Harvard’s Bryce Aiken is back. The 2016–17 Ivy League Rookie of the Year saw the court for the first time last Monday since a knee injury ended his sophomore season in February 2018, scoring 16 points and tallying five assists to lead the Crimson to an 84–71 win over Howard. His return, which Harvard hopes will salvage what has been an inconsistent, injury-ridden start to the season, has caused quite the buzz around Boston.
On Friday night, Aiken and his corps of fellow Harvard (8–7, 1–1 Ivy) juniors will welcome Yale (12–3, 2–0) to Cambridge. After capturing head coach James Jones’ 300th career victory in a sweep over Brown last Friday to extend their winning streak to eight, the Bulldogs face a resuscitated Harvard team on ESPNU before voyaging north for tipoff against a sharpshooting, unusually strong Dartmouth (10–8, 1–1) squad 24 hours later. As it often has this year, Yale will hope to draw on its veteran leadership, depth and balanced offense to carry it through the season’s first back-to-back and extinguish both programs’ early optimism in Ivy play.
“Harvard and Dartmouth play pretty contrasting styles,” guard Eric Monroe ’20 said. “Knowing personnel and each team’s offensive game plan is really important, especially in league play when the pace of the game tends to slow down and executing in the half court becomes really important. More than anything, we want to continue to focus on playing Yale basketball. And doing what has allowed us to have success this year up to this point.”
Harvard and Dartmouth, picked first and last in the Ivy League’s 2018–19 Men’s Basketball Preseason Poll, respectively, split their series to open conference play. With Aiken back in action on its home floor, the Crimson won by five in the teams’ most recent contest last Saturday. Dartmouth, who blew out Harvard 81–63 two weeks prior behind 68.1 percent shooting from the field to capture its Ivy opener for the first time in 12 years, fell a handful of points short of sweeping the Crimson for the first time in two decades.
Like Yale, Harvard returned its full starting lineup from a season ago, now composed of five juniors, and benefits from an experienced group of veterans. Alongside Aiken, who is averaging 15 points and almost four assists in his two-game return, the Crimson’s most important contributors include four of his classmates. Forward Chris Lewis averages 13.1 points a game, and guard Christian Juzang — a former teammate and friend of guard Miye Oni ’20 at the Viewpoint School in Los Angeles — scored 39 points across Harvard’s two-game series with the Big Green. Forward Justin Bassey’s 7.3 rebounds per game also rank fifth in the Ivy League, while 6-foot-11-inch forward Robert Baker anchors the defense.
Forward Seth Towns — the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year — is yet to return from a knee injury he sustained in last season’s Ivy Madness championship. Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker has not clarified Towns’ timetable, though a feature on Aiken’s return in The Crimson reported his return as “looming in the near future.” Back in 2016, ESPN rated the incoming freshmen that now constitute Harvard’s current junior standouts as the 10th best recruiting class in all of NCAA Division I men’s basketball.
“I’m expecting to see [Harvard’s] best team,” Jones said. “No matter how good Yale-Harvard teams are when they play each other in any sport, it’s a different animal. It’s different than playing anybody else because it’s your archrival. … If [Towns] plays, he plays. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t. It’s just how the game works … whoever’s in uniform, we’re going to go out and try to play our best.”
As satisfying as a statement win over the Crimson might be, the Harvard-Yale hype and the national television audience that will tune in to enjoy it cannot distract Yale from its Saturday matchup in Hanover. Dartmouth has exceeded expectations this season, matching its program record with nine nonconference wins and proving itself one of the top shooting teams in the nation.
As a team, the Big Green ranks seventh in Division I men’s basketball with a three-point field goal percentage of 40.5. Meanwhile, junior guard Brendan Barry’s 51.3 percent clip from beyond the arc ranks sixth in the country. When Dartmouth defeated the Crimson on Jan. 12, all but one of the seven players who attempted a three-pointer successfully converted triples with shooting that exceeded 50 percent.
“We don’t want to help too far off shooters,” Jones said. “You watch games in the past and up until the time — four or five, six games [into the season] — when people understood how well they were going to shoot it, [other teams] were playing off some guys, giving guys opportunities that shouldn’t had those kinds of opportunities. We want to make sure that we know where the shooters are and that we do a good job of defending them.”
Winning 11 of its last 12 games, Yale boasts the best offense in the Ivy League and averages 82.8 points per game. But with 74.4 points allowed, the Bulldogs rank last in points allowed per game in part due to overtime matchups with Memphis and Cal State Northridge in which they sacrificed a combined 199 points. The clear defensive focus at Dartmouth will be to limit the quality and quantity of three-point chances Dartmouth attempts — the Elis currently allow opponents to shoot 31 percent from three, which ranks fifth in the Ancient Eight.
Additionally, a few Elis rank among the league’s best in several statistical categories. Forward Jordan Bruner ’20, whose torn meniscus kept him sidelined for the duration of last year, leads the Ivy League with 4.1 assists per game and ranks second with 8.7 rebounds a game. His classmate Oni scores 16.2 points a game — fourth in the conference.
“I just hate losing, regardless of who it is to,” Bruner said. “I guess there’s a rivalry and guys don’t like Harvard, but to be frank, I don’t really like anybody in this conference. League games are different than nonconference games because you know guys, and you’ve developed a dislike for them, but I don’t think Harvard’s any different than any other conference game.”
Last season, the Crimson swept Yale, limiting the Bulldogs to 101 points across the two games. The contest at Lavietes Pavilion, as well as the Saturday night matchup at Leede Arena, will both tip off at 7 p.m.
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