For the first time in 84 years, the Yale men’s basketball team capped off an undefeated season in the John J. Lee Amphitheater. For the first time in 108 years, the Bulldogs have won 20 games in back-to-back seasons. But it is a mark that has not fallen in 54 years — Yale advancing to the NCAA Tournament — that the Bulldogs are most focused on accomplishing, with two critical steps toward that goal set for this weekend.
Yale (20–6, 11–1 Ivy) will have to take care of road contests versus Cornell (9–17, 2–10) and Columbia (20–9, 10–2), which, coupled with a Princeton loss in any of the Tigers’ remaining three games, would secure the Ivy title and the accompanying NCAA berth for the Bulldogs, who currently sit a half-game ahead of Princeton. Should both Yale and Princeton win out to close their regular seasons, the teams will square off in a one-game playoff at Penn’s Palestra on March 12.
“I think this team has great confidence in themselves no matter what situation we are in,” Yale head coach James Jones said after last week’s game against Dartmouth. “No matter what happens or what we face, we always feel like we have a chance to win and we are going to attack every game with that in mind.”
In last weekend’s games, the Bulldogs handled Harvard 59–50 on Friday, but they needed the heroics of point guard Makai Mason ’18 to overcome Dartmouth 76–71 in overtime on Saturday. After Big Green guard Miles Wright put Dartmouth up by two with eight seconds remaining in regulation, Mason took the ball up the court and sunk a pull-up jumper from the elbow to tie the game with 5.4 seconds on the clock.
Despite playing on an injured ankle for much of the second half and all of overtime, Mason went on to make all five of his free throws in the extra period to help seal the five-point win. For his efforts, the sophomore standout was awarded Ivy League Player of the Week for the second time this season. This time around, he shared the honor with Princeton forward Spencer Weisz.
Mason leads the Elis with 99 assists and ranks second on the team in scoring at 15.7 points per game, the most of any sophomore in the Ivy League.
Yale swept the Cornell–Columbia trip last year, a road trip generally regarded as the most demanding due to the 220-plus miles that separate the two schools. With only 25 hours between the opening tipoffs at Cornell and at Columbia, fatigue can be a concern for the Bulldogs, especially with this being the sixth consecutive weekend of back-to-back Friday-Saturday contests.
“The only thing that we have done differently over the past few years is that we have practiced early on Thursday morning and left at 4 [p.m.] so we can get up to Cornell at a reasonable hour as opposed to getting there at midnight,” Jones said. “I am not certain if we will do that. We have also taken a sleeper bus from Cornell to Columbia as a way for our guys to get rested for the early start the next day.”
Cornell features a tandem of talented guards. Cornell freshman guard Matt Morgan has already surpassed the freshman single-season scoring record previously held by Brown’s Earl Hunt, who scored 460 points in 1999–2000. Morgan has scored 473 points with the final weekend of Ivy League play still remaining.
Morgan’s 18.9 points per game, which ranks first in the conference, just barely eclipses teammate Robert Hatter’s 17.9 points per game, which ranks second in the Ancient Eight. The two have combined to take 43.7 percent of Cornell’s shots from the field this season, providing enough volume for the two to remain atop the league’s scoring charts.
In Yale’s 83–52 rout of Cornell earlier this season, the Bulldogs limited Hatter, who had just returned from an ankle injury that sidelined him for the first four games of conference play, to 1–9 shooting from the field. Morgan tallied a game-high 20 points on 7–16 shooting, though he was held to just six points in the second half of the lopsided affair.
Despite repeated full-court pressure from the Big Red, the Elis led wire-to-wire in a game where the team shot a combined 12–23 from behind the three-point line. The 12 triples marked a season high for the Bulldogs.
In addition, the Elis more than doubled the Big Red on the boards, 56–22. While that margin is Yale’s largest of the year thus far, outrebounding its opponents has been a common theme for the Elis throughout the season. The Bulldogs rank third in NCAA Division I basketball in rebounding margin, having outrebounded their opponents by an average of 10.8 boards per game.
Saturday’s contest figures to provide a tougher test, as Columbia enters the weekend with Ivy championship hopes of its own. The Lions, who have won 20 games for just the second time since 1970, are one game behind Yale and one half-game behind Princeton, with an opportunity to stake their own claim of the conference championship.
Columbia enters the game with a league-leading 277 made three-pointers. Leading the perimeter-driven offense is senior guard Maodo Lo, who paces the team in three-point shots made and scoring, at 16.3 points per game.
Lo, who claimed last year’s scoring title after averaging 18.4 points per game, has been particularly effective against the Bulldogs, especially during the past two seasons. Earlier this year, Lo tallied 21 points, seven steals and six rebounds, while he posted games of 20 points and 18 points against the Bulldogs a year ago in two games that Yale and Columbia split.
Other key contributors for the Lions include Alex Rosenberg, at 14.2 points per game, and Grant Mullins, at 13.6 points per game, while guard Luke Petrasek is also scoring in double figures for the Lions, who rank second in the Ivy League in scoring at 77.3 points per game.
Where Columbia struggled in its first meeting against the Bulldogs on Feb. 5 was the frontcourt. Forward Justin Sears ’16, who currently ranks fourth in the conference in scoring with 16.7 points per game, scored 27 points and forward Brandon Sherrod ’16 registered a career-high 25 points in the victory.
“You’re not gonna stop [Sears],” Columbia head coach Kyle Smith said. “You don’t want to give him put-backs, tip-ins, dunks, or put him on the foul line … You gotta mix it up on him. Any good player will adjust to how you’re playing him if you have a steady rule … You’re playing with fire on whether you double him in certain situations, he’ll make you pay. You gotta respect him.”
The Bulldogs combined to make a season-best 61.5 percent of their shots from the field in a lights-out shooting performance that will be difficult to replicate in the unfriendly confines of Levien Gymnasium.
Yale enters having won five of its past six games, all without former captain Jack Montague ’16, whose last weekend of play came against Columbia and Cornell. Without Montague, guard Anthony Dallier ’17 has stepped into the starting lineup, with guards Trey Phills ’19 and Khaliq Ghani ’16 coming off the bench in expanded roles.
Meanwhile, Mason has seen an uptick in minutes. After averaging 30.3 minutes per game in the first six games of Ivy League play, the point guard has averaged 36.8 minutes per contest in the six games since.
Offensively, the team has seen a dip in its three-point shooting efficiency. The Bulldogs shot 25 percent from deep, and made just 11 three-pointers, in its first four games without Montague, though they did make 11 last weekend, at a 31.4 percent clip.
Yale tips off in Ithaca at 6 p.m. on Friday and in New York City at 7 p.m. on Saturday. Both games will be available for streaming on the Ivy League Digital Network, and the Cornell game will also be broadcast on the American Sports Network.