In what could be described as the Yale men’s basketball program’s biggest game in history, the Bulldogs travel to Philadelphia on Saturday to take on Harvard in the Ivy League Playoff, with the winner advancing to the NCAA Tournament. The two teams split their matchups earlier this season, as Harvard beat the Elis in February and the Blue and White stole one from the Crimson last week. For Yale to come away with its first March Madness berth in 53 years, it will need solid outings from its frontcourt, to remain confident knowing it is far from an underdog, and to keep shooting — and making — threes.
STRONG FRONTCOURT PLAY
Yale’s frontcourt features the Ivy League Player of the Year, forward Justin Sears ’16, and fellow forward Matt Townsend ’15. In the two games against Harvard this season, Townsend knocked down 53 percent of his shots — mostly uncontested jump shots — en route to averaging nine points per contest. Sears took just seven shots and grabbed seven rebounds in each contest, as Harvard focused its defensive game plan around preventing the Bulldogs’ star from taking over the game. Townsend will gladly accept the challenge of once more having to knock down jumpers if Harvard again collapses on Sears.
Although Sears was selected the conference’s best player, Harvard forward Steve Moundou-Missi was the best frontcourt player during the teams’ March 6 meeting in Cambridge. His 21 points and 10 rebounds, including four offensive boards, were met by roaring “STEVE” chants in Lavietes Pavilion. He routinely knocked down baseline shots and drove to the hoop, taking advantage of Sears’s early foul trouble. Sears was unable to put his body on Moundou-Missi, fearing another foul call.
Harvard’s ability to wear down the Yale front court is vital to the Crimson’s chance of winning the rubber match. In the Feb. 7 meeting, Harvard eked out a 52–50 win in large part due to its rebounding, as the Cantabs out-rebounded the Bulldogs 42–32. Last week, Yale relied on the hot hands of guards Armani Cotton ’15 and Javier Duren ’15, who combined for 36 of the team’s 62 points. In order for Yale to win round three, Sears will need to avoid the fouls he accrued in the second matchup while attempting to secure rebounds. Unlike Yale, whose taller players like Cotton and forward Greg Kelley ’15 are stationed on the perimeter, Harvard’s big bodies bruise down low. If Sears gets in foul trouble once again — he registered four against both Harvard and Dartmouth last weekend — Harvard will look to take advantage of his absence in the paint.
NO SECOND FIDDLE
To say that Saturday’s matchup between Harvard and Yale will be evenly matched would be, well, accurate. Any adjective or piece of trivia used to describe one of the squads could just as easily apply to the other. Both teams have almost identical Rating Percentage Index rankings, with Yale checking in at 60th in the country and Harvard ranking 61st. Both have won at least 20 games, including identical 11–3 records in the Ancient Eight. Both have star forwards who have been named the Ivy League Player of the Year: Sears won the award this year, while the Crimson’s Wesley Saunders took the prize in 2014. Both teams even start left-handed point guards, both of whom happen to be second on their team in scoring while averaging at least four assists per contest.
With so much parity between the two archrivals, it will come down to the secondary options to help decide this contest. For Yale, that means its Rhodes Scholar, Townsend, must step up. Over the past several years, Harvard has seemed content to let Townsend try to beat them offensively, with relative success. Townsend will have to outplay the more physically talented Harvard forward Mondou-Missi — a perennial Bulldog killer — in order to give the Elis a chance to dust off their dancing shoes.
GOOD THINGS COME IN THREES
Harvard fans have every right to call Yale “slow”: The Bulldogs are 292nd in Division I in possessions per game. The Crimson faithful would just have to acknowledge that the Cantabs are 304th. With both teams putting such a premium on controlling the basketball — the two average around 64.5 possessions per game — each shot becomes that much more important. Thus the three-pointer, already inflated in value, turns into an incredibly valuable weapon. A quick look at the box score from Yale’s 62–52 win at Harvard last weekend lends support to this contention: The Elis shot 43.8 percent (7–16) from beyond the arc, while the Crimson converted a pitiful 11.8 percent (2–17) of its attempts from downtown. Perhaps no player on either team understands the value of the three better than guard Jack Montague ’16. Though the junior missed all five of his three-point tries last weekend (0–2 at Harvard), the sharpshooter paces the Ivy League by converting triples at a 43.8 percent clip. If Montague can find the range again on Saturday, he could help shoot the Elis into the NCAA Tournament.