Two weeks are left in Ivy League play, which means a couple of things. At Harvard, we are stuck in the romantic abyss between Valentine’s Day and the Owl lawn party, with midterms rising as spring break waits—like a bright Cancun beach—on the horizon. For Princeton and Penn, ’tis the season for championship runs. In a single 40-year run, one or the other won the league 37 times, making the Yale-Harvard football rivalry (with just three similar finishes) a footnote by comparison. Every year, the two face off in the final game of the Ivy League season, with a championship often on the line.
But, for all the hype, Penn and Princeton’s championship hopes have become a lot like River Run. Both were once great, but sterling Harvard youth have put an end to these shenanigans. With its sweep of the pair last weekend, the Crimson moved to 4-0 on the year against its two main rivals.
Not only did the Crimson sweep both teams for the first time in Harvard history, but it moved just one win away from making the final game of the season irrelevant once again. Princeton has already been eliminated from playoff contention; Penn and its 1-10 road record are just a loss away.
For Harvard, the key challengers down the stretch will be Yale, Columbia, and Brown. To put that in context, the three schools have combined for one top-two Ivy League finish in the last five years. Columbia in particular hasn’t done so yet this century, a putrid run that included a 2-25 2002-2003 team that lost its final 18 games. But at least there’s football.
The two-week mark means something else: Senior Night. Seniors at Harvard, Dartmouth, and Penn will be playing their final games in front of their home crowds on Saturday (Princeton hosts Penn in two weeks, so its seniors have time).
I’d like to take a moment to salute the seniors: Harvard’s Brandyn Curry, Laurent Rivard, Kyle Casey, Dee Giger, and Tom Hamel; Dartmouth’s Tyler Melville; and Penn’s Miles Jackson-Cartwright, Fran Dougherty, Dao Jok, Cameron Gunter, and Steve Rennard. College basketball in the Ivy League is not the sensationalized ESPN product the mainstream sport has become. Mandatory cliché: the league is one of the only NCAA outposts where student-athlete remains an appropriate term.
Judging by the track record of Ivy League basketball players—Jeremy Lin ’10 and Bill Bradley excluded—most of these athletes will never play at the next level. The only pre-professional part of their lives is in the classroom—or Vertias Financial Group. That statement is anything but representative of the major programs the Ivy champ plays in the NCAA Tournament. Six of the seven Kentucky players that took the court against Princeton in 2011 have had an NBA shot; the Vanderbilt team that Harvard faced the next year had three starters drafted in the top-35.
But this is the time of the season when those issues are—rightfully or not—pushed under the rug. Saturday marks the first day of March and utopia for college basketball fans. Just like last year, Harvard goes into the season’s penultimate weekend with a one-game lead and an HYP rival breathing down its neck. Time to play ball.
On to the games.
YALE V. PRINCETON
The last meeting between these teams, a 66-65 Yale overtime victory, was arguably the best game of the Ivy League season. The Tigers took a double-digit lead into halftime but Yale battled back to force extra minutes behind sophomore Justin Sears. The Elis eked out the win on a Sears putback with 4.4 seconds left to run Yale’s winning streak over Princeton to three. Now Sears and the Bulldogs, who are a game back of Harvard with four to play, control their Ivy League destiny. A loss at Jadwin, where Yale has won just once in the last four years, would put the Bulldogs’ title hopes in serious danger.
A year ago, Princeton came into New Haven in a similar position: win out and go to the Dance. A 71-66 loss cost the Tigers the league lead—a misstep the next night in Providence cost it a playoff. Princeton coach Mitch Henderson hasn’t forgotten what happened, and he will make sure his team hasn’t either.
BROWN V. PENN
Sophomore Bears forward Cedric Kuakumensah had 30 points, 14 rebounds, and seven blocks last week against Cornell to break his own program record for blocked shots in a single season. Against Penn, junior Bears center Rafael Maia and Kuakumensah—who ranked one-two in the conference in rebounds per game last year—will look to dominate a Penn front line with little depth behind sophomore Darien Nelson-Henry.
A quick shout-out to Nelson-Henry’s beard, which—like his post game—has become sneaky good. Chris Kaman remains the standard for basketball player facial hair but the All-Ivy Facial Growth Team—Nelson-Henry, Harvard senior Dee Giger, Dartmouth senior Tyler Meville, Penn junior Henry Brooks, and Cornell junior Deion Giddens—deserves recognition. Stay warm, men, stay warm.
COLUMBIA V. DARTMOUTH
Since sweeping Penn and Princeton, the Big Green has lost six straight by at least nine points. This team needs Lithuanian forward Gabas Maldunas (out for the year) in a bad way. Columbia comes into the elven wilderness of Hanover on a roll, with the Lions’ only loss in their past four contests to Harvard in double overtime.
Notable sophomore Lions guard Maodo Lo has found his stride recently, averaging 18.2 points a game over the last two weeks. Lo gets brownie points for his Spectator-given nickname: “The Chairman.” Simply awesome.
CORNELL V. HARVARD
2010: Cornell 29-5, Harvard 21-7
2014: Harvard 22-4, Cornell 2-22
Do you remember the first game of the season, when this Cornell team was up eight at halftime on Syracuse? Me neither.
BROWN V. PRINCETON
In what has been a lost season for the Tiger faithful, senior point guard T.J. Bray has been a lone bright spot. Bray leads the league in both points and assists but works efficiently, putting up remarkable 55-42-80 shooting splits.
Interesting aside about Bray: as a senior in high school, he turned down a full scholarship from Florida Gulf Coast. While watching teammate Hans Brase miss a wide-open dunk late in the second half of last week’s 59-47 loss to Harvard, I wondered if he briefly regretted turning down Dunk City for Clunk City.
YALE V. PENN
To those uninitiated in Ivy League basketball, I’d like to set straight a couple common misconceptions. First, Harvard isn’t the only school to recruit better in recent years; both teams here have one three-star recruit (and Penn has 14 two-stars) on the roster. Second, Armani Cotton is not the name of a Snooki-sponsored female clothing line—he’s a starting Bulldog forward. Finally, if the YDN does cover this game, you can read about it not on Saturday, but on Monday. I’ll take it a step further and pre-emptively ignore this game before it happens.
CORNELL V. DARTMOUTH
Cornell-Dartmouth is a lot like Freshman Formal: You don’t want to go and if you do, you won’t remember it the next morning.
COLUMBIA V. HARVARD
The Lions’ trip to Harvard conjures up a familiar memory: the 2011 visit Penn—and stud Jewish point guard Zack Rosen ’12—made to Cambridge. Fresh off scoring the Quakers’ final 16 points a night earlier against Dartmouth, Rosen came alive late with Penn’s final nine in the Quakers’ 55-54 win in Lavietes to cut Harvard’s league lead to one heading into the season’s final weekend.
Junior Columbia forward Alex Rosenberg will come in and try to duplicate Rosen’s play to tear out the hearts of Crimson fans—and specifically, that of one Alexander L. Koenig—again. Per game, the former Maccabiah Games star averages 16 points, four rebounds, and—as a member of the tribe myself, I speculate with experience—three“Oy vey, he shoulda been a lawyer” cries from his mother.
Rosenberg will be heading into hostile territory—Harvard has won 47 of its last 51 contests at Lavietes—and, likely, a harder matchup. After co-captain Laurent Rivard was torched by Rosenberg for 34 points last time out, expect junior wing Wesley Saunders to get the call.
With Saunders on Rosenberg, Harvard will force the Lions’ secondary unit to excel. Sophomore Lions guard Grant Mullins may be the league’s most under-the-radar scorer, but he will have to shine in prime time to keep Columbia’s title hopes alive.
On the offensive end, Harvard will need more out of Saunders, who has seven single-digit scoring efforts this season after just one all of last year. The pesky Lions have played Harvard tough recently—two of the past five matchups have gone into overtime—but the Crimson has enough defensively to grind out a close win.
—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at email@example.com.