Saturday's most intriguing NCAA game may be one that relatively few fans care about -- and even fewer will be able to see. But the playoff between upstart Harvard and postseason regular Princeton for the Ivy League title and an automatic NCAA berth, to tip off at Yale (4 p.m.) and shown via webcast only on ESPN3.com, has plot elements befitting a sometimes bitter athletic rivalry that dates to their first football game, back in '77 -- 1877, that is.
Perhaps the most delicious is: Will the loser also have a chance at cracking the newly expanded, 68-team field?
Full disclosure: As a Harvard alum, I am biased. I will admit that my eyes misted a bit when the Crimson beat the Tigers 79-67 last Saturday night in Cambridge and thus clinched a share of its first Ivy League men's basketball championship. (Pretty cool for a school known more for SAT than RPI.) But for the past 21 years I've lived just outside Princeton and have a healthy admiration for that program's accomplishments, which now include 26 Ivy titles. So I was hardly surprised on Tuesday when Princeton beat Penn 70-58 at the Palestra to force the playoff.
Both teams enter Saturday's game with 12-2 league records. Neither lost a home game. (Coach Sydney Johnson's Tigers beat Tommy Amaker's Crimson 65-61 at Jadwin Gym on Feb. 4.) Otherwise, it's all contrast. Here are the factors that should come into play:
• Youth vs. Seasoning. Harvard (23-5) doesn't have a senior on its roster. Its most venerable player is its junior court general, point guard Oliver McNally. Princeton (24-6) employs as a steadying influence two seniors, point guard Dan Mavraides, who scored 25 (including five treys) in last Saturday's loss, and forward Kareem Maddox, who came off the bench to score 21 of his 23 points against Penn in the second half. Simply put, Princeton does not get rattled. This experience advantage was crucial in the Feb. 4 game, in which Harvard jumped out to a 15-4 lead, then saw the Tigers claw back to within one by halftime and take the game over early in the second half.
• Whose Tempo? Harvard loves to harass opponents into turnovers, and use them to launch fast breaks, led by McNally or sophomore point guard Brandyn Curry, that culminate in thunder dunks by its big men, junior Keith Wright (this week named the Ivy Player of the Year) and sophomore Kyle Casey. Lately, Harvard also has proved effective with an inside-out game that often frees up its backcourt sharpshooters, sophomore Christian Webster and freshman Laurent Rivard (who has NBA range). The Tigers, of course, like to slow it down and milk the clock with that patented and lethal Princeton Offense, in which Mavraides and sophomore forward Ian Hummer do much damage. The game may turn on who dictates the pace. Don't foul the Crimson: Harvard shot 81.6 percent from the line this season.
• X factors. Harvard's Rivard can go off. Last Saturday hard-nosed reserve freshman guard Matt Brown (who's also a wide receiver on the football team) gave Harvard 16 unexpectedly impactful minutes, with five points, three boards, a steal and tough defense. That same night, Princeton junior guard Douglas Davis, who averages 11.8 points, was unexpectedly terrible, going 2-for-7 with five points and committing four turnovers; a turnaround might get the Tigers to the Dance floor.
• Sydