In Ivy men’s basketball, nearly anything is possible.
For Harvard—this season’s overwhelming preseason favorite—conference play could have served as a coronation, a mere formality on the way to the Crimson’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1946.
Instead, four teams now enter the final weekend of the season with a shot at the league championship, and for the second consecutive year, a one-game playoff could determine the Ivy League’s representative at March Madness.
The Crimson (24-4, 10-2 Ivy) sits in first place by half a game but is tied with Penn (17-11, 9-2) in the loss column. Either team can earn an outright title with wins coupled with at least one stumble by the other.
If both teams sweep this weekend and the Quakers emerge victorious on Tuesday at Princeton, then Harvard and Penn will share the title and would face each other in an additional game to determine who receives the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
But third-place Yale (19-7, 9-3) and fourth-place Princeton (16-11, 7-4) remain mathematically alive, and depending on losses by Harvard and/or Penn, they could force a playoff involving three or four squads.
Things did not have to be so complicated. On the penultimate weekend of the year, the Crimson had the opportunity to secure at least a share of the second Ancient Eight title in school history by sweeping visiting Princeton and Penn.
Last Friday, it took care of the first step, taking down the Tigers, 67-64, at Lavietes Pavilion.
But Player of the Year frontrunner Zack Rosen and the Quakers stunned Harvard a day later, 55-54, keeping alive their own chances of returning the league crown to Philadelphia for the first time since 2007.
Harvard still controls its own destiny. A pair of road wins this weekend would mean that it, at worst, will end up in a playoff. Statistically the most likely scenario is the Crimson becoming the sole Ivy champion, and even if it were to lose in the additional game, it would certainly enter the discussion for an at-large bid.
Standing in the way of any of these fates Friday and Saturday will be Columbia and Cornell—each beatable squads, yet ones that gave Harvard quite a test at home back in early February.
First up will be the sixth-place Lions (14-14, 3-9), who will be backed by a sold-out Levien Gymnasium crowd expecting to see another close contest after Columbia lost by only five—the second-smallest margin of victory of the Crimson’s 10 league wins—in the teams’ previous matchup, during which the visitors trailed by just two points with two minutes left.
Having adjusted to the loss of star Noruwa Agho to injury earlier in the year, sixth-place Columbia is led by guard Brian Barbour, who totaled 21 points and eight assists at Yale last Friday, when the Lions mounted a comeback but ultimately fell short, 75-67.
A day later the Lions were upset by a hot-shooting Bears squad that went 14 of 22 from beyond the arc to blow out the road team, 94-78.
Ranking second in the league in Ivy scoring and first in assists, Barbour did have 18 points and 10 assists at Brown for his first career double-double and the highest assist total for a Columbia player in eight years.
“I’m concerned because they’re similar in ways to what Penn can do, which is to spread you out and dribble drive,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “The kid Barbour is very, very good off the bounce. Instead of trying to run their plays, [they might say], ‘Let’s just open the floor up and see if we can drive it by them.’ That’s what I anticipate they’ll look to do.”
But Columbia has struggled defensively as of late. The Lions sit at or near the bottom of the league in forcing turnovers and opponent field goal percentage, and their opponents shoot over 40 percent from beyond the arc.
Luckily for Columbia, Harvard sits in sixth in three-point percentage in league play after going 6 of 27 from three against Princeton and Penn.
The Lions’ travel partner Cornell (11-15, 6-6) will take the final scheduled crack at the Crimson after having fallen in Cambridge a month ago, 71-60.
This time around, the fifth-place Big Red will have the support of a sold-out Newman Arena, as well as the pressure of an ESPN3.com broadcast, to help its attempt to eclipse last season’s conference win total.
By all accounts a dangerous team—it carrying home wins over Princeton and Yale—Cornell took care of business at Brown with a six-point victory before being blown out at Yale on Saturday by 31.
The Bulldogs held Cornell to 18 percent shooting from three-point range, a debilitating mark considering that the Big Red rank among the top teams in the country in the proportion of its field goal attempts that are three-pointers.
The Crimson defense will have to contend with veteran guard Chris Wroblewski, who totaled 34 points, 15 rebounds, and seven assists at Brown and Yale.
“[Barbour and Wroblewski] are good players; they’re going to score; they’re going to hit tough shots. My sole job is to make it as tough as possible,” junior guard Brandyn Curry said. “After having to guard players like Rosen, it makes it a little bit easier to guard other guards.”
Former walk-on Johnathan Gray is the team’s second leading scorer in conference play and was the only Big Red player to reach double-figures in the game at Harvard.