Students from Harvard and Yale have more in common than either would like to admit. The same can be said for the schools’ men’s basketball programs. Just 130 miles separate two teams that entered the season with sky-high expectations, only to be doused with the harsh realities of inconsistency and injuries.
On Friday, the old rivals will clash at John J. Lee Amphitheater, with not only bragging rights but also each team’s status as a legitimate conference contender at stake. Both teams struggled against their less-heralded travel partners to open the Ivy League season, as Yale (8–10, 1–1 Ivy) split games with Brown, and Harvard (7–10, 2–0) survived overtime at Dartmouth to complete a series sweep. But both hope that Friday’s tilt will springboard them to a title-contending level of play. The Bulldogs will then close their first back to back of the season against the Big Green (4–11, 0–2) on Saturday night.
“When you know it’s a huge rivalry game, everyone’s more locked in,” guard Miye Oni ’20 said. “But we don’t want to have ups and downs like that — we want to be locked in the same no matter who we’re playing. If we’re playing a [Division-III] team, if we’re playing Harvard, if we’re playing Kentucky, we want to be the same amount of locked in. So that’s what we’re trying to get to: that level of consistency.”
Despite their similar narratives, the Crimson and Elis play two opposite styles of basketball, and the deciding factor in the contest may be the pace of play. Yale boasts a multi-dimensional, assist-heavy and high-scoring offense; it stands less than a point shy of leading the Ancient Eight in points per game and tops the conference in field-goal percentage. Head coach James Jones has emphasized defensive intensity and focus as his team’s chief priority going forward.
Harvard, meanwhile, is dead last in scoring in the Ivy League but allows a conference-best mark of just 66.3 points per game. The Crimson has yielded more than 77 points only twice this season, once against No. 21 St. Mary’s and then against Kentucky, which was ranked seventh in the nation at the time. The Bulldogs have not won a game scoring fewer than 76 points, while Harvard has never scored more than 77.
The absence of sophomore phenom Bryce Aiken is a key reason for the offensive struggles of Crimson head coach Tommy Amaker’s squad. Aiken bested Oni for Ivy League Rookie of the Year and earned a spot on the All-Ivy First Team last season, but a knee injury has kept him out of the starting lineup since Dec. 6. He played four minutes off the bench in the Crimson’s home matchup against Dartmouth but has been inactive in the two games since.
Without its volume-scoring guard, Harvard has turned to its big men to lead the offense. Sophomore forwards Seth Towns and Chris Lewis are both scoring in double figures and have tried to bolster an anemic offense. Since Aiken’s removal from the starting lineup, however, the Crimson have dropped from an average of 66.8 to 59.7 points per game.
Still, the Crimson offense is not to be taken lightly. Towns has come into his own in his second season and presents a threat from all over the court. The reigning Player of the Week has turned his three-point shot into a weapon this season to complement his inside post game, and at 6-foot-7, he presents a matchup issue every time he steps onto the court.
The clash of playing styles will set the stage for an interesting dynamic, as both teams will work to improve on their deficiencies, but will more than likely resort to their strengths to provide the final edge. For the Bulldogs, this will mean regaining their passing prowess after posting a season-low six assists a week ago, and limiting their turnovers after two consecutive outings with at least 17 giveaways.
“We wanted to have less turnovers, and we really didn’t do that,” guard Trey Phills ’19 said after the Elis’ second bout with Brown. “I think we had like 17 compared to 20 last game. The first weekend, the ball bounced our way in the last couple minutes and we got the win. But this past weekend the ball bounced their way, so it kind of leaves it up to chance when we don’t play our best.”
Harvard will serve as good preparation for the Bulldogs’ second opponent of the weekend, as Dartmouth also struggles to score and will try to slow the pace of Yale’s high-powered attack. But the Big Green presents a much weaker defensive challenge, as it allows upwards of 73 points per game.
Dartmouth’s program was set back prior to the start of the season when former Rookie of the Year and All-Ivy Second Team forward Evan Boudreaux announced he would be forgoing his final two years of eligibility in Hanover. Boudreaux led his team in scoring in both of his two years on his way to earning consecutive team MVP awards.
In the talented big man’s absence, second-year head coach David McLaughlin has turned to scoring by committee to replace Boudreaux’s production. McLaughlin’s team has four active players averaging at least 10 points per game but none average more than 12 per game. Guard Brendan Barry has carried the mantle for Dartmouth as a scorer and distributor, leading the team in points and assists.
Looking beyond this weekend, Harvard and Dartmouth present Yale with two of the weaker offenses it will face this season, timely matchups considering Yale’s need to tighten its defense down the stretch.
“When you falter a little bit and you get caught ball watching, you don’t have that same focus and you get scored upon,” Jones said. “We need to do a better job of being able to play throughout a possession defensively and get a stop as a team. That’s just something that’s been difficult for us all year, and we’ll continue to try to work on it in practice.”
The Elis will tip off against Harvard at 7 p.m. on Friday and return to action at the same time on Saturday to face Dartmouth.
Won Jung | firstname.lastname@example.org
Steven Rome | email@example.com