Heading into the final weekend of Ivy play, the Harvard men’s basketball team has control over a regular-season championship and No. 1 conference tournament seed ranking in its own hands.
A road sweep over Cornell and Columbia would be the most direct path to the program’s seventh-ever Ivy League title, an honor it would share with the Yale Bulldogs if its New Haven foes can similarly knock off Princeton and Penn. Due to Yale’s upset loss over the seventh-place Lions last weekend, the Crimson and Bulldogs carry identical 9-3 Ivy records approaching its last two round-robin games.
Coach Tommy Amaker’s side also holds the statistical tiebreaker over Yale, thanks to its 2-0 head-to-head record this season against Coach James Jones’ team. Unless both teams drop its pair of contests this weekend and Princeton is also able to garner a victory over Brown, the Crimson will head into the four-team Ivy League Tournament as the No.1 seed — as well as its name etched on the Princeton Alumni Council Trophy — if it can match Yale’s weekend record.
“We all know how tough we need to be to win games on the road, as we have had to be during this conference race so far,” said Coach Amaker following the Mar. 2 victory over Penn. “Now that it looks like with the Yale thing that has happened, we are in first place and we have a chance to…it’s on us to close this thing out.”
The Crimson was in a similar position last season, having been vaulted onto the top of the Ancient Eight leaderboard after sitting behind a league leader(then-Penn) for much of the conference slate. The Quakers’ loss at Yale in the penultimate weekend dropped the Philadelphia side to the No. 2 slot, and Harvard’s weekend sweep held onto its newly-gained position with home wins over Cornell and Columbia.
But that campaign ended in forgettable fashion, as the Crimson failed to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament in a three-point loss to Penn in the conference finals.
“I think it just puts a heavier chip on our shoulder,” said sophomore forward Danilo Djuricic. “We have the experience of winning the regular season last year and then losing in the tournament overall, and then having our ultimate goal not be achieved. So I think we just got to learn from our mistakes last year, and then go in with that mindset that we won't be stopped.”
Regardless, the final chapter of the regular season has not been closed just yet: Cornell and Columbia are certainly no walks in the park.
The Crimson was one miraculous Bryce Aiken heave away from suffering its first weekend sweep since the end of the 2016-2017 season last time around, having had Columbia chase its heels for three overtimes. That Friday night ordeal in some ways contributed to a lackluster Saturday outing against Cornell, even with a rare off-night from Matt Morgan. The senior recently propelled himself to second in the all-time Ivy scoring list and currently leads the Ancient Eight in scoring with 22.3 PPG.
“Such a big game for both of us, [Cornell] trying to be in that four seed and us trying to get that top seed,” first-year Noah Kirkwood said. “I think for [Matt] being one of his last games there he will ever play, so he will be tough for us regardless of that circumstance.”
Kirkwood, who recently earned his program-tying sixth Rookie of the Week honors, has had to assume a heavier defensive load in place of injured junior wing Justin Bassey. Amaker’s defensive cog has missed the past three games recovering from a lower leg injury suffered early in the Brown contest. Bassey had only engaged in light practices up to this Wednesday, according to Coach Amaker.
“I think with [Justin] being gone, it kind of makes us all realize all the things he did that might not show on the stat sheet — charges, deflections, box-outs that we took for granted almost at times,” Kirkwood said. “So for me, I felt it was my job to try to do my best to do all those things he did do for us. And as for that, I've been growing defensively and then my defense gives me confidence on offense. So it's been helpful.”
The freshman will certainly be occupied around the perimeter, assuming responsibilities on both Morgan — who had knocked down a combined 14 triples in the four games prior to last weekend’s 1-of- 7 showing from deep — as well as Columbia’s sharpshooting core in Gabe Stefanini and Quinton Adlesh, who combined for 49 points this past weekend.
While the Lions are statistically eliminated from playoff contention, it has gone on a late-season tear with wins in three out of its last four games over Penn, Yale, and Brown. The “party” spoilers also had its first Ivy League Player of the Week in big man Patrick Tapé, who tallied consecutive 16-point outings this past weekend. Tapé had arguably his best game of the campaign in the last run with the Crimson, collecting 12 boards and a season-high 22 points.
Cornell has even more to play for outside of personal pride, as it is currently in must-win mentality if it seeks to sneak in as the No. 4 seed the following weekend. Having dropped its last five contests, the tiebreaker odds do not align in favor of the Big Red who are currently in sixth behind Brown and Penn. Brown is one game ahead on the win sheet, while Penn beats out Cornell in most tie-breaking situations.
Given the Crimson’s difficulty this season in nabbing victories over traditionally smaller Ivy programs(its three losses have come to Dartmouth, Cornell, and Brown despite sweeping Penn, Princeton, Yale), Harvard has plenty still left to show before it can dream about Selection Sunday.
“Our league is really, really hard,” Coach Amaker acknowledged. “And no matter who we play, we've had gut wrenching games, close games. And Iooking at a Dartmouth team, for instance, I know they are last place in the league. I don’t know how many games they played that were [decided by] overtime, one or two points, one-possession games. We've been fortunate to come out on top with some wins that we have and unfortunate for us on the other side of it. That just I think says a lot about the, the depth and I think the parity of our league for us to the losses we have.”
With the festivities of senior weekend behind and an opportune loss from its rivals, the Crimson is once again in the driver’s seat in controlling its own destiny. After numerous bumps to the season, Harvard is hoping for a much smoother ride to New Haven for the Ancient Eight playoffs, and somewhere in the distance, a journey to the NCAA Tournament. It’s one game, and one road trip at a time before all of that madness ensues. Onwards continues the trek, to Ithaca first and then — potentially with the championship trophy in the building— to Morningside Heights we head.
— Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Zhuhen88.