Harvard-Penn hoops preview

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- In theory, one isn’t more important than the other. But reality doesn’t always follow theory, and in the Ivy League it’s Saturday nights that separate the champions from the also-rans.

“It’s all about getting your rest and coming back with a mental mindset to fight the next night,” Kyle Casey said after Harvard’s hard-fought comeback win 67-64 over rival Princeton on Friday night. “This league is won on Saturday nights, so I think it’s gonna be a real gutsy battle tomorrow from both teams.”

Casey had quite a line against the Tigers: 20 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 blocks and 2 assists in 29 minutes. Crimson coach Tommy Amaker said avoiding foul trouble was key for the 6-foot-7, 225-pound Medway, Mass., native.

“Kyle is an emotional, energizing kind of player,” Amaker said postgame. “He has to play with that kind of spirit, and when he does we’re a different team. There’s no question about it.”

Because of the unique structure of the Ivy League schedule, with its Friday-Saturday back-to-backs, there is often little time for teams to catch their breath before the next test hits their desks.

The game against Princeton meant more to the Crimson than just another conference game. The Tigers were the only Ivy team to beat Harvard (24-3, 10-1) so far this season, winning 70-62 at home two weeks ago. Then there was the buzzer-beating win in the playoff game to decide the Ancient Eight’s NCAA participant last season.

That game spawned a rallying cry for the Crimson: 2.8. That’s how much time was left on the clock when Princeton inbounded the ball before Douglas Davis hit his game winner.

“Going into it, it’s definitely a different feel,” point guard Brandyn Curry said of facing the Tigers. “They’re the only team that beat us thus far. So definitely is a different mentality when we face them, we definitely want to beat them.”

To do so, Harvard had to overcome deficits of 10 (in the first half) and seven (in the second), which required great exertions of mental and physical effort.

When they tip off at 7 p.m. Saturday night (ESPN3) against second-place Penn (16-11, 8-2), the Crimson will have had fewer than 24 hours to recharge their basketball batteries.

Of course, the same is true of the Quakers, who needed 16 points from Zack Rosen (27 total) in the final 6:50 to outlast Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H. The Big Green was within a point three times in the final 1:13, but Rosen answered in each instance.

The Quakers then had to make the two-hour drive from Hanover to Cambridge. The Crimson had no such travel concerns, after winning their 28th straight game at Lavietes Pavilion.

“We can say what we want, but generally this league is probably gonna be won on Saturday nights,” Amaker said. “I would think Saturday night -- that second game, who was able to come through in what environments, in what situations home and away -- probably paved the way for Ivy League titles.”

With a win over Penn on Saturday night, Harvard would clinch at least a share of a second straight Ivy League title with two chances next weekend (at Columbia, at Cornell) to capture it outright.

Friday night, it was Casey who kept them in it early and Curry and Oliver McNally who brought them home late. Who will it be stepping forward Saturday night? Even the Crimson don’t know.

“You never know who it’s gonna be on any given night,” Curry said postgame. “I think all the players on our team have stepped up and had a big night. Tonight it was me and Kyle that had to step up. Tomorrow night it could be two different players.”

Long after the band had stopped playing, the stands had emptied out and the players had gone their separate ways, the game was still on Casey’s mind. The next game.

“the big game is always the game after the big game.” he

>tweeted. “gotta finish #gocrimson”

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.