We could’ve done this a year ago.
Entering the final weekend of the 2016 season, Yale and Princeton were tied at the top of the league with one loss, which came to each other. If both teams won out, they would have played a winner-take-all playoff at The Palestra, 365 days ago as of Sunday. Alas, Patrick Steeves happened, and so Yale won the league outright.
Now, we get the game we missed out on last year — mano a mano, with an NCAA bid on the line. Princeton’s team is mostly unchanged, while Yale’s is brand new. That helps explain why the Tigers went 14-0 this year, five games better than the Bulldogs, and why they enter the championship game as a solid favorite.
Both semifinals went down to the wire, so neither team is exactly fresh for Sunday’s early final (noon, ESPN2). But Ivy League players are used to back-to-backs, and adrenaline will surely get them through 40 minutes or more.
Princeton has already proven that it can beat Yale when shots aren’t falling, grinding out a 66-58 win at home two months ago. But it would rather not win that way, especially as Anthony Dallier didn’t play in that contest. A better blueprint for the Tigers was the road rematch, when they trounced the Bulldogs 71-52, possibly their best game of the season.
To make that happen, they’ll need to run their offense much better they did against Penn on Saturday. Princeton will have mismatches to attack one-on-one — even in its base lineup, one of Yale’s bigs will be defending a perimeter player; both might have to do so when the Tigers go small — so expect Myles Stephens to have another big game, as he did at Yale (and in the semifinal). But the Bulldogs’ defense isn’t as fundamentally sound as Penn’s, so Princeton can get easier buckets with its traditional handoffs and cuts.
For Yale, this game really comes down to how well it can overpower the Tigers inside. Sam Downey and Jordan Bruner just excelled against a strong Harvard frontcourt; they’ll need to do the same against the smaller, but faster, Tigers. As good as Miye Oni and Alex Copeland are, Yale can’t win a battle of guards; its big men must take advantage of their own mismatches.
But how often will they get the ball? The key to Yale’s semifinal win was ball security — it committed only eight turnovers in 69 possessions, well under its season average. Princeton forced the most turnovers in league play, including 14 in the last matchup. If the Bulldogs can keep control of the ball for a second straight day, they’ll be in a great position to win.
The Prediction: Head-to-head meetings don’t mean everything — look no further than yesterday afternoon, when Yale edged Harvard after getting swept in the regular season. But Princeton won the last meeting so thoroughly — on the road, no less — that it’s hard to see this meeting going much differently. The Bulldogs’ margin for error on both sides of the ball is thin enough that it will take a near-perfect game to win. I’ll bet against it. Princeton 68, Yale 60.