When Penn and Princeton come to Cambridge this weekend to give Harvard its first Ivy League basketball competition since Dec. 12, the traditional Ivy powers should have their hands full against a young Crimson squad that has undergone its proverbial baptism by fire.
It may seem odd, but thanks to a road trip which (as of last night) had produced six straight losses, Harvard should be a better team.
When it came to Boston Garden Dec. 16 for a battle with Boston College, Harvard sported a 12-man roster featuring nine players who had had just two weeks of college varsity experience.
Now, after three weeks of travelling and dueling some of the nation's toughest basketball schools, Harvard, despite its poor record, has shown it can play high-caliber basketball.
There's no question that the hoopsters were outstanding against Stanford (for the first half) and Arizona State (for regulation time). As Crimson coach Frank McLaughlin said yesterday from his room at Santa Monica's Surfrider Inn, "The Arizona State game was just the best hoop we possibly could've played."
But a Johnny Nash desperation jumper at the buzzer that went in to tie the score left Harvard "physically and emotionally drained," as McLaughlin explained, and sent the Crimson into an overtime late-trip slide.
The embarrassing Rainbow Classic finish, with a 71-60 loss to Fordham, came because, McLaughlin said, "We just had nothing left."
McLaughlin laments, "We really haven't had any breaks." But if the players can look at the road trip and come away satisfied with the strong efforts, like freshman Donald Flemming's 30 points against B.C., then the trip serves a helpful purpose.
McLaughlin now just needs to search for that elusive secret which will keep the Crimson sparked for the duration of the game, not just regulation time or an isolated half.
"Our time will come," he predicts. "Things will start going our way. As long as our kids believe we can play against an Arizona State or a Stanford, we should be able to compete against a Princeton or a Penn. We just can't get discouraged."
Frank, we want to believe it; and we'll be watching this weekend.