The Harvard men’s basketball team will again embark on an extended bus ride this weekend, trekking to the Empire State to take on Columbia Friday night and Cornell Saturday night. Although Princeton-Penn weekend looms ahead in two weeks, the Crimson (9-10, 4-0 Ivy) must place its sole attention on returning back to Cambridge with its conference unbeaten streak untouched.
Although the Lions (4-13, 1-3) and Big Red (7-10, 1-3) have done little to stir the Ancient Eight pot beside split its own series, a quick glimpse of recent Ivy League results indicates the unpredictability of the conference season to date. Two teams who finished with losing conference records last season—Penn and Brown—have respectively earned victories against conference stalwarts Princeton and Yale this season.
With that said, both Columbia and Cornell encountered massive difficulties in each of their prior contests against Princeton, a likely Harvard challenger for the Ivy title. The Lions were blown out by 16 on January 12 against the Tigers, while the Big Red crumbled to a disastrous 37-point loss a day later in New Jersey.
The Crimson, nevertheless, will be fully prepared for a wide spectrum of possibilities. Coach Tommy Amaker has worked extensively in practice on finishing tight late-game situations, something several players have attributed to their own maturation process.
“We do five-minute overtime [drills] pretty often in practice,” sophomore forward Seth Towns said. “Throwing us into a game or any really close game...I think we are ready.”
Unlike Harvard’s lead group of sophomores, Columbia’s core rotation this season consists of a more diverse age pool. Three of its four leading team scorers are upperclassmen, while first year classmates Jaron Faulds, Myles Hanson, and Gabe Stefanini have combined for 233 total points this season.
This balanced distribution in scoring was critical in the two prior games against Cornell this year. Sophomore guard Mike Smith, who leads the team in scoring with 17.3 points per game, struggled from the field in both games and was held to single-digit scoring. The three aforementioned upperclassmen—juniors Quinton Adlesh and Lukas Meisner as well as senior guard Nate Hickman—were instrumental in both contests, combining for 47 points in the Lions victory and 29 points in its one-point defeat.
Smith’s recent cold streak should not discredit his ability to place the team on his shoulders, particularly against higher-ranked opponents. Smith scored 25 points on December 12th against Boston College and a month later matched a season-high 27 against the Quakers.
The quick and well-built 5’11” point guard will be a radically different matchup for the Harvard backcourt compared to the long and lanky Brown guards last weekend. Regardless, Amaker expressed increased confidence in the defensive performance from his guards and lauded in particular the recent play of sophomore point guard Christian Juzang.
“I think he’s led us in ways that won’t necessarily show up in the stat sheet, but he’s been a catalyst for us defensively,” Amaker said of Juzang. “You’ve seen us extend our defense a little bit more in each one of these games where we’ve been able to pick up the floor and Christian being that guy your defense is energized by.”
The Harvard backcourt will need to maintain its defensive energy the following night against the Big Red, who are similarly led by a workhorse point guard. Junior Matt Morgan currently leads the Ivies in scoring with 23.6 points per game off .502 shooting from the field. Remarkably, both Smith and Morgan have attempted 261 field goals so far this season. The Cornell point guard, however, is more accurate and reliant upon his three-point shot, attempting a three about every other time he shoots and converting 40.3 percent of the time.
Morgan also scored over 20 points in both Columbia games and will evidently be coming into the Crimson matchup with enormous confidence. Again, proper defensive switching and attention to detail is an area that will determine how much the Big Red scorer can be kept at bay.
“Be willing to help our teammates,” sophomore wing Corey Johnson said. “Be willing to hold yourself in line and take a charge, be willing to make rotations, close out. Basically it takes a whole team effort, not just one individual on the court.”
Another key narrative this weekend will be the re-integration of sophomore point guard Bryce Aiken, who saw consecutive games of double-digit minutes last weekend. Despite a scare late against the Bears last Saturday when it appeared as if Aiken re-injured his left knee, the team’s leading scorer said postgame that the knee was “alright”.
For Amaker, easing Bryce back in will be more imperative than rushing him back into the starting lineup.
“I haven’t really gotten to the point of Bryce starting again, we’re just trying to increase his time on the court,” Amaker said. “We’ve done it the past two games and hopefully it can continue to trend in that direction where he’s playing more minutes and being more comfortable and confident in doing so.”
This weekend will likely be one decided by guard play on both sides. For Harvard, continued aggressiveness from Aiken on offense and the tone-setting of Juzang’s defense will be critical to halter the Smith-Morgan combo.
—Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @zhuhen88