Coming off the heels of a last-minute loss to Penn in the final game of the conference season last spring, Harvard had the chance to dance despite an undefeated conference season from Ancient Eight heavyweight Princeton.
It was uncharted territory for the Ivy League to say the least.
After falling to the Tigers twice on buzzer-beaters in the regular season, Tommy Amaker’s squad would have a chance to duke it out a third time with Princeton if the Crimson could take down Yale once more, making three total wins over the Bulldogs.
That game, however, would never materialize as Harvard lost in its tournament opener to Yale and, just as it deserved to, Princeton headed to the NCAA tournament.
The inaugural tournament didn’t all go as expected, though. In the other opener a Penn squad with a losing record took the Tigers into overtime in front of a crowd of Quaker faithful. Had Penn won, the No. 3 and 4 seeds of the conference would’ve been competing on Sunday for the opportunity to represent the Ancient Eight in March.
I think the biggest takeaway from this is that it must’ve just really sucked to be Princeton in that first game of the conference tournament.
No team had gone undefeated in conference play since Steve Donahue’s Cornell squad finished perfect in 2008. Now the Tigers were playing overtime basketball with a team that not only had a losing record, but on their home court as well. This isn’t to say, though, that the conference tournament is flawed by any means—had Penn gone dancing it probably would’ve raised flags about the location of the tournament, but all in all it was an overdue addition to the conference.
What last season exemplifies the best, though, is the degree to which every team loves the conference tournament when they wouldn’t otherwise win the conference outright.
If I were a betting man, I’d say Tommy Amaker is starting to feel a bit like Princeton probably did at the end of last season. This isn’t to say the Crimson is on the verge of an undefeated season, but coming off a weekend sweep on the road and given Yale’s loss to Brown and Princeton’s loss to Penn, it would appear Harvard is becoming the team to beat.
To be clear, the season is still young and we’re only through the first back-to-back weekend of basketball.
With that said, Coach Amaker’s squad has a lot going its way—a Yale team that was expected to be neck-and-neck with the Crimson is still without standout guard Makai Mason, and the Bulldogs also lost forward Jordan Bruner for the year with a torn meniscus. The Crimson also already played and beat Yale on the road, so what would have likely been Harvard’s toughest matchup is over. The Crimson escaped with a 54-52 win.
Princeton, predicted to be Harvard’s next toughest matchup, lost its conference opener to an up-and-coming Penn squad which is also somehow the only other team still undefeated in Ivy League play. If anything, the Quakers might turn out to be the Crimson’s toughest matchup in the conference season. Headlined by sophomores AJ Brodeur and Ryan Betley, Penn will probably be Harvard’s biggest contenders for the next two years. While talented, the Quakers also arguably more inexperienced that Amaker’s squad—nearly all of the Crimson’s current sophomores saw significant playing time while two of Penn’s starters hardly saw the floor last season.
It would be tough to really put any other team in contention here. Brown has a seriously talented freshman in Desmond Cambridge and Brandon Anderson is arguably one of the best guards in the conference, but the Brown Bears are still probably a year or two from contention. Columbia won a grand total of three games in their non-conference slate and lost nine in a row at one point. They also lost to Princeton by nearly 40. For its part, Cornell dropped one to the Lions.
What this adds up to is Harvard’s best shot at a conference title in the past two years—Princeton graduated an immensely talented senior class and Yale is without what could very well be its best two players.
The road is as open as it could be for the Crimson.
It hasn’t all been perfect for Harvard, however. In its non-conference schedule the Crimson struggled against plenty of teams it should have absolutely been able to beat; these included losses at Holy Cross, Manhattan, CSU Fullerton, and Northeastern. Perhaps most importantly, Harvard has been without former Ivy League Rookie of the Year Bryce Aiken. The sophomore guard went nearly a month off the court and then played sparingly on the road at Dartmouth and Yale before scoring 18 points in 20 minutes at Brown.
All told, the Crimson has what might be its best chance in the next few years. Once again, if I was a betting man I’d take Harvard to finish with the best record in conference.
Unfortunately for this team, that doesn’t mean much anymore. With the tournament at the Palestra once again, Crimson faithful should just hope for a first round matchup against not-Penn.
–Staff writer Troy Boccelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.