We’re going to learn a lot about the Yale men’s basketball team this weekend. The Bulldogs are losers of its last three and find themselves sitting two games behind Harvard for the second spot in the Ivy League and two games ahead of Penn, a team that streamrolled the Elis in New Haven last Sunday. The team’s recent play has raised some questions about how good Yale really is. Wins over the Bulldogs by the Crimson and Quakers have served as signature Ivy League wins for both programs, but given Yale’s poor performance, are those wins really as valuable as they seem?
Yale was picked third in the preseason coaches’ poll behind Princeton and Harvard after losing star junior point guard Makai Mason to a foot injury. Despite the injury, the Yale University Sports Analytics Group gave the Bulldogs a 98.5 percent chance of making the inaugural Ivy League Tournament.
Yale shocked anyone who was aware of Mason’s injury when it opened the season with a win on the road against a Washington team led by Markelle Fultz, the projected top pick in June’s NBA Draft. Four days later, the Bulldogs impressed its home crowd with a win over Lehigh, the favorite to win the Patriot League in the conference’s preseason poll. As every Ivy League team with tournament aspiration does (see: Harvard, 2014), Yale looked like a junior varsity team against Virginia in Charlottesville. The Bulldogs lost by 24 to the Cavaliers before dropping a five-point decision to another ACC foe in Pittsburgh two days later.
After Thanksgiving, Yale lost by two to a Vermont team that was the last squad to hand the Crimson a double-digit loss. Four nights later, the Bulldogs suffered its worst loss of the season, a 79-70 defeat at the hands of a Bryant team that lost to Brown and Dartmouth—which have combined to go 17-32 this season—and fell by 39 to the Bulldogs last season in New Haven. Yale turned the ball over 18 times and blew a 15-point lead down the stretch as its losing streak reached four games. A soft stretch in its schedule allowed the Bulldogs to win its next four before falling to Temple on the road to close out 2016. That streakiness has been a common theme this season for Yale.
As Ivy League play began, the Bulldogs looked like a scary team on the surface. It had won eight of its 13 non conference games, including six of its last seven. The team took care of Penn on the road before falling to Princeton in a close game to open Ivy League play. Yale had a bit of Harvard syndrome against Brown the following weekend, playing a terrible first half before staging a comeback after the break to win by one.
Since weekend back-to-backs have begun, the Bulldogs have been consistent but not always in a good way. It beat Columbia and Cornell in similar fashions. Against Dartmouth and the Crimson the following weekend, it had strong first halves both nights and tried to hold on. Yale was successful against the Big Green, but lost to the Crimson by eight. Last weekend, the Bulldogs was still hungover from its 19-point loss to the Tigers and was almost successful in losing to the Quakers by a larger margin.
So, what has changed? The difference between its last four games and the three preceding ones is stark. The most glaring difference for Yale has been in the scoring column. The Bulldogs has been averaging fewer than 62 points per game over its last four contests, quite a drop from its season average of 73.5 points per game. Poor three-point shooting and turnovers are at the root of the offensive cold spell. The Bulldogs has shot 26 percent from long range over its last four and has more turnovers (58) than assists (48) during that same stretch.
Yale is streaky and its level of play largely depends on the style of its opponent. When the Bulldogs can get inside offensively, it usually wins. When it has to be a jump-shooting team, it does not. Against the Quakers on Sunday, it was outscored 40-20 in the paint. During its three-game win streak against Brown, Columbia, and Cornell, Yale got to the free throw line 90 times. Over its last four, the Bulldogs have taken just 56 attempts from the charity stripe.
The Yale of 2016-2017 doesn’t deserve the “could beat anyone, could lose to anyone” label befitting the 2015-2016 Crimson since it has beaten most of the teams it was supposed to, but the Bulldogs do not look as scary as it did in December or January.
How Yale fares against the Crimson on Saturday will tell us a lot about whether the Bulldogs have a real chance of leaving Philadelphia with a trophy or if the team is just there as a formality for Harvard or Princeton.
Now to the picks:
YALE AT HARVARD
The sports section of the Yale Daily News—a newspaper, we think—recently published a piece with the following title—By the Numbers: Counting Yale’s Losses. We’re well aware counting isn’t necessarily a strong suit for students down in New Haven, but losing isn’t the kind of thing you’d want to advertise either.
To be quite honest, we didn’t actually bother to read it given the fact we think the title said it all: Yale takes L’s. Friday probably won’t be any different.
PENN AT CORNELL
A year ago this game would be pretty much meaningless. With the addition of the conference tournament, however, Penn is fighting for its opportunity at a postseason of sorts.
With Columbia taking on Princeton on the same night, this may be the Quakers' best shot to set themselves up for a loss at their home arena when they are technically the road team. If that doesn't get you excited for the Ivy League Tournament, I don't know what will.
BROWN AT DARTMOUTH
Opponents might argue that a Brown Bear could in fact maul a Big Green, but the thought and intangibility of this only inspires a images of a herbivorous beast lost somewhere between Providence and Hanover. Either way, it’s not a good look for Brown.
PRINCETON AT COLUMBIA
We’ll defer to what we said earlier this season: ancient gambling markets suggest the tiger mauls the lion most of the time.
PRINCETON AT CORNELL
We know these things are supposed to be unbiased, but seeing as how that went out of the window after our first pick, we’re throwing it all out here—we have been absolutely aching to see Princeton lose in conference all season. The Tigers are a team that you just can’t get behind. To prove our point we once again dove into Princeton’s assortment of self ascribed ‘fun’ facts. Here’s what we’ve got this week: “The nation’s first cheer took place at Princeton during a football game in the late 1880s, when a group of male students led a crowd in the first recorded, organized chant, which today is Princeton’s legendary ‘locomotive.’”
We have never in our lives heard about this ‘legendary’ cheer.
We did, however, witness the cheers coming from Princeton’s bench a few weeks back when it stole a win at Lavietes off a missed free throw.
PENN AT COLUMBIA
We think the reason that we’re so bad at these is because a lot of the Saturday games are pretty contingent on what happens Friday. We usually don’t get Friday right, so Saturday is pretty much a coin toss when you consider how bad at this we are.
In all seriousness though, if Penn wins on Friday and Columbia inevitably takes an L to the Tigers, then a win here would ice the four seed for Penn.
It sounds almost sacrilegious to say the Quakers smell blood so we’ll just say Penn men’s basketball has a strong incentive to win this one.
YALE AT DARTMOUTH
BROWN AT HARVARD
Last week we discovered that the Columbia Spectator quite endearingly refers to Columbia as the ‘Light Blue’ despite its savage mascot.
This week we realized the Brown isn’t far behind, lovingly referring to its mascot as Bruno—we’re not 100 percent sure the Quaker smelling blood thing was sacrilegious but calling a bear Bruno most definitely is.
When Brown moves past this, then maybe it can move past Harvard too.
—Staff writer Troy Boccelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Stephen J. Gleason can be reached at email@example.com.
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