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Around the Ivies: Men's Basketball Looks to Continue Streak

Moving Forward
Junior guard Corey Johnson drives past a Yale defender last weekend.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane to Feb. 20, 2016 in Ithaca, N.Y., a place to which few people dream of returning. We could pick lines from several Bruce Springsteen songs to describe a place that brags about its gorges (“My City of Ruins”, “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”, and “Better Days” all come to mind), but I think a line from “Working on a Dream” says it best about the city of 30,000—“out here the nights are long, the days are lonely.” It was an uncharacteristically warm day in a place where the sun rarely shines, literally or figuratively.

Ithaca is 52 miles from the state’s best basketball school (Syracuse), 100 more than that to its nearest NFL team (Nate Peterman’s Buffalo Bills), and 227 away from its travel partner and the other half of the Gentleman’s C’s, Columbia. With that said, it’s understandable why almost 2,000 people were in the stands on that February Saturday night two years ago when two Ivy League teams that had a combined league record of 4-14 squared off at Newman Arena.

Harvard fans may remember the team’s matchup at Cornell from two seasons ago, a game that saw the Crimson claw back from a 21-point deficit and shock Cornell on a buzzer-beater by then-freshman point guard Tommy McCarthy. It was the most exciting game of the season for a team that was essentially eliminated from Ivy League contention before the calendar even turned to February.

What is easily overlooked from that game is the performance, particularly in the first half, from Big Red guard Matt Morgan, who, like McCarthy, was playing in just his 10th Ivy League contest. Fast-forward two years and Morgan is arguably the top offensive player in the Ancient Eight and the best pure scorer that Harvard will face this season. The spindly shooting guard with an unorthodox jumpshot is averaging 23.6 points per game—good for sixth nationally—while playing for a team that enters the weekend with a 7-10 record on the season highlighted by a 37-point shellacking at the hands of Princeton.

The Crimson’s matchup at Cornell two seasons ago was a historic one for Morgan. The Concord, N.C., native came out firing, scoring 19 points in the game’s first 11:44 (the same number as the entire Harvard team) in a half when it felt like the Big Red could not miss. Cornell made its first six 3-point attempts and shot 62.5 percent from the field before intermission. For a Crimson team that prided itself on defense, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker had no answer for the 6’2” freshman, who was nailing threes just inside midcourt, weaving through the Harvard defense, and throwing down monster dunks. Morgan entered the locker room with 22 points on six-of-nine shooting, including a four-of-seven line from three-point range. He finished the game with 27 points, becoming the Big Red’s all-time freshman scoring leader (through just 24 games) in the process.

A lot has changed since that meeting two years ago in Ithaca, but the high level of play from Morgan has been a constant. The junior has been a second team All-Ivy pick in each of his first two college seasons, averaging over 18 points per game both years. He dropped 34 points in a game against Delaware earlier this season and has gone for 20 or more points in 14 of his team’s 17 contests. Unlike many high volume shooters, Morgan has scored the basketball efficiently, shooting 50.2 percent from the field and 40.3 from three-point range. Of the nation’s top ten leading scorers, the Cornell junior leads all of them in field goal percentage and is third in three-point percentage.

We’re not sure if there’s a difference between Ivy League Player of the Year (which over the past five years has been awarded to the best player on one of the conference’s two best teams) and Ivy League Most Valuable Player (an award that we made up but would be given to the player whose team would be the worst without him), but Morgan would definitely be the frontrunner for the second honor. In addition to leading his team in scoring by a large margin, Morgan is also the Big Red’s leader in assists and ranks third in rebounds. If college basketball had a wins above replacement stat, Morgan’s would be very high and a Cornell team without him would have a win total that would be very low.

Just for entertainment’s sake, let’s look at some of the non-Morgan related tidbits from that game two seasons ago. Cornell has a new coach in Brian Earl, who took over Cornell after nine seasons as an assistant at Princeton, after it did not renew the contract of Bill Courtney following the 2015-2016 season. While Courtney set a low bar with his .347 winning percentage over six seasons (highlighted by a 2-26 campaign in 2013-2014), Earl is doing his best to one-up his predecessor, leading his team to wins in just 32.6 percent of the games that he has coached while at the helm of the Big Red.

Harvard coach Tommy Amaker used ten players in the contest two seasons ago. Five are still on the team, but junior guard Corey Johnson is the only one who consistently finds himself in the Crimson’s rotation. Harvard still prides itself on its defense but was a much more efficient three-point shooting team two years ago (38.7 percent) than it is this season (30.7). However, the Crimson enters its meeting with Cornell in a much different spot than it did two years ago. Harvard sits in first place in the Ivy League and has won its last four conference contests, a far cry from its 1-5 mark to begin Ancient Eight play in 2015-2016. Morgan may be the best pure scorer that Harvard will face this season, but it’s going to be a long walk home to Cambridge if the Crimson cannot find a way to top a Cornell team that largely revolves around its star guard.

Now to the picks:

DARTMOUTH AT CORNELL

A co-writer of ours at The Crimson said something ridiculous the other day. He said, “I think we’ve exhausted all Ithaca commentary.”

False.

There is no such thing. This matchup in particular presents an interesting case. Both of these institutions have something no other school in the Ivy League has. That’s right, both have acceptance rates above 10 percent.

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