In the months leading up to the college basketball season, Feb. 17 was supposed to be the Ivy League’s moment in the sun. Harvard and Yale, the top two teams in the conference preseason poll and the league’s biggest rivals, would be going head-to-head in a nationally televised Saturday night game at Lavietes Pavilion. While the matchup between the two schools gets the most attention on the gridiron, the Crimson and Bulldogs have established quite the rivalry on the hardwood.
Harvard and Yale have combined for five of the Ivy League’s last six NCAA Tournament bids, with the Bulldogs ending the Crimson’s four-year run of dominance from 2012-2015. Even though Princeton was the class of the Ivy League a season ago, the matchups between Harvard and Yale, especially the teams’ showdown during the Ivy League Tournament, were some of the conference’s premier games.
Storylines entering the two 2018 matchups abounded. Yale captain Makai Mason, the only player on either team’s roster who played in the Ivy League’s one-game playoff back in 2015, was scheduled to return from a foot injury that sidelined him for all of the 2016-2017 season. The Crimson’s star-studded sophomore class would be going up against Yale’s talented group of second-years in what the Ivy League hopes will be a rivalry in itself for years to come. Harvard would likely still have a bitter taste in its mouth following an unexpected early exit from the inaugural Ivy League Tournament at the hands of the Elis.
Plus, the two teams have largely been the class of the Ancient Eight for the last several years, with intense, every-possession-counts matchups being the norm. Remarkably, entering the season, the Crimson and Bulldogs had split their last eight regular season matchups (point differential: Yale by three), their two meetings at the Palestra (one-game playoff in 2015 and Ivy League Tournament last year, point differential: even), and the ten meetings at Lavietes Pavilion since Harvard coach Tommy Amaker has been at the helm (point differential: Yale by 12). One could say that these teams tend to play each other tight.
To add some proverbial kindling to the fire, Amaker and Yale coach James Jones have a little rivalry of their own. The two headmen play a chess game of x’s and o’s two or three times a year and duke it out on the recruiting trail, with both schools having brought in some of the most heralded recruits in league history in recent years. However, Jones has not always been fond of Amaker’s strategy, saying in 2008 that “[i]t’s eye-opening because there seems to have been a drastic shift in restrictions and regulations with the Harvard admissions office” and “we could not get involved with many of the kids that they are bringing in.” With Jones in charge, Yale has enjoyed playing up, at best, an underdog narrative and, at worse, one of a redheaded stepchild. Jones spent a good chunk of his Ivy League Tournament press conference last season talking about the chip on his team’s shoulder and bemoaning the fact that then-senior forward Sam Downey was not a first or second team All-Ivy selection.
So, there’s your scene for Saturday night. However, things haven’t exactly gone according to plan. Mason has still not played in a game since injuring his foot, Bulldogs star sophomore forward Jordan Bruner is out for the year while reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year Bryce Aiken has been hampered by a knee injury for most of the season for the Crimson. Both teams struggled mightily in nonconference play, with Harvard taking its licks against the likes of Holy Cross and George Washington, and Yale carrying its lackluster play into the beginning of Ivy League action.
However, the teams have been better of late, especially after a weekend in which both clubs went undefeated. The Bulldogs saw sophomore wing Miye Oni win Ivy League Player of the Week honors and received news that Mason may be active this weekend for the first time in nearly 23 months. The Crimson has won seven of its first eight conference games, appears to have turned a corner on the offensive end, and saw breakout performances from sophomores Christian Juzang and Chris Lewis last weekend. Unless something crazy happens over the next three weekends, Harvard will likely be a top-two seed in the Ivy League Tournament for the second straight year. Yale, on the other hand, is in a crowd of five teams separated by one game for the third and fourth spots in the tournament. The Bulldogs, along with Brown, can control their own destiny.
Expect another close game like the one played in New Haven three weekends ago, but don’t hedge your bets on one in which the teams struggle to break 50 points apiece and combine for two field goals in the final five minutes of game action. But don’t be surprised either if there’s another matchup in three weeks in Philadelphia—Harvard and Yale have a strange way of running into one another.
PENN AT COLUMBIA
We think all Columbia University Marching Band jokes have been exhausted.
Notably absent from the esteemed constitution of this venerable band is any mention of the Quakers. It’s remarkable, really. Every subsection of Article Eight of the band’s constitution makes a witty remark about every institution in the Ivy League. Except Penn.
We’d like to get to the bottom of this, but for the time being we’re pretty sure that the Quakers will not be absent at Friday’s game.