Though just one month has passed, the 14-game Ivy League Basketball season has already dwindled down to a final six-game stretch. The teams have all played one another at least once, and just three weekends remain before tipoff at the second annual Ivy League Tournament.
While Penn and Harvard find themselves comfortably clear of the rest of the pack in a tie for first, the Yale men’s basketball team sits in a tie for third with Brown, a single game ahead of three other teams. But the standings can change drastically from week to week. Just last weekend, the Bulldogs catapulted from sixth to third with two wins.
With this in mind, the Elis (11–13, 4–4 Ivy) will hit the road on Friday for the first of two consecutive road weekends; they will first travel to Hanover to take on the league-worst Big Green (5–16, 1–7), before heading south to Cambridge to take on the Crimson (12–11, 7–1). In its earlier Dartmouth-Harvard series, Yale lost a dramatic affair to Harvard before coming back the next night to comfortably handle Dartmouth.
“The league changes every week,” head coach James Jones said. “There’s a lot of parity, especially with the injuries to us and also to Harvard. We have to take it week by week, and where you are now does not [indicate] where you’ll be next week. We have to make sure that we go out and play hard and try to get two victories [this] weekend.”
The topic of potential returns from injury will loom over the weekend as both Yale and Harvard wait to see if their star point guards will be ready for action. The Bulldogs’ Makai Mason ’18, who has not played in nearly two years, declared himself “questionable to probable” for the upcoming weekend on Tuesday. News 8 Sports followed with a report on Thursday suggesting that the former first-team All-Ivy guard is expected to play this weekend — more likely against the Crimson than the Big Green — in the absence of a setback.
For the Crimson, there seems to be less buzz surrounding the return of reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year Bryce Aiken, who has been dealing with a knee injury for the last two months. After missing four games following the initial injury, Aiken attempted to return on two separate occasions, including during the first matchup with Yale. But he has missed the last three games, and his status remains up in the air.
The Blue’s relative inexperience due to the Mason injury has made playing on the road all the more difficult; the team has dropped all three of its Ivy League games away from John J. Lee Amphitheater.
“The thing that you get on the road in a new gym is you want to make sure that the reserves are going to be able to be confident to come in and help you,” Jones said. “One of the reasons we were successful this past weekend is because guys came off the bench, and they just came out and played. We need that same effort out of them. Regardless of if they make shots or not, their effort and their energy needs to be there, and that’s going to be important for us on the road.”
In last weekend’s sweep of Columbia and Cornell, Jones’s team benefitted from confident play from first-year guard Azar Swain ’21 and forward Noah Yates ’18, who joined the team as a walk-on last season. The bench duo combined for 11–19 shooting from distance on the weekend. By contrast, Yates and Swain combined for just eight points across two games away from home at Princeton and Penn.
Yates and rookie forward Wyatt Yess ’21 both played important minutes over the course of the weekend when Yale’s frontcourt fell into foul trouble in each contest. Yess’ 16 minutes against the Lions were his highest total of the season, with the exception of a matchup with the Division-III school Curry.
The atmosphere at Lavietes Pavilion in Cambridge will be especially charged, as ESPNU will be televising the game on its national platform. The hype surrounding Mason’s potential return only adds to possible distractions for the Elis.
Yale, of course, is trying its best to focus exclusively on the game — something that, according to guard Alex Copeland ’19, was lacking in the team’s mental approach leading up to the previous game with Harvard.
“I think we were attacking it with the mindset of, ‘this is a rivalry game’ — just taking it really seriously,” Copeland said. “Especially now that there’s some things in the league that have changed, we’re going into this game more like this is just another team, just another obstacle in the way of our goal. We just have to go out and execute.”
Against the Crimson the first time around, the Bulldogs got off to their worst start of the season, falling behind 20–5 before the midway mark of the first half. Harvard’s defense suffocated the Elis, who shot an abysmal 30.4 percent from the field. Although Yale came all the way back to take a lead with just over five minutes remaining, the Crimson closed out the game and won 54–52.
Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker pointed to his team’s defense and the performance of forward Chris Lewis as the difference makers in the game. Lewis gave the Bulldog frontcourt all it could handle with 16 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks on 7–11 shooting. Still, Jones has not planned anything special for the Crimson big man.
“When you start double-teaming him and the ball gets out to other guys, you help make him better,” Jones said. “He’s a tough matchup one on one, so we want to give as much help off the perimeter as we can without giving up open jump shots.”
The Bulldogs’ first concern of the weekend, however, is Dartmouth — and looking past the Big Green could be a costly mistake. The Hanover hoopsters finally picked up their first win of the conference season in a blowout of a struggling Princeton team last Saturday, and could play spoiler to any number of Ivy Tournament hopefuls down the stretch.
Only two of Dartmouth’s seven Ancient Eight losses has been by more than five points, with one of those coming in Yale’s 74–64 victory in New Haven. Even in that game, though, the Big Green tested the Elis. As late as the 2:49 mark, Dartmouth was within a single possession.
A player the Bulldogs will need to keep an eye on is Taylor Johnson, who led the way for his team against Yale with 15 points in the first matchup. Johnson was named to the Ivy League Honor Roll last week for his back-to-back double-digit scoring performances against Penn and Princeton and could spell trouble for the Elis.
Yale’s matchup with the Big Green is set to tip off at 7 p.m.
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