This year, the Ivy League is a two-horse race. And the two horses are meeting up at Jadwin Gymnasium Friday night for what likely will be another exciting chapter in a growing rivalry.
The two contestants: Harvard and Princeton. These two Ivy League teams have had some memorable matchups over the past few seasons.
Two years ago, the teams split their two game regular season series with Princeton winning at home in Jadwin gym and Harvard winning at Lavietes Pavilion. At the end of the season the two teams were tied for first in the Ivy with each holding a 12-2 league record. They met for a league deciding neutral-site game at Yale. Princeton dominated the boards and came out with a last-second 63-62 victory to earn a bid to the NCAAs.
Last year Harvard, then 21-2 and ranked 21st in the country, fell for the first time in Ivy League play at Jadwin. Harvard, nonetheless, got revenge on Princeton in their rematch in Cambridge (Lavietes is technically in Boston… but Cambridge sounds better), and won the Ivy League.
Princeton is hoping that this season will follow the trend of past seasons in which each team has held serve at home. Princeton dropped their first matchup of the year at Harvard and the Crimson currently hold a one game edge in the Ivy League standings.
It should be a heck of a matchup.
How These Two Teams Got Here
Coming into Ivy League play, it looked like Harvard and Columbia were the two teams that would contend. At least that was how it looked to me. My friend Max kept telling me not to count Princeton out, but somehow I found it easy to dismiss a 6-7 Tigers team. Especially a 6-7 Tigers team with losses to both Drexel and Fordham.
Boy was I wrong.
There were signs that Princeton was coming together at the end of the non-conference schedule. The Tigers won two out of their last three, including a win over a talented (and now 24-5) Bucknell team. The one loss came to Akron, the class of the MAC. Still, it would have been hard to predict how hot Princeton got once Ivy play started.
Led by super-senior Ian Hummer, Princeton won their first four Ivy League games, knocking out Brown and Cornell handily. The Tigers had their momentum stopped on their own court by Yale when the Bulldogs, fresh off a road win the night before over Penn in Philly, flat-out shot the lights out in Jadwin, shooting 55% from the field, 7-12 on threes, and 16-20 at the line. Princeton scored efficiently as well, but their 65 points were not enough to avoid their first Ivy loss.
Princeton bounced back with a blowout win over league doormat Dartmouth and was 5-1 in Ivy League play when they arrived in Beantown for their Saturday night showdown with Harvard.
In front of a sold-out Lavietes Pavilion crowd, Harvard controlled the pace of the game and came out with a 69-57 win, using their smothering defense to hold the efficient Princeton offense to a 40% field goal percentage.
The Tigers again rebounded well off a loss, winning in blowout fashion over Columbia and Cornell. That left them where they are now: 14-9, 7-2 in Ivy play, and still very much in the hunt for an Ivy Crown and a trip to the NCAAs.
If you consider that Harvard lost four out of their top five scorers from last season, you might be surprised that Harvard is where they are now. Don’t be. The Crimson continue to do things the Tommy Amaker way, which means two things: play stingy defense and run efficient offense.
The Crimson started the season out a little shaky, losing five of their first seven. But it was clear they had their feet back under them when they blew out Boston College on December fourth to get to 4-3. They did not look back from there.
After the win over BC, the Crimson challenged UConn before falling 57-49 and then proceeded to win their next three games.
Looking for a fourth straight win, the Crimson burst out to a 35-21 lead over an excellent Saint Mary’s team, only to fall apart and lose by a final of 70-69. (I would be remiss in discussing this game if I failed to mention that Harvard did not exactly get “Duke treatment” from the refs at a rowdy McKeon Pavilion at Gonzaga.) The Crimson proceeded to win their next two before seeing their comeback bid come up short against (currently 19th ranked) Memphis.
Harvard won their next three games, including a thrilling double overtime game against Brown, before falling on the road to Columbia by a final of 78-63. Since getting pounded in Manhattan, the Crimson have won their last four, including the win over Princeton.
As might be expected in a game with the two top teams in the Ivy League, stars will be on display in Jadwin. Among those stars are the two leaders in the Ivy League Player of the Year race: Harvard’s Wesley Saunders and Princeton’s Ian Hummer.
Hummer is one of the most versatile players in the country. He leads the Tigers in points, rebounds, and assists per game. (How many players can you say that about?) He shoots an impressive 54% from the field, can stretch the defense with the three, and is what I call a beast on the boards. He is coming off a 23 point, seven rebound performance at Cornell.
Saunders is a versatile, strikingly athletic wing who can dominate a game without launching threes. His efficient 14 point performance last week in Harvard’s win over Yale was highlighted by a vociferous dunk that was so emphatic, I posted it in my 2/24 Hoops Notes. Saunders, who leads the Crimson in scoring, is one of the Ivy League’s best at creating a shot.
Another one of the best is freshmen phenom Siyani Chambers. With an impressive repertoire of floaters and tear drops, Chambers, who also knocks down a cool 43% from three point land, reminds me of former Boston College Eagle Tyrese Rice.
As good as Chambers and Saunders are, Harvard’s best two-way player is the French-Canadian Laurent Rivard. Rivard is a natural perimeter defender who uses his athleticism and physicality to shut down opponent’s go-to guards. Rivard is no slouch on the offensive end either. He shoots 40% on threes and is near automatic at the line.
Harvard’s secret weapon offensively is senior Christian Webster who, despite a junior slump last season, remains the player who makes big-time shots for Harvard.
Hummer will not be going against Harvard’s arsenal of talents alone. He will get help from sniping bigs Will Barrett and Denton Koon as well as big, athletic point man, T.J. Bray.
Mitch Henderson may only be 37, but the intense coach of the Tigers sure looks like a keeper. After spending a decade under former Princeton coach Bill Carmody at Northwestern, Henderson replaced Sydney Johnson at Princeton before last year. In Henderson’s first year at the helm of the program, Henderson led the Tigers to a final record of 20-12 and a post-season appearance. Not only that, the Tigers finished the season with an impressive 46% field goal percentage . They have upped that to 47% this year.
The coach who will be roaming the other end of the sideline is the experienced Tommy Amaker. Amaker has been a godsend for the Crimson, who have gone from the Ivy League’s basement to the top of the league in just a short time since his arrival before the 2007-2008 season. Amaker has taken Harvard to the top thanks in large part to the stifling defense they play under him. The Crimson appear poised to finish with 20 wins for the fourth consecutive year under Amaker this season.
Its going a battle at Jadwin. Ivy league basketball does not get a whole lot better than this.