As of last Sunday, the Harvard men’s basketball team officially clinched one of four spots in the inaugural Ivy League conference tournament.
With both Columbia and Penn tied for fourth place in the league with 4-6 records in conference play, the Crimson has a four-game buffer with four regular season games remaining. With a Lions-Quakers matchup on the books for this weekend, however, one of the teams is guaranteed to fall further behind, giving Harvard a guaranteed spot.
But for coach Tommy Amaker and his players, the clinched spot is nothing major to celebrate, as there is still room to move up.
“Never settle for second place when first is still available,” Amaker said, paraphrasing an adage from President John F. Kennedy ‘40. “Last I checked, first is still available. It’s not like this is all said and done.”
Though Amaker would go on to discuss how important it was to stress this message to his players, when senior co-captain Siyani Chambers came in to speak to the media minutes later, it became clear that there was no miscommunication between the coaching staff in the players.
“We always talk about, if first place is in sight, why would we settle for second?” Chambers said. “We’re still trying to go for first place and get that Ivy League title, the regular season Ivy League title, so we’re going into every practice with that same intensity and that fight and that drive to make that push.”
In fact, Amaker added that he wasn’t even aware his team had clinched a spot in the tournament until his players informed him. While many have alluded to a seeming inevitability that Princeton will run away with the regular season title, currently undefeated in Ancient Eight play, Harvard is two games back and has four games remaining on the schedule—including one against the Tigers—to raise the Ivy banner.
Up next on the Crimson’s road to the tournament is Yale (14-9, 6-4 Ivy League) and Brown (11-15, 2-8). As it plays its last home games of the season, Harvard (16-7, 8-2) will recognize its senior class—composed of Chambers, co-captain Corbin Miller, forward Zena Edosomwan, and guard Matt Fraschilla—in a pregame ceremony on Saturday night.
Both the Bulldogs and the Bears come into the weekend with something to prove, as the duo was handily swept last weekend by Princeton and Penn. Although Harvard swept these two teams when it played them two weeks ago on the road, the Crimson has struggled with consistency during games this season, with both Yale and Brown giving the team scares in the respective contests.
When facing Yale on Friday, Amaker has emphasized the need to win the battle of the boards. Last time the two teams met, the Bulldogs, who leads the league in rebounds, had just one more board than the Crimson, but held a 20-14 advantage on the glass in the first half—the period in which Yale led.
“It’s a rivalry game, it’s Yale,” Chambers said. “No matter if it’s basketball, football, squash, water polo, golf, whatever it is, its big.”
When Brown comes to town on Saturday night, Harvard will play with the hopes of sending the seniors out of Lavietes Pavilion on a high note.
“We always say to [the younger players], ‘God willing, you younger guys, you’re going to be an older guy one day. You’re going to want these young guys to want to send you out the right way’,” Amaker said. “It’s hard for them to even think about that right now because they’re freshmen, sophomores. They can’t think about next week let alone two years or three years, but as a veteran guy you want and hope that the younger guys are really thinking of them.”
To accomplish that against the Bears will involve improved transition defense. The first half saw the Crimson defense caught on its heels, with Brown’s offense juggernauts Steven Spieth and Obi Okolie taking advantage of turnovers and slow transitions.
Amaker admittedly noted that the team’s current position of holding a tournament spot is new territory, as the league to the implications of a new playoff tournament, and he doesn’t know exactly how the team will handle the circumstances of knowing that it is guaranteed to play past the regular season finale. Additionally, as the 2015-2016 team was long eliminated from NCAA Tournament contention by this point in the season, the pressure of moving onto the postseason is new for both the freshmen and the sophomores.
“I think all of the seniors are in the same position—Corbin, Zena, and Matt—where we just want to take all these guys under our wing and just try to instill what we know,” Chambers said. “We have a lot of young guys, not just freshmen but sophomores who weren’t in this position last year. We really just want to show them the way, pass down our experience so even when the become juniors, they become sophomores, in reality they feel like veteran guys.”
—Staff writer Stephen J. Gleason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.