Ben Raab, Contributing Photographer

NEW YORK CITY –– Last season, a loss to Princeton kept Yale just short of the conference title – and a spot in March Madness. Ahead of this year’s Ivy League tournament, the Bulldogs face an even steeper climb to the top. 

Picked to finish first in the Ivy League’s preseason poll, this year’s Ivy No. 2 seeded Yale team (20–9, 11–3 Ivy) has shown both moments of excellence and spells of inconsistency. At times, Yale’s success has been overshadowed by the play of No. 1 Princeton (24–3, 12–2), who rank as one of the nation’s top 50 teams. The Bulldogs’ first-round opponent, No. 3 Cornell, (22–6, 11–3), is having its best season since 2010, completing an Ivy League triumvirate all capable of making an NCAA tournament run. 

“I fully believe that if we play our best game, we can beat anyone,” head coach James Jones told the News earlier this week. “We have to get to the point where we’re playing our best basketball.”

The Elis hit their peak with a stretch of ten wins in January and February, which included home triumphs over Princeton and Cornell. The winning streak also matched the team’s best start to an Ivy League season in school history

But the streak ended in an away loss to Princeton on Feb. 18, and Yale lost again to Cornell in Ithaca the following weekend. In their regular season finale on Saturday, the Bulldogs – entering as 11.5 point favorites – fell to Brown (12–17, 8–6). The loss was reminiscent of Yale’s late-game collapse to Fairfield on Dec. 7, which sunk the team to 5-5 in the standings. 

Though Jones’ squad has taken strides over the last three months and remains a slight favorite over the Big Red on Saturday, the Bulldogs will need to bring their best against a Cornell team that’s much improved from the one Yale beat 80-60 in the tournament’s opening round last season

By now, Yale is familiar with Cornell’s play style. The Big Red play at a rapid offensive pace of 15.1 seconds per possession, which ranks fifth fastest in the country. In front of the neutral crowd in Columbia University’s Levien Gymnasium, Cornell will look to take control of the game by pushing the ball and overwhelming the Bulldogs with their speed. 

Yale kept pace with the Big Red offense in both their regular season matchups, each of which were decided by three points or less. But Yale’s 65-62 road loss to Cornell was marked by a season low 11-26 shooting from the free throw line. And at home, Yale beat Cornell 80-78 despite shooting a season low 3-14 from three. The Bulldogs will need to find a more consistent offensive rhythm early in Saturday’s game. 

In particular, Yale’s offensive success will depend heavily on 7-foot forward Danny Wolf ’26, who was unanimously selected to the all-Ivy first team on Wednesday. The Illinois native averages 14.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per game on the season, but was limited to seven points against Cornell on February 23rd. 

If the Big Red choose to double team Wolf around the basket, as many Ivy League opponents have done this season, the Elis have the offensive versatility to score in other ways. Sharpshooting guard tandem John Poulakidas ’25 and August Mahoney ’24 have connected on a combined 41 percent of three pointers this season on over 300 attempts. Senior forward Matt Knowling ’24, averaging 11.8 points per game, is a steady source of high-volume shots around the rim. 

Defensively, Guard Bez Mbeng ’25 has a key role to play in slowing down the Cornell attack and limiting opposing guard Nazir Williams. On Wednesday, Mbeng received the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award for the second-straight season. 

All five players in Yale’s starting lineup earned recognition in the Ivy League’s men’s basketball awards Wednesday afternoon. Mbeng and Poulakidas were named to the all-Ivy second team while Knowling was an honorable mention. Mahoney was named to the all-academic team. 

Jones said that he told his players that “all the individuals in our locker room had something to do with the success of those awarded.”

“It’s great to have so many of our players recognized for what they do on and off the court,” he said. “Now it’s time to work together as a team and try to do something special for Yale.”

Saturday’s matchup between Yale and Cornell will tip off at 2 p.m. in Columbia’s Levien Gymnasium.

Ben Raab covers faculty and academics at Yale and writes about the Yale men's basketball team. Originally from New York City, Ben is a sophomore in Pierson college pursuing a double major in history and political science.