After completing a sweep of Brown to open Ivy League play, the Yale men’s basketball team moves on this weekend to host Penn and Princeton, two Ancient Eight foes each currently searching to cement their own identity in the league this season.
The Bulldogs (11–5, 2–0 Ivy) enter this weekend’s slate undefeated at home and the winners of six straight games. Princeton (11–4, 1–0), meanwhile, recently pulled out a narrow 73–71 overtime win over underdog Penn (6–9, 0–1) — a game that raised questions about the validity of both teams’ preseason expectations.
“[Our undefeated home record] is really important to us,” point guard Makai Mason ’18 said. “We had a couple games that we thought we gave away last year, so for us to have the record we do this year is really important. We have been playing well at home as well as on the road, but a good win at home is always a better feeling.”
While the Elis are trending upward, having outscored their last six opponents by an average margin of 24.5 points, Penn — their opening opponent of the weekend — has lost two consecutive games.
In the Quakers’ first Ivy League game on Jan. 9, the team held a multiple-possession lead in the second half and overtime, but could not finish off the Tigers in the final minutes. On the same day that sophomore guard Antonio Woods, who had averaged 10.7 points per game, was declared academically ineligible to play the remainder of the season, forward Darien Nelson-Henry stepped up to score 17 points in the overtime contest. Nelson-Henry averages 12.3 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, both team-highs, on the season as a whole.
The Bulldogs boast scoring threats of their own down low, headlined by forwards Justin Sears ’16 and Brandon Sherrod ’16, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year and Ivy League Player of the Week, respectively. Sherrod put together an impressive game last Saturday against Brown, shooting 9–9 from the field en route to a 24-point, seven-rebound effort.
“Penn’s a good team. They gave us trouble last year on our senior night,” captain and guard Jack Montague ’16 said. “They have some really good shooters under their new coach. We need to be wary of their shooters and other than that, we should be able to work the ball low again. I think we’ll have advantages on the post. We’ll continue doing what we’re doing but be wary of guys taking shots from deep.”
With new head coach Steve Donahue at the helm, Penn was picked to finish seventh in the Ivy League in the preseason media poll. A little over a week after the poll was released, it was announced that then-captain Tony Hicks, the team’s leading scorer each of the past two seasons, was leaving the program. Despite the tempered expectations and the departure of multiple scoring threats in Woods and Hicks, the Quakers are eager to prove that they deserve more attention in the 14-game tournament, as evidenced by their close overtime loss to Princeton.
Meanwhile, Princeton, which travels to New Haven on Saturday after a Friday game at Brown, was projected to finish third in the Ivy League in that preseason poll. The Tigers garnered more first-place votes than Yale, the conference favorite.
Those high expectations, however, have quietly developed into questions about Princeton’s true place in the Ivy League. In addition to the unconvincing opening victory over Penn, the Tigers were dealt a huge blow to begin the year when forward Hans Brase tore his ACL and was declared out for the season. The 6-foot-8 Brase averaged 11.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game last year.
Even with the loss of Brase, the matchup on Saturday pits two of the Ancient Eight’s best offenses against one another. Princeton boasts the top-scoring offense in the Ivy League with 78.3 points per game, a mark the Tigers increased in their most recent game with a 100–44 beat down of Division III Bryn Athyn.
Yale ranks third in points per game in the Ivy League with 74.9, and the Bulldogs are tops in field-goal percentage at 45.8 percent, relying on the duo of Sears and Mason to carry the scoring load. Although Sears’ minutes were limited in the two games against Brown due to foul trouble, the pair still averages more than 30 points by themselves, with exactly 15.4 per game each.
“We need to continue running a good offense and being patient, and just let our offense work in itself,” Montague said. “We’ll take good shots and hopefully our post players can continue to play as they have been, so we’ll be able to maintain a good offense.”
The Tigers are led by forward Henry Caruso, whose 16.2 points per game rank third in the Ancient Eight. With a 10.5-point average, Devin Cannady is Princeton’s second-highest scorer and the most major part of a Princeton bench that has scored an average of 23.2 points per game this season.
Meanwhile, Yale has dealt with inconsistency from the bench for much of the season, though the Elis hope to duplicate their last game’s bench performance against Brown. Forward Sam Downey ’17 led the Bulldog reserves with a career-high 18 points in the game, while guard Anthony Dallier ’17 knocked down both of this attempts from behind the arc for six points in the contest. The 38 points from the bench was much greater than its average of 24.5 bench points per game.
“I feel like our bench play will be great in Ivy League play,” Downey said. “We definitely are confident and I think that a lot of our problem at the beginning of the year was that we were not aggressive enough coming off the bench, but I feel like a lot of the bench guys are gaining our confidence after good games and a couple weeks of good practice.”
Tipoff for each game this weekend is scheduled for 7 p.m. in John J. Lee Amphitheater.