In some ways, the Harvard Crimson have it easy. There’s no worrying about their status on the bubble, no fretting over their at-large profile. They don’t have to stress about impressing the selection committee.
Since the Ivy League doesn’t have a postseason tournament, it’s either win the regular-season title or watch the NCAA tournament on TV.
And with two regular-season games remaining at Lavietes Pavilion, the Crimson will have to win out for a chance to get in.
The Crimson are 21-5 and sit a half game behind the Princeton Tigers in the Ancient Eight standings. They host Penn on Friday night and Princeton on Saturday night (7 ET, ESPN3.com), needing to win both to clinch at least a share of the school’s first Ivy title.
Princeton is 22-5 and 10-1 in Ivy play, and finishes with three road games: at Dartmouth on Friday, at Harvard on Saturday and at Penn on Tuesday.
In his fourth season in Cambridge, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker has his team on the cusp of a second straight postseason appearance. (Last season the Crimson finished the regular season 21-7 and were selected to the CollegeInsider.com tournament, where they lost 93-71 to Appalachian State).
In fact, had Harvard not lost a nail-biter to Yale 70-69 last Saturday -- in New Haven, Conn., on senior day for the Bulldogs -- this Saturday’s season finale against Princeton would be the de facto Ivy championship. Instead, the Crimson have two must-win games to clinch a share of the championship and force a one-game playoff for the Ancient Eight title -- and a berth in the NCAA tourney.
“There will be a lot of excitement and energy in our gym on Friday and Saturday night,” Amaker said.
With good reason. Before the 2009-10 season, Harvard men’s basketball had never won 20 games in a season. It has now surpassed that mark in two straight seasons. With 21 W’s already, the Crimson will have two chances to break their 1-year-old record for wins in a single season. At 10-2 in the Ivy League, the Crimson can match or better the best conference record in school history (11-3, set in 1970-71).
Not to mention with a league title the Crimson can advance to the Big Dance for the second time in school history, and the first time in 65 years (since 1946).
“This is not a moment to be anxious for, this is a moment to embrace,” Amaker said of playing under the pressure added by the potential to make history. “We’re aware how difficult it is in front of us, but I do think our kids will be excited. We just have to remain who we’ve been and have some fun with it and hope for the best.”
Harvard won’t take either opponent lightly. Though Penn sports a 12-13 record overall and is just 6-5 in the Ivy, it took two overtimes for Harvard to beat the Quakers at the Palestra (83-82 on Feb. 5). And Princeton, well, the Tigers gave the Crimson their only other Ivy loss (65-61 on Feb. 4).
Though the Crimson have leaned heavily at times on junior big man Keith Wright, their leading scorer (15.2 points per) and rebounder (8.8 boards per), Amaker said the key to their success has been balance. Four Crimson players average 10 points or more; six average 25 minutes or more; and six regulars shoot better than 70 percent from the foul line (where the Crimson rank second in the country at 80.2 percent for the season).
Even with everything on the line this weekend, don’t expect the focus on balance to change.
“I don’t think there’s anything we’re gonna try to pull out of our hat,” Amaker said. “We earned the right to have this moment and hope it’ll be a unique moment for all of Harvard.”
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and contributes to ESPNBoston.com.