Nina Lindberg

With five wins in its first six Ivy games, Yale men’s basketball owns sole possession of first place for the first time since the 2015–16 season. That 2016 squad, featuring Makai Mason ’18, Justin Sears ’16 and Brandon Sherrod ’16, dropped only one Ancient Eight game en route to an Ivy League championship and the Bulldogs’ first-ever win in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Now, this year’s team approaches the second-half of conference play with the same goal. Coming off consecutive, double-digit wins over Dartmouth, Princeton and Penn, Yale (15–4, 5–1 Ivy) travels to New York this weekend. They will face last-place Columbia (6–14, 1–5) in Manhattan on Friday night and Cornell (12–10, 4–2) in Ithaca on Saturday. The Big Red’s lineup will feature prolific senior guard Matt Morgan, who leads the league in scoring with 23.5 points per game.

“We definitely are happy to be in the position we’re in, but we can’t get too complacent,” guard Trey Phills ’19 said. “A lot can happen in half of a conference season, so we’re really just trying to treat each Friday and Saturday as a must-win weekend.”

According to the Yale Undergraduate Sports Analytics Group, Yale and Brown enter the second half of conference play with the easiest remaining strength of schedule. On the other hand, Cornell, which currently sits in a three-way tie for second with Princeton and Harvard, faces the most difficult remaining schedule along with its Empire State counterpart, Columbia.

Yet that doesn’t mean the Lions — who currently lie at the bottom of the Ancient Eight ladder with one league win — can’t threaten teams throughout the Ivy League, which continues to showcase its depth. Last week, the Lions forced Harvard into a triple-overtime thriller that featured 26 points from Lion guard Gabe Stefanini and 44 from Crimson guard Bryce Aiken, whose acrobatic buzzer-beater was SportsCenter’s top play of the night.

Although Columbia fell 98–96 at the fourth and final buzzer, the team’s trio of Stefanini, guard Quinton Adlesh and forward Patrick Tapé combined for 72 points. Each is averaging over 10 per night, and Stefanini — the sophomore who has started every game for Columbia this season after averaging less than six points, two rebounds and 14 minutes as a first year  — is tied with guard Miye Oni ’20 in a league-leading 3.8 assists per game. Junior guard Mike Smith, who led the Light Blue with 17.6 points a game last year as a second-team All-Ivy selection, suffered a season-ending meniscus tear in a 74–71 win over Iona on Dec. 9.

“We are going to focus on continuing to play our brand of basketball,” captain and forward Blake Reynolds ’19 said. “We know we have a lot of offensive weapons, and if we play good team defense and share the ball, we stand a good chance against anyone.”

Despite averaging a league-low 69.8 points a game, Cornell boasts Morgan, arguably the greatest scoring threat in the conference. The reigning Ivy League player averages 23.5 points per game, which ranks 11th in the NCAA, ahead of Duke’s tandem of guard RJ Barrett and forward Zion Williamson, the projected top-two picks in the NBA Draft. Morgan, who declared as an early entrant to the draft before removing himself in both 2017 and 2018, has scored over 30 points four times this season. In the Big Red’s 83–80 win over Dartmouth last Friday, Morgan dropped a career-high 41 points on nine of 11, shooting from beyond the arc in 34 minutes.

The Bulldogs are very familiar with the senior from North Carolina, who has averaged at least 18 points a game since his first-year season with the Big Red. As a sophomore, he scored 28 points in a March 2017 loss in New Haven. He and Oni, who earned Ivy League Player of the Week honors over Morgan earlier this week, became friends soon after the game.

“We met when we played the first time my freshman year,” Oni said. “I was guarding him, we were up like 25 at our home … and I was telling him, ‘You won’t shoot it right now, you won’t shoot it.’ And he was like, ‘Are you sure?’ He just shoots it, and he hits it. I dapped him up, ever since then we’ve been friends. That’s when I thought, ‘Oh okay, I like this guy right here.’”

Morgan carried the Big Red to its first Ivy Madness appearance last season as a fourth seed and continues to put the team on his back this season. He is responsible for 25.5 percent of all Cornell field goal attempts and 33.5 percent of its three-point attempts. Forwards Josh Warren and Jimmy Boeheim — the son of nearby Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim — both contribute an average of 10.6 points per game and will team with Morgan in an effort to hand Yale its first loss in Ithaca since the 2011–12 season.

Phills, who helped Yale limit opposing scoring threats in Brown guard Desmond Cambridge and Dartmouth guard Brendan Barry to a combined 12–44 in three games over the past month, will likely draw the Morgan assignment on defense.

“Matt’s done a great job this season at being efficient when he has the ball, but he also moves very well without it,” Phills said. “I think I’ll be alright if I just stay locked into him and limit the easy looks he creates from good cutting.”

Yale has an 83.4 percent chance to beat the Lions on Friday in the Big Apple and a 78.6 percent chance to defeat Cornell on Saturday according to YUSAG. Both games will tip off at 7 p.m. from Levien Gymnasium and Newman Arena, respectively.

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu

Cris Zillo | cris.zillo@yale.edu

WILLIAM MCCORMACK
William McCormack currently serves as a Sports and Digital Editor for the Yale Daily News. He previously covered men’s basketball and the athletic administration as a staff reporter. Originally from Boston, he is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.
CRISTOFER ZILLO