For the average Ivy League team, a basketball season might have one or two games that stand out as chances for the squad to make a statement with its play. For the Harvard men’s basketball team, each game this year will serve as a chance to prove that last season’s woefully disappointing performance was nothing more than a fluke.
But even in a season loaded with “statement games,” the Crimson’s contests against Penn and—more than any other opponent—Princeton stand out on the schedule as chances to avenge painful defeats from seasons past and to turn the tables of recent Ivy League basketball history.
If a young and inexperienced Crimson squad (11 of the 16 on the roster are freshmen or sophomores) is to succeed in what looks to be a rebuilding year, it must hold its own not only in a series of challenging non-conference games—Harvard plays Michigan and America East champ Albany, among others—but also must break through against the Ivy League powerhouses. Last year’s collapse showed that a strong start in non-conference play is no guarantor of Ivy League success.
What began as a promising 2005-06 season for Harvard turned into a nightmare just as the Ivy League season kicked into high gear. After beginning the season 5-0 in non-league play with quality wins over Holy Cross and Vermont, validating its preseason No. 2 ranking, and improving its record to 10-5 after a home-and-home sweep of Dartmouth, the Crimson began to veer off course when it suffered an excruciating 79-77 loss to Cornell in Ithaca. Harvard led by four with just over a minute to play, but let it slip away after three of its starters fouled out late, a signal of the game’s questionable officiating.
The next Friday’s contest against Princeton plunged Harvard headlong into what would end up being an eight-game tailspin.
Playing at Lavietes Pavilion, the Crimson again led late—this time by six with under a minute to play—but a series of turnovers and clutch Princeton shots set up a buzzer-beating jumper by guard Noah Savage which gave the Tigers a 60-59 win. Harvard coach Frank Sullivan called it at the time “Not only the most heartbreaking loss of the season, but in awhile.”
“We were crestfallen after the two buzzer beaters,” Sullivan adds in a recent interview. “They really took a lot of steam out of us. I think from a coaching-staff standpoint we didn’t know it knocked that much steam out of our guys at that point in time.”
Just one day after the painful loss to Princeton, Harvard lost to eventual league-champion Penn by double digits.
“Having to play Penn the night after we lost to Princeton was just a really rough stretch,” captain Jim Goffredo says. “I think we started to panic and get away from the things that had gotten us to that point.”
Two weeks and two more losses later, Harvard dropped another agonizing contest in the final minute to the Quakers at the Palestra. The losing streak then reached its ugliest point on the very next night in a 27-point throttling at the hands of Princeton.
To keep itself afloat in the Ivies this year, the Crimson will have to prove that it can hang with the big dogs of the Ancient Eight. Doing so would reverse a long running trend that has seen Harvard drop its last nine contests to Penn and thirteen of its last fourteen games to the Tigers.
“The mental toughness aspect is very huge, especially in the Ivy League, where it’s short bursts of Friday-Saturday [games] and then five days off,” senior center Brian Cusworth says. “It’s really easy for any sort of negative atmosphere to snowball. We got into a funk and we were a much better team than we represented last year, so we’ve been really establishing the fact that we can’t let anything like that happen [this year].”
And while all of the Ivy back-to-back road trips are hard, the yearly trek to New Jersey and Pennsylvania is always particularly daunting for the Crimson, which has to face the contrasting styles of Penn’s speed and athleticism and Princeton’s meticulous, reserved play on consecutive nights.
To hang with Penn, Harvard will have to slow down the Quakers’ up-tempo attack. Crimson guards will need to contain unanimous 2006 Ivy League player of the Year Ibrahim Jaaber, a senior whose skills would likely garner him a significant role at almost any major college basketball program. At the same time, Harvard’s big men will have to shut down bruising senior forwards Mark Zoller, a first-team All Ivy selection last year, and Steve Danley.
Stopping the notorious Princeton offense will require patience and excellent fundamental defense from the Crimson, especially on the perimeter—an area where they struggled mightily last year, finishing seventh in the Ivies in three-point field goal percentage defense.
A season full of statement games will force Harvard’s youngsters to grow up quickly and send a message to the other Ivies: we are better than our preseason No. 7 league ranking. Beating Penn and Princeton would prove that, and enact a measure of revenge for last year’s heartbreak.