PRINCETON, N.J.—The 300-mile stretch between Lavietes Pavilion and the home arenas of the Ivy League’s “Killer P’s” has long been a schizophrenic speedway for the Harvard men’s basketball team.
The trip south is usually full of promise since a win or two could push Harvard into the top of the conference standings.
But for the current Crimson players and coaches, there has never been a happy jaunt back north on the team bus. Even though, in his eleven years as coach, Frank Sullivan has made Harvard the third-winningest program in the league behind Penn and Princeton, his teams have never won a game at either the Palestra or Jadwin Gymnasium.
In seven of the last eleven seasons (including this year), the Crimson has gone into the road trip with a .500 or better Ivy record, but the closest it has come to winning was in 1996, when it dropped a 66-64 decision at Penn.
Similarly, the Crimson entered last weekend’s road trip with a 5-3 mark, only to return home at .500 after falling to Penn, 71-58, and Princeton, 70-59.
The One (and Only) Pat Harvey
Junior Pat Harvey is the Crimson’s biggest offensive threat, as the 5’11 guard boasts the best scoring and three-point shooting numbers in conference play. His 23-point effort against Princeton Saturday night further pushed him into position for Ivy Player of the Year, but it also pointed to some offensive problems for Harvard.
Harvey has now led the team in scoring for twelve straight games. Harvard, however, is only 6-6 over that span.
Increasingly, Harvey’s big games have come out of necessity. In seven games this year, Harvey has scored in double-digits (four times with 20 or more points) while no other teammate has done so. The Crimson’s record in those games is a depressing 2-5.
While it’s clear that most teams have been unable to stop Harvey, they can re-adjust their defenses to limit his opportunities. Against Princeton, Harvard was leading 30-23 at the half, and Harvey had 17 of those points. In the second half, he played almost the entire 20 minutes but only got six points and fewer open looks.
Penn Coach Fran Dunphy, who instructed his defense to double-up on Harvey in the second half Friday, said that he was “focused on Harvey more than anything. It’s something [Harvey’s] going to have to face the rest of the year.”
If other players don’t step up like they had earlier in the season, the attention given to Harvey won’t abate until he graduates. Most strikingly, junior forward Sam Winter, who is the Crimson’s second-leading scorer and would win the unofficial Comeback Player of the Year award, has struggled mightily in Harvard’s three straight losses. Winter scored nine points and went 4-of-23 from the field in those games.
I Bech-told You So
Princeton, especially, has been a thorn in the Crimson’s side. For one thing, Harvard hasn’t beaten the Tigers since 1999, when a senior-laden Crimson squad upset the defending champs 87-79 in a Lavietes overtime thriller. Six straight losses have occured since then, including two straight heartbreakers in Cambridge.
In its last three visits to Princeton, Harvard has hung around for much of the game, only to be drowned by a surprising individual performance. Two years ago, it was center Chris Young, who lit up Harvard for a career-high 30 points. The 6’10 Young also nailed four three-pointers in that game.
Last year, guard Ahmed El-Nokali broke a 35-35 halftime tie by leading the Tigers on a 13-2 run. El-Nokali finished with 23 points.
So it wasn’t terribly surprising when senior forward Mike Bechtold, sporting a 9.0 points-per-game average, started and finished a Princeton comeback from a 30-23 halftime deficit. Bechtold finished the game with 21 points, including hitting five threes. He shot 7-of-11 overall on the night and seemed to be open every time he shot the ball in the latter frame.
Harvard’s record is now a less-than-desirable 5-5 in the Ivy League, which is good for fifth place behind Yale (9-1), Princeton (7-2), Penn (6-3) and Brown (6-4). Even though three straight losses on the road have changed the team’s priorities over its last four games to maintaining a winning record and putting things in place for next year, there’s still a long-shot chance for Harvard to get the Ivy title.
If the Crimson wins out, Yale loses out, and everything falls into place with Penn, Princeton and Brown, Harvard could potentially end the season 9-5 and tied with the Elis for first place. That (highly unlikely) scenario would necessitate a one-game playoff for the championship. Don’t hold your breath.