MEN’S BASKETBALL: No. 2 Yale, No. 3 Penn to square off in Ivy Madness semifinal

Tim Tai, Staff Photographer

With 28 games of regular-season play complete, the Yale men’s basketball team reaches the apex of its season this weekend at Ivy Madness.

Yale travels to Harvard’s Lavietes Pavilion, the host venue for this year’s postseason conference tournament, as the No. 2 Bulldogs (17–11, 11–3 Ivy) prepare to face No. 3 Penn (12–15, 9–5) Saturday afternoon in what they hope will ignite a postseason run that continues into next week’s NCAA Tournament. Advancing past the Quakers and defeating the winner of the conference’s other semifinal matchup — No. 1 Princeton (22–5, 12–2) vs. No. 4 Cornell (15–10, 7–7) — in Sunday’s championship would secure Yale the Ivy League’s automatic bid to March Madness.

“We’re trying to put together our best basketball right now,” Yale guard Azar Swain ’22 said. “So in order for that to happen, we need to take care of all the things that are controllable, like bringing energy, effort, toughness, enthusiasm — and those things will be visible come this weekend.”

The wait for this weekend’s conference tournament has been long. The Ivy League, which became the last Division I conference to institute a postseason basketball tournament with the first iteration of Ivy Madness in 2017, has not hosted the event since March 2019. The abrupt onset of the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 tournament a few days before it was scheduled to begin — in a dash of déjà vu, Yale was also set to meet Penn in the first round in Boston that spring — before the league took a yearlong hiatus from athletic competition in 2020–21. 

Nearly 1,100 days will have passed between the moment Princeton and Cornell tip off the first men’s semifinal Saturday at 11 a.m. and the triumphant championship victory over Harvard that won Yale the tournament in March 2019. Yale’s John J. Lee Amphitheater hosted the event that spring. Swain, who has been selected to the All-Ivy First Team in the two seasons since and leads Yale in scoring with 18.9 points per game, was the only current Bulldog who saw significant playing time during that weekend in 2019. 

Yale guard Bez Mbeng ’25 and Penn sophomore guard Clark Slajchert (0), who won the Ivy League Rookie of the Week award three times this season, fight for the ball during Yale’s game vs. Penn in mid-February. (Tim Tai, Staff Photographer)

“It was an incredible time, almost dream-like, being able to play in those games,” Swain said during an interview for the News’ weekly podcast, The Yalie. “And in those games, honestly it felt pretty homey for us. We didn’t feel uncomfortable in any way. So this year … we’re trying to just stay level-headed, not expect anything to go our way, but lean on each other in the way we were able to lean on the home crowd a little bit in 2019.”

Swain’s experience at Ivy Madness is rare around the league. Yale captain Jalen Gabbidon ’22, sitting next to Swain during this week’s podcast interview, pointed out that given the three-year gap, very few players in the men’s field have competed in the tournament. Gabbidon, who was named to the All-Ivy Second Team on Tuesday, was injured for the event in 2019. Swain enters the weekend with 118 career appearances; playing in both the semifinal and championship would tie him with Justin Sears ’16 for Yale’s most all-time.

READ MORE: Azar Swain, Yale’s all-time three-point leader, reflects on setting new school record

Along with Swain, Princeton guards Jaelin Llewellyn, Ethan Wright and Max Johns are the only other Ancient Eight players that spent significant time on the floor. Penn guard Bryce Washington appeared for two minutes, Princeton guard Drew Friberg for one minute and Yale guard Matthue Cotton ’23 for less than one.

Yale enters Ivy Madness having split its regular-season series against all three other teams in the field. After a win over Brown to conclude the regular season on Saturday, head coach James Jones emphasized that Yale’s coaches and players are very familiar with their potential opponents’ personnel and tactics.

Yale guard and captain Jalen Gabbidon ’22 (0) is defended by Penn guard Lucas Monroe (22) during Yale’s game vs. Penn in February. (Tim Tai, Staff Photographer)

“We’re going to play two teams we’ve already played twice,” Jones said, sitting in between Swain and Gabbidon, whom he then motioned towards. “These guys can tell you the starting lineups on both teams. They can tell you which actions they both try to run. They can tell you how they’re gonna defend us. What we’ll do is take a look at what hurt us in the games prior, what we were good at and try to accentuate the positives and get better at the negatives.”

After an up-and-down 6–8 start to the year in nonconference play, a COVID-19 pause within the program delayed the date of Yale’s Ivy League opener. When the Bulldogs returned to the court in mid-January, they strung together their first pair of consecutive wins over Division I opponents this season and claimed nine of their first 10 Ivy League contests.

IN PHOTOS: Yale men’s basketball takes down Cornell, Brown to open Ivy play

The lone loss during that stretch came to Penn during a late January game at the Palestra, where the Bulldogs fell 76–68. Quakers guard Jordan Dingle — the league’s leading scorer and like Swain, a unanimous selection to this season’s All-Ivy First Team — dropped 31 points during that contest in Philadelphia. Yale’s defensive tandem of Gabbidon and first-year guard Bez Mbeng ’25 limited Dingle to four-of-19 shooting as the Elis took the teams’ second meeting last month.

“In that second game,” Gabbidon said, “while we were really able to contain him well, that gave a lot of opportunities for other guys on their team to step up, and they made a lot of big plays and kept the game really close. The key for us this game is going to be mostly the defensive side of the ball.”

Yale won its game against Harvard at Lavietes Pavilion in February. Above, forward Matt Knowling ’24. (Courtesy of Drew Dummer)

Gabbidon scored a career-high 32 points during Yale’s win over Penn in New Haven. Jones mentioned the Quakers, coached by Steve Donahue, often try to limit assists. Yale, which is averaging 12.1 per game this season, had 15 in its victory over Penn and only five during its loss. 

Picked first in the Ivy League’s preseason media poll, Yale ultimately finished one game behind the Tigers. Harvard finished tied for sixth, becoming the first men’s team hosting Ivy Madness to miss out on the actual tournament. 

As of Wednesday evening, college basketball ratings site KenPom predicts a 71 percent chance that Princeton defeats Cornell in the first semifinal; however, the Big Red were just a missed Princeton buzzer-beater away from sweeping the Tigers, who are led by the unanimous Ivy League Player of the Year, Tosan Evbuomwan. KenPom gives Yale a 62 percent chance to move past the Quakers and into Sunday’s championship.

Yale’s semifinal with Penn is set to air on ESPNU at 2 p.m., while ESPN2 will broadcast the men’s tournament championship game Sunday at noon.


William McCormack covers Yale men’s basketball. He previously served as a Sports and Digital Editor for the Yale Daily News and also reported on the athletic administration as a staff reporter. Originally from Boston, he is a senior in Timothy Dwight College.

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