The past week has certainly been up-and-down for the Harvard Crimson.
Last Thursday, Harvard beat up on local foe Boston College, winning by 21 on the Eagles’ home court in Chestnut Hill. For the Crimson, it was their second win in two games against the ACC this season. They knocked off Florida State 46-41 back in November in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
After handling Boston College, Harvard came back home and earned a tough win over a quickly-emerging Saint Joseph’s team. The Crimson won 74-69 over the Hawks, which beat the likes of Creighton and Villanova in the month of December.
These two wins gave Harvard a 12-1 record, and helped ensure they remained in this week’s Top 25, earning a No. 21 ranking in the ESPN/USA Today poll.
Harvard carried their ranking into their game Tuesday night at Fordham, their final game before the start of Ivy League play. However, the Crimson were unable to contain Fordham’s duo of Chris Gaston (18 pts., 10 reb.) and Bryan Smith (22 pts, 5-8 3 Pt. FG), and ultimately fell to the Rams, 60-54.
This was a tough loss for Harvard, which has a very small margin of error if they hope to avenge last season’s heartbreaking loss to Princeton in the Ivy League-playoff game and make the NCAA Tournament.
While power-conference and high-major teams—with ample opportunities to earn quality wins in and out of conference play—can afford one or two losses to teams like Fordham over the course of a season, Harvard cannot.
Playing in the Ivy League, a team like Harvard has to be nearly perfect in their non-conference schedule if they want any chance of an NCAA at-large bid.
Despite the attention that has come with being nationally ranked throughout the past month, Harvard does not have the abundance of quality wins over potential NCAA Tournament-teams that they would likely need if they are unable to win the Ivy League championship.
Harvard's best win—over Florida State—currently does not hold as much prestige as it did in November when the Seminoles were ranked in the Top 20. If FSU does not revive itself in ACC play, that win cannot quite pass as a “signature win” in the eyes of the selection committee.
The win over St. Joseph’s (RPI 41) is currently their best RPI win, but the Hawks still have some work to do in the Atlantic 10 to prove they are a legitimate NCAA Tourney team. Harvard's wins over Central Florida and at Loyola Marymount are respectable, but are fairly marginal in terms of raising the overall profile of the Crimson.
Last year, Harvard actually had a slightly better non-conference resume than this season, and did not make the NCAAs. Just like this year, the Crimson lost twice outside the Ivy, with one of them being at Connecticut. The other was at George Mason, who made the NCAA Round of 32.
Their key wins were Boston College, at Michigan and Colorado. Michigan made the NCAAs, and the other two just missed making it in (Colorado especially). The overall non-conference profile for Harvard was as solid as an Ivy League team can amass, but they still missed out on the tournament.
Another thing not working in Harvard’s favor this year is the drop-off of Princeton, last year’s Ivy League champs. The Tigers are currently just 8-7, and a mediocre 137 in the RPI. Not having another potential Top 50 team, like Princeton last year, means Harvard has no good chances to maintain their solid RPI ranking (currently at No. 37) within the Ivy League schedule.
It also means any losses suffered in conference play could really damage the Crimson's overall profile, not to mention put their hopes of an outright league title in jeopardy. It may only take two to keep them out of the tourney once again.
This all means one thing for Harvard: Win the Ivy League, no exceptions.
The Crimson are certainly the clear favorite to do so, but they need to prove it over the 14 games on their Ivy League schedule. Harvard certainly does not want to play a fifteenth, like they had to last year.