For a single weekend every year, Harvard students and players get to experience the excitement of what Division-I college basketball is all about—wild rivalry games and packed gyms.
Penn-Princeton weekend, however, has almost always proved anticlimactic for those who pack Lavietes Pavilion to watch the Crimson play. The annual twin juggernauts of the Ivy League have become accustomed to leaving Cambridge with a victory. You have to go back to the 1986-87 campaign to find the last time the Crimson captured both home games against the two, and not since 1990 has Harvard beaten both in the same year.
Harvard has been chronically unable to break the hammerlock that Penn and Princeton have held on the Ivy League title. The only member of the league that has failed to bring home at least one championship banner, the Crimson has merely looked on as either Penn or Princeton has won every crown in the past 16 seasons. Harvard has reason to believe, however, that it can reverse history in one fell swoop this weekend and shake up the Ancient Eight.
“Universally across the board, [our players] that are starting now are better, our bench is better, our team is deeper,” Harvard coach Frank Sullivan said. “Regardless of who the opponent is, there’s a good deal of confidence amongst the team.”
Heading into the most crucial segment of the season, Harvard appears to have eradicated the bad taste of last year’s losses to the Killer P’s—two defeats of over 20 points against Penn, and two last minute setbacks at the hands of Princeton—and feels assured that at long last, this year will be different.
“We have to come out of the gates in a fury and send a message that we’re not the team that we were last year,” sophomore center Brian Cusworth said. “We’re not going to go 2-8 in our last 10 games. We’re totally different—we’re stronger, we have better skill, and we’re ready to compete with anybody.”
After coming unglued down the stretch in Ivy League play over the past two seasons, Harvard finally has an air of legitimacy to back that confidence. Standing at 2-2 in the league after a tough 57-55 loss at Columbia last Sunday, Harvard could conceivably move into second place and control its own destiny with back-to-back weekend victories.
“We know we need to win both these games this weekend to put ourselves back at the top where we want to be,” junior forward Matt Stehle said. “There’s always extra motivation against [Penn and Princeton] just because they’ve been the ‘darlings’ of the league for so long.”
Any extra motivation needed by Harvard’s seniors should be found in their combined record against the Ivy “darlings”—1-5 over the previous three seasons, with the lone win a 78-75 overtime victory over Penn in 2002. Against Princeton, Harvard has been frustratingly close.
Over the past four seasons versus the Tigers, the Crimson has compiled a couple of two-point losses, a one-point defeat, and last season’s double-overtime backbreaker.
“We have some unfinished business,” Cusworth said. “The fact that we were so close...goes to show that we can play with them.”
In order to finally eclipse Princeton, Harvard will have to outslug the Tigers in the low blocks. Princeton, famous for its grind-it-out, back-cutting style of offense that relies upon nursing the shot-clock and patiently outlasting opponents, thrives on getting the ball to 6’10 center Judson Wallace, who is leading Princeton with 13.4 points per game.
Harvard will need to counter with big games from the frontcourt duo of Cusworth and Stehle, who combined for just 14 points, 10 below their average, in the loss to Columbia.
“Our plan is to get the ball inside and work [Stehle] and [Cusworth], and get them going,” said senior point guard David Giovacchini. “We want to get more out of going inside.”
Executing the game plan against Penn on Friday night may well prove even more of a challenge for the Crimson. Early on, the 2-0 Quakers look to be the class of the Ivy League, and Penn’s perimeter-oriented fast-paced attack has given Harvard fits in recent years.
“We want to slow Penn down,” captain Jason Norman said. “If we can get them to run through their offense and take some time, we’ll be fine.”
Of course, the road to the lower division of the Ivy League standings, which Harvard knows all too well, is paved with the best of game plans. But if the Crimson can trump history and take down the two giants this weekend, the first-time fans packed into Lavietes will realize, along with the rest of the Ivy League, that Harvard basketball is ready to be acknowledged.
—Staff writer Caleb W. Peiffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.