For the first time in their careers, Harvard’s seniors can see the end.
With a guaranteed losing record, the Crimson (12-16, 4-8 Ivy League) will almost definitely miss the postseason—making this weekend’s games against Penn (11-14, 5-6) and Princeton (20-5, 10-1) the last for the senior class. In each of the team’s last three seasons, the league championship (and Harvard’s March Madness future) hinged on the final Friday-Saturday results; this week, the Crimson can do no better than secure a fourth-place conference finish.
“[In past years], I think those guys were more focused on making sure it was not their last practice and fighting to have more practices and more games,” senior Patrick Steeves said Wednesday. “We know this will be the last of each thing so I guess it’s a silver lining that we know that and can appreciate that.”
The seniors will have plenty of motivation to leave on a winning streak, however. The Quakers and the Tigers, the Killer P’s of old, effectively buried Harvard’s Ivy League hopes with a two-game sweep in early February. The Crimson, missing leading scorer and rebounder Zena Edosomwan (thigh injury), left the weekend 1-5 in conference play. The four-game losing streak shook a team that had fancied itself a contender.
“I don’t think anybody expected this,” Steeves said after the Saturday game, a 67-57 defeat to Penn in which Harvard got outrebounded by 21.
“We’ve been running the league for a while,” he continued. “Every time that these teams beat us, it means something to them. It should mean something to us to not let them do that.”
Since losing to the Quakers, Harvard has picked it up, securing three straight weekend splits, in part by sandwiching losses to the league’s elite (Yale, Columbia) between wins over its lower class (Brown, Cornell).
The recent spurt has largely come without a full roster. While Edosomwan has returned, freshman starting point guard Tommy McCarthy missed both games last weekend due to a mid-week concussion that throws his status for this weekend in doubt. Also this week, senior wing Agunwa Okolie sat out some practice because of the flu, leaving Harvard potentially without its best slasher and wing defender.
Against Princeton on Friday, the Crimson will face an uphill battle if it is forced to play without its top perimeter defender. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker has repeatedly singled out his team’s perimeter defense as a weakness down the stretch, noting how Okolie has often been able to cover for his less experienced teammates.
“He’s had to guard anybody from [the] one to [the] four and he’s done it in an amazing way,” Amaker said. “On top of that, I think he’s played with a competitive spirit and energy that you really admire for a kid that’s a senior.”
Princeton, which leaves nobody to hide smaller guards on, is a particularly bad matchup with Okolie out. Junior Tiger wings Steven Cook, Spencer Weisz, and Henry Caruso can all drive and shoot the three, creating positional mismatches all over the floor. The point guard combination of Amir Bell and Devin Cannady—which averages 20.8 points shooting 48 percent from the field—has been a puzzle that Ivy League teams have yet to figure out.
Harvard will likely assign lock down Caruso with Okolie—the jack-of-all-trades has covered everyone from BYU’s 6’6” Kyle Collinsworth to Auburn’s 6’0” Kareem Canty. But mismatches with the Tigers are like whack-a-mole: solve one and another appears elsewhere. Amaker tried hiding McCarthy or freshman Corey Johnson around the perimeter in the last matchup, but Princeton found and exploited the matchups it liked, scoring 45 points in the second half.
“When you have four guys that can stretch the floor and they mix that in with their offense, it is definitely tough to guard,” captain Evan Cummins said. “You really need to be locked in and disciplined with your coverages and your defenses.”
The key to both weekend games is Edosomwan, who had just three points against seven fouls in contests last weekend against Yale and Brown. When he plays well, Harvard has been competitive with the league’s top teams. When he hasn’t, the games have not been particularly close.
No matter the outcome, Steeves—who missed his first three years due to repeated knee and foot surgeries—said he will maintain perspective.
“One lesson I’ve learned that stemmed from coming back from injury … is to really appreciate everything in the moment,” Steeves said. “Being sidelined for three years and then being on the court helps you realize how lucky you are when you actually get to suit up and be on the court for games.”
–Staff writer David Freed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.