Both Harvard and Cornell have been here before. The Big Red has seen all sorts of contenders wither over the last couple years when faced with the task of actually matching Cornell step-for-step over the course of a 14-Game Tournament.
For Harvard, though, you have to dig back a little further. It’s been awhile since the Crimson has been in this spot, but the story should still seem quite familiar.
It was four years ago next weekend that Harvard arrived at Newman Arena with dreams of dancing in March.
The Crimson had survived the first leg of the New York roadtrip with a 69-59 win at Columbia and pulled into Ithaca at 4-1, one game back in the loss column of Ivy pacesetter Penn. Harvard had been hyped as one of the top contenders to prevent the Quakers from defending their title and despite an early setback at Yale had managed to stay on the pace, winning three of its first four road contests.
All of which led to the Saturday night duel in Ithaca. Cornell led for most of the middle portion of the game before Harvard snatched a seven-point lead with five minutes to go. The Big Red scratched away to narrow the deficit to just three with under a minute to play, when Cornell’s Lenny Collins drained his second three – a baseline shot that grazed off the backboard – in the final minute and change to knot the score.
After a Crimson turnover on the other end, Jason Hartford followed a Collins miss with two seconds left to give Cornell the 79-77 win. Harvard would return home to face Penn and Princeton, but the Crimson was never the same. The Tigers rallied from six down with under a minute to play to send Harvard into a tailspin of eight-consecutive losses, including five by double-digits.
Four years later, the fates have laid out quite the same path for the Crimson, except the cast of characters has swapped some key roles. Harvard must once again survive Friday night in Manhattan to set up a crucial Saturday night showdown with Cornell. But it is that game itself which is the most anticipated Ivy League contest since the three-team playoff in 2002, not merely a prelude or hurdle to be traversed en route to a momentous Killer Ps weekend. Sure, the Penn and Princeton games still follow one week behind, but this time those two foes won’t resemble anything close to the eventual first- and second-place finishers in the Ivies that they were in 2006.
Cornell has won 16 straight Ivy home contests and has only taken four of those by fewer than double digits. It enters the game on the cusp of the Coaches’ Poll Top 25 and at least a 10 or 11 seed in most people’s books. By the numbers, the Big Red is the Ivy League’s best team since Princeton raced into the AP Top 10 in 1998. For Harvard to even be in a position on Saturday night like it was in the waning moments in 2006 would be somewhat unexpected.
But unexpected describes the recent history of the Crimson’s visits to Newman. After all, Harvard is the last team to hand Cornell a league loss in Ithaca, as the Crimson, which had won just twice in eight games after star center Brian Cusworth exhausted his eligibility, completed a season sweep of the eventual third-place finishing Big Red with an 85-79 victory on March 2, 2007. That marked the end of a four-year span in which Harvard took three out of four at Newman, with only Cornell’s furious rally in 2006 staving off four straight. The Crimson finished behind the Big Red in the standings every single year during that period, including the 2004 season in which Harvard’s 81-78 win was just its fourth and last victory of the year.
The electricity building around Saturday’s showdown might all disappear, however, if the Crimson can’t get past that Friday night meeting with Columbia at Levien. After taking three out of four from the Lions in New York to start the decade, Harvard has won just once since – in the aforementioned 2006 season – and perhaps more ominously, has been swept the last two seasons while not having recorded a sweep since 2000.
That’s how quickly things can change in the Ivy League’s back-to-back format. One bad 26 hour span can take a title contender and leave it scrapping for an upper division finish. That’s precisely what’s at stake for Harvard. A near program-best performance to date could yield even more national recognition and legitimate tourney talk with a sweep this weekend. Get swept, though? Harvard would have to be perfect the rest of the way to even hang on to NIT hopes. Welcome to the insanity of an Ivy weekend, where the story on Friday at 6:59 p.m. can’t even remain relevant until 9:01 Saturday evening.
Amidst that chaos, however, one thing is certain. Either Cornell or Harvard will have struck the first blow in what is shaping up to be an incredibly entertaining race for the Ivy title.
Keys To The Games
Game 7: Penn (0-0) at Yale (1-1), New Haven, CT, Friday 7:00 p.m.
Penn: Must take advantage of Yale’s poor defense and outshoot the Bulldogs, because Yale will likely win the battle of the boards in a big way.
Yale: Don’t panic if the Quakers key on Alex Zampier. The Bulldogs are the deeper and more talented team and should be looking for contributions from multiple players.
