Jason Wu/Sun Staff Photographer

Jake Fiegen '27 and Keller Boothby '24 strip the ball from star Princeton Guard Xaivian Lee, Newman Arena, Jan. 26, 2024

February 10, 2024

PREVIEW: First Place on the Line for Men’s Basketball in Showdown Against Yale

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It’s been 14 years since men’s basketball played in the NCAA Tournament. 

The year was 2010, and Cornell –– in its first Sweet 16 appearance in program history on Mar. 25, 2010 –– failed to match the pace of perennial powerhouse and top-seeded Kentucky. Finished was the Red’s tale of the underdog, tying a bow on a historic 29-5 season.

It may only be February now, but this year’s Cornell squad seems awfully reminiscent of the Cinderella story of 14 years ago.

Men’s basketball (17-3, 6-0 Ivy) will travel east to New Haven, Connecticut this weekend to verse Yale (15-6, 6-0 Ivy).

“I don’t think we’re looking too far into the implications,” said head coach Brian Earl. “We know what we’re up against.” 

The matchup is perhaps Cornell’s biggest clash in over a decade.

If you think you’ve heard that before, you probably have –– on Saturday, Jan. 27, a ruckus Newman Arena was packed to the brim to witness the Red’s highly anticipated matchup against Princeton. The Tigers, though not selected to repeat as Ivy League champions this season, made an inspiring run in the 2023 NCAA Tournament, upsetting two teams en route to a Sweet 16 appearance.

Not only did Cornell come out on top –– it trounced the Tigers by a 83-68 score.

Though the win came unexpected by many, the team is quick to attenuate any claims of apprehension with its game. Though considered the underdog on Saturday, that’s not the mentality within Earl’s squad.

“We don’t talk about it,” Earl said when asked about an underdog mentality festering within his team. “Obviously, Yale was picked to win the league, and we’re in a spot where the first place is up for grabs, but it’s the halfway point. 

The month of February poses a tough challenge for the Red, as it looks to carry its first-half dominance over to the latter half of the season.

“We’ve fallen apart in the second half of the Ivy a couple of times. So, I think we’re really just thinking of it as a difficult game on the road. And, you know, try and give it our best shot,” Earl said.

Fresh off a pair of wins on the road at Dartmouth and Harvard, Cornell has bolstered its resume and enters Saturday’s matchup within an undefeated conference record. Yale, selected as the favorite to win the Ivy in the Ivy League’s Men’s Basketball Preseason Poll, similarly enters with a 6-0 conference record.

Last time out, Yale steamrolled the Red in the semifinal of Ivy Madness –– the annual Ivy League basketball tournament –– by an 80-60 margin. Yale failed to secure the one and only Ivy bid to the NCAA tournament –– Princeton spoiled the fun –– but the Bulldogs have swiftly redeemed themselves in 2023-24.

Earl discussed that fateful game and how a second-half collapse determined the course of Cornell’s season. The Red is determined not to make the same mistakes on Saturday.

“I don’t know if there’s a revenge factor –– maybe more of a ‘learn from experience’ factor of how to play against a team like Yale,” Earl said.

Tournament implications aside, two stellar basketball teams will duel on Saturday in New Haven. Cornell enters the contest with seven straight victories, while the Bulldogs have strung along eight consecutive wins of their own. Saturday’s matchup marks just the fifth time in Ivy League history that two teams with records of 6-0 or better will meet. 

“I think [Yale is] pretty methodical. They have a lot of really talented guys that can hurt you at every position,” Earl said. “They definitely can play at different paces, but on both sides of the ball, they’re really high-level basketball players.”

Yale’s outright talent will meet Cornell’s fast-paced style of play, which has contributed to the Red’s success this year.

“I think it’s going to be a little bit of a battle between those two styles to figure out which way the game will go,” Earl said.

Cornell –– with its experienced group of upperclassmen –– has derived much of its success from its depth. With reliable point-scorers on and off the bench, Cornell will look to capitalize and implement its fast-paced game against the Bulldogs.

“We’re at our best when it doesn’t matter who is on the floor,” Earl said.

The game goes beyond the scope of the Ivy League –– as of Friday, Feb. 9, just three NCAA Division-I teams remain undefeated in league play. Cornell and Yale are two of them.

While Saturday’s matchup possesses national implications, the Red is focused on what it can control in the game .

“I’m sure there’s a little bit of buildup going into it, and there’ll be some people there to watch,” Earl said. “But once you get in the moment … it’s really just what’s going on in between the lines.”

A lone position in first place is on the line on Saturday, Feb. 10 when Cornell verses Yale at 2 p.m. in New Haven, Connecticut. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN+.