The outlook: Home-court advantage makes Penn a clear favorite, but if Yale follows the same gameplan it used last weekend, the Quakers will have to play their best to advance.
How we got here: Picked fourth in the league’s preseason poll, Penn was the surprise wire-to-wire leader, going 12-2 in Ivy play to share the title with Harvard. The Quakers were balanced in all senses of the word — they ranked second in Ivy play in offense (1.08 points per possession) and defense (0.98 ppp), no player had a usage rate above 23%, and a nation-best eight players scored 20 points in a game this season.
Yale’s season was defined more by who did not play — projected starters Jordan Bruner and, one game aside, Makai Mason — than who did. But the Bulldogs quietly won seven of their final eight games, turning around a slow start to claim their 18th straight top-half finish. Thanks to poor three-point shooting, the Bulldogs’ offense was only average in Ivy play (1.05 ppp), but strong defense (1.02 ppp) led them to a 9-5 record.
This matchup wouldn’t have happened if not for Yale’s miraculous comeback on the final weekend, in which it overcame a three-point deficit in the final seconds to beat Penn 80-79 in regulation on Paul Atkinson’s buzzer-beater. That play ultimately denied the Quakers an outright championship and the #1-seed. Penn had won the first meeting, a much uglier 59-50 win at The Palestra.
That shot chart is analytically beautiful, and right in character for Steve Donahue’s Quakers. Even in a progressive-minded league, Penn stands out for its disciplined shot selection, eschewing mid-range jumpers for opportunities from more efficient areas (at the rim or the three-point line). Per dribblehandoff.com (via Mike Jensen of Philly.com), Penn’s “jump shot quality” ranks third in the nation, considering the point value and openness of each attempt; the metric is opaque, but it generally lines up with the eye test.
A few Quakers are capable of creating their own shot, but they work better together, cutting off the ball better than anyone else in the league. Max Rothschild and AJ Brodeur, part of the same two-big lineup that started every single game except Senior Night, quickly developed a strong high-low chemistry that enabled Rothschild, a center, to post the second-highest assist rate in Ivy play (25%, decimal points behind Mike Smith). In last weekend’s meeting, Yale countered by mostly playing the bigs one-on-one and daring them to post up; it worked against Rothschild (1-6 with three shots blocked) but not so much against Brodeur (8-9).
The Bulldogs still gave up 10 threes that night, thanks mostly to tough matchups. Caleb Wood hit half of those triples, frequently losing Blake Reynolds around screens for catch-and-shoot bombs. James Jones shouldn’t play Atkinson and Reynolds together when Penn goes small — there’s just no place to hide a mismatch against the Quakers, and they can’t close the gap on offense — but Yale’s lack of depth might tie his hands.
(We won’t see Mason after he reinjured himself late in the season. Even if he had been available, integrating someone new into the defense would have been risky against Penn’s disciplined attack.)
Penn needs to give itself some breathing room, because it’s most vulnerable in a close game late. The Quakers made just 66% of their free throws for the season, worst in the league, and they were 6-10 down the stretch at Yale (with two misses on one-and-ones). They’ll be in front of a supportive crowd this weekend, but that didn’t prevent a critical missed foul shot in last year’s semifinal.
Penn’s fingerprint is just as clear on the defensive side: The Quakers stick with their assignments, aggressively running foes off the three-point line and preventing open catch-and-shoot jumpers. That almost perfectly counters Yale’s style, which is based on ball movement and a heavy dose of three-pointers. Even so, the results this season were extreme: Yale shot 5-36 from three-point range across the two meetings. Penn can’t count on that kind of fortune again this weekend.
In the rematch, Yale made smart adjustments to get points in other ways. The Bulldogs pushed the pace very aggressively off of missed baskets, letting the league’s best fast-break combo (Miye Oni and Trey Phills) attack before the Quakers could get set. And for once, they looked like the bullying Bulldogs of earlier this decade, attacking the offensive glass to rebound 38% of their missed shots and converting 15 second-chance points.
The key to Yale’s halfcourt offense Saturday will be center Paul Atkinson. The rookie had arguably the two best games of his career against Penn, scoring 20 points on 16 shooting possessions at Penn and adding 17 on nine on his home floor. Because the Quakers are reluctant to help off shooters in their base defense, they’ve been exposed by post scorers this year — recall how Chris Lewis dominated the Quakers at Harvard, or how Stone Gettings kept the Big Red close at Penn.
The Quakers will make their own adjustments. But they already have their hands full trying to keep Oni in check, with no single defender who can match the star wing’s size and speed. Oni tried posting up smaller foes in the first meeting and struggled; he had more success taking them off the dribble in the rematch, burning each of Penn’s starting wings at least once for an easy bucket. After struggling in the first half of Ivy play, Oni has been at his best in recent weeks, powering Yale’s surge.
The Bulldogs can’t afford foul trouble to any of their top players. Oni is truly indispensable (take raw on-off numbers with heavy dose of salt, but Yale was outscored by 0.30 ppp [!!] when he sat in Ivy play), and Phills isn’t far behind. Atkinson will be crucial on both ends of the floor in this particular matchup. Any stretches with them on the bench could swing this game.
The Prediction: Yale has been here before, when it was an overlooked 3-seed in last year’s tournament before upsetting Harvard in the first round. Once again, the fundamentals are closer than they seem — we just saw the Bulldogs give Penn a tough time even when their shots weren’t falling; what happens if they do? But the Quakers have made the right adjustments all season, they have many more options, and they’re playing at home. Penn 78, Yale 75.
Also see: #4 Cornell vs. #1 Harvard