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Ivy League Weekend Preview: What's at Stake for Men's Basketball

Harvard's bench celebrates a three pointer in a blowout win over Cornell. The Crimson will hope for more performances like that one down the stretch.
Harvard's bench celebrates a three pointer in a blowout win over Cornell. The Crimson will hope for more performances like that one down the stretch. By Quinn G. Perini
By Lev Cohen, Crimson Staff Writer

The last time the fourth-best team in the Ivy League finished with a record above .500 was in 2014. The league tends to be top-heavy; in three of the last five years, there have been two teams atop the standings with more wins than the last-placed team had losses, and the last time the worst team had a more lopsided record than the best one was in 2012. As a result, the first three iterations of the race to make the Ivy League Conference Tournament were not all that compelling. Sure, there has been some doubt about who would sneak into the tournament. Last year, for example, three teams tied for fourth, and Penn needed to sweep its homestand against Yale and Brown on the last weekend of the season to sneak in over Cornell and Brown. But the Quakers were able to do so at 7-7, and that 7-7 record would also have been good enough to make the tournament in either of its first two years, both of which featured a team under .500 in league play.

This year should end that streak. Five teams now sit at 5-3 in the league or better. All five have reasonable hopes of challenging not only for a spot in the tournament but for at least a share of an Ancient Eight championship. And outside of Brown-Yale and Penn-Princeton, all of these teams will play each other down the stretch, so drama should abound. Two of those monumental games happen this weekend, with Penn and Princeton playing Harvard in Cambridge as the Crimson seeks revenge for two tough losses a few weeks ago. With five teams between 5-3 and 6-2, it is possible, maybe even likely, that a team with eight wins will miss the tournament. Here is a look at what is at stake this weekend for all five playoff hopefuls:

Yale (18-6, 6-2 Ivy) and Brown (12-9, 5-3):

Yale and Brown have the enviable albeit somewhat hazardous distinction of getting the “don’t slip up” trip this weekend. They travel to play the New York schools, which sit at the bottom of the conference and by the numbers are worse than any Ivy League team was last season. All five of the tournament hopefuls get to play Cornell and Columbia down the stretch, and these games could prove crucial. Princeton has already lost to Cornell, and Harvard was pushed to double overtime last weekend by Columbia in Cambridge. One has to expect the New York schools to notch an upset or two down the stretch. Easy victories are rare in the Ancient Eight, particularly on the road. And that is where Yale and Brown find themselves this weekend.

Brown in particular has a lot to prove. The Bears are in many ways the odd men out in this clump of five teams. They finished fifth last year and were predicted to finish fifth this year. Their performances against Cornell and Columbia at the turn of the month were good enough to get wins but far from convincing. Brown has impressed relative to expectations, to be sure, with wins over Harvard and Penn, but their poor non-conference play and blowout loss at Princeton last Saturday means they are probably still most likely to be on the outside looking in come mid-March. A 1-1 weekend would not put them out of contention, but it could force them to win three of their last four games, three of which come against fellow tournament hopefuls. That seems like too much to ask for.

Yale, meanwhile, smoked both schools at home. By the numbers, the Bulldogs are the best team in the Ancient Eight. The statistical site Kenpom ranks Yale 46th in the country, sixty spots ahead of next-best Harvard. Yale is also a game up on the tournament bubble, which, along with their strength, makes the Bulldogs a near-lock to make the tournament. For James Jones’ team, then, this weekend is about two things: putting their 2-2 blip behind them, and reasserting themselves as the favorites to win the Ivy League championship for the first time since 2016.

Princeton (11-10, 6-2) and Penn (13-8, 5-3):

The traditional Ivy League titans have the most difficult remaining schedules of the tournament hopefuls. They’re on the road for the next two weeks against Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown. Princeton would almost certainly be able to survive a 1-1 performance this weekend. The Tigers’ two wins over Penn in January crucially mean that they will win any tiebreaker over the Quakers. If the Tigers beat Dartmouth this weekend and then sweep the New York schools on the final weekend, they will have nine wins and be tournament-bound, regardless of how they do next weekend. Things only get interesting from a qualifying perspective if Princeton loses Friday and Saturday, which is very possible; they will be barely (if at all) favored against Dartmouth and will be significant underdogs against Harvard. And while Princeton is tied for first in the Ivy League, the Tigers should be considered heavy underdogs to win even a share of the conference championship unless they sweep this weekend, because they still have to go to Yale next weekend.

Penn is in a slightly more precarious position. The Quakers lost twice to Princeton and at home to Brown, putting them in bad shape for many of the tiebreakers they might have to face. A 1-1 weekend would likely put them in a must-win position at Brown next weekend. The Big Green thus has a big part to play this week. If Dartmouth can pick off either Princeton or Penn at home, the loser will either have to beat Harvard — which remains undefeated at home — or risk going into a second tough road weekend on the outside looking in.

Harvard (16-7, 5-3):

The Crimson barely averted disaster last weekend against Columbia. It can breathe again after the gut-wrenching end to Saturday’s game, but it has two more big games on tap this weekend against two teams it already lost to. The Penn game Saturday is especially important, as a loss to the Quakers would drop Harvard a game behind (assuming the two schools have the same result on Friday) and cost it the tiebreaker against Penn. Still, barring an 0-2 weekend the Crimson should be in very little danger of missing the tournament. Harvard will be a significant favorite in each of its next five games, and just a 3-2 stretch would put the Crimson in a good position heading into the final game of the season against Yale, where Harvard could be slight underdogs.

Because the Crimson won at Yale, Harvard is also in the best position to challenge Yale’s bid for a championship. It currently sits a game behind the Bulldogs, so the Crimson actually controls its own destiny: if it wins out, Harvard will win at least a share of the championship and finish above Yale by virtue of its two head-to-head wins. To win out, of course, the Crimson must sweep Penn and Princeton this weekend.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 17-1 -- the contenders’ joint record against Dartmouth, Cornell, and Columbia.

GAME OF THE WEEKEND: Penn at Harvard, Saturday, 7:00 PM, ESPN+

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