Somehow, someway, the Harvard men’s basketball team has made it through the first four games of its conference season unscathed.
Despite facing late deficits in its first two contests against Dartmouth and nearly blowing large second-half leads in its subsequent games against Brown and Yale, the Crimson sits atop the league as it heads into its first conference road trip of the season this weekend.
“The victories have been very encouraging and inspiring in a lot of ways,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “It’s given us a lot of life, a lot of spirit to [be] in first place.... But we also have to remember the journey and the process that’s taken place thus far to be there and some of that has been very good and some things have been disappointing.”
This weekend, no longer will the Crimson (12-6, 4-0 Ivy) be fortunate enough to face the Big Green, the league’s consistent bottom-dweller, nor will it be playing in the comforts of Lavietes Pavilion, where it has won 37 of its past 39 games.
Instead, Harvard travels to New York to play talented yet inconsistent rivals Cornell (10-11, 2-2) and Columbia (9-9, 1-3).
“There’s no question that both teams are good and they’ve always played us very tough,” Amaker said.
The trip will bring back positive memories for the Crimson’s upperclassmen, who clinched the program’s second Ivy title by sweeping those two teams in the season’s final weekend 11 months ago.
But the Big Red’s Newman Arena and the Lions’ Levien Gymnasium both proved to be extremely challenging environments for a veteran team that went 26-4 during the regular season.
Last year, Harvard squeaked out an overtime win over Columbia before edging the Big Red by four. Now, a far less experienced squad that has already lost more games than its predecessor is tasked with achieving the same result.
“You’re never comfortable on the road [with a] hostile environment, the crowd going against you,” freshman point guard Siyani Chambers said. “The first time that you’re doing this, you’re really nervous, but you’re also really excited.”
The Big Red will come first, highlighted by its long, athletic forwards, Errick Peck and 2011-2012 Ivy Rookie of the Year Shonn Miller.
Peck missed all of last season due to injury but has slowly re-found the form that made him a breakout player as a sophomore. The forward had his best game of the year in Cornell’s most recent contest, scoring 20 points on eight-of-eight shooting from the field in a 71-69 road win over Penn.
Miller leads the squad in scoring with 10.1 points per game, is third in the conference in rebounding (7.0 per game), and is second in blocks (1.6 per contest). Senior guard Johnathan Gray provides leadership in the backcourt as well as 9.3 points.
“We have to make sure we get back in transition with all their guys because I think they’re pretty athletic on the perimeter as well,” Amaker said. “We have to see if we can keep them off the backboard...and [we need to] make them work on the defensive end. We’re hopeful that we can get them to expend some energy there.”
On Saturday, the Crimson faces the Lions, who along with Harvard and Princeton were expected to compete for their first league title in 45 years. But Columbia has struggled in league play thus far and has been upset by the Big Red at home and the Quakers on the road.
The Lions are led by point guard Brian Barbour, a 2011-2012 first-team All-Ivy recipient who is sixth in the conference in scoring (13.6 points per game) while pacing the league in assist-to-turnover ratio.
The senior scored 23 points in the teams’ last meeting, and Amaker said that given Barbour’s quickness, sophomore wing Wesley Saunders, rather than Chambers, could be given the task of defending the point guard.
“Wesley is our best perimeter defender,” Amaker said. “We need him to be able to guard multiple positions.”
6’9” center Mark Cisco (9.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG) could also pose trouble inside for the undersized Crimson, which starts the 6’6” Jonah Travis at center.
“What we may lack in height and size, we’re hopeful that they’re sitting over there thinking, ‘Well how are we going to guard Jonah because he’s so quick?,’” Amaker said.
The stakes are similar for both opponents. Sitting in the middle of the standings with multiple conference losses on their resumes, both Cornell and Columbia know that one more defeat would all but doom their chances at a league title.
“We do feel like this is a chance, this weekend, for things in a lot of ways to start taking shape in our league,” Amaker said. “If we can somehow survive this weekend [with two wins]...it would be an amazing feat for us at this stage in the conference race.”