Weekend Defeats Expose Men's Basketball's Weaknesses
With 1.3 seconds left and Princeton up five on Friday, sophomore forward Jonah Travis tossed a lazy pass towards freshman point guard Siyani Chambers. Sprinting from the left block, Princeton forward Ian Hummer knocked the ball out of the air and out of bounds as time expired, putting a definitive stamp on his incredible night. Hummer’s 23 points and 14 boards were the driving force behind the Princeton men’s basketball team’s 58-53 triumph over Harvard. The painfully trite metaphor was very appropriate: opportunities slipping out of the team’s fingertips at the last moment.
The Crimson (17-9, 9-3 Ivy) started the weekend on top of the Ivy League and came out playing loose. Warming up for Friday’s game, the team was laughing and joking around. Assistant coach Yanni Hufnagel had guaranteed a win on Twitter; grinning sophomore forward Jonah Travis threw down a pair of windmill dunks during pregame warmups. Nearly 28 hours later, Christian Webster’s desperate final trey landed two feet short of the basket as the horn sounded at the Palestra, and the mood was anything but celebratory. Harvard had dropped consecutive road games at the Killer P’s, out-executed by both Penn and Princeton, which exposed its major weaknesses throughout miserable first halves.
Against Princeton (16-9, 9-2), the entire game was played on the Tigers’ terms. Chambers was contained, and the tempo of the game was slowed to favor Princeton, whose dizzying series of backcourt cuts made for an efficient half-court offense. Time and time again, Tiger guards found Hummer in the deep post, where he backed down anyone and everyone. Princeton is one of the tallest teams in the country and Harvard one of the smallest. The Tigers exploited this size well, collecting thirteen offensive rebounds and outrebounding the Crimson by thirteen on the night.
In the Palestra, against one of the smaller teams in the Ivy League in Penn, the Crimson faced a different set of problems. Penn’s depth and swarming defense exposed many of Harvard’s tendencies on offense. Quick hands led to a series of touch fouls, but the Quakers, who go eleven deep, consistently rotated fresh guards onto the Crimson backcourt, the members of which play nearly 40 minutes a game. A frustrated Chambers finished with more turnovers (seven) than points (five) or assists (five) and endured another struggle from the field.
The issues with depth and size were not unique to one game—Quaker forward Darien Nelson-Henry routinely beat sophomore forward Kenyatta Smith and Moundou-Missi to the basket off bruising pick-and-rolls, ending the game with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Princeton’s ability to bring quality shooters like Mack Darrow off the bench similarly bothered Harvard, whose four main guards (junior Laurent Rivard, senior Christian Webster, Chambers, Saunders) play almost the entire game, with a rotating center in the middle.
While Harvard started slow, on both nights it put together valiant comeback efforts that demonstrated the team’s heart. Down ten and showered with chants of “Where is Casey” and “Honor Code,” the Crimson went on a 15-2 run against Princeton to go up three with two minutes to play. In Philadelphia, the team was down as much as 16 late in the first half before clawing to within two on a late Webster three. Saunders routinely proved over the weekend that he is the best guard in the Ivy League, frequently creating his own offense when passed the ball with 10 seconds left on the shot clock and drawing contact in the lane. He shot 16 free throws over the weekend, and his 15 points in the first half against Penn single-handedly kept the team in the game.
Half a game back of Princeton with two home games to play, the Crimson may very well miss out on a playoff for the Ivy League title. A lot of basketball has yet to be played, and this weekend demonstrated that road games are no given in the Ancient Eight. This Crimson team, which relies heavily on a number of players who played little last year, has had a bitter first taste of March Madness. And with it comes the strong uncertainty as to whether it will get a second taste.
—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @CrimsonDPFreed.