After the men’s basketball team opened a three-game homestand with its first Ivy League win last weekend, Bruno hopes to carry the momentum into two crucial, early-season conference games at the Pizzitola Center — taking on Cornell Friday and Columbia Saturday.
The Big Red (1-15, Ivy 0-2) has struggled so far this season, picking up their lone win against Oberlin College (5-13, NCAC 2-9) in a non-conference matchup. The Lions (13-6, 2-0), on the other hand, have one of the best records in the Ivy League — just one season after finishing last in the conference.
“We’re feeling very confident,” said Dockery Walker ’15. “We strung together a bunch of good practices in a row, so we’re feeling good going into the weekend. Both teams have their strengths, but I think we have a really good chance of taking both games.”
The Bears (9-7, 1-1) were reminded in practices throughout the week of the importance of defensive toughness, a theme Head Coach Mike Martin ’04 has stressed since day one, Walker said.
“We need to stay solid and stick to our defensive principles,” he said. “Especially against Columbia’s offense, we need to remain disciplined. Our defensive strategy has gotten us this far, so we need to just stick with what has worked.”
Columbia runs a variation on the “Princeton offense,” a strategy that employs on-ball and off-ball screens, frequent backdoor cuts and quick ball movement to catch defenses in mismatches. Through this scheme, the Lions often look to get the ball inside before kicking it back out to three-point shooters around the perimeter. Columbia leads the conference with a 40.1 shooting percentage from deep.
“We didn’t play particularly well on the defensive end against American (University) earlier in the season,” said starting point guard Tavon Blackmon ’17. “We ran up and down trying to outscore them, rather than trying to stop them. Columbia and American have very similar offenses, so we need to learn from that game and give more effort defensively to win on Saturday.”
Offensively, the Bears have produced winning numbers all season, averaging 72.6 points per game — third best in the conference. At the helm, co-captain Sean McGonagill ’14 continues to add to his impressive basketball resume, averaging an Ivy League-best 19.2 points per game.
“Teams are going to try to take (McGonagill) out of every game — he’s the league’s leading scorer, and everyone is aware of that,” Blackmon said. “All of our guys are ready to step up. ”
“Guys have to make plays,” Walker said. “(McGonagill) is a great player. It’s only a matter of time before teams start trying to play tougher defense on him. When he starts getting double-teamed, it’s going to open up other players on the floor for scoring and assist opportunities.”
One area in which even McGonagill can improve is turnovers. The Bears rank seventh in the Ivy League with nearly 15 turnovers per game. Luckily for the squad, Cornell and Columbia are the two worst teams at creating takeaways.
“We need to have patience and make the easy play,” Blackmon said. “We have a young team, so sometimes we try to do too much with the ball on offense.”
Walker added that the team should not take the Yale game as an indication that they can turn the ball over 13 times and still win games.
“Coach Martin spoke a lot about turnovers this past week,” Walker said. “He’s been telling us everyday to be mindful of our turnovers. If we have another game with that many turnovers, I’m not sure we will get the same result.”
If the Bears can limit their turnovers, stay disciplined on defense and get other players involved in scoring to take some of the pressure off McGonagill, the team should find success in their first meetings of the season against Cornell and Columbia.