Last we parted, dear Around the Ivies reader, Harvard was on the edge of becoming the first school to win three straight first-round games as a double-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament. A week after winning a scintillating playoff in Philadelphia, the Crimson played their best game of the year in a dogfight against North Carolina.
A year away has turned the five-time defending champion into the hunted and not the Ivy favorite—a title shared by school rivals Princeton and Yale. For the second straight year, Harvard followed up a shaky Ivy opener against Dartmouth with a dispiriting loss to the Big Green, playing arguably its worst contest of the New Year in the defeat in Hanover. Valuable rotation pieces like captain Evan Cummins and freshmen Tommy McCarthy and Corey Johnson, who all starred at times during an up-and-down nonconference season, combined for just four points in the defeat.
The Crimson come into the league’s first weekend looking at a unique uphill climb. While Harvard lost its second game to Dartmouth a year ago, it had the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year and an experienced senior class that didn’t know the feeling of watching the NCAA tournament from home. While the experience narrative has been overstated this year—of Harvard’s core seven rotation players, just two are underclassmen—the Crimson are certainly greener than they have been since 2012.
Losing Siyani Chambers ’16 before the season to an ACL injury took a bad situation and made it more difficult—while freshman Tommy McCarthy has provided a reasonable Chambers facsimile on the offensive end, he doesn’t have the same polish as the three-year starter. The development of junior Zena Edosomwan has anchored a resurgent offense, but the streaky Crimson remain dependent on avoiding turnovers.
Adding to the challenge is the rise of the rest: with Harvard taking a step back, arguably five other programs took a step forward. Cornell and Penn have played mediocre basketball so far, a substantial improvement over past performance. Columbia gets senior Alex Rosenberg back from offseason injury to pair with star point guard Maodo Lo, headlining arguably Kyle Smith’s best squad in Morningside Heights. Yale sophomore Makai Mason—last seen absorbing a brutal blow to the head in the playoff—leads a resurgent Yale team that played Duke close for a half and surrounds reigning ILPOY Justin Sears with shooting and scoring at every position. Princeton’s cadre of excellent wings makes the wily Tigers a popular Ivy League dark-horse pick.
Amidst all of this upheaval, the first couple weekends of Ivy play will serve to separate the wheat from the chaff. Harvard has two eminently winnable games (at Penn, vs. Cornell) sandwiched around two of its toughest games of the season (vs. Columbia, at Princeton). Just two years ago, the Crimson lit the rest of the league on fire after a sluggish Florida Atlantic loss with a fury Kanye West’s Twitter account would be proud of. If it can channel that same desperation, a team that took Oklahoma and Kansas to the wire has the potential to catch lightning in a bottle and make an unlikely run to the title.
Without further ado, on to the action.
PRINCETON AT BROWN
Casual fans looking to get informed about this matchup have a tough task ahead. The Princeton student paper has published just two articles about the Tigers since school ended, neglecting even to recap the Tigers’ tough loss to No. 7/8 Maryland. The Brown Daily Herald has seen Princeton’s three-bet and pushed its chips to the center of the table, with a blanket no-sports policy going back to December 4th. In the school year that has seen a former national champion paper go Tumblr-only for three weeks, this stunning tour de force in inertia takes the cake.
I must say, Howard, these young chaps must study quite hard.
CORNELL AT HARVARD
Coming into the game on a rare one-game winning streak over Harvard, Cornell should have a chance to take over early behind its aggressive defensive play. The Big Red force turnovers in bunches, a bad matchup for a Crimson team that delivers them en masse.
Yet, it’s essentially a must-win early for the Crimson. Although Yale and Princeton tangle at Payne Whitney the following night, a defeat would put the Crimson two losses back of the league leader with Chairman Maodo coming to town.
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