As the Harvard men’s basketball team’s fans stormed the court in ebullient jubilation last Saturday evening in celebration of the squad clinching a share of its first ever Ivy League Championship, there was one thing they understandably might have forgotten—this wasn’t quite over yet.
No, Princeton could still force a one-game playoff with a win over Penn in its final game of the regular season, and the Tigers did just that by knocking off the Quakers, 70-58, on Tuesday night. Now, a rematch is required between the league co-champions for the right to represent the Ancient Eight in the NCAA Tournament.
“It would’ve been nice [to avoid a playoff], but it wouldn’t have been right,” sophomore forward Kyle Casey said. “This is the way it should be, and everyone’s excited to play them again ... it’s definitely going to be a fight.”
Harvard has not participated in March Madness since 1946, when a 39-37 Crimson victory over Yale earned Harvard an at-large bid. Now, the Crimson will have to go through New Haven again, the neutral site where the playoff will be played at the John J. Lee Amphitheater tomorrow at 4 p.m.
“We’ve been able to accomplish incredible goals so far,” Crimson coach Tommy Amaker said. “It would be an incredible opportunity for us if we could take this on into the NCAA tournament, and we certainly recognize how much of a challenge, how difficult that will be against a really good Princeton team.”
The squads split their two matchups this year, with the Tigers winning, 65-61, at home on Feb. 4 and Harvard emerging victorious, 79-67, last Saturday.
Casey led the team in the most recent game, putting together his best performance of the season by scoring 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting.
But the sophomore also fouled out once the contest was out of reach, and if the Crimson is going to win tomorrow, it will be essential that Casey and junior center Keith Wright—named the Ivy League Player of the Year Wednesday night—stay out of foul trouble.
That will be no easy task against the Princeton frontcourt of senior Kareem Maddox and sophomore Ian Hummer, who like to attack the basket and have caused matchup problems for Harvard in the past.
“Those guys are great players,” Wright said. “They work hard, especially on the offensive end, so it’s going to be a tough matchup.”
In addition to containing Maddox and Hummer, the Crimson defense will also need to do a good job defending Princeton senior guard Dan Mavraides, who kept his team in the first half of Saturday’s game by torching Harvard for 18 points on six-of-eight shooting. The task of stopping him will likely be left to sophomore point guard Brandyn Curry–the team’s best perimeter defender–who after switching to Mavraides in the second half held the senior to just 3-of-12 from the field.
If Mavraides or junior backcourt mate Doug Davis do get hot from the perimeter, the pair’s shooting ability will likely need to be matched by the Crimson wings—specifically sophomore Christian Webster and freshman Laurent Rivard—stepping up and knocking down threes.
The Crimson shot 41 percent from long distance in wins this year, compared with 25 percent in losses (including starting out 1-of-16 at Princeton). It is thus key that Harvard comes out hot from behind the arc. But Princeton had the best three-point field goal percentage defense in the conference during the regular season, making that task all the more difficult.
The Crimson and the Tigers were one-two in the conference in scoring margin during the regular season, and both feature deep rosters with multiple players that can carry the team for any given stretch. Maddox, Hummer, Mavraides, and Davis all ranked in the top 20 in Ivy scoring for Princeton, while Wright, Webster, and Rivard did so for Harvard.
The game could come down to a battle on the glass, with Wright, Maddox, Hummer, and Casey all averaging over six rebounds per contest. That quartet was also ranked one-through-four, respectively, in in the Ancient Eight in field goal percentage during the regular season.