It used to always be this simple. Two teams — archrivals head and shoulders above the rest of the league — battle through the long slog of a 14-game tournament, rising above the Other Six to meet in an epic finale. With condolences to the P’s, this season, we return to that reliable formula under the New World Order as, for the second consecutive year, Harvard and Yale enter the final weekend as the only two teams still with a shot at the Ivy title.
Let’s take a look at the key matchups in this winner-take-all grudge match (though Brown and Dartmouth may have a few things to say about that on Saturday):
Amaker vs. Jones
Harvard has gotten it done this year with airtight defense. That’s what Amaker relied on early in the first matchup, sacrificing offensive firepower and going with his big lineup, making life extraordinarily hard for Yale around the rim. The Bulldogs managed just three first-half field goals back on Feb. 7. Look for Amaker to emphasize defense over offense again with Corbin Miller coming off the bench to provide perimeter support.
On the other bench, coach James Jones must be feeling some urgency. This weekend is undoubtedly Yale’s best shot at securing a title since the 2002 playoff against Penn. While the Bulldogs get one more year of Justin Sears next year, they will have to break in a new starting point guard with the graduation of Javier Duren. Jones knows that the time is now. In the first matchup, Sears was neutralized so effectively that he attempted the fewest shots (seven) out of all of the Yale starters. Look for Jones to spread the floor and drag Harvard’s bigs out to the perimeter to create more space for Sears to get the ball down low.
Miller vs. Montague
If this game is close down the stretch, look for these two guys to decide the result with a big shot. Corbin Miller (39 percent from three-point range) has hit a three in every game this year except one (vs. Princeton, two weeks ago). He’s the traditional sharpshooter that demands attention and opens up the rest of the Harvard offense (see Rivard, Laurent). The Bulldogs managed to contain him in Round One of this battle (2-for-5, six points), and they’ll have to do so again at Lavietes.
Jack Montague has liquid nitrogen in his veins. The junior sniper has hit big shot after big shot for the Elis this season. He’s shooting a sizzling 43 percent from beyond the arc, so you could say he hits small shot after small shot too. Montague fired the corner dagger that buried UConn early in the season, and he did it again last Saturday against Penn to finish the Quakers in the game’s final moments. If Yale needs a three late, it’ll look to get the ball to Montague.
Chambers vs. Duren
For much of the season, these were two point guards going in opposite directions.
Siyani Chambers, it seemed, was regressing. Who knows if he was playing through an injury or just an extended slump, but Chambers was shooting the ball significantly worse than he had in both of his previous seasons.He was also getting torched by opposing guards on the defensive end of the floor. But in the last three weekends, the Chambers of old has started to return. The shot is falling with more consistency and he looks more comfortable defending guards not named Maodo Lo.
Javier Duren has improved markedly each season since his freshman year. His youthful days of being careless with the ball are long gone as he has proven himself one of the league’s best decision makers. His three-point shot has become a valuable weapon for the Bulldogs and allowed him to develop into a dangerous partner for Justin Sears. Duren had a big all-around game in Round One against Harvard (nine points, eight rebounds, seven assists), and the Bulldogs will need another complete performance from their floor general if they want to leave Lavietes with a victory.
The Main Event
Saunders vs. Sears
It really doesn’t get any better than this: the league’s two best players facing off on the defending champion’s home court with a title on the line.
In New Haven, Sears was largely kept off the scoreboard and away from the glass. He has to continue to be physical despite Harvard’s interior size. Sears can’t afford to drift away from the hoop and settle for midrange jumpers. If he can continually attack the rim and get to the line, Yale will be in a good position to win.
Wesley Saunders is a nightmare to defend. With lethal footwork inside and a now potent three-point shot, the man is simply going to get his buckets if there’s space to do so. The key for Harvard is literally to get out of Saunders’ way and let him do his thing. With a defensive-focused lineup full of length, the tradeoff on the offensive end is that the floor becomes more crowded and difficult for Saunders to maneuver to the hole. As Michael James (@ivybball) has alluded to often on Twitter, the Harvard offense is significantly more efficient when Amaker goes with the smaller trifecta of Chambers, Miller, and Saunders. Miller’s presence creates space for Saunders to go to work and causes opponents to make difficult decisions about whether to help off of Miller when Saunders or Chambers drives.
Friday night will be a special one as these two heavyweights pull out all the stops in pursuit of a title. Whoever manages to win these battles within the game will leave Lavietes with a chance to wrap up the nation’s first auto-bid on Saturday night.