Heading into the final weekend of Ancient Eight play, there are exactly five basketball games that matter in the quest for the league title.
And while the Harvard men’s basketball team’s Ivy championship outlook is decidedly bleaker than was the case one short week ago—and an outright title is all but off the table—the Crimson (17-9, 9-3 Ivy) retains a shot at the crown.
Thanks to two Harvard losses last weekend to Princeton and Penn, the Tigers (16-9, 9-2) have jumped into the driver’s seat heading into the final stretch of league play. For the first time this season, Princeton holds a half-game advantage over the Crimson in the standings with three days worth of conference contests remaining.
According to Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, the Crimson’s only focus is on the part of the equation within its control—two games at Lavietes Pavilion this weekend, as Harvard plays host to Columbia (12-14, 4-8) and Cornell (13-16, 5-7) on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
“Certainly, if we want to have an opportunity for things to fall our way, we have to do our job,” Amaker said. “And our job is to see if we can really play well this weekend and win.”
Needless to say, both of the Harvard’s final two games are virtual must-wins if the Crimson hopes to punch a ticket to March Madness, and even then, Princeton could still claim the title.
“A lot is at stake for us in a lot of different ways, but we’re not playing out all of the scenarios and all that,” Amaker said. “We’re at home, our final conference games, senior weekend, seeing if we can finish strong.”
First on the slate is Columbia—the only team in the Ivy League that the Harvard has yet to beat this season. When the teams last met, the Lions upset a heavily favored Crimson squad, 78-63—the biggest margin of victory, win or loss, in all of Harvard’s conference games.
“[Columbia] is a pretty potent offensive team at times, and we saw that first hand,” Amaker said. “Our game against them [on Feb. 10] could have been one of their best games, if not their best game, of the year. They had great balance.”
For Harvard to come out on top Friday night, it will need an increased defensive presence, particularly given the recent 75-point performance of a Quakers squad that has averaged 62.8 points per game this season.
“We had a steady diet of defense this week in practice because we weren’t very successful at Penn on the defensive end,” said freshman point guard Siyani Chambers. “We are trying to focus on what we did wrong and trying to fix that [for this weekend].”
Last time out, the Crimson struggled to contain the Lions’ offense, allowing guard Steve Frankoski to score 27 points on the game, including 20 in the first half alone.
“He just annihilated us,” said Amaker of Frankoski’s career performance. “What we’ve been trying to do in our practices this week is that we have to do a better job of guarding their perimeter players.”
Frankoski and Columbia point guard Brian Barbour—who leads his team with 12 points and 4.2 assists per game—will likely headline the Crimson’s defensive challenges on the perimeter, while Mark Cisco and John Daniels each average greater than four rebounds per game on the inside. In the two teams’ contest at Columbia, the Lions outrebounded the Crimson, 33-22, and scored 12 more points in the paint.
“We gave up way too many second shots in New York, and we also gave up too many open shots,” Chambers said. “Those are two areas on the defensive end that we really need to focus on.”
Although the Crimson was able to squeak by with a 67-65 win in its first matchup against the Big Red, the victory did not come without major difficulty. Chambers led the Crimson on the day, notching an impressive 18 points and 11 assists against a Cornell team that has been plagued by injury as of late.
“We’re not sure who’s going to play [for Cornell],” said Amaker of the Big Red’s depleted roster. “Obviously their quickness, their athleticism, similar to a Penn, gave us a lot of problems [last time]. I anticipate that however many healthy bodies they have or whatever the situation is, that they would play us very tough, very aggressively.”
In addition to any conference implications, this weekend also marks co-captain Christian Webster’s final home games in a Harvard uniform. Webster—the lone senior on the Crimson’s roster—recently earned the distinction of being the winningest player in the history of Harvard basketball.
“[Webster] has enhanced our program immeasurably, certainly by his presence and also by his game,” Amaker said. “We’re going to miss him. We’re hopeful that we can finish this the right way for him.”