The Slant: Penn has the 10th shallowest bench in Division I, which should make the substitution strategy for an exhausting back-to-back weekend interesting to watch.
Game 8: Princeton (0-0) at Brown (1-1), Providence, RI, Friday 7:00 p.m.
Princeton: Turnovers will be absolutely crucial. The Tigers are much less efficient offensively than the Bears, meaning that they’ll need to tilt the turnover margin strongly in their favor to close the gap.
Brown: Try to push the tempo a bit and force Princeton into a relative track meet. The Bears must also successful clean the boards defensively to keep themselves from having too many tiring minute-long stretches on defense.
The Slant: Most of the matchups in this one are strength on strength and weakness on weakness. There are few areas where either side could press an obvious advantage.
Game 9: Harvard (2-0) at Columbia (0-2), New York, NY, Friday 7:00 p.m.
Harvard: Do everything it couldn’t do last weekend in Hanover. Get chip shots and make them, shoot well from the line, make enough threes to keep teams honest.
Columbia: Copy the Dartmouth recipe. Get really physical with the Crimson inside and push shots to the exterior. Hang around all night and let the crowd stay in it down the stretch.
The Slant: Harvard’s primary advantage is its incredibly two-point shooting percentage. But with Pat Magnarelli out for at least three weeks, how will the Crimson fare on the interior in his absence?
Game 10: Dartmouth (0-2) at Cornell (2-0), Ithaca, NY, Friday 7:00 p.m.
Dartmouth: The Big Green has to take the air out of the ball and hope the Big Red has a cold-shooting night. Much like last week though, even if Dartmouth plays perfect defense, it probably still won’t have enough offense to win.
Cornell: The objective should be to bury the Big Green early. For the Big Red, this needs to be a two-game view. Get a big lead, get the starters off the floor and let the deep bench carry Cornell home.
The Slant: The story out of Hanover is that Dartmouth’s interim coach Mark Graupe has transformed the Big Green. Can it carry its success from last weekend through a meeting with another talented basketball team?
Game 11: Penn at Brown, Providence, RI, Saturday 7:00 p.m.
Penn: It’s not their nature, but the Quakers should really make a concerted effort to slow this game down. Brown is too good offensively and Penn is too weak defensively for the Quakers to hang in a Saturday night track meet.
Brown: The Bears should pound a porous Penn interior and try to get foul-proned Conor Turley and Justin Reilly in trouble early. If those two get stuck on the bench and the Quakers have to go small, Matt Mullery should have a field day.
The Slant: These are the two worst Ivy defenses by a mile, so expect the winner to find itself in the 70s or 80s or even higher when it’s all said and done.
Game 12: Princeton at Yale, New Haven, CT, Saturday 7:00 p.m.
Princeton: The Tigers need the usual Saturday night formula – slow pace and timely shots. If they can keep Yale from dominating offensive boards, they should be in good shape in a tough road environment.
Yale: The Bulldogs need a huge game from Zampier, but not just in terms of points. He needs to fill up the stat sheet with assists and steals as well. That should open up the interior for Yale’s big men to get their points as well.
The Slant: If Princeton survives Brown on Friday night and Yale defeats Penn, this matchup could elevate one team to a contender and expose the other as a pretender.
Game 13: Dartmouth at Columbia, New York, NY, Saturday 7:00 p.m.
Dartmouth: The Big Green might actually benefit from being dispensed with early against Cornell on Friday to keep its rotation fresh for this Saturday night showdown. The Big Green needs to continue its staunch three-point defense against the Lions.
Columbia: The Lions can run a lot of bodies off the bench, which is always an advantage on Saturday. But whether they can get any production from those bodies will be the key to victory.
The Slant: Much like it has been for the last few football seasons, these two teams might each being playing for their first conference win of the season. It’s not their fault though, as they each opened with three consecutive games against the preseason favorites.
Game 14: Harvard at Cornell, Ithaca, NY, Saturday 7:00 p.m.
Harvard: The Crimson have to find a way to score against Cornell in the interior, which could be difficult given Jeff Foote’s presence there. Harvard boasts the nation’s third-best two-point shooting percentage, while the Big Red defends it quite well (59th nationally).
Cornell: Pushing Harvard out to the perimeter on defense and refusing to engage the Crimson in an up-and-down battle, as the Big Red has more weapons in the half court.
The Slant: Harvard is likely more vulnerable to a random Ivy loss, meaning that this meeting between the two schools will likely be the difference between a heated race, if Harvard wins, and a tepid, possible but not likely race to the finish.