The last two times the No. 23 Harvard men’s basketball team has stepped foot in Payne Whitney Gymnasium in New Haven, the result has been, well, pain. A lot of it.
First, there was the heartbreaking 70-69 loss to Yale last Feb. 26, when junior guard Brandyn Curry’s last-second layup attempt rattled around the rim and out.
But that was nothing compared to the scene two weeks later, when the Crimson met Princeton in the Ivy League playoff on the Bulldogs’ neutral home court. Again, the game came down to the buzzer, and you know what happens next.
If Harvard had won either of those two contests, it would have gone dancing for the first time since the Truman presidency. Instead, here we are 66 years later, with the Crimson still striving for that elusive taste of March Madness.
But now, Harvard is in a better position than ever before to achieve that goal. The Crimson’s historic—by its standards—14-2 run through its non-conference schedule, highlighted by a championship in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament over Thanksgiving, placed it in the Top 25 for the first time in program history on Dec. 5.
Harvard has remained ranked in six of the seven weeks since, receiving a barrage of national media attention while positioning itself for an at-large bid if it is unable to win the Ancient Eight.
But the Crimson wants nothing to do with that safety blanket. Instead, after splitting with the Tigers last season, Harvard is determined to win its first outright Ivy title in program history.
And while the Crimson is certainly it the favorite to do so, its road to the top will not be easy. The Ivy League’s 14-game regular season schedule is like nothing else seen in all of college basketball. Because the Ancient Eight does not have a postseason tournament—the only Division I conference not to do so—it is the league’s regular season champion who gets the NCAA automatic bid, making every game that much more important.
As Harvard learned last season, there’s no room for error. Every basket can be the difference between the chance to nearly upset a future Final Four team on national TV—as Princeton received—and getting left out of the party despite a Top-35 RPI, instead being miserably underseeded and sent to the middle of Oklahoma for the NIT—as befell the Crimson.
HARVARD (16-2, 2-0 Ivy) at YALE (12-4, 2-0)
The men’s hockey game between these two schools will be the one nationally televised tonight, but it's the basketball contest that holds far more meaning. In fact, it’s probably the biggest game remaining on the Ivy League schedule.
The Bulldogs are the only team with a legitimate shot of challenging Harvard for the 2011-2012 Ivy crown. Other than a bad loss at Quinnipiac, Yale’s only defeats this season have come from the hands of BCS-conference teams (Seton Hall, Wake Forest, and Florida). Junior guard Austin Morgan has given Harvard enormous trouble in the past, and the Bulldogs possess the type of size the Crimson can at times struggle with, highlighted by senior center Greg Mangano.
It’s understood that Yalies are accustomed to making bold proclamations (“Iraq has nuclear weapons” comes to mind), but Mangano, a 6’10 center who can shoot the three, surprised everyone when he declared for the NBA draft after his junior season. He eventually came to his senses, returning to school after a stint playing for Team U.S.A. at the World University Games in China. And this year, Mangano has indeed proven himself to have NBA-level talent, leading the conference with 19.4 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game.
The contest’s key matchup will be between Mangano and Crimson co-captain Keith Wright, whom Mangano ripped on Twitter after Wright was named last season’s Ivy League Player of the Year. Mangano thus will certainly have a chip on his shoulder tonight, while Wright—whose numbers have dipped in the Crimson’s slow-paced, team-oriented offense this season—will be out to back up his award.
This game will almost definitely be close, and what should be a rowdy Yale student section—much like many others Harvard has encountered in opposing gyms this season—will be hungry to see the Bulldogs upset a Top 25 team and its biggest rival.