy) will first face fourth-place Cornell (12–12, 4–4) on Friday, which is coming off a roller-coaster weekend on the road. The Big Red defeated now last-place Dartmouth in an 81–72 overtime thriller, only to be easily handled 61–40 by a strong Harvard team that appears to be hitting its stride at the right time, having won its last six games.
Columbia (11–11, 3–5), which rests one spot behind the Big Red in the standings, had a frustrating pair of games a week ago after taking Harvard to the wire only to lose by four, and falling by 12 to Dartmouth.
The Bulldogs are coming off of a hot-shooting road sweep, blowing out Penn on Friday night by 27 and holding off a ferocious Princeton comeback on Saturday to win by eight.
Standout forwards Justin Sears ’16 and Matt Townsend ’15 credited the bench play for much of the success over the weekend. In particular, Townsend praised the composure of guard Makai Mason ’18 in the second half of the Princeton game.
“Makai hit some big-time shots down the stretch in our second half comeback,” Townsend said of Mason’s 5–5 effort against Princeton, which complemented his 14-point outing the night before against the Quakers.
Mason has seen much more court time as of late, playing at least 20 minutes in six of his last seven games, compared to just two such games before that stretch. He likened his role on the team to a shot of energy off the bench.
Sears also noted Mason’s developing maturity, as well as the growing intensity and invaluable impact of captain Greg Kelley ’15.
“It’s Greg’s last go-around, and you can see that in his sense of urgency,” Sears said.
Regarding preparations for this weekend’s matchups, Townsend said forcing Columbia to take different shots and limit its opportunities from long range will be key.
As for the Big Red, both Townsend and Mason agreed that breaking Cornell’s defensive pressure is paramount on Friday.
“Cornell likes ball pressure. We’ve been working in practice on handling that full court press,” Townsend said.
Mason agreed, commenting on the Cornell players’ length and athleticism. He added that there has been an emphasis in practice on moving the ball around with our motion and getting guys open shots — something that proved to be a struggle in Yale’s lone conference loss against Harvard.
Though it is hard to predict how either competitor will challenge this weekend, one thing is for sure: With Cornell’s away record of 2–5 and Columbia’s at 5–5, the Bulldogs will be sure to try and take advantage of these two teams’ road game woes.
Yale has certainly realized a strong home-court advantage this season — having gone 6–2 in contests at Payne Whitney — especially with the prospects of an Ivy League title and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament at hand. The Elis currently control their own fate in the Ancient Eight and do not need to rely on any upsets or Harvard’s misfortune to get a berth to the Big Dance for the first time in over 50 years.
However, guard Javier Duren ’15 maintains that there has been no change in strategy as a result of this potential title.
“Coach [James Jones] has constantly told us that our focus shouldn’t be an Ivy League title but on the next game,” Duren said. “In that, we’ve been able to remain humble and take it one game at a time.”
The tip off for both Friday and Saturday’s games will be at 7 p.m. in the John J. Lee Amphitheater.