Although the Ivy League schedule includes 56 games, only a handful of those matchups end up deciding the title. Friday”s contest between Harvard and Yale is one of those games this year. The Elis entered the season as perhaps the top challenger to the Crimson, and, sitting at 2-0 (with the next four games at home), Yale is in perfect position to make its run. Harvard, meanwhile, can gain some separation from the other Ivy contenders if it can avenge last season’s loss at Payne Whitney Gymnasium. All eyes (especially those from Philly) will be on New Haven Friday night to see what shakes out in what amounts to the first chapter of the Ancient Eight championship race.
Neither the Crimson nor the Bulldogs have been especially impressive lately. Harvard’s last five games include a loss to Fordham and lackluster wins over Monmouth and Dartmouth. Yale had its hands full with D-III St. Joseph’s before it slumped through a pair of victories over Brown.
For the Crimson, the trouble has been on the offensive end where it has struggled to find a consistent rhythm without first establishing a post presence. The Bulldogs on the other hand have been missing their defense, having allowed 1.04 and 1.03 points per possession to two of the worst offenses any Ivy team has seen this season. Friday”s game could just go to the team that gets its act together on both sides of the floor.
From a macro perspective, this matchup is not especially compelling. Yale plays at a much faster pace than Harvard, but the Crimson is more efficient almost all the way across the board: Harvard scores roughly four and a half more points and allows ten fewer points per hundred possessions. The Bulldogs are a slightly better rebounding team and do an excellent job getting to the free throw line, but the bottom line is that the Crimson is better at making shots and forcing misses.
But for what this game lacks in stylistic intrigue, it more than makes up for in really interesting matchups. I am of course talking about Greg Mangano and Keith Wright. Last year, the two big men battled it out all season long for paint supremacy among the Ivies, and when Wright was named league MVP, Mangano was not afraid to express his anger (justifiably, in my opinion). But I’m sure Wright would return the hardware if the Crimson could have secured a win at Payne Whitney on Feb. 26th, which would have earned Harvard the outright league title. Both seniors (and both once again in the running for Player of the Year) have a lot of pride on the line. The one-on-ones will be nothing short of ferocious.
The Jeremiah Kreisberg and Kyle Casey matchup is the best undercard you will find in the frontcourt for any Ivy League game, and the backcourts are so loaded with weapons that I do not even know how they’ll matchup. McNally on Grace, Curry on Morgan, and Webster/Rivard on Willhite? (I wouldn’t be shocked if Amaker used 6’5 Wes Saunders, his favorite defensive stopper, on 5’11 Morgan). One category that certainly chalks up in Harvard’s favor is the bench. Saunders, Steve Moundou-Missi, Jonah Travis, Corbin Miller, and Rivard/Webster are all better players than Brandon Sherrod, Isaiah Salafia, Jesse Pritchard and Co. You could even argue that several players stuck on the end of the Crimson bench (Brown, Smith, Okam, Georgatos) would crack the Yale rotation.
Even without the interesting personnel matchups and title implications, Friday would still be raucous: it”s the hardwood version of The Game. Sure, Ivy students can be pretty apathetic when it comes to sports, but when a visiting rival provides an excuse for the campus to bond together in common hatred, the results are usually dynamic. And Payne Whitney, with its bleachers that practically spill onto the court, is one of the most electrifying places for a game when that stony pavilion comes alive.
So what will happen? Last year, the Bulldogs sprung the upset because they took care of the ball and their supporting cast stepped up. Although Mangano went three-for-13 from the field, Willhite and Kreisberg chipped in 15 and 13 points, Morgan buried four three-pointers, and as a team the Elis turned the ball over just three times (and still, the Crimson had a chance to win, as Harvard held the ball for the final 26 seconds before Curry attempted and missed a potential game-winning floater at the buzzer). I think it’s safe to say that with another steady, balanced performance like last year’s effort, Yale will walk away with a victory and turn the Ivy League title race on its head.
But I do not think Harvard will lose. The Bulldogs caught the Crimson last year on the penultimate weekend of the season, a night after a tough game at Providence. This year, Harvard comes in fresh on a Friday night and is not six tiring weeks into the back-to-backs. The lingering ghosts of the 70-69 loss to Yale and the 63-62 defeat to Princeton should elicit a spirited performance from Harvard. The Crimson’s defense has been steady all season and there’s no reason to doubt that it will be stellar once again on Friday. Although Mangano is good enough to guard Wright straight up (which, as we’ve seen, causes problems for the rest of Harvard’s attack), I
think the Crimson can muster up enough offense from other spots on the court to take the pole position for the 2012 banner.
Harvard 61, Yale 56.