William McCormack, Contributing Photographer

BOSTON — After a two-year wait and a three-year gap since the last tournament, Ivy Madness is finally beginning. 

Eight Ivy League basketball teams filtered through Harvard’s Lavietes Pavilion Thursday evening and Friday morning, holding press conferences and short practices on the court where the season’s most important games will play out later this weekend.

Back in 2019, when the Ivy League last held its postseason tournament, these media day routines were familiar enough for most in the league. The conference instituted Ivy Madness in 2017 and moved it away from the Palestra at Penn for the first time in 2019, bringing it to Yale’s John J. Lee Amphitheater as part of an ongoing leaguewide rotation. But in Boston this weekend, there are very few players who have ever stepped onto the championship court — with Ivy League green emblazoned on each baseline and a large conference logo in the center — or played with such high postseason stakes. 

“There’s only one member of our team who’s been to Ivy Madness, and that’s [forward] Alex Cade [‘22],” Yale women’s basketball forward Camilla Emsbo ’23 said during a press conference with guard Jenna Clark ’24 and their head coach, Allison Guth, Thursday evening. “I think a big priority for this week is knowing that we haven’t been here, but kind of pretending that we’ve all been here before in our attitudes. We’ve played all these teams, we know all these teams and we know ourselves by this point.”

Yale women’s basketball forward Camilla Emsbo ’23, head coach Allison Guth and guard Jenna Clark ’24 during Thursday’s press conference (Courtesy of Ivy League)

The Yale women’s team last competed in Ivy Madness in 2018, when the event was held in Philadelphia. Emsbo’s observation is a trend that recurs across other teams in the conference and in both the men’s and women’s bracket. No. 2 Columbia (21–5, 12–2 Ivy), No. 3 Yale’s (16–10, 9–5) opponent in the second women’s semifinal Friday night, has not played a postseason game in 36 years. The Lions set program records with 21 wins and 12 Ivy League victories during the regular season, including two over Yale.

When the four qualifying women’s basketball teams spoke to the media and held open shootarounds Thursday afternoon, it was two years from the day that the conference abruptly announced the cancellation of the 2020 tournament, sending headlines through the sports world as the reality of the pandemic set in. That year’s event was also set to take place at Harvard. After a more than yearlong pause of competitive athletics, the conference and its basketball programs have finally reached the weekend — the “ultimate back-to-back,” as the league brands it — that they had been anticipating since that week when the world seemed to fall apart in March 2020. 

“It’s a long time coming,” Yale guard and captain Jalen Gabbidon ’22, who missed the end of his sophomore year and the Elis’ 2019 tournament championship with an injury, said Friday morning. “I’m just really excited. I’ve been waiting for this moment for two years now.”

On Thursday, the No. 3 Yale women’s team participated in the final open shootaround of the day. The No. 2 Yale men’s team, practicing above, had the third shootaround of Friday morning. (Courtesy of Drew Dummer)

On Yale’s men’s team, guard Azar Swain ’22 is the only one who has played significant minutes in the tournament, despite the fact that his team won the men’s championship the last time Ivy Madness occurred three years ago.

The No. 2 Bulldogs’ (17–11, 11–3) opponent in Saturday’s second men’s semifinal, No. 3 Penn (12–15, 9–5), are the only two men’s programs to make every Ivy League tournament to date. The Quakers only have one player who has checked into a postseason game before: guard Bryce Washington, who played two minutes in a 2019 Ivy Madness semifinal against Harvard. Quakers senior co-captain Jelani Williams is a special case, having never played a college game entering this season after suffering three consecutive ACL tears, the first of which came during his senior year of high school. “[Getting to Ivy Madness is] something I’ve dreamed about since I committed,” he told reporters during Penn’s press conference on Friday, the last of the day.

Despite the fact that most players are getting their first exposure to the event and the high-pressure competition that accompanies it, open shootarounds felt light and fluid for most teams. Yale men’s basketball head coach James Jones, who played basketball at the University at Albany in the 1980s, showed off his defensive stance at Lavietes Friday and attempted to steal the ball from his players during dribbling exercises. The Yale men’s team practiced offsite at Boston University, where James Jones’ brother Joe is the head men’s basketball coach, Friday morning before showing up to Lavietes around noon for its press conference and shootaround. 

Yale head coach James Jones plays defense on guard and captain Jalen Gabbidon ’22 during Friday’s open shootaround (Courtesy of Drew Dummer)

The Ivy League’s media team captured candid video reactions from players with a selfie camera. On Thursday, a reporter for Ivy Hoops Online told Yale coach Guth that Emsbo and Clark seemed loose and relaxed. 

“I think your team assumes the identity of your leader,” Guth said. “Since we haven’t been here before for the majority of our team, as a coaching staff, we try to prepare them in every way for what it’s gonna feel like and what it’s gonna be like. I need them to know — it’s ok, like you can’t see under these masks right now, but they’re smiling and enjoying this moment.

“I think there’s a hungry yet very humble mentality about ourself and wanting to control our own destiny,” Guth added. “What makes a champion is being able to focus on what’s important in the moment now. I think we’re very young and youthful, but we’re learning what that looks like and feels like.”

Swain said he had “extremely high expectations” for himself and his team. He and Yale’s men’s team are set to tip off with Penn Saturday at 2 p.m. on ESPNU in the event’s last semifinal matchup. The Yale women’s team will face Columbia Friday night at 7:30 p.m on ESPN+.

William McCormack covered Yale men's basketball from 2018 to 2022. He served as Sports Editor and Digital Editor for the Managing Board of 2022 and also reported on the athletic administration as a staff reporter. Originally from Boston, he was in Timothy Dwight College.