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Around the Ivies: Harvard Looks to Beat—And Scout—Competition

Around the Ivies

DRIVING FORWARD
Freshman guard Bryce Aiken and Harvard set out to capture home victories at Yale and Brown this weekend.

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.

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