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PREVIEW: Men's Basketball Turns Page Towards Princeton, Penn

Beat of the Ball
Sophomore guard Rio Haskett has regained a larger role in the Crimson rotation in recent weeks.
The three-week, five-game homestand for the Harvard men’s basketball team has concluded. On paper, the Crimson avoided a potentially calamitous start to Ancient Eight play with a 4-1 tally after suffering a surprise opening-conference loss to Dartmouth.

In sentiment however, there is still a feeling of unease and restlessness — compounded with a bit of unexpected adversity — as Harvard (11-8, 4-2 Ivy) prepares for its long bus ride down to Princeton and Penn.

The coda of this home stretch, for one, ended with a loss to Cornell that coach Tommy Amaker summarized as “embarrassing” and “selfish”. Holding a 15-point margin late in the first frame, the Bassey-less Crimson plodded through a slovenly second half defined by 15 turnovers and just three assists. The Big Red’s marksmanship from deep darted the visitors past Harvard in the final minutes, ruining a weekend that would have been remembered more crisply by the triple-overtime Columbia thriller.

“We are more focused on turning the page,” said junior guard Bryce Aiken, who drained a buzzer-beater triple to force 2OT in the Lions contest, “Obviously the weekend did not go as we wanted it to go, but we just took a step back to reflect and just...get mentally ready for this upcoming weekend.”

Game-planning for Princeton and Penn is itself a daunting challenge. But the team has a contaminant in its own locker room it must eliminate: a stomach bug has transmitted through the Harvard locker room this past week, afflicting several members of the team. Coach Tommy Amaker listed juniors Justin Bassey, Rob Baker, and Chris Lewis as well as freshman Kale Catchings among those who have caught the contagion.

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“We haven’t had all bodies healthy and ready to go, but hopefully we will by this weekend,” noted Amaker on Wednesday.

With the roster perhaps not at full strength, the Crimson must nevertheless buckle down and prepare for a long trip down I-95. Like the Cantabrigians, both of its opponents are looking to use this weekend for redemptive purposes.

Undefeated prior to last weekend, the Tigers (12-7, 4-2) dropped down the table after coming out of Yale-Brown weekend winless. This setback came despite the return of leading scorer Devin Cannady from a three-game suspension, who rebounded from a quiet eight-point night against Yale for a 24-point, 9-of-17 outing in the Bears defeat.

Outside of the senior sharpshooter’s 19.0 PPG, Princeton features a familiar senior veteran in guard Myles Stephens— who is second in scoring at 13.6 PPG despite just a 27.1 clip from deep — as well as some emerging young talent.

Notably, second-year big Richmond Aririguzoh has taken a step forward in his development posting a league-high 74.5 field goal shooting percentage in conference play. The imposing 6-foot-9 center led the Tigers in scoring against Yale with 17 points after pacing the squad with 20 points against Cornell the week prior. First-year guard Jaelin Llewellyn, ranked inside the ESPN Top 100, sits only behind Cannady in terms of usage percentage(23%), but is one of the team’s least effective players with a PER of 5.3.

Princeton currently leads the Ivies in offensive rebounding per game at 10.4, and is by far the most accurate free-throw shooting side, converting on about 75 percent of attempts.

Down in the City of Brotherly Love, the Quakers(14-8, 2-4) are hungrier than ever for a season-shifting weekend. Back-to-back losses to Princeton and disappointing results against Cornell and Yale have led to an unexpected number of groans from the supporters of last year’s Ancient Eight champions. The side is finally back at the Palestra after two weeks in visiting arenas, but still have a plethora of adjustments to wrinkle out before welcoming the New Englanders.

Like the Tigers, Penn has a formidable balance of interior size and perimeter shooting. Down low, the Quakers’ backbone consists of bigs AJ Brodeur and Max Rothschild, as well as stretch four Michael Wang.

The freshman forward from Taiyuan, China and a high school classmate of Harvard guard Spencer Freedman is one of Coach Steve Donahue’s most relied upon contributors off the bench, averaging close to 10 points per contest and making about a third of his 74 triples attempts.

While Brodeur maintains his role as the centerpiece in the Quaker offense, junior guard Devon Goodman has emerged as another cog on both sides of the court, highlighted by a team-high 33 steals and second-leading PPG average of 13.5. Goodman was at the top of the scoring sheet in both games this past weekend, and together alongside first-year Bryce Washington have combined to attempt more than 200 triples on the year.

Back to the crimson side, Harvard will certainly need plenty of firepower of its own to clean slate, and Coach Amaker recognized that this will be certainly a make-or-break weekend.

“I am hopeful that we will be better this weekend and then win,” Amaker said. “ I think we will be better and understand what it takes to the play we need to play to our identity and our standards.”

“You can never get too high or too low,” Baker added. “Learn from what went well and what went bad in the previous game and just move on and be refocusing our attention on our next opponent.”

The Crimson head into this conference weekend with the fulcrum of Ivy’s balance of power in flux. As much as Harvard would like to hypothetically acquire a few more days of recovery and perhaps one more stint at Lavietes, the supremacy of the Ivy League schedulers reign.

Time to board up the buses.

Current Top 4 Ivy League standings:

1. Yale(5-1)

2. Princeton (4-2)

3. Cornell (4-2)

4. Harvard (4-2)

— Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at henry.zhu@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @Zhuhen88.

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