Until now, the pressure's been off in games against favored non-Ivy and Ivy foes. But for the Harvard men's basketball team, this weekend marks its first "must-win" games of the season, as the Crimson hosts Cornell tonight and Columbia tomorrow night at Briggs Cage.
Harvard (4-8 overall, 0-1 Ivy) opened its league slate with a devastating 75-74 loss to Dartmouth last Saturday--a loss which leaves no leeway for any more slips. Realistically speaking, the Crimson can afford, at most, only three more defeats this year--and with two games against Princeton and a game at Dartmouth's Leede Arena remaining on the schedule, a loss this weekend makes any thoughts of the NCAA tournament, for now, mere dreams.
To win this weekend, the Crimson will look to its running game and athleticism to take away any strategies the Big Red and Lions may try to employ against them--a big problem for Cornell Coach Mike Dement and Columbia Coach Wally Halas.
"[Harvard's] up-and-down style hurts them against teams that are great," Halas said, "but strengthens them against weaker teams."
Terms such as "weaker teams" and "must win," though, don't necessarily mean a sure win, especially in the case of the Big Red, which enters its Ivy-opening game tonight with a 5-7 record following two straight wins by margins of more than 20 points.
Junior center Bernard Jackson, who burned the Crimson for 10 points and 15 rebounds in the Big Red's 75-74 overtime win last February, is again the big threat this season. Since returning from a pre-season injury, Jackson has lead his team in rebounding in 10 of 11 games and leads in scoring with 15 points per game.
But Dement's hope that his team not become a "Bernard Jackson-centered" squad on offense has been answered by guards Shawn Maharaj and Steve Johnson, who have combined for 26 points per game, 49 three-pointers and 55 assists.
"We have to be alert and play well defensively," Harvard Coach Peter Roby said. "If a team has that balance, you have to try to get them to take shots under pressure. Pressure will be a big factor."
The Big Red's five losses this year have included defeats at the hands of Wake Forest and Syracuse, as well as five losses in Hawaii and California. Rough life.
With three sophomores and two freshmen in the starting five, the Lions are sorely lacking in experience, but Halas is excited about his squad after a second straight solid recruiting year.
"We have a good group of sophomores and the freshmen have talent," Halas said. "It's just a matter of game experience. We've really emphasized quality of shots with this young group."
Without that experience, the Lions have stumbled out the door this year, entering their league-opener tonight at Dartmouth with a 2-9 mark. Bright spots remain, however, in center Dane Holmes and guard Eric Speaker. Holmes, who almost single-handedly beat Harvard last February in the first half before leaving with a shoulder injury, is scoring 13.1 points per game, pulling down 6.0 rebounds per game and is shooting 49 percent from the field.
The Big D
"It's a matter of team defense," Roby said. "We have to make [Holmes] get the ball outside his range, but big scorers are going to find ways to score, and we don't get beat by just one guy. You have to play solid team defense and not let any of the support people go crazy."
Speaker leads the team with a 54 percent shooting mark from the field, including 52 percent (17-for-33) from beyond the three-point mark.