The Yale men’s basketball team does not have particularly fond memories of Leede Arena. After all, it was just 49 weeks ago that the Bulldogs traveled to Hanover with a chance to lock up the Ivy League title and a berth to the NCAA Tournament.
Despite a five-point lead with just 25 seconds remaining, the Big Green mustered a miraculous comeback, capped off by a Gabas Maldunas layup with 0.7 seconds on the clock to shock the Elis in a 59–58 Dartmouth victory.
In addition to an opportunity to avenge that defeat nearly a year later on Friday in New Hampshire, Yale (15–5, 6–0 Ivy) will also get to face Harvard on Saturday, the team that defeated the Elis in equally devastating fashion in the single-game playoff one week after the crushing Dartmouth defeat.
“Especially after last year, we really just want to go up to Dartmouth and take it to them,” forward Justin Sears ’16 said. “Harvard is Harvard, though. I think we’re 2–1 on their court [the past three years]. It’d be great to beat them.”
Of course, this is not the same team that lost back-to-back heartbreakers, costing the team an outright Ivy title and its first trip to March Madness since 1962. This Yale squad is a perfect 6–0 in Ivy League play for the first time in school history, and is riding a 10-game winning streak overall.
The road trip to Dartmouth (7–13, 1–5) and Harvard (9–13, 1–5), the two teams currently tied for last place in the Ancient Eight, will mark the midpoint of the 14-game tournament. Six of the Elis’ final eight games come on the road after the recent four-game homestand in which the team outscored its opponents by an average of 18.0 points.
Dominant shooting performances — the Bulldogs have shot 54.6 percent during the four-game stretch — have keyed the impressive streak of comfortable victories.
“All of us have gotten in the gym and we have been working hard,” guard Nick Victor ’16 said. “If we just keep doing what we are doing, we are going to get many of the same shots. We just have to knock them down.”
The team has collectively shot 52.9 percent from the field in the six Ivy games thus far, in addition to outrebounding its opponents 248–168. In fact, the Bulldogs boast the best rebounding margin — Yale outrebounds its opponents by 12.4 boards per game on average — in the country.
In the Dartmouth contest on Friday, the Bulldogs will face a unique combination of depth and bench contributions from the Big Green. Twelve players have seen time in 15 or more games, as opposed to Yale’s 10.
Dartmouth is anchored offensively by a youthful starting five. While the Yale starting five features four seniors, Dartmouth usually starts two sophomores and a freshman to accompany just two seniors, guard Malik Gill and forward Connor Boehm.
However, that freshman, forward Evan Boudreaux, has been selected as the Ivy League Rookie of the Week seven times. The 6-foot-8 forward averages 16.9 points per game, third-best in the conference.
“[Boudreaux] does a really good job getting to the free-throw line … it’s hard to guard him,” Jones said. “He’s a very versatile player.”
The Big Green also leads the league in free-throw percentage, converting 72.9 percent of its attempts from the charity stripe.
Like Dartmouth, Yale’s second opponent of the weekend, Harvard, also features a youthful rotation, including two starting freshman guards in Tommy McCarthy and Corey Johnson.
Just as this season’s Bulldog roster features new contributors and a new attitude — after dispatching Columbia last Friday, head coach James Jones said the memory of last season’s disappointments graduated with the squad’s four seniors — Harvard has also been forced to rebrand itself, as the Crimson lost three starters from last season to either graduation or injury.
Guard Wesley Saunders, who averaged a team-high 16.6 points per game last season, and forward Steve Moundou-Missi each graduated. Saunders scored 22 points in Harvard’s playoff defeat of Yale, and Moundou-Missi hit the game-winner in that decisive contest. Additionally, Siyani Chambers, a three-year starter at the point guard position, was forced to miss this season due to a torn ACL.
“[Harvard is] totally different,” Jones said. “They’re young, and instead of those two guys [Saunders and Chambers], there are two freshman guards in the backcourt, and they don’t have the same experience.”
After winning the Ivy League championship each of the previous five years, the Crimson finds itself in unfamiliar territory after losing five of its first six Ancient Eight contests. Should Harvard lose to Brown on Friday and Yale beat Dartmouth, a Bulldog win on Saturday would officially eliminate the Crimson from title contention.
Agunwa Okolie and Zena Edosomwan return for Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker’s squad. The talented frontcourt duo combine for nearly 25 points per game for a team that averages a league-low 66.2 points per game.
Although Harvard has struggled offensively, the Crimson defense is a much more formidable unit. It leads the conference in field-goal and three-point defense, holding opponents to 40.0 and 28.9 percent shooting, respectively. The Bulldogs rank second in both categories.
That is not the only area in which the two teams are similar. Like Yale, Harvard has struggled from the free-throw line at various times this season. Making just 57.7 percent of its free throws overall this season, the Crimson have especially faltered at the line in conference play.
Harvard has made less than half of its attempts, making just 8.5 out of 17.2 attempts per league game. Though that margin has cost the team only one game — a one-point loss to Columbia on a buzzer-beater in which Harvard was 7–13 at the foul line — the Crimson is still significantly beneath seventh-place Penn, which is shooting 59.8 percent in Ivy action.
Yale went through a rough patch in January, but the team’s free-throw percentage has snuck back up to 65.4 percent, good for fifth in the conference.
Both matchups this weekend are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.