Last season, the Penn-Princeton road weekend nearly derailed the Harvard men’s basketball team’s entire season.
In March 2013, the Crimson dropped back-to-back close contests against the Killer P’s, leaving the Tigers in the driver’s seat for the Ivy League Title. But two loaded Princeton losses in the final week of play doomed the Tigers to second place in the Ancient Eight, while Harvard escaped with the Ivy crown and an NCAA Tournament bid.
This season, the stakes are still high.
Tied for first place with dark horse Yale, the Crimson (20-4, 7-1 Ivy) will face Penn (6-15, 3-4) and Princeton (14-7, 2-5) on the road this weekend in an attempt to open up a gap at the top of the standings.
Though the Quakers were picked to finish second in the Ivy League preseason coaches poll and initially looked strong with a season-opening win over the Tigers, road losses at Brown and Yale last weekend left Penn a game below .500 in league play. Princeton has fared worse since the start of Ivy League play, quickly dropping to 0-4 before picking up its first win against Cornell.
Though Penn and Princeton currently sit in fifth and sixth place, respectively, in the conference standings, Harvard will look for two decisive wins to regain momentum after two testing weekends.
“There’s a lot of basketball to be played, so who knows where [Penn and Princeton] are going to end up being,” Crimson coach Tommy Amaker said. “This could be one of the more interesting conference races looking at all the teams that are still jockeying, so who knows how it’s going to shake out?”
While Harvard currently sits atop the Ivy League, tied with the Bulldogs, its position is anything but comfortable. After topping Brown on Feb. 7, the Crimson dropped its Saturday matchup against Yale amidst a weekend of cold shooting. Looking to redeem itself in the Empire State last weekend, Harvard forced Columbia into double overtime to pull out the victory before handily rolling over Cornell—the worst team in the league. A weekend sweep would go a long way in helping the Crimson to right the ship in a conference where every game can radically alter the standings.
“No matter who the opponent is, we want to go out and play to the best of our abilities so we can get two wins,” sophomore guard Siyani Chambers said.
The Crimson will look to top-scoring wing Wesley Saunders on both ends of the floor. The junior leads Harvard with 14.8 points per game, but his biggest contribution has often come on defense, neutralizing the opponent’s leading scorer.
Saunders will have his work cut out for him against Tigers guard TJ Bray, who leads the conference with 18.3 points per game. Last time out, Bray took the Crimson for 26 points, while sophomore forward Hans Brase added 20.
Though every Harvard player has faced Penn and Princeton at Lavietes this season, a lot can change three weeks later on the road.
“[During] the first matchup they tried to throw a few wrinkles into how they play,” Chambers said. “[There were] a few more post ups on the guards for Princeton, but any team can change what they’re going to do the second time around.”
In Harvard’s last contest with Penn, the Crimson effectively shut down the Quakers’ top shooters, holding sophomore guard Tony Hicks o a team-high 14 points on Jan. 31. Co-captain guard Laurant Rivard notched 22 points.
Harvard’s 80-50 victory was its biggest of the season, as sophomore big man Darien Nelson-Henry could not get Penn going off the glass, notching only three rebounds. The Crimson held the Quakers to 14 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
“If you look at their personnel, they haven’t put it together as well as they’ve wanted to, but they’re just as capable,” Amaker said. “We’re always watching film and thinking how are we going to guard these guys.”
After multiple losses in non-conference play precluded the Crimson from an at-large bid to the tournament, Harvard will likely have to come out on top of the Ivy League to have a chance at the Big Dance.
The Crimson has not been victorious at Jadwin Gymnasium since the 1988-89 season, but the team has a good chance to break that streak this year. Last year, Harvard entered the season picked to finish second in the league behind the Tigers and fought with Princeton to the bitter end in New Jersey. The visitors pulled within a bucket with a minute to play before losing their eighth game of the season, 58-53.
The following night, a late-game comeback attempt fell short at the Palestra, dooming the Crimson to its only winless weekend of its conference season.
—Staff writer Hope Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.