Harvard Finishes With Ivy Matchups

Rampant conjecture about academic standards, accusations leveled at the coaching staff, and debate over recruits have recently placed Harvard’s barketball program in the national spotlight and diverted attention away from the games themselves. Amidst mostly unwelcome attention, however, a basic reality has been overlooked.

This season is not over yet.

This weekend, the Crimson end the year at home against conference foes Brown (17-9, 9-3 Ivy) tonight and Yale (11-15, 5-7 Ivy) tomorrow night. Harvard suits up at Lavietes Pavilion following a deuce of losses in New York last weekend that began with a 64-54 defeat at the hands of Columbia.

The Crimson (8-20, 3-9 Ivy) received little inspiration from its performance against the Lions in Harlem, New York, where forwards John Baumann and Ben Nwachukwu were allowed to control the paint and and together score 38 points.

“We struggle defensively when we can’t shoot the ball well,” head coach Tommy Amaker said. “And certainly that’s not a good combination—not scoring and then not defending.”

It was a sign of bad things to come–more specifically, of the dismal matchup with now conference-champion Cornell that ended with a score of 86-53 and the clipping of a championship net for the Big Red.

“The students came out and made it a good atmosphere,” Amaker said of the Cornell fans. “They got it going and took it away from us convincingly.”

Aside from an equally intimidating crowd of students, a different set of problems confronted the Crimson in its previous meeting with the Bulldogs. Yale dominated the boards, out-rebounding Harvard 39-26, and further added to their numbers by capitalizing on the numerous Crimson turnovers to score 27 points.

Despite a career-best 23-point contribution from junior forward Evan Harris, Harvard fell to the Bulldogs, 83-71.

“We certainly battled them until the dam broke about four or five minutes before halftime,” Amaker said. “I thought it was just a stretch there where they blew it open and ignited things and got out in transition.”

A large rally by the opposing team translated into another loss when the Crimson last faced Brown. Although the bench players provided much needed help (sophomore Alek Blankenau and freshman Kyle Fitzgerald combined for 24 points in the second half), the team-at-large shot poorly, racking up a mere 31.6 percent from the field as compared to Brown’s 54.6 percent.

The Bears’ arrival today also means that Harvard must again contend with the leading scorer in the Ivy conference, Mark McAndrew. In the previous matchup, the Crimson held McAndrew to 14 points–almost three shy of his average per game–but he still poses a threat.

“They’re a very difficult team—and [McAndrew] in particular—to defend,” Amaker said. “But I think that hopefully us being here [at home] will raise our level a little bit, and see if we can do a better job of defending their shooters. We’ve scored better here, we’ve shot better here and I think our confidence level is a lot better here.”

This season Harvard accrued all eight of its victories–and only four losses–at Lavietes.

The Crimson now sits tied for sixth with Dartmouth in the conference rankings, right where pre-season polls had projected the Crimson to be.

This weekend provides Harvard with the chance to salvage the remnants of a jagged season–Amaker’s first—that draws to a close without a single win on the road.

“It’s been a perplexing thing for us,” Amaker said. “We haven’t been able to get over the hump there and certainly that’s a tough thing for any team when you struggle on the road.”

But the significance of this weekend’s games extends beyond standings and implications for next year. For the lone senior on the team, captain Brad Unger, Saturday’s matchup represents the last chance to sport a Crimson hoops jersey.

Despite an injury-riddled season, Unger has contributed almost nine points per game and boasts the second highest free throw percentage on the team at 82.9 percent. Last week, the captain led the Crimson both nights with 13 points in its loss at Columbia and 10 at Cornell.

“The play out of Bradley Unger has been great,” Amaker said. “He was injured for a great deal of the season early, and then kind of worked his way back in and then has become as significant as anyone in our lineup. We’ve seen the growth in him being able to power up and be physical in the post and not just be a jump shooter.”