The last time the Yale men’s basketball team played at the Palestra in Philadelphia, the stakes could not have been higher. The Bulldogs faced Princeton in the Ivy League Championship for the right to play in March Madness, but they ultimately fell 71–59.
This weekend, the Elis (9–11, 2–2 Ivy) will try to erase all memories of last year’s season-ending loss when they face off against Princeton (10–8, 3–1) and also return to the Palestra, albeit in separate games. Yale will first travel to New Jersey to take on the Tigers on Friday night, before ending its toughest back to back of the season with a bout against Penn (13–6, 3–0) on Saturday.
With 10 conference games still on the schedule, the stakes are not quite as high as they were the last time, but this weekend’s steep competition could serve as a prelude to March’s conference tournament and a test of whether an inconsistent Yale team can contend with two of the conference’s premier schools.
“Winning games on the road is something that’s very hard to do, and winning league games is very hard to do,” head coach James Jones said after the Bulldogs’ first conference road game. “We’ll certainly try to continue to strive to do our best, and hopefully [guard] Makai [Mason ’18] comes back here at some point and gives us a little bit of a boost to our team.”
On the Mason front, all signs continue to point to the fifth-year star progressing toward a comeback from his foot injury in the near future, but the team has not provided a specific timetable. With or without Mason, the Bulldogs will be buoyed by the return of forward Blake Reynolds ’19, who suffered a hamstring injury two games ago and missed the Elis’ most recent contest against Dartmouth.
In Reynolds’ absence, Yale struggled to rebound against the Big Green but won behind the strong play of its backcourt. Guards Alex Copeland ’19 and Trey Phills ’19 continued their strong starts to conference play with 25 and 17 points, respectively, while guard Miye Oni ’20 appeared to break out of a shooting slump with 16 points, including three second-half 3-pointers. The Bulldogs will likely require similarly strong performances from these players as they prepare to face two of the top teams in the Ancient Eight.
“I just started thinking a little bit less, letting the game come to me,” Phills said of his recent offensive production. “It’s always nice to get a couple of early layups, I think that opens things up a lot of things because the defenders start sagging off to respect the drive a little bit more. Then if I’m knocking down shots, [the lane] opens up and vice versa.”
Jones’ team will begin the weekend at Princeton, which went undefeated through 14 conference games a season ago and has not lost at home since the Elis bested them in February of 2015. The defending Ivy champions graduated two of their top players a season ago, as Player of the Year Spencer Weisz and first-team All-Ivy Steven Cook finished out their eligibility, but Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson has returned a strong team.
The Tigers are led this season by two juniors in sharpshooting guard Devin Cannady, who ranks third in the conference in scoring with 18.2 points per game, and defending Defensive Player of the Year and Ivy League Tournament Most Valuable Player Myles Stephens. Cannady has emerged as one of the conference’s top scoring threats from both inside and beyond the 3-point arc, and Stephens continues to dominate on both ends of the floor with his high motor. Apart from the two juniors, senior Amir Bell also serves as a major contributor with 9.9 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.
Although Princeton is not as invincible as it was a season ago, it comes into Friday’s contest fresh off three dominant wins. After dropping a six-point affair to Penn at the Palestra to open the conference season, the defending champions have beaten their last three opponents, including two Ivy teams, in Columbia and Cornell, by an average of 29.7 points.
The Tigers’ success has come in large part from their prowess from deep, as they average 10 makes from three per game and shoot 39.6 percent from beyond the arc, the highest mark in the conference. The Bulldogs will need to be careful not to return to their early-season habit of depending on 3-point shots, as a shootout would favor Princeton on paper.
After their matchup with the Tigers, the Elis will return to the famed Palestra to take on an up-and-coming Penn team. As the fourth and final team to make the inaugural Ivy Tournament a season ago, the Quakers gave Princeton a first round scare by taking the undefeated Tigers to overtime before eventually succumbing, 72–64. This year, they took the next step and ended Princeton’s 16-game conference winning streak.
Penn has shown a remarkable consistency and balance in its starting lineup as the same five players have started all 19 games for head coach Steve Donahue. All five starters average at least 8.1 points and 3.7 rebounds, with sophomores Ryan Betley and A.J. Brodeur leading the scoring charge. Even with no one averaging more than 12.2 points per game, the Quakers lead the Ivy League by scoring an average of 77.6 points per game.
Donahue’s team has likewise set the bar for the league on the defensive end. Penn tops the Ancient Eight in opponent 3-point and field-goal percentage and ranks second in points allowed. Against Harvard, the number one defensive scoring team in the conference, Yale struggled to score and fell behind 20–5. The Elis must avoid another disastrous offensive start if they hope to have a chance against the Quakers.
The weekend plunges Yale into two high-energy environments on the road after starting the conference season with three out of four games at home.
“I think we’re used to [big crowds], being returners,” Oni said after the loss to Harvard, in front of a sold-out crowd. “I thought we did a good job of handling the noise, getting into our play calls, especially after their initial run. I thought this our best defensive effort all year after their run, so that’s a positive to build off of for the next game.”
The Elis will tip off against Princeton at 6 p.m. on Friday night and at 7 p.m. against Penn on Saturday night.
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