CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The way they look at it, there is no margin for error.
They slipped up a little last season, and because of it they were forced to play a one-game playoff at a neutral site for the right to represent their league in the NCAA tournament.
Harvard lost that game, the closest thing the Ivy League has ever had to a conference tournament, on a Princeton buzzer-beater. (The neutral site just happened to be Yale’s John J. Lee Amphitheater; considering the history of Harvard-Yale, it seems almost oxymoronic to call the Bulldogs’ gym a neutral site for a Crimson game.)
Because the Crimson, currently 12-2 and ranked No. 21 in the country, went 12-2 in Ivy play in 2010-11 they had to settle for a share of the Ivy title (first in team history), that playoff game and a berth in the NIT (in which they were blown out by Oklahoma State). This season, they want to avoid that scenario.
Coming off a loss to Fordham on Tuesday night, the Crimson are trying to push past their disappointment as they prepare to tip off Ivy League play with a visit from Dartmouth on Saturday at Lavietes Pavilion (2 p.m.).
“It was really disappointing, but you’ve gotta dwell on it for a little bit but then get on to the next thing,” senior co-captain Oliver McNally said of the Fordham loss. “Ivy League play is starting and we take that really seriously, more so than the nonconference. You can’t really slip up in the Ivy League, because you can’t make up for it in the conference tournament.”
The Crimson’s 12-2 mark in the Ivy League last season was the best in program history, but because Princeton also finished 12-2 (one of those wins coming over Harvard) it wasn’t good enough. They don’t want to leave any doubt, this time around.
That determination adds an extra edge to the always intense league play.
“When you get in the league -- this is for every league in the country -- it’s playing against old rivals and people who are bringing the best effort,” McNally said, “and it doesn’t really matter who you’re playing, they’re gonna give you a good game.”
And with the Crimson’s national ranking making headlines, opponents may be even more charged up to face them. It’s up to the Harvard players to match that emotion.
“We’ve gotta be ready to go,” point guard Brandyn Curry said. “Every game’s gonna be tough and we’re gonna get every team’s best, no matter who we play. Last year Dartmouth had us down 12 at home, Brown had us down both times, big.
“So every game we’ve gotta come out ready to play, we can’t have this where we come out and get down and think we’re gonna come back and win like we have in the past. As we saw that didn’t happen against Fordham.”
Tommy Amaker said he’s been pleased with the team’s work ethic since the setback in the Bronx, and thinks it will be ready for Ivy play on Saturday.
“We’re very excited about it,” the coach said. “Obviously with how much it means for postseason opportunities, [it’s] what we’ve been gearing up for for a long time. Coming off where we were a year ago …
“This is what you really work and prepare for, is conference play.”
The Crimson have a good idea what they need to work on before tipoff Saturday. After shooting 36.4 percent from the floor Tuesday, including 8-for-30 from 3, they are shooting just 45.4 percent overall and 36.5 percent from 3 in 2011-12. The Crimson shot 47.5 percent overall and 37.8 percent from 3 in 2010-11.
“We haven’t been great this year at shooting the ball like we’ve been in the past,” Amaker said. “I’m hopeful somehow we’ll regain that form we’ve had.”
And while some questioned the number of 3s the Crimson launched against Fordham, Amaker said he was fine with the shot selection and cited a similar number of 3s in a home win against the Rams the previous season.
“As long as we move the ball and we let the shot find you, I’m comfortable with the shots that we’re getting,” he said.
Asked why he thought they were struggling from the field, Curry said it’s possible the Crimson are thinking too much and need to get back to just shooting. Whatever the solution, if the Crimson can find consistent offense they’ll be tough for any other Ivy team to beat.
Harvard ranks eighth nationally in scoring defense, allowing only 55.4 points per game.
“Our defense has been our calling card,” Amaker said. “The defense has won games for us, has saved us. Our defense won a championship for us in the Bahamas. And we haven’t clicked yet offensively.”
Harvard ranks 218th in scoring offense, averaging 66.3 points per game.
The coach said there are a number of ways for the Crimson to look at the disparity in the stats. They can be disappointed that they haven’t been better offensively, or they can be optimistic because they haven’t been better offensively.
“If we keep grinding away at this and get back in sync from an offensive standpoint … with what we’ve done defensively, I think we have a chance to be a special team,” Amaker said. “We feel like when the dam breaks on the offensive end, we’re gonna feel really good about ourselves.”
And while the Big Green come in 3-13 on the season, the Crimson aren’t taking them lightly.
“Dartmouth is a team that’s been pretty good against us,” Amaker said. “They played us very well here last year, had us down by 12 early. So they’ll be very confident and certainly in a conference home game, it’s a critical moment for us -- especially coming off of a loss.”
Since there’s no conference tournament, there’s only one sure way for the Crimson to get where they want to go -- not lose in the Ivy League.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.