Two games will likely define Harvard’s season. The narrative surrounding this team — whether Harvard is back as a mainstay in the Big Dance as one of the top mid-major programs in the country, or if they were just too young — will be decided by two games. Two 40-minute games for all the marbles, because 14 is so “last year.” Like it or not, the Ivy League Tournament is here, it’s here to stay … and it’s going to be a lot of fun. Here’s what to watch for from Harvard’s perspective.
The Crimson’s first matchup comes against Yale (who else?). Harvard beat Yale twice this season, with Bryce Aiken scoring a whopping 27 points in New Haven and 22 points back at Lavietes Pavilion for the return game. While Harvard did win the second game handily at home, the first game in the John J. Lee Amphitheater was an absolute dogfight. And there’s nothing to suggest Saturday’s game will be any different, especially with both teams playing for their lives.
Harvard-Yale has been defined by a fantastic point guard matchup this season: Bryce Aiken versus Alex Copeland. While the numbers say a lot (both have scored over 20 points in each matchup this season), these players were the go-to guys for the squads in the first two games. Each of them had no problem playing one-on-one basketball successfully at any time – and they cherished their opportunities. Aiken didn’t mind dropping Yale’s Miye Oni to his knees on a crossover before nailing a three and pimping it to the Harvard crowd. Copeland didn’t mind hitting a stutter-step jumper with Siyani Chambers all over him, much to the delight of the Eli faithful. These guys are performers, the Palestra is their stage, and we, the audience, are the lucky ones. “Ivy Madness Hero” is the role that awaits – it just remains to be seen who will play it.
Another key to Harvard’s 2-0 record versus Yale this season was turnovers. Harvard won the turnover battle in both wins against Yale. In fact, Harvard is 12-0 when committing fewer turnovers than their opponent, including 6-0 in the Ivy League. When Harvard’s offense gets a shot off on a given possession, it’s nearly unstoppable. The trick is doing that consistently. Harvard committed 18 turnovers to Princeton’s five last Friday night at Jadwin Gymnasium in a buzzer-beater loss. Luckily for the Crimson, Yale has had the same trouble with turnovers that Harvard has suffered, so perfection may not be a necessity. Simply not being as bad as Yale should be enough.
Beating Yale is a challenge deserving of everything the Crimson has, but the bigger challenge may come on Sunday should the Crimson advance. Harvard will either face a surging Penn team in its home gym – the Palestra, no less – or a Princeton squad that is the first Ivy team to go undefeated in league play since Cornell in 2008. There’s no easy road for Harvard — or for any team — but that’s the beauty (tragedy?) of a four-team tournament at the home arena of the No. 4 seed (which has a losing record in the Ivy League).
Here’s Harvard’s key to victory if they play Princeton: shut down Steven Cook. But unless a super-defender hybrid of Brandyn Curry/Agunwa Okolie/Steve Moundou-Missi walks through that door sometime before four o’clock Saturday afternoon, the Crimson might have to settle for just slowing down Steven Cook. All right, fine, maybe just box him out?
Whatever happens, Harvard has to put a halt to the torrid pace Cook has been on versus the Crimson. He scored 49 points on 21-for-28 shooting from the floor in two previous matchups. In reality, Princeton has so many versatile, dynamic playmakers that shutting down one guy just means another guy will have a big day. Princeton is such a good team that Harvard will need to play very well to win, which means hitting shots and limiting turnovers. The Crimson went 1-for-2 on those criteria in the team’s last meeting with the Tigers (they went 13-for-28 from three-land but committed 18 turnovers), but lost a tight one. Also, Amaker would be smart to line it up so that Princeton doesn’t have the ball last. Avoid that at all costs.
Penn would pose a challenge as well, even though it’s an easier opponent (on paper) than Princeton. Playing in what would surely be a raucous pro-Penn environment would be half the battle, while Penn’s talent and ability as a team would be the other half. The Quakers are coming off a win versus Harvard, yet also a home loss to Dartmouth the game before. Penn will need two perfect games to go dancing, but the last thing the Crimson want is to run into a team with all the mojo in the world coming off an upset win over archrival Princeton — and playing in front of its home fans.
No matter who Harvard plays, a few guys will need to play key roles. The big men, Zena Edosomwan and Chris Lewis, need to stay on the floor, and they can do that by avoiding picking up fouls early. Harvard would be served best if Amaker didn’t have to go to a third big man during the entire tournament. Additionally, with Weisner Perez injured, Harvard lacks to ability to go small and still rebound effectively, meaning the presence of one of Harvard’s top two bigs on the court will be paramount at all times. If Lewis and Edosomwan are both not limited by fouls and can simply play their normal games, the Crimson should be fine down low.
Either Siyani Chambers, Bryce Aiken, or both will be on SportsCenter Sunday afternoon if Harvard wins this tournament. These are the guys that relish the opportunity to make a big play. While I don’t adamantly predict gaudy numbers from Chambers this weekend, I am certain that if Harvard ends up with a win or two, we’ll be able to point to a few of his plays that made the difference between winning and losing. It’s obvious that Chambers doesn’t want his career to end (just like every other senior in the tournament), but I honestly cannot imagine Siyani Chambers’ Harvard career ending in a loss at the Palestra. We’ll see what he has up his sleeve this time to play another day. Aiken is more likely to hit a few crazy shots this tournament. If there’s a “wow” shot (that’s not a dunk) at a “wow” moment, my money is on it being from Aiken. I do predict gaudy numbers from Bryce Aiken this weekend. These guards are the key for Harvard.
Harvard will play its first truly meaningful game all season on Saturday. It will be interesting to see if Amaker or the players change anything – for better or worse – with the stakes raised. Ivy Madness … let’s do this.