When the 2011-12 college basketball season opens, both the Harvard and Princeton men’s basketball teams will unveil a banner reading “2011 Ivy League Champions,” and players from both teams will receive Ivy League championship rings. But when the NCAA Tournament kicks off next week, in all likelihood, only one team will be dancing.
For the first time since 2002, a tie atop the Ivy League standings has forced a one-game playoff between the Ancient Eight co-champions to determine the recipient of the conference’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. With neither team in serious consideration for an at-large bid, this afternoon’s matchup at Yale’s John J. Lee Amphitheater will determine which team makes the Big Dance and which team gets to watch from home.
The much-anticipated contest, which will serve as a rare opportunity for a championship in the NCAA’s lone conference without a tournament, sold out within 30 minutes of tickets going on sale and will be broadcast on ESPN3.com.
“Certainly it would be an incredible opportunity for us if we could take this on to the NCAA Tournament,” says Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, who took over the Harvard program in 2007 with the goal of bringing the Crimson its first tournament berth since 1946. “We certainly recognize how difficult of a challenge that’s going to be against a really good Princeton team.”
When Princeton and Harvard meet this afternoon, it will be the third time this season that the squads have squared off. In the first meeting at Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium in February, the Tigers (24-6, 12-2 Ivy) battled back from an early deficit to capture a four-point win, 65-61. It was the Crimson (23-5, 12-2 Ivy) who got the upper hand in last Saturday’s regular season finale, protecting its home court to earn a share of its first Ivy League championship in program history.
“It’s hard to play someone three times in a year,” says Harvard sophomore Kyle Casey. “I think that each team knows each other really well, so it’s going to come down to execution and whoever implements their game plan best.”
Casey played an instrumental role in last weekend’s victory over the Tigers, dropping a season-high 24 points, including a ferocious one-handed baseline slam. Tomorrow, Casey will matchup against Princeton’s top player, Kareem Maddox.
Maddox, an athletic 6-8 forward who was recently named the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, torched the Crimson in their first meeting, scoring 14 points and recording a career-high five blocks.
“[Maddox] is a very versatile player – he can do a lot of things with and without the basketball,” says Casey. “I think another big part of the game is going to come down to who wins that matchup. We’re probably both going to end up guarding each other and going at each other.”
Another crucial matchup will be between Princeton guard Dan Mavraides and Harvard guard Brandyn Curry. Mavraides caught fire in the first half of the teams’ latest meeting, connecting on 4-of-5 attempts from beyond the arc for 18 first-half points. But coming out of the break, Curry, the Crimson’s top perimeter defender, switched onto Mavraides and limited the sharpshooter to seven points on 12 shot attempts.
According to Amaker, limiting Mavraides and the Tigers’ frontcourt duo of Maddox and sophomore Ian Hummer will be crucial to coming out on top.
“Their two seniors in particular – Mavraides and Maddox – I think are as good as they come in our league,” says Amaker. “We have our hands full. They’re an outstanding team.”
Who do you think will win?
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