Already safely guaranteed a top-two seed in the Ivy League Tournament, Harvard men’s basketball has —on paper— little to play for heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.
This, however, was the same narrative that earned the Crimson a quick exit on the first day of the inaugural conference tournament last season. Guaranteed the No.2 spot heading into the final weekend of play, Harvard fell short against No. 1 Princeton and No. 4 Penn before losing to No.3 Yale in the opening game of the Ancient Eight tourney.
As Harvard (14-11, 9-1 Ivy) prepares for the Tigers (11-14, 3-7) and Quakers (19-7, 9-1 Ivy) in its penultimate regular season weekend, the focus is clear: continue its late-season momentum and avoid even thinking about the second trip back to Philadelphia on March 10.
“We feel with the pieces we have this year, the chemistry we have, everyone’s work ethic that we can definitely make a postseason run,” sophomore forward Christian Juzang said. “But first thing’s first, we got to get there. Not thinking too far ahead, one thing at a time.”
Step one in this process means repeating a dominant performance against Princeton, which was handily defeated by the Crimson on Feb. 9. The Tigers have not fared any better since that 51-66 defeat, extending a six-game conference skid that has seen last year’s undefeated champions fall to seventh in the standings. The only other time that Princeton suffered this many consecutive Ivy defeats was in 2008, when it lost nine straight.
Friday night’s contest at Jadwin Gymnasium in Princeton, N.J., will need to be a bounce-back performance for Tigers coach Mitch Henderson’s team if they intend to even qualify for the four-team conference tournament. Suffering a triple-overtime defeat against Cornell and a 25-point blowout by Columbia last weekend, Princeton has just four games to eclipse Brown, Columbia, and Cornell who all sit at 4-6.
In that defeat to the Lions, junior forwards Myles Stephens and Devin Cannady each shot 4-for-11 from the field and combined for one three-point conversion. Against Harvard a week prior, the pair went a combined 5-for-22 from the field. Defensively, the Tigers limited the Crimson to a sub-30 percent night from deep but allowed its opponent to shoot 44 percent from the field. Juzang also had a career-night against Princeton, tallying 20 points.
Since that point, Harvard’s trajectory has only gone upward. Off a combined 34-point weekend from Juzang and a 38-point stint from sophomore forward Seth Towns, the Crimson cruised to victories against Brown and Yale. Sophomore big Chris Lewis held down the interior in both games, capped by an impressive 14 point first half against the Bulldogs. Lewis’s point average on the season now stands at 12.2 PPG, a five-point spike from last season.
“Right now we would love to see if we can perform to playing well and winning,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “That’s what we are trying to do and trying to accomplish. It’s great that we have solidified ourselves as being in the tournament but we are still after some other things that are within our sights these last two weekends.”
Step two, as long as business is safely handled on Friday night, may be the deciding factor for the claim to the No.1 regular season spot. Heading down to the Palestra to face fellow conference top-dog Penn, the Crimson prepares for what may be a preview of the Ivy League Championship game. Although Harvard held a double-digit lead for most of the second half in its victory over the Quakers two weeks ago, that contest was Penn’s third game of that week alone.
The Quakers secured victories against the Lions and Cornell last weekend, including a massive run late in the Columbia win that propelled Penn to a 43-point second half. Held to coach Steve Donahue’s bench for much of the prior three contests, sophomore guard Devon Goodman had a breakout game against the Lions with five made triples and a career-high 23 points.
The sophomore was limited the following night against the Bears, however, attempting just six shots and converting twice. In the Cornell game, sophomore forward AJ Brodeur carried the load for Penn, missing only two field goals in a 21-point showing.
Lewis and sophomore forward Henry Welsh contained the 6’8” Brodeur to five field goals in its Feb. 10 matchup, but were less effective in covering junior big Max Rothschild, who had numerous easy looks at the basket. Harvard was able to protect the perimeter, as the Quakers converted on just a quarter of their 25 shots from three-point range.
More importantly for the Crimson, Harvard turned the ball over just six times in that game. Tallying over 15 giveaways in each of its past two games, Amaker will again need his team to maintain a high level of offensive discipline against Penn.
“I think our team has a lot of composure,” said Lewis after the Feb. 10 victory. “Even though the crowd was sold out, if it’s okay for me to speak for the rest of the team, I think we all focus with who’s on the court, our jobs, our roles, and no matter what the atmosphere is we always play to our same principles.”
For the Crimson, taking it one game at a time continues to remain the motto. If Amaker’s squad is able to come away with a sweep this weekend, however, one has to wonder if postseason thoughts will be springing up in the Harvard locker room.
—Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Zhuhen88.