It is the most unique competition in all of college basketball.
It lasts two months, involves eight teams and includes 56 games, almost half of which will be played one night after the last. The winner earns a trip to the NCAA tournament. The rest are left to prepare for next year, save the occasional also-ran that can garner the interest of a lesser postseason tourney. There is no second shot at salvation, no moments for miracles. If you want to earn the title, you earn it over the course of six-plus weekends, not just one.
It’s the 14-Game Tournament. And it starts tomorrow.
Game 1: Dartmouth at Harvard, Lavietes Pavilion, Allston, MA, 2:00 p.m.
It’s January 24, 2009. Two weeks prior, a surging Crimson squad survived a shocking scare in Hanover, needing a driving jumper banked off the window by rookie Oliver McNally to emerge with a 63-62 win over Dartmouth. The victory was one part exhilarating, as Harvard won its fifth game in six tries, including a victory over then-No. 17 Boston College, but was also one part frightening, a rude awakening for a team riding high on its recent exploits.
Surely, today, at home, the Crimson would heed the message, not take the Big Green lightly, and put Dartmouth away convincingly.
A desperate five-point rally in the final minute spared Harvard a defeat in regulation, but behind do-everything senior Alex Barnett’s 30 points, the Big Green cruised to a 75-66 win in the extra frame.
It was another disappointing split for the Crimson, the fifth in the last six years, though ultimately it would be Harvard looking up at Dartmouth in the final Ivy standings, as Barnett carried his team to a 7-7 league mark after his team had won just one non-conference game against Division I opponents.
The only Crimson team that managed to escape the treehouse of horrors that is the Harvard-Dartmouth travel partner home-and-home was the 2006 squad that ultimately and quite spectacularly self-destructed after a Lenny Collins baseline bankshot three helped bury the Crimson against Cornell and a furious seven-point, final-minute rally by Princeton sent Harvard well on its way to an eight-game losing streak.
Fast forward to tomorrow. Harvard once again comes in with all the hype, but exponentially more so than in any year’s past. Dartmouth once again appears to be the plodding, offensively lifeless, defensively average squad that just screams pushover. Pomeroy even has the Crimson favored by 27 at home and 21 on the road. Just tally the two wins for Harvard and move on.
Or maybe not. Vegas had the Crimson as double-digit favorites in both games in 2009, and Harvard wound up much closer to going 0-2 than 2-0, much less covering either. The Crimson has finished ahead of the Big Green in the Pomeroy ratings every year since 2003, but has the lone aforementioned sweep.
But maybe so. There’s really no applicable data point for this edition of the Crimson. Harvard sits in the top 100 of every major rating system at a relevant part of the year for the first time in history. It might just have the best team in school history, and certainly the best of the Ivy League era. The only Crimson squad that would rank distinctly in the direction of this year’s edition was the 2006 one, which handled Dartmouth home and away quite easily.
Harvard is 10-1 against non-BCS competition and smoked a similarly ranked Bryant team at home by a score of 77-51 earlier this year. Dartmouth’s only foray into top 100 competition this year was an 89-58 loss at Boston College in its season opener, a BC team that the Crimson would later go on to beat at Conte Forum, 74-67.
The matchup also fails to play to the Big Green’s strengths. Dartmouth can hang around in games against below average to terrible offensive teams by slowing down the tempo and relying on its relatively decent defense to keep the score low enough that its inept offense can at least stay in the vicinity of the lead. In the only game the Big Green has played this season against a team with an offensive rating over 100 points per 100 possessions, Dartmouth was dealt the aforementioned 89-58 spanking on Chestnut Hill.
History is a powerful thing, and history tells us that it just won’t be, it just can’t be that easy for the Crimson. In 2008, it seemed that easy, as Harvard cruised to an 82-56 win in the opener of the home-and-home, only to have Dartmouth return the favor with a crushing 73-56 rout in Hanover six days later. With only three Harvard players left from that 2008 series and only four from last year’s, the short memories of most of the players on the 2010 edition of the Crimson might be just the recipe for shaking this pernicious habit. Or, riding high off a four-game winning streak, a Top 30 RPI and excessive media fawning, the blindness of youth might make Harvard the ripe target for another Big Green stunner.
Surely, tomorrow, at home, the Crimson would heed the message, not take the Big Green lightly, and put Dartmouth away convincingly.
But when it comes to this travel partner series, nothing is for sure.