James Jones is a coach, not a statistician, but he has full faith in the law of averages.
With his team coming off a 1–19 shooting performance from 3-point range, his best player mired in a prolonged shooting slump and the Bulldogs (9–13, 2–4 Ivy), who garnered the most first-place votes in the preseason media poll, tied for sixth in the Ivy League, Jones has little doubt that the Yale men’s basketball team will soon get its bearings. Heading into a crucial home slate against Columbia (6–13, 3–3) and Cornell (8–11, 2–4) this weekend, the veteran head coach is not panicking.
“I’m not worried about the standings,” Jones said. “I’ve been doing this in this league for the better part of 20 some odd years, and the standings change week to week. … We’ll be worried about the standings during the last week of the season. Obviously every game is a must-win the way you think about it, but we’re going into this weekend, and we’re approaching it that we just have to play well.”
Behind 6–0 Penn and 5–1 Harvard, Yale and four other teams are within one game of each other in the conference standings. While traditionally most of these teams would already be knocked out of contention for the automatic bid to March Madness, they are now angling for what will likely be the final two spots in the Ivy League Tournament.
Moreover, Cornell and Columbia have reason to believe that they may be able to maneuver their way into one of those two spots. The Lions handed the Crimson its only loss of the conference season thus far in an 83–76 contest last weekend, and the Big Red has by far the most prolific scorer in the conference, which gives Cornell a shot in just about any game.
The two Empire State teams will have history working against them, as just twice in the past seven seasons has either Cornell or Columbia finished in the top four of the conference standings. Still, the Bulldogs cannot afford to look past either team.
“There’s definitely more parity around the league,” guard Miye Oni ’20 said. “Every team has talent; every team can shoot for the most part; every team can score, so we have to be careful every week. We have to make sure we execute our game plan the right way.”
Against Columbia and Cornell, executing the game plan will require locking up on the perimeter. Both opponents have sharpshooters who can make what Jones called “questionable” shots, and Columbia leads the league with 10.3 3-pointers per game, which ranks 18th in the nation. Yale has been extremely effective in limiting its opponents’ long-range attack this season, but its top-two conference ranking in 3-point field-goal percentage defense will be put to the test this weekend.
First up for the Bulldogs on Friday will be Columbia, which finished one win short of qualifyfing for the inaugural Ivy Tournament last year in head coach Jim Engles’ first season and is currently riding a two-game winning streak. Sophomore guard Mike Smith is the engine behind Columbia’s league-leading 3-point offense with averages of 17.4 points and 4.5 assists per game, good for fourth and first in the Ancient Eight. Smith is complemented on the perimeter by sharpshooter Quinton Adlesh, who converts a highly efficient 46.9 percent of his attempts from deep.
Inside the paint, forward Lukas Meisner not only joins Smith and Adlesh as a double-digit scorer for the Lions but also bolsters a rebounding unit that grabs 9.9 offensive rebounds per game. Yale lost the battle on the offensive glass in both of its games last weekend but was somehow able to limit its opponents’ second-chance points; it may not be so fortunate come this weekend if it cannot keep the likes of Meisner off the boards.
Nevertheless, the Bulldogs will have two keys statistics going for them on Friday night: Columbia is 0–4 against Yale in its last four tries as well as 1–10 in road games this season.
Following their bout with the Lions, the Elis will take on another second-year head coach in Brian Earl when they face Cornell the following evening. With one fewer conference win than the Lions, however, Earl’s team will arrive in New Haven with a less impressive resume.
The Big Red may be the less heralded opponent of the weekend but not for a lack of star power. Guard Matt Morgan continues to build off of two consecutive second-team All-Ivy campaigns in which he led the conference in scoring, and, this year, again leads all players in the Ivies in points per game. With a gaudy average of 23.5 points per game, the junior has simply proven unstoppable.
Behind Morgan, Cornell receives 16.7 points per game from junior forward Stone Gettings in just 24.6 minutes per game. Yale will need to continue its improved team defense of late in defending against both of these elite scorers and avoid leaving defenders in isolation situations.
Yale, meanwhile, will hope to quickly put its lackluster offensive showing against Penn behind it. Oni has tallied more than 10 points in only two of the Elis’ six conference games — which happened to be Yale’s two Ancient Eight victories. The sophomore continues to attract significant attention from opposing defenses, which has opened up lanes for guards Trey Phills ’19 and Alex Copeland ’19, but it is difficult to imagine an end-of-season playoff push for Yale without Oni leading the charge.
“There’s always going to be a time that your shot’s not falling, and you have to dig deep and try to find other ways to impact the game as a good player,” Oni said. “Hopefully my shots will start falling again, and then I can try to help my team win more games with the other things I’m able to do on the court.”
Oni’s struggles have been linked to the team’s departure from its offensive identity. Ball movement is a fixture in Jones’s offense, but Ivy League defenses have been forcing more isolation and difficult shots off the dribble. This weekend’s back-to-back home games offer the Blue the opportunity to regain its mojo before two consecutive road weekends.
Tipoff for both games will be at 7 p.m. at John J. Lee Amphitheater.
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