To make a run at the Ivy League title, the Harvard men’s basketball team will have to survive the jungle.
Almost halfway into the conference season, the Crimson has yet to take on its biggest threat—the Tigers. When Harvard welcomes Princeton to Lavietes on Saturday night, the title will be on the line.
Two weeks ago, it seemed likely that Princeton would go undefeated against its six other Ancient Eight opponents. After being ranked first in the preseason poll, the Tigers came charging into conference play. Led by senior forward Ian Hummer—second in the league behind Wes Saunders with 15.7 points per game—they picked up decisive home victories over Penn, Cornell, Columbia, and Brown, and the Tigers looked to be the strongest team in the league.
But an upset loss at the hands of Yale last weekend changed everything.
Now Harvard and Princeton each own one Ivy League loss, and provided that neither team drops another game against its other opponents, the two matchups between the Crimson and the Tigers will determine everything.
Harvard’s only loss came at the hands of Columbia, and while the lack of defense was troubling, it does not meanthat the Crimson is a weaker team. The Lions’ leading scorer in the victory was sophomore guard Steve Frankoski, who put up 27 points—20 in the first half—while shooting 71 percent from the beyond the arc.
The performance was impressive, but also a fluke. Fankoski averages a respectable 9.8 points per game and has tallied fewer than 6 points per game during conference play. Playing on the road, Harvard fell at the hands of a momentarily hot shooter.
Princeton, on the other hand, was defeated by a team that did nothing extraordinary. The Bulldogs shot over 50 percent from the field in a balanced offensive effort in which their highest scorer, guard Javier Duren, only posted 13 points.
The loss at Jadwin—which snapped the Tigers 21-game home win streak—put on display fundamental weaknesses in Princeton’s game. While the Tigers have held their opponents to 39-percent three point shooting, the Bulldogs shot over 58 percent from long range last weekend.
Going up against a dominant perimeter team like Harvard—currently leading the league at 41 percent—Princeton will be hard pressed to hold off the likes of Christian Webster, Siyani Chambers, and Laurent Rivard from deep.
Although Harvard began the season essentially relying on Saunders and Chambers to put up big points in every game to spell a lack of consistency from the rest of its starters, the team has come a long way since the start of the year.
Sophomore forward Steve Moundou-Missi—who lost his starting spot after a slow first five games—has developed into one of the Crimson’s strongest defensive players. He leads the team in rebounds and blocks with more than one per game.
With Mondou-Missi developing as a key defensive stopper, Harvard will be able to make things hard for Hummer. While the team was previously forced to rely on top-scorer Saunders to go up against its opponent’s big man—Allen Crabbe of Cal, for example—the sophomore now has more freedom to focus on putting points on the board.
The Crimson may look like a team that lives or dies by its three-point percentage, but the mere threat of its top shooters is enough to create open space in the paint.
Even when Harvard’s shots aren’t falling from the behind the arc—as was the case in its overtime game against Dartmouth in which Rivard went 1-7 from deep—its opponents are forced to employ aggressive perimeter defense.
Against the Big Green, Harvard took advantage of that opportunity, as sophomore forward Jonah Travis scored 14 points down low, while Chambers and Saunders relied on the dribble to combine for 22 points without hitting a single three.
Then there’s the power of Lavietes—where the Crimson will play two games this weekend and close out the season against Columbia and Cornell in March. Harvard has played half of its games on the road so far, and will split the remainder of the season between playing at home and playing away.
Princeton has a tougher road ahead with only two more home games and seven to play in hostile territory.
With eight games still to play, the Crimson is poised to use this weekend’s matchups against Penn and Princeton as a springboard for its title run—and to show that the Tigers really aren’t as scary as they seem.
—Staff writer Hope Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @HopeSchwartz16.