Courtesy of Steve Musco/Yale Athletics
Yale men’s basketball opened its season traveling to China in the fall. It battled Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium a month later. The Elis captured the seventh Ivy League title in school history last weekend in New Jersey. And now, the Bulldogs return to their own friendly confines — the 2800-seat John J. Lee Amphitheater — for Ivy Madness this weekend with an NCAA tournament berth on the line.
Seeded second after sharing the regular season title with Harvard, the Elis (20–7, 10–4 Ivy) meet No. 3 Princeton (16–11, 8–6) on Saturday afternoon in what they hope will mark the start of a postseason run that only grows more exciting. In two meetings this season, Yale outscored Princeton by a combined 36 points, drawing on a career night from this season’s Ivy League Player of the Year, guard Miye Oni ’20, in February and a balanced, second-half attack at Jadwin Gymnasium last weekend in a 22-point victory.
Princeton’s tumultuous path through conference play has been marred by the intermittent — and now permanent — unavailability of senior guard Devin Cannady, who is taking a leave of absence from the school for personal reasons. Tiger head coach Mitch Henderson announced at Ivy Madness Media Day on Friday that sophomore guard Ryan Schwieger, named Ivy League Player of the Week in late February after assuming a larger role in the Princeton rotation, will also not be playing against Yale due to injury. Yet the Bulldogs, in spite of their opponent’s personnel shifts, are maintaining a focus on themselves as Yale prepares to compete in its third consecutive Ivy League tournament.
“We worry about what the 18 guys in our locker room are doing and what we’re going to do to come in and step on the floor and just play against whoever steps out there against us,” forward Jordan Bruner ’20 said. “It’s not really about Princeton or what goes on with them over the course of the season, it’s just about what the Yale Bulldogs do and what we’re going to come in and do when we step on the floor.”
Yet even with both Cannady and Schwieger in action against Yale in early February, Princeton still suffered a 14-point defeat against the Bulldogs in New Haven. Only twice have the Tigers dropped a game by double digits since their 51-point demolition at Duke in December, both coming against Yale.
The first bout between the Bulldogs and the Tigers saw Yale deal Princeton its first conference loss of the season. Paced by an impressive showing from Oni, who scored a career-high 35 points on 66.7 percent shooting from the field, the Elis seized control of the contest midway through the first half and assembled a 14-point advantage at halftime. A pair of free throws from first-year guard Jaelin Llewellyn, who has started all 14 of Princeton’s league contests, dissolved the Bulldog lead with roughly 11 and a half minutes left in the game. But Yale barked back, establishing a commanding lead on the backs of its veteran leaders and cementing the final score at 74–60.
Princeton’s first league loss marked Cannady’s return to the hardwood following a suspension from the team resulting from an off-campus altercation. Struggling to find a rhythm, the normally-sharpshooting Cannady went a woeful three for 12 from the field in his shaky return, and his insertion into the lineup reduced the chemistry of the Princeton group that had recalibrated in his absence. Center Richmond Aririguzoh, a second team All-Ivy player, scored 17 points and grabbed seven boards in his team’s losing effort.
“Not in twenty years of coaching [have I seen an improvement like Aririguzoh’s],” Henderson said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I tell the staff all the time, I’m like, ‘Don’t get used to this. This is unbelievable.’ … Every game he gets better. Every game, every minute. He’s just a star of a person.”
Following a tough loss to Penn at the Palestra — Yale’s first back-to-back defeat since November — the Bulldogs stormed Jadwin Gymnasium in their final league showdown. Yale’s dominant performance clinched it a share of the regular season title, as the Elis outmatched the Tigers in every major statistical category and cruised to an 81–59 victory, the Bulldogs’ largest-ever margin of victory against a Princeton program that has advanced to the NCAA tournament a league-leading 25 times.
Despite the season sweep, Princeton has made it clear that the Ivy tournament represents a chance to start fresh. Fully adopting the mantra that anything can happen in the month of March, Henderson’s squad maintained a light composure at media day.
“I think anytime you come into a conference tournament, it’s a new season,” senior guard Myles Stephens said. “One through four, everyone has the same chance of winning, so we’re looking at this as a clean slate. We played Yale twice now, but tomorrow is going to be like playing them for the first time again.”
Although ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives Yale an 86.9 percent chance to win, the Bulldogs are not taking anything for granted. Oni specifically expressed the Elis’ intention to enter tomorrow afternoon’s contest with the same “fire and intensity” that propelled Yale to a sweep of Princeton earlier this year.
The Elis also figure to benefit from local support and a veteran core that loves to fly on the fast break in front of it. As of Saturday morning, the Ivy League advertised that less than 200 tickets remained for Saturday’s men’s semifinals, and Yale Athletics sent an email to students earlier this week marketing 60 student tickets that will be available for tomorrow’s playoff game. With an experienced starting lineup that has played three Ivy Madness games over the past two seasons, the Bulldogs have dropped only two games at JLA this season.
One more will end Yale’s season. But just two wins will send it to college basketball’s biggest, brightest stage.
“We have a word of the day every day on our practice plan,” Jones explained Friday. “And the word of the day is deserve. Every team deserves to be here. They fought hard all year, they did what it took to get themselves to this point. Every single one of the young men on every single one of these teams playing this weekend will go to bed tonight with their head on the pillow dreaming about playing in the NCAA tournament, thinking that they have the opportunity. So that being said, we need to make sure we play our best games.”
When Yale last met Princeton in the postseason, the Tigers defeated the Bulldogs 71–59 in the 2017 Ivy Madness championship.
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