For the second consecutive game, the Yale men’s basketball team will face an undefeated conference opponent, as the Bulldogs look to start 6–0 in Ivy League play for the first time in school history.
The Bulldogs (13–5, 4–0 Ivy) defeated previously unbeaten Princeton last Saturday 79–75, and the team looks to remain perfect at home and extend its eight-game winning streak Friday against Columbia (15–6, 4–0), before squaring off against a surging Cornell (9–9, 2–2) squad.
Yale and Columbia are tied atop the Ancient Eight standings, creating an amplified sense of hype around the matchup, which will be broadcast on national television.
“There are a lot of games left to be played,” Yale head coach James Jones said. “There are 10 games left to go and this is just one of them. We are not going to crown a champion on Feb. 5.”
Though five more weeks stand between Yale and a potential second straight conference championship, the Bulldogs put themselves in good position with an undefeated January, capped off by last weekend’s sweep of Penn and Princeton.
The rivalry between the Bulldogs and the Lions has been a close one in recent years. Each of the previous three games between the two teams has been decided by six points or less. While the Bulldogs took care of business at Columbia last season, winning 63–59, the Lions rallied in the rematch to defeat the Elis 56–50 in New Haven. In fact, that Columbia victory was the last time the Elis lost at home — Yale has won 10 in a row at the John J. Lee Amphitheater since falling to the Lions.
This year’s matchup features a lot of veteran leadership, as both teams currently start nontraditional seniors, in that there are three players in their fourth year of eligibility following a year off. Yale forward Brandon Sherrod ’16 returned this year after spending last year abroad with the Whiffenpoofs, and Columbia guard Grant Mullins and forward Alex Rosenberg are both back after missing all of last season with injuries.
“It’ll be cool to have two [originally class of] 2015 guys back on the court,” Sherrod said, referring to Rosenberg, a former first-team All-Ivy player. “There’s a lot of experience but I think we’re going to be fine as long as we play our game.”
Rosenberg’s return has been key for the Lions, as highlighted in Columbia’s victory last Saturday at Harvard. Trailing by one point with time running down, Rosenberg knocked down an elbow jumper at the buzzer to seal a one-point Columbia win.
Still, he is not Columbia’s only potent scoring threat: guard Maodo Lo, who led the league last year with 18.4 points per game, now ranks fifth in that category with a team-best 15.8 points per game. In his two games against Yale last season, the German national team member put up 38 total points on 20–39 shooting, slightly above his 0.476 career shooting percentage.
“We have played against some competition and guys that are on similar levels [as Lo and Rosenberg] so we just have to play great team defense,” Jones said. “We are not going to ask one man to guard any other player by himself. Everybody gets help when needed so we just need to play great defense to stop Columbia, not so much stop one or two individual guys.”
Columbia’s defensive strategy will likely be similar, especially since teams have found that double-teaming forward Justin Sears ’16 opens up space for Sherrod and others. Sherrod has made all 25 of his last field-goal attempts, one off the NCAA record for most consecutive baskets from the floor.
He and Sears could each find themselves matching up against Columbia forward Chris McComber, who held Harvard’s Zena Edosomwan, a top-100 prospect out of high school and the only Crimson player averaging double-digit scoring, to nine points on 3–7 shooting last week.
If both teams focus their defensive efforts on the post, the game might very well become a matchup on the perimeter, something the Bulldogs understand, according to Sherrod. The Lions lead the league in three-point attempts with 549, almost 100 more attempts than second-place Cornell, which has taken 452 treys.
Not only do the Lions shoot a high volume of threes, but they also make them. Columbia’s 37.9 percent shooting clip from beyond the arc is second in the league, with Yale’s 36.4 percent success rate right behind in third. Yale guard Nick Victor ’16 leads the Ivy League in three-point shooting at 51.2 percent, and Columbia’s Luke Petrasek is tied for third at 46.7 percent.
Shutting down efficient shooters will also be crucial in the Elis’ second test of the weekend. Though Yale has shot the lights out in conference play — the team’s 53.2 percent is nearly 10 percentage points higher than second-place Penn — Cornell has some offensive firepower of its own.
The Big Red features one of the best backcourts in the Ancient Eight. Guard Robert Hatter leads the Ivy League with 19.9 points per game, though he has missed the first four Ivy League games of the season due to an ankle injury. His status entering the weekend is unclear.
Guard Matt Morgan, who is perhaps the frontrunner for Ivy League Rookie of the Year, has stepped up in Hatter’s absence. Morgan has posted games of 29, 26, 33 and 32 points in his four conference contests, which works out to an astonishing 30.0 points per league game.
Though Cornell split those four games — dropping two to Columbia before defeating Harvard and Dartmouth — Morgan shared Ivy League Player of the Week with Sherrod last week for his efforts. Morgan now ranks second on the team, and in the conference, with 18.5 points per game.
Morgan, and potentially Hatter, will square off against a potent offensive backcourt for the Bulldogs, as point guard Makai Mason ’18 averages a team-high 15.7 points per game and captain and guard Jack Montague ’16 adds 9.4 points per game, including 9–19 shooting from three-point range in Ivy action.
The Elis will also look to take advantage down low with Sears, who averages 15.4 points per game, just slightly off Mason’s pace.
While Yale looks to claim the top spot in the conference all alone with two wins this weekend, Cornell is emerging from its first Ivy weekend sweep in more than three years.
“I’m sure that teams definitely think we have a target on our backs and try really hard to focus on beating Yale,” Montague said. “We’re definitely one of the top teams in the league and I think a lot of them would like to upset us.”
The game against Columbia on Friday, which will be broadcast on FOX Sports 1, tips off with an early 5 p.m. start.