Tommy Amaker and the Harvard men’s basketball team are happy to be back in the familiar confines of Lavietes Pavilion.
After splitting a New York road trip against Cornell and Columbia, the Crimson (11-6, 3-1 Ivy League) is looking for redemption as Penn (7-9, 0-3) and Princeton (10-6, 3-0) come to town. The weekend represents the first full Ivy slate of games as Penn played the league’s last nonconference game Jan. 25.
While last weekend did not end the way Harvard would have liked—having to come back from a 19-point deficit against Columbia, only to result in a three-point loss—it provided a learning experience for the freshmen on how to win in the Ivy League, where the back-to-back scheduling of games means that almost any team can win on a given night.
“It was a quick turnaround,” freshman guard Bryce Aiken said. “Your highs can’t be too high and your lows can’t be too low. Coming in as freshmen I think we have to adjust to that quickly. We don’t have much time to kind of figure it out because each game means something in conference play.”
But for the first time in Ancient Eight play this year, the team will face an opponent who also relies heavily on a rookie to take on a significant role. Much like Harvard’s Aiken or classmates Seth Towns and Chris Lewis, Penn has relied on freshman AJ Brodeur to take on the scoring and rebounding load.
The Northfield Mount Hermon product ranks fourth in the Ivy in points per game, fourth in rebounds per game, fourth in field goal percentage, and first in blocks. With a 6’8’’ frame, Brodeur creates mismatches around the perimeter with his ability to make the occasional three, but also creates space in the paint against bigger forwards.
“Happy to see him having a wonderful year, but hopeful he doesn’t have a wonderful game Friday,” Amaker said. “The thing that I would say about AJ that we’re going to have to work against today and tomorrow is he can be pretty crafty around the basket with shot fakes, stepping through, pivoting.”
Princeton, on the other hand, is the most veteran team in the Ancient Eight and was the preseason pick to take first in the conference. Though the Tigers have lost a pair of veterans to season ending injuries, Princeton remains the favorite to be the Ivy League’s representative in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think there’s a reason they were chosen to be the winner of our league, because of their depth and more so their experience,” Amaker said. “Those guys have been around. A lot to be said for that...Going into this weekend I think they’re playing the best right now.”
The game will pit the Ivy’s top two scoring defenses against each other, with Harvard giving up 64.4 points per game and Princeton allowing 65.4. According to senior co-captain Siyani Chambers, defense will be the key to victory on Saturday night.
“[W]hen it comes to Saturday it’s really all about defense,” Chambers said. “Your legs are tired, you’re tired, you need to immensely prepare on defense and get stops to put you in a position to win the game when the time comes around.”
Amaker has always pressed the concept that while offense may not always be consistent despite effort, defense is a mostly effort based facet of the game that relies on being alert and prepared. Chambers echoed this idea.
“When you focus too much on offense, that can go up or down, especially when you go back to back,” the Minnesota native said. “We really try to stress defense and getting rebounds, limiting them on the offensive end.”
One of the things the Crimson will particularly need to limit is the backdoor cut. This move used to create open looks through the paint burned Harvard against both Cornell and Columbia. By playing close to their player in man-to-man coverage, it made it difficult for the team to provide help difference when someone was beat backdoor, forcing Amaker to shift to zone and leave the team more open to quick jump shots.
Though Amaker has made the struggles at Cornell and, particularly, Columbia a teaching moment, he and his veteran players make a note to make sure his team does not dwell too long on the past. After the team’s first Ivy loss, the freshmen have already internalized that principle.
“[You have to} just try to turn to the next page, move on to the next game ahead of you,” Aiken said. “As soon as that game ends...if it’s good you celebrate for 10 minutes in the locker room after the game, if it’s bad, you have to have a short memory and get onto the next one.”
—Staff writer Theresa C. Hebert can be reached at email@example.com.
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