The hearts of countless Harvard supporters were crushed the previous time the Crimson squared up against the Bulldogs. Playing at the Palestra in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament last March, Harvard men’s basketball suffered a season-ending 73-71 defeat despite a dominant 28-point performance from then-freshman point guard Bryce Aiken.
This weekend, the lingering taste of revenge will be in the air as the Crimson (7-10, 2-0 Ivy) treks down to New Haven, Conn. to face Yale (8-10, 1-1) on Friday night. Harvard will then finish its weekend road trip in Providence, R.I., against a surging Brown (8-7, 1-1) team, coming off an upset victory against the Bulldogs.
Yale, which was chosen second in the Ivy League preseason media poll, has encountered several obstacles this season in its quest to head back to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. Sophomore forward Jordan Bruner, a key contributor among coach James Jones’ reserves last season, suffered a season-ending meniscus tear in preseason; senior guard Makai Mason, the hero in the Bulldogs’ 2016 March Madness run, has missed the entire season healing a stress fracture in his foot. His return for the first time since that 2015-2016 season will reportedly be in the next few weeks.
Despite these injuries, Yale remains a formidable and well-tested opponent. Three key contributors have on average elevated their offensive numbers compared to last season: sophomore guard Miye Oni leads the team in scoring with 16.4 points per game, followed closely behind by junior guard Alex Copeland and forward Blake Reynolds, each averaging over 10 points per game. Oni, Copeland, and Reynolds were three of Bulldogs’ top four leading scorers last season, highlighting the consistency of Jones’ roster.
Yale has also done a tremendous job in one surprising facet of the game— bringing down rebounds. The Bulldogs are currently sixteenth in total rebounds (590) out of 351 Division I teams, despite a season that saw them face-to-face with difficult non-conference opponents such as Wisconsin, Creighton, TCU, and Georgia Tech.
Much like the Crimson, though, Yale has struggled mightily from three in recent weeks. The Bulldogs sit at the bottom half of the Ancient Eight in this department with a .336 three-point average, having shot a combined 13-of-41 in its recent Brown double-header. Harvard, which is dead last among the Ivies in this category with just a .295 three-point average, has preached patience to combat the ominous demons from deep range.
“If we have good ones, we want our good shooters and three-point shooters for our team to take them,” said coach Tommy Amaker after last weekend’s Dartmouth victory. “That’s the only way we are going to continue to fight our way through these shooting woes we have had.”
For the Crimson, a weekend sweep will likely require not only improved three-point shooting, but also a more distributed and balanced attack. Sophomore forward Seth Towns, who recently earned Ivy League Player of the Week honors, carried a heavy load the past two games with over a third of the team’s total scoring. The team is averaging just 12.2 assists per game and has a 0.9 assist-to-turnover ratio, the lowest in the Ancient Eight in both categories.
Towns, however, praised the team’s selflessness in last weekend’s win and an overall improvement in team morale.
“This isn’t me at all, this is just our team collectively,” Towns said. “Our thing coming in was just to compete, fight, and [stick] together. I think we did that well.”
The Saturday game against the Bears will be no simple task either. This Brown team is particularly tenacious on the defensive end, averaging over six steals per game and allowing opponents to shoot just .328 from three-point range. The Bears are led offensively by freshman guard Desmond Cambridge, who has averaged 15.9 points per game, and sophomore guard Brandon Anderson, who leads the team with 18.7 points per game. In this category, Anderson is second only behind Cornell’s Matt Morgan among Ivy League teams.
Despite the offensive output of these two primary ball-handlers, Harvard should be cautious not to ignore junior guard Obi Okolie. Okolie has re-emerged as a central figure in the Bears lineup after being sidelined early on in the season. Recently in both games against Yale, Okolie scored a combined 20 points off the bench and was Brown’s most efficient scorer, with a team-high 15.1 PER.
One noticeable feature in Bears coach Mike Martin’s nine-man rotation is an overall lack of interior strength. Brown’s roster is composed largely of long but lanky players, including 6’6”, 205-pound sophomore forward Joshua Howard and Okolie. Two of the Bears three players over 6’9” are out of Martin’s rotation entirely. It will be particularly intriguing to see how Amaker addresses this feature of the Browns lineup, especially on the second night of a back-to-back.
For Amaker, the challenge of winning on the road is formidable but unforeign, as the Crimson played much of its non-conference schedule away. In an Ivy League season already teeming with upsets, this weekend will certainly be the least bit predictable.
—Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.