A weekend of heavyweights.
Harvard men’s basketball returns home to Lavietes Pavilion this weekend, clashing with Princeton on Friday night followed by Penn on Saturday afternoon. In its month-long stretch of games away from Cambridge, the Crimson (10-11, 5-1 Ivy League) gritted its way to late-game wins against Yale, Dartmouth, and Cornell. Only against Columbia was Harvard unable to fight back after squandering a halftime lead.
Coach Tommy Amaker’s squad currently holds the second spot in the Ancient Eight after the first month of conference play. The group trails neither the Bulldogs nor the Tigers—preseason Ivy favorites—but rather the Quakers (16-11, 6-0), who have largely dominated their conference opponents up to this point. Penn was winless after the first six Ivy games last season, pointing at a complete program reversal for third-year coach Steve Donahue.
Furthermore, the Quakers will come into this weekend as confident as ever, having just blown out Princeton (11-10, 3-3) on Tuesday night, 82-65. In that contest, five Quakers finished in double-digits on 53.6 percent shooting from the field. Senior guard Darnell Foreman was the lead man with 21 points and 5 takeaways, while Tigers junior guard Devin Cannady—Princeton’s offensive focal point—was held under 10 points for the first time since Dec. 23.
With the loss, the Tigers now sit in a three-way tie for third place on the Ancient Eight leaderboard alongside Brown and Columbia.
“I wish we are in a slightly different place than where we are in the standings, but I think you are what your record says that you are,” Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said. “So we got a lot of work to do, and I just ask the guys to tune out all the different stuff they are thinking about and zero in on each other.”
For Amaker and the Crimson, both games will be likely must-wins if Harvard intends on competing for the No. 1 seed heading into the Ivy League Tournament. The Crimson was outdueled by both teams in last season’s final Princeton-Penn weekend, albeit after securing the No. 2 spot in the postseason tournament.
This year, Harvard is the favorite against the Tigers but stands in a rare predicament as the underdog against the Quakers on Saturday.
“We’ve consistently talked about, through the years...about how important and how we think that the league is eventually won on Saturday nights,” Amaker said. “No matter what happens on Friday.”
Complicating the weekend for the Crimson is the possibility it will again be without sophomore point guard Bryce Aiken, who re-injured his left knee in the final minutes of last Friday’s Columbia defeat. The Randolph, N.J., native had just logged his second straight game with more than 18 minutes of action for the first time since early December. Spectating in jogging clothes against Cornell, Aiken’s outlook is doubtful-at-best for this weekend.
Sophomore guard Christian Juzang has averaged 11 points per game in the three conference games Aiken has missed, particularly earning praise from Amaker for his defensive play.
“We’ve been a very good defensive team as of late,” Amaker said. “[Juzang]’s been one of the key cogs when it comes to that so I’m really, really pleased with how he’s helped our team in areas that may not necessarily go on the stat sheet or headlines.”
Against Princeton, Harvard’s improved defense will be put to the test against the three-headed threat of Cannady, junior guard Myles Stephens, and senior guard Amir Bell. All three guards enter the weekend with double-digit scoring averages, including 27- and 23-point performances from Cannady and Stephens, respectively, in last Saturday’s loss to Brown. Bell has elevated several non-scoring facets of the game, doubling his totals last year in both assists per game (3.9) and rebounds per game (5.4).
“Tough stretch but we have Miles, Amir, Devin, who have been through some really big games on the road,” Henderson said. “Sometimes when you go on the road things come together a little bit more, your focus tends to get a little more laser-like. I’m hopeful that will be true for us.”
The following evening against Penn, Harvard sophomore Chris Lewis will need to maintain his defensive composure against sophomore forward AJ Brodeur, who has a particular knack for maneuvering his body around the rim to create scoring opportunities. Lewis was mired in foul trouble in the Jan. 27 game against Brown, limiting himself to just 15 minutes of play.
The aforementioned Foreman and the team’s leading scorer, sophomore guard Ryan Betley, are also extremely aggressive in challenging opponents at the rim. Betley has gotten to the foul line seven times in the past three games, while Foreman has reached the charity stripe eight times in that same span. The Crimson, nevertheless, has readied itself for various situations when foul trouble may be an issue.
“We actually practice at times in those situations when a certain person has fouled out or a certain has four fouls, so they can hopefully get in the mindset of how to play in those moments,” Amaker said. “And that’s hopefully one of the reasons we talk always so much about our bench and our balance, that we can overcome it.”
Evidently, Harvard will head into this weekend well-prepared for what is to be an exciting docket of home games. As the final two Ivy teams that Harvard has yet to face, Princeton and Penn will shed some light on the Crimson’s current postseason prospects.
—Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.