Every time Columbia basketball gets moving, the world has a funny way of knocking it to its knees.
Up four with just 10 seconds to go last Saturday, Columbia borrowed a page out of its own book. Recently the most defining quality of Columbia has been its ability to, and I paraphrase Drake, drop from a hundred to zero real quick. It happened in Jadwin and Lavietes last year, against Harvard in Levien the year before, and even showed up when the Lions traveled to Kentucky.
Princeton was the last in a long line of Lions tormentors, scoring 10 points in the final 30 seconds of regulation to tie a game it would eventually win by five in overtime. Freshman Devin Cannady had the dagger—a bomb just inside the scorer’s table to tie the game with four seconds left—to cap the run, which vaulted Princeton into sole control of second place in the league with Yale coming to town.
While the focus lies on Columbia’s inability to shake its late-game tormentors, which have persisted longer than the Cha Cha Slide, the more important long-term takeaway may have been Princeton’s ascendance. By most standard efficiency metrics, this year’s Tigers team has been better than four of the last five league champions—only undefeated Yale has been better. The Bulldogs had a quiet weekend, overcoming a half of lackluster play against Dartmouth to come up with two dominant road wins. Star forward Justin Sears, who said last year beating Harvard was one of the two reasons he came to New Haven, had little to say after the win, calling Harvard just another “roadblock.”
With six games to go, Yale’s biggest test comes Friday in Jadwin. Princeton—located just 30 minutes way from where Sears grew up—is the only team to lose to Yale by less than 10 points this year. Its wings, juniors Stephen Cook, Spencer Weisz, and Henry Caruso, combine with the fearsome Amir Bell-Cannady point guard hydra give the Tigers shooters at four positions. They are the only team who can move Sears, who rarely ventures out from the paint on defense, and frontcourt teammate Brandon Sherrod around on offense.
If Yale is worried, they aren’t showing it. Fresh off his third straight win at Lavietes, a first for any opponent during Tommy Amaker’s time in Cambridge, Yale coach James Jones offered his opinion this week that the team’s last game with the Tigers wasn’t really that close at all. Jones is a brutally honest quote, but also a single-minded competitor. He’s the longest-tenured Division I basketball coach in America not to have made the big Dance, and comes off as very aware of it. He’s twice lost in a playoff, and last year’s Dartmouth loss was about as painful as a defeat can be.
Yet he should be worried about the Tigers. Cannady and Bell are two of the only players in the league who can keep up with his lightning quick point guard, sophomore Makai Mason. Yale lost its senior point guard Jack Montague this week indefinitely to personal leave, the causes of which are pure speculation, and the result is that it has just one guard on its bench—senior Khaliq Ghani—Jones trusts to play big minutes. Yale made an atypical 11 threes last time against Princeton, something it is unlikely to repeat with Montague gone.
On the other side, Caruso has to be accounted for. The junior had his worst game of the season against Columbia, making just one of 10 shots, but one of his best the last time out against Yale. He got his 26 points in a variety of ways, flummoxing the bigger Yale defenders that Jones threw at him. He ranks fifth in the league in scoring and an impressive fourth in field goal percentage, ahead of Sherrod—owner of an the NCAA-record 30 straight makes.
While Yale is the team with the longer NCAA Tournament berth drought, Caruso represents a legion of Princeton juniors who have never tasted success. He, Cook, and Weisz have toiled in the league’s middle class for the better part of three years, watching Yale and Harvard fight tooth and nail for the last two titles. The trio was unable to shake the hegemony with a single victory in their first five tries, but aced their first test at home this year, scoring 53 points on 40 shots in a clinical 21-point dismantling of the Crimson.
Friday poses a much harder midterm, but a stronger reward. Win and Princeton shifts the entire dynamic of the league, violently grabbing the driver’s seat from the team whose pro-rated start would make it arguably the best Ivy champion ever. Yale still has to go to Columbia, while Princeton gets the Lions at home. If Princeton can win, something it has done nine of the last 10 times, it will have the inside track to the ‘ship.
As for the remaining seven games:
HARVARD AT COLUMBIA
Harvard senior Patrick Steeves noted after losing to Penn that “we’re going to play all these guys again.” There’s no team, save perhaps Princeton, that Harvard would want to play more than Columbia—whose celebration after finally exercising their demons at Lavietes was outlandish. The Lions have not impressed in the last four games, but retain Maodo Lo—one of the league’s most talented players and, if his coach can get his way, a future NBA draft pick.
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