Tonight will provide the first true test of how much the Harvard men's basketball team has improved since last season. The Crimson (4-1) will take the court at Lavietes Pavilion to face Dartmouth (4-0) in the first Ivy League matchup of the 1995-96 season.
Saturday's 80-70 loss to Lehigh is the only blemish on what has been an overwhelmingly successful season for the Crimson. The team entered Saturday's game with a six-game winning streak spanning the last two seasons. The only question mark was whether it could sustain the elevated level of play against higher quality teams.
"We have a lot of confidence on our team that we really are good," junior small forward Mike Gilmore said. "If we play Dartmouth and beat them, people are going to start having to take us seriously."
In an Ivy League field leveled by the departure of Penn's entire starting lineup, the Big Green has been picked by many to emerge with this year's title. Dartmouth returns four starters to a team that won eight of its last ten games last season and finished 10-4 in league play.
Dartmouth's success relies heavily on the play of two juniors--6'6" guard Sea Lonergan and 7'0" center Brian Gilpin. Lonergan led the Ancient Eight in scoring last season at 17.3 points per game while shooting 43.7 percent from three-point land. And aside from being the team's leading rebounder and shot-blocker, Gilpin's size alone makes him an all-around intimidator in the paint.
"Gilpin is not real mobile, and he's not that strong either," Gilmore said. "We're going to try to keep him away from the basket and force him to shoot the ball."
Harvard counters Dartmouth's attack with an inside-outside combination of its own in sophomore forward Kyle Snowden and a supporting cast of penetrators and perimeter threats. Snowden leads the team in scoring (17.4 ppg) and rebounding (12.4 rpg) and enters tonight's contest shooting a robust 66 percent from the field.
Gilmore (9-for-23) and junior guard David Weaver (11-for-19) have shined from behind the arc, and the floor generalmanship of freshman point guard Tim Hill has opened more than a few eyes. Hill is averaging over seven assists per game and leads the team in minutes played.
The Crimson will have to find out whether Saturday's disappointment was the exception or the norm. The defense allowed the Engineers to shoot over 61 percent from the floor, including 63.6 percent from three-point range. Though the flat defensive play provided Harvard its first stumbling block of the season, the players are taking it in stride.
"We were real frustrated and disappointed after the game, but we came back [Sunday] and had a really good practice," Gilmore said. "I don't think we're thinking about it anymore."
One indication that Saturday's loss may be an aberration is how Harvard's vanquished opponents have fared against the Big Green. While both Army and Holy Cross were blown out by the Crimson, the two lost to Dartmouth in the final minutes.
The whole Ivy League's attention will be focused on tonight's first league matchup, especially because the second will not come for several weeks. So tonight's winner will, at least for a few weeks, sit atop the Ancient Eight.
"Anytime you can start out the Ivy League 1-0, it's a good thing," Hill said. "You want to try to get a head start on everybody."