Harvard and Princeton met last month in New Jersey for a matchup between two of the Ivy League’s elite basketball programs. The Tigers came away with the win, but Princeton head coach Sydney Johnson was quick to put things in perspective.
“I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade, but it’s not that big of a game,” he said after Princeton’s 65-61 win over the Crimson. “It’s just Game 3 for us in the Ivy League.”
The two teams will meet again on Saturday in Cambridge, Mass., at a likely sold-out Lavietes Pavilion. That contest, as even Johnson himself will now admit, is a big one.
After all, Ivy League title implications will be huge. With one game separating the two (entering play March 3), avenging the February loss could earn Harvard at least a share of the Ivy League championship. If Princeton slips up before Saturday’s tilt, then Harvard would be in position to grab its first conference title.
At the very least, if Harvard wins out, they would set up a one-game playoff for the conference title at a neutral site.
A conference title for Harvard would cap what’s been a tremendous job by Crimson head coach Tommy Amaker, who continues to build Harvard into a formidable threat in the college basketball landscape.
Amaker came from Michigan to Harvard prior to the 2007 season. Taking over a team mired in Ivy League mediocrity — not to mention being saddled by a lack of any real signature wins — Harvard struggled in the first year under Amaker.
But as Amaker installed his way of doing things and started to sign his recruits (along with being blessed by having eventual breakout star Jeremy Lin), Harvard saw a rebound. Big time. In Amaker’s second season, the Crimson won 14 games. He was just getting started, however, as the Crimson had arguably their finest regular season ever last year, winning 21 games, including one of those signature wins — a victory over Boston College.
This season, Amaker and Harvard enter the weekend at 21-5. They’ve beaten teams like Colorado, BC (again) and George Washington. While those wins won’t stop anyone in his or her tracks, they are wins over good programs and continual steps in the right direction.
But, of course, most importantly, the Crimson control their own fate for a coveted ticket to the Big Dance.
Princeton, on the other hand, has a rich Ivy League history, littered with trips to the tournament, big wins and memorable moments. Those days, by and large, are gone. However, under the tutelage of Johnson, the Tigers are working their way back.
Johnson knows what success feels like at Princeton. During his junior and senior years as a player at Princeton, the Tigers went a combined 46-11 with two NCAA tournament appearances. The year after he left, success continued, to the tune of a 26-1 regular-season mark.
After that, Princeton hovered around .500. Sure, the Tigers made an NCAA tournament here and there, but that was more of a byproduct of playing in the Ivy League rather than a reflection of them being a good team.
Then, Johnson was named head coach.
In his first year at the end of his alma mater’s bench, Johnson endured the same struggles the team had recently seen, and worse even. In his first season, 2007-08, Princeton went 6-23. Since that campaign, Johnson and the Tigers have been marching back to the top of the Ivy League.
A 13-14 season followed in 2008-09, a 21-6 breakthrough last season, and now Princeton sits atop the Ivy League with an 10-1 record (22-5 overall) and a chance to snatch the conference title by winning out — beating Harvard included.
With the two teams seemingly so evenly matched, Saturday’s showdown will have high expectations. Regardless of what happens, though, an old Ivy League rivalry will only continue to get better, especially if Amaker and Johnson are at the helm for the long term.
ESPN.com’s Andy Katz recently broke down the best rivalries in college basketball. While Harvard-Princeton wont’ soon be receiving the amount of hype as North Carolina-Duke (or Princeton-Penn, for that matter), Katz is among those ready to acknowledge a rivalry about to be taken to the next level.
“The top spot for the foreseeable future is Harvard-Princeton,” Katz wrote. “It might be the most competitive competition for the next few years as Sydney Johnson and Tommy Amaker build conference powers.”
Neither program is on the doorstep to becoming a national title contender, but both are playing legitimate basketball and seem to be locked in a pretty good rivalry for years to come.
The renewed rivalry starts on Saturday. The final game of the Ivy League slate will be a bit bigger than Game 3.
No one can rain on that parade.