The Ivy League is won and lost on Friday and Saturday nights.
Harvard men’s basketball (10-5, 2-0 Ivy League) already has two conference wins under its belt with a sweep of travel-partner Dartmouth, but the real Ancient Eight grind begins on Friday in the first night of six weeks of back-to-back games on Fridays and Saturdays. For the Crimson, the back-to-back schedule kicks off against Cornell (5-12, 1-1) and Columbia (7-8, 1-1).
While other conferences play nearly any night of the week, the Ivy League schedule is restricted to non-school nights once conference play sets in. This exists as part of the Ivy League’s priority of having an equal balance of student and athlete. Other policies restrict the amount of rest time players must have following a road trip and the number of practices teams may have in the offseason, among other logistical rules.
This unique scheduling requires a different kind of planning for coaches and players—both in scouting opposing teams and in keeping players fresh for two consecutive nights of basketball. This is especially true for rookies, who aren’t used to the back-to-back nights. But when Harvard coach Tommy Amaker’s squad steps on the court in Ithaca on Friday (and in New York City on Saturday) it will be prepared, even as one of the youngest squads in the country.
“We have really made the decision to try to develop our depth and use our bench and hopefully that can equate into having really good balance,” Amaker said. “Again, we’re a work in progress, but I really like the direction.”
Knowing that his team would have to tackle these back-to-backs when conference season came, Amaker planned a non-conference back-to-back against two local foes in Northeastern and Boston College to try and simulate what this experience would be like for his seven freshmen.
“That’s the kind of experience we’re going to make sure our guys are remembering,” Amaker said. “Just as importantly, because we were successful in that particular back to back. It wasn’t necessarily driving up five or six hours to Ithaca and then down to New York City, it was obviously right here, so it will be different in that regard.”
Harvard walked away from both of those games on the winning side of the equation, part of a five-game winning spurt prior to the winter break. A commonality between both of those games was the depth of the Harvard squad. While a rookie led the way in scoring in both wins against Northeastern and BC—Seth Towns and Chris Lewis, respectively—several players shouldered the scoring and defensive burdens in the games, allowing Amaker to consistently keep fresh legs on the floor.
“We have a pretty deep roster, so we use that to our advantage, and as a team I think we’ve been improving each and every game and every week so that’s something we pride ourselves on,” freshman guard Bryce Aiken said. “It’s next man up. We all have our roles and identity, we just have to follow our roles to get the win.”
While the Gentlemen C’s have been fairly consistent in who they are seeing production from—Matt Morgan and Robert Hatter for Cornell, Luke Petrasek, Nate Hickman, and Mike Smith for Columbia—the Crimson has been harder to predict.
The freshman core of Aiken, Lewis, Towns and Justin Bassey have all led the team in scoring on multiple occasions, with veteran players such as seniors co-captain Siyani Chambers and Zena Edosomwan along with sophomore Corey Johnson have also taken on the scoring burden.
“We have made a conscious effort to develop our depth,” Amaker said. “We have a lot of players, Cornell has a lot of players, Princeton has a lot of players, you just need to decide if your philosophy is to develop that as opposed to playing six seven or eight guys and play them 35 plus minutes.”
Throughout the season, Amaker has come to embrace his teams depth—Amaker regularly plays well over 10 of his 20 man squad and typically most don’t play over thirty minutes on a given night.
Amaker consistently seeks “bench and balance” from his team, making it challenging for opposing teams to hone in on one individual player or limiting the offense to one style of scoring. In the Crimson’s most recent game at home against Dartmouth, its two leading scorers—Towns and Edosomwan—came off the bench.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that before, but here we are,” Amaker said. “It’s been a good rhythm for us.”
—Staff writer Theresa Hebert can be reached at email@example.com.