A pivotal weekend for Crimson

February, 23, 2012
2/23/12
5:57
PM ET
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- If everything breaks just right this weekend, the Harvard Crimson will be champions.

At 23-3, including 9-1 in the Ivy League, Tommy Amaker’s team has already tied the program mark for wins in a season (set way back in 2010-11). The Crimson have won 20 games for three straight seasons, another program first (they’d never won as many as 20 in a season prior to this streak). They’ve been ranked in the Top 25 for the first time, reaching as high as No. 21 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.

And in 2010-11, they finished tied for first place in the Ancient Eight and therefore claimed a share of the league championship (first in team history).

[+] EnlargeOliver McNally
Eric Hartline/US Presswire"I think we need to focus on ourselves and play the way we played this [past] weekend and have been playing," said Harvard co-captain Oliver McNally about facing Princeton and Penn.
But, of course, they lost the one-game playoff on a Princeton buzzer-beater and had to settle for a berth in the NIT instead of the tournament they really wanted to be part of, the NCAAs.

All Amaker & Co. need to go their way to accomplish that this weekend is:

• beat visiting Princeton on Friday night
• have Penn drop its Friday night matchup at Dartmouth
• beat visiting Penn on Saturday night
• and have Yale lose either Friday (vs. Columbia) or Saturday (vs. Cornell)

Not quite a simple scenario.

But for Harvard, the goal is simple: focus on Princeton first, win Friday night, then focus on Penn and win Saturday night.

That’s been the goal all season, really: focus on the task at hand, with the ultimate goals of winning the Ivy title outright and making it to the Big Dance.

After the Crimson failed to complete the Penn/Princeton road sweep two weeks ago, they lost their national ranking and any margin for error they had previously.

“I thought we had a good resolve about our club, responding to the loss previously at Princeton,” Amaker said before the Crimson practiced on Monday.

Harvard rebounded from the loss to Princeton by beating Brown and Yale at home to improve to 9-1 in the conference. With four games to go, and every other team carrying at least two losses into this weekend’s action, the Crimson’s path to the postseason is clear: Two wins this weekend will clinch at least a share of a second straight Ivy title.

Now all they have to do is take care of two of the league’s perennial powers.

“They’ve been the two juggernauts in this conference through the years, and [there’s] a lot of tradition and history with those programs,” Amaker said. “We’re excited, as you can imagine. We’re very, very proud to be a part of meaningful games at this point of the season.”

Lavietes Pavilion, where Harvard is 10-0 this season and 27-0 in its previous 27 games, is sold out for both games.

[+] EnlargeTommy Amaker
AP Photo/Mel EvansOn Friday Tommy Amaker and the Crimson will seek to avenge their only Ivy loss, suffered at Princeton on Feb. 11.
“We are confident here,” the fifth-year Harvard head coach said. “We’ve been a ball club that’s played with great energy, great passion here on our home floor. And our students and our fans and the support that we’ve been given here has been outstanding.”

But while they enjoy the boost the friendly crowds can give them, the Crimson know what happens on the floor will be the deciding factor.

“I think we need to focus on ourselves and play the way we played this [past] weekend and have been playing,” co-captain Oliver McNally said. “If we come out with the good defensive intensity that we’ve had pretty much through all of our games this year and push the pace, as Brandyn [Curry] helped us do on Saturday night, we’ll be all right.”

Curry led the Crimson with 18 points in the win over Yale, and was the aggressor pretty much throughout.

Amaker was disappointed in his team’s interior defense in the loss to Princeton, and said the Crimson have to be more efficient on both sides of the floor this time around.

“They spread the floor,” he said of the Tigers. “And [Ian] Hummer is just a very tough matchup. He’s a guy that can put the ball on the floor, shoot it from the outside but also post up.

“I thought they got too much inside … whether it was back cuts or we failed to call out some screening action. So I’m hopeful we can do a much better job here at home defending the Princeton offense.”

While defensive slip-ups haven’t happened too often for Harvard, which is third in the country in scoring defense (allowing 53.6 points per game), they’ve been costly when they have.

“I think a couple games that we’ve lost this year, we got beat because we weren’t really doing what we normally do,” McNally said. “I think that’s huge for our team. We just need to focus on what we do well.

“When we play well, how did we get there? It’s mainly on defense. If we bring our focus and effort on defense I think we usually win games.”

Asked how the Crimson will defend the Quakers’ Zack Rosen, who scored 11 straight points to erase a late Penn deficit against Cornell this past weekend, McNally was blunt.

“I think individuals just have to man up and take pride in who you’re guarding and your matchup and try to outplay that person,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be that complex. They’re really talented. Rosen’s one of the best players in the league.

“It’s a big team effort, in the fact that when they use pick-and-rolls everyone needs to help in and things like that. But at a basic level it’s ‘Hey, this is my man and I can’t let him score.’ ”

That mindset illustrates the point nicely. For now, the Crimson are just focused on the task at hand, because they know if they do that, greater goals will follow.

“We need a good all-around effort,” Amaker said. “Friday night for [the Tigers] is gonna be a big game and for us it’s gonna be a huge game.

“What more fun can you have than to have the chance to play the game of basketball in an environment that we’re gonna have here this weekend for both games?”

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.

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