Following a successful out-of-conference slate, the Yale men’s basketball team charges into conference play this weekend looking to extend its six-game winning streak and earn its first Ivy League win of the season.
The Elis (10–3, 0–0 Ivy) head to neighboring Rhode Island to finally go toe-to-toe with a conference foe. In the midst of its own six-game winning streak, Brown (12–4, 0–0 Ivy), who the Bulldogs will face both this weekend and the next, also enters the matchup with momentum and a successful nonconference period. The Bears begin Ivy play having won 12 of their last 14 games — their dozen wins amount to the most non-league victories in program history.
“Getting off to a strong start in the league is definitely critical for us,” guard Eric Monroe ’20 said. “The league is so balanced, and the first few results have shown that any team can best any other team on any given night. You really have to focus and lock in to dig out wins in our league. We are approaching our game on Saturday like any other game, but making a statement to start Ivy play is a goal of ours.”
A couple months ago, Yale might not have expected its league opener to hold so much weight. The 2018–19 Men’s Basketball Preseason Poll placed Brown in the bottom half of the conference, projecting the Bears to finish a distant fifth. But after their historic start, the Bears now rest comfortably in the postseason picture. According to the Yale Undergraduate Sports Analytics Group, Yale owns a 96.3 percent chance to make the four-team Ivy Madness playoff, while Brown only trails by a handful of percentage points at 89.1 percent.
Brown comes into this weekend’s matchup boasting the best defense in the Ivy League, allowing its opponents to score an average of just 67.4 points per game. The Bears limit opponents to 39.4 percent shooting from the field and 28 percent from the three-point mark — two figures that lead the Ancient Eight.
“I think last time [Brown] definitely just pressured a lot in the half-court, so that’s one thing we do need to improve on, our half-court offense,” guard Trey Phills ’19 said. “We’re going to have to learn how to grind teams out in the half-court a little better.”
The Bears’ scoring offense, meanwhile, ranks second in the conference, trailing only Yale’s — the Bulldogs lead the league with 84.1 points per game and exactly 50 percent shooting on field goals. Six-foot-4-inch guard Desmond Cambridge — last season’s unanimous Ivy League Rookie of the Year — spearheads Brown’s attack. The Nashville, Tennessee native, who broke Brown’s freshman points record last year and ranks third on this season’s Ivy League scoring leaderboard, averages 18.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.
Alongside guard Miye Oni ’20 and three other Ancient Eight talents, Cambridge was named last week to the watch list for the Lou Henson Award — which recognizes the best mid-major player in Division I men’s basketball. An explosive scorer, he and Oni have both attracted attention from NBA scouts.
Brown also significantly benefits from the contributions of sophomore forward Tamenang Choh, senior guard Obi Okolie and junior guard Brandon Anderson. Choh, who leads the Bears in rebounds, assists and field goal percentage, ranks third in the Ivy League with eight rebounds a game, while Anderson’s 1.5 steals a game is fourth best in the conference. Forward Matt DeWolf rounds out the starting lineup, and guard Zach Hunsaker, forward Joshua Howard, guard David Mitchell and guard Chris Sullivan conclude the usual rotation.
Sharpshooting guard Azar Swain ’21 is a former teammate of Choh and Mitchell. The trio played for the Mass Rivals AAU program, where they won the 2016 17U Adidas Summer Championship, and competed as winter opponents in the Boston-area Independent School League. When Choh and Swain faced off as seniors in 2017, the Brooks School and Choh beat the Rivers School and Swain, who scored 18 points, by three.
“It’s special to see guys you’ve grown up playing with and against at this level,” said Swain. “It’s going to be a lot of fun because we are all competitors. Off the court, those are my brothers, but on the court, it will definitely be a dog fight.”
During last year’s campaign, the two programs each earned a home victory in the season series, splitting it 1–1. In Yale’s loss at the Pizzitola Center, the Bears took the game by a point, winning 81–80 for their first victory against the Elis since 2014 after a few clutch free throws and a missed, off-balance layup from Oni.
Models suggest the home-court advantage could play a significant factor. Both Yale and Brown enter conference play undefeated on their own hardwood. YUSAG’s president Luke Benz ’19 give Brown a 53.8 percent chance to win this Saturday at home, while ESPN’s Basketball Power Index features an even greater swing — according to their metric, Brown has a 54.4 percent chance to win this Saturday at home but only a 26.2 percent chance of victory on Friday, Jan. 25 in New Haven.
“We take our home court really seriously,” guard Alex Copeland ’19 said. “But as far as playing on the road, I think it can be more difficult, but I wouldn’t say that we’re necessarily preparing differently or thinking about the game in a different way.”
The game against the Bears tips off Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Providence, Rhode Island.
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