If this were last season, the Yale men’s basketball team would be done. Trailing undefeated Princeton and a game behind Harvard in the standings, the Elis’ season would be over, their three-game win streak would be for naught and all 14 players would have shifted their attention to spring break and the offseason.
But not this year.
Instead, Yale (17–10, 9–5 Ivy) will enter the inaugural Ivy League Tournament — a four-team battle at the Palestra whose winner will go on to represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament — with plenty of momentum. While undefeated and Ivy League-champion Princeton presents a challenge, the Bulldogs have a more immediate opponent: They will drop the gloves with Harvard (18–9, 10–4) for the third time this season, knowing full well that the Crimson has gotten the better of them so far this season.
“It’s the best thing for our conference,” head coach James Jones said of the tournament. “Now everyone is talking about if someone is going to knock off Princeton. That drama is going to play itself out … in Philadelphia, and it’s great for our league to have that drama.”
Over its past three games, Yale has averaged 88 points per contest behind shooting percentages of 52.9 from the field and 40.8 from three-point range, both of which surpass the league-best in that category for the season. Five Bulldogs averaged over 10 points per game in that span, and as a team, they turned the ball over just 10 times per contest.
While Yale is 1–5 against the tournament teams on the season, four of those five losses came during the same four-game losing streak last month in which the Elis shot uncharacteristically poorly. Over the course of the season, Yale made a league-high 47 percent of its shots and ranked third in the Ancient Eight from the arc, a shooting form it has regained in recent weeks after February’s four-game slump.
“The last couple weeks we’ve really tried to work on some stuff offensively,” captain and guard Anthony Dallier ’17 said. “We’re trying to run our motion offense more often and execute within it. I think it’s shown we’ve put the time into it on the court.”
While Dallier ranks second in the league in assists on the season, fellow senior and forward Sam Downey ’17 ranks third in the Ancient Eight with 6.8 rebounds per game and second to only Harvard’s Chris Lewis in field-goal percentage. The two became the winningest class in modern Yale basketball history this season after notching their 81st victory for the Bulldogs.
“Sam has been the most consistent player we’ve had all year,” Jones said. “You can almost pencil him in for 10 and seven or 12 and seven every night.”
As Yale has learned in two previous matchups with Harvard, a strong performance from Downey will not be enough to overcome the Crimson. A victory will require a balanced offensive attack, something the Bulldogs have prided themselves on for much of the season. Three players finished the regular season in double digit scoring — Downey and guards Alex Copeland ’19 and Miye Oni ’20 — while another four players average between seven and 10 points per game.
But the Elis’ biggest strength this year has been their rebounding, an element it will hope to exploit in Philadelphia. As the top rebounding team in the league, Yale has secured a handful of extra possessions for itself each game, with an average rebounding margin of 3.7 on the glass. Both Downey and Oni rank in the top five in the league in terms of boards per contest.
Still, Yale will need to be prepared for a Harvard team which matches up pretty well with its strengths. The Crimson narrowly trails the Elis in rebounding by less than a board per game and in conference play, has the second-stingiest defense and the highest-scoring offense. Harvard’s first-team All-Ivy senior point guard Siyani Chambers anchored the otherwise young Crimson attack throughout its 10–4 season, leading the league in assists per game while surrounded by three freshmen and a sophomore.
In the first iteration of the rivalry, at John J. Lee Amphitheater on Feb. 11, Yale played a strong game overall, led at half and even neutralized the Harvard big men, but ultimately fell by a 75–67 score. Copeland’s 20 points and Downey’s 15 points and 14 rebounds were not enough to overcome Yale’s 18.8-percent three-point mark and Crimson guard Bryce Aiken’s 27 points.
Yale did not look like itself a few weeks later in Cambridge, falling 77–64 despite leading at halftime and outrebounding Harvard by an even wider margin than in the first game. Another 20 from Copeland and double-double from Downey could not get the Bulldogs past 22 from Aiken and 18 from forward Seth Towns.
“It’s the same game plan,” guard Trey Phills ’19 said. “We have to play two halves. Both times we’ve played them, we had a really solid 20-minute half but couldn’t do it for the 40-minute span. If we do that, we should come out with the win.”
A key for Yale in this revenge matchup will be to run its motion offense efficiently and with purpose, with the goal of involving other offensive weapons besides Copeland and Downey. According to Jones, the Elis played disjointed in their Feb. 24 matchup with the Crimson, though they most recently corrected with assists on 44 of their 60 buckets last weekend. Defensively, limiting Aiken has to be the top priority: having Phills glue himself to the Ivy League Rookie of the Year at all times could be the best option.
Jones will expect his team to battle, but win or lose, the 2016–17 season was a bright one for Yale, as the team overcame several obstacles in order to reach the Palestra.
Among those who played significant minutes on last year’s tournament team, only Dallier and Downey returned. The Bulldogs lost three All-Ivy players to graduation: forward and 2015–16 Ivy League Player of the Year Justin Sears ’16, forward Brandon Sherrod ’16 and guard Nick Victor ’16. If this wasn’t enough of a challenge, Yale then lost its top returning player, first-team All-Ivy guard and NCAA tournament hero Makai Mason ’18, to a season-ending injury right before the start of the season.
“With those guys being lost, there are obviously some shoes to fill,” Jones told the News in a November pre-season interview. “That’s why you’ve got guys who are willing to take the next step.”
To replace this production, Yale’s underclassmen stepped up and played their role. Forward Blake Reynolds ’19 joined Downey as a starter in the frontcourt and shot 34.5 percent from three. He was joined by forward Jordan Bruner ’20, who for much of the season led the Ivy League in blocked shots.
Sophomores Phills and Copeland joined Dallier in the backcourt and formed a formidable pairing — Copeland has been nearly unguardable off the dribble, and Phills has shone as a lockdown defender and capable scorer.
Yet there was no greater boon in the backcourt than Oni. The Rookie of the Year candidate was a menace both from the three-point line and on the glass, leading his team in scoring and rim-shattering slams. The second-team All-Ivy honoree has consistently been a very difficult matchup for opponents — his size presents problems for guards, while his quickness has burdened forwards tasked with defending him.
Jones knows what it will take to lead his time to victory this weekend. In his 18th season as head coach, Jones is the most successful coach in school history and one of the winningest in Ivy League history as well. A back-to-back Coach of the Year recipient in 2014–15 and 2015–16, Jones led the Bulldogs to the best campaign in school history last season, culminating in its first NCAA tournament appearance in 54 years. By Sunday afternoon, Yale could punch its second ticket to the Big Dance in as many years.
Tip-off against Harvard from the Palestra is at 4 p.m. on Saturday. The winner will go on to play in the championship game at noon on Sunday, against either Princeton or Penn.