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Men's Basketball Hosts Historically Dominant Princeton, Penn

Big Man in Town
Freshman forward Seth Towns launches a shot against Dartmouth.

Although athletes from its men’s swimming team were not present at last weekend’s H-Y-P meet, Princeton will get the chance to take on Harvard in men’s basketball on Saturday night. The sexual misconduct scandal at the New Jersey school, which came to light seven weeks after the Harvard men’s soccer team’s season was cancelled following the discovery of a sexually explicit spreadsheet, is not the first time that Princeton has followed in the footsteps of its older—perhaps better looking—brother roughly 250 miles to its northeast.

Princeton followed Harvard’s lead in 2011 when it reinstated an early action admissions program. Woodrow Wilson succeeded a Harvard grad and a Yale alum in the White House. The Ivy Club came to be the poor man’s Porcellian Club come 1879.

However, one arena in which Princeton has not followed Harvard’s lead, for better or worse, comes in men’s basketball. It would be safe to call Princeton the anti-Harvard when it comes to tradition, style of play, and culture. While the teams have combined for just one NCAA Tournament berth since 2008, Penn and Princeton, the Crimson’s two opponents this weekend, are far and away the traditional Goliaths when it comes to Ivy League basketball. The travel partners won or shared all but two Ivy League regular season titles between 1963 and 2007. Princeton coach Mitch Henderson is in his fifth year at his alma mater. He played under legendary coach Pete Carril, winning three Ivy League tournaments in four years. Carril’s 1989 team is largely why mid-major conferences still receive automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament. Princeton, a 16-seed, took one-seed Georgetown, a team coached by John Thompson, Jr. and led by Charles Smith, Dikembe Mutombo, and Alonzo Mourning to the brink, ultimately lost by one but the game was recently called “The Game That Saved March Madness” by Sports Illustrated.

To say that Harvard does not have the basketball history that the Tigers do is like Emperor Hirohito saying that World War II did not develop in Japan’s favor after he surrendered to the U.S. The Crimson’s emergence as a threat in the Ivy League has largely coincided with coach Tommy Amaker’s arrival in Cambridge. Amaker won more games in nine-plus seasons than his predecessor, Frank Sullivan, won in 17. Harvard made more NCAA Tournaments in Amaker’s first six seasons than the program did in the first 71 seasons in which the Big Dance was held.

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Princeton has an offense that is named after it. Harvard does not. While most schools do not have an offense named after them, this fact is especially appropriate for the Crimson. Defense has always been the calling card under Amaker. While the tenth-year head coach emphasizes an inside-out offense focusing on his frontcourt and three-point shooters who can keep defenses honest, Harvard’s offense, especially this season, is largely a work in progress. Harvard shot nearly 51 percent from the field last Friday against Cornell before posting an abysmal 32.3 percent clip against Columbia the next night. With defense as its rock, Harvard will have to rely largely on closing out close games. The Crimson’s 16-point win over three-win Dartmouth is probably as close to a blowout as Harvard will have in an Ivy League game this season.

Henderson, on the other hand, likes letting his horses run free. While the Tigers are only averaging 74.6 points per game, it dropped a 97-spot on Brown last weekend and put up 90 against a Monmouth team that is arguably the best competition it has faced this season. Henderson’s version of the Princeton offense relies on its bigs, headlined by senior forwards Spencer Weisz and Steven Cook. Sophomore guard Devin Cannady is the key in the backcourt but virtually everyone on the roster can shoot. Five Tigers have made 10 or more three-pointers this season and the team is shooting 45.3 percent from the field on the year.

Despite the varying styles of play and histories, the teams meet this weekend as two of the best in the conference. Coaching his most talented roster since taking the job in 2011, Henderson is somewhere between being on the hot seat and being a prime candidate for landing a big-time job or pay raise. He has yet to lead Princeton to the NCAA Tournament but has had three 20-win seasons in five years at the helm. His team was the consensus favorite to win the Ivy League this season after returning virtually its entire roster from a team that won 22 games and made the NIT. Losses to a pair of teams who did not make last season’s tournament wasn’t ideal for an experienced team or for a conference that is trying to establish itself on the national level, but all will most likely be forgotten if Henderson can get Princeton to the Big Dance.

Amaker, especially over the past two seasons, has diverged from the traditional Ivy League route and even from his own. Part of the change can be attributed to necessity and the rest is largely due to the fact that Harvard isn’t Princeton. Amaker’s team could lose the remaining 10 games on its schedule, which I personally guarantee it won’t, and his job security would not be in question. This is Amaker’s team and Amaker’s program. He is the reason why Harvard has any chance to win one or even both games this weekend. He has brought in players who could be playing for power conference programs.

Amaker has the keys to his own Corvette while Henderson is largely relying on his parents for gas money. The Tigers still rely largely on what got them the 26 Ivy League championship banners that adorn Jadwin Gymnasium—the Princeton offense, discipline, and experience. While Henderson eased in Cannady as a freshman on a veteran team last season, Amaker has made class year a moot point for this year’s Crimson team.

He starts three freshmen or sophomores and underclassmen make up more than 70 percent of the team’s minutes played this season. This formula gave Harvard fits the first time they met last season, with wings draining threes and backdoor cuts carving up the Harvard defense, much like they did when the Crimson played Columbia last weekend. Amaker, ironically coaching with nothing to lose when the teams met in Cambridge last March, rode an unexpected hero in Pat Steeves ’16 to a 73-71 victory. With this year’s Harvard team, there’s no telling who the hero will be on any given night. If you like Goliaths, go with the guests but if anyone has a trick up his sleeve to beat the Tigers, it’s Amaker.

YALE AT COLUMBIA

This has the potential to be one of the best games of the weekend. The Lions and the Bulldogs both come in with identical conference records and while Yale would be the early favorite, Columbia’s early conference performance—specifically a first half beatdown of Harvard last weekend—indicates the Lions might finally be a force to be reckoned with in the League.

Now to the important stuff: Columbia has notoriously bad wifi. No joke, you’d think that smack in the middle of New York a school with a billion dollar endowment could afford to give people some decent internet. They also kick journalists out of their seats as soon as the game is over. Harsh. Given the lack of seating then, and the fact Columbia players have no alternative but to practice given the scarcity of access to Netflix, they might just pull an upset on Friday.

Pick: Columbia

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