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AROUND THE IVIES: Yale Overtakes Harvard as League Favorite

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The king is dead, and his prince is in charge.

The first back-to-back weekend of Ivy League play was as much confirmation as coronation. Harvard, which now ranks last in all of Division I in free throw percentage, stumbled to two home losses in eminently winnable contests against the Gentleman’s C’s, the last a buzzer-beater from Columbia senior Alex Rosenberg after Harvard missed consecutive free throws down the stretch with an opportunity to put the Lions away.

If inconsistency was the story of Harvard’s weekend, dominance was the tale for the Bulldogs. After jumping all over the Quakers on Friday, Yale raced out to a double-digit lead against Princeton at home and held off the tricky Tigers down the stretch. With co-leader Columbia coming to town this weekend, the Bulldogs have a good shot to put distance between themselves and the field. Since Yale plays six of its last eight games on the road, it will need that cushion.

Princeton, whose multifaceted group of wings has given everyone trouble so far, lurks as a dark horse. The Tigers have a rough two-game stretch at Columbia and versus Yale in mid-February but a manageable schedule bracketing those contests. Forward Henry Caruso, the Ivy League’s third-leading scorer, has emerged to supplement a bevy of outside threats who all shoot well from distance and drive the line. Were it not for the disappointing early returns on Spencer Cook’s season (39.3 percent from the field, 30.2 percent from three), this team might easily be the favorite.

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The existence of a clear top three muddles the picture for the league’s middle class. Even without Robert Hatter, Cornell pulled off an improbable sweep last weekend behind career nights from freshman Matt Morgan. After an electric win over Harvard, Dartmouth has shifted down from turbocharge to neutral.

And then there is Harvard. With a bit better free throw shooting—and a healthier Zena Edosomwan—the Crimson might easily be 3-1 and on the heels of a Yale team that visits Cambridge last weekend. As Amaker told The Daily Pennsylvanian this week, “If we shoot free throws better.... I think the narrative of this team is different.”

Yet free throws aren’t Harvard’s only issue. Since nearly defeating No. 7 Kansas in December, Harvard has had leads in every second half—including against No. 1 Oklahoma—but an inability to stop opponent momentum has doomed them. Too often one basket has become three. Columbia ran off a 16-4 run in the second half against Harvard, nearly matching Dartmouth’s 27-6 spurt and Oklahoma’s 27-2 stretch.

With January lineups that alternatively missed Edosomwan, freshman Corey Johnson, and senior Patrick Steeves, Harvard has been unable to maintain its rhythm. For a team that boasts the best win of any Ivy (BYU) and three close losses to top-15 teams, the slow start is especially frustrating. Its reward—a trip to a stadium where it has won just twice in 27 years—is hardly consolation.

Yet, Harvard has no choice but to find that form again; while it may already be out of the Ivy League title race, another loss or two would seal the coffin door.

On to the picks.

COLUMBIA AT YALE

The league’s only two undefeated teams tip off the weekend at Payne Whitney, where the Bulldogs boast an 8-0 home record. Yale has been the more dominant team through four games, but Columbia boasts three of the conference’s four most valuable players by Basketball-Reference’s Win Shares metric. The Lions come in as confident as ever after coach Kyle Smith’s first-ever win in Lavietes, arguably the league’s hardest place to play.

Yale can comfort itself in centuries of history, however. It was Yale graduates, after all, who founded King’s College, Columbia’s precursor, in the 1750s. The cause was alarm about the College of New Jersey, now Princeton—the first of many places (Toad’s being the most recent) to cause Yale to question its intellectualism. After King’s College closed during the Revolutionary War, its Loyalist alumni fled, and in the aftermath came the architects of what may be Division I’s worst football team.

Two and a half centuries later, I’m feeling confident picking against the Torys in this one.

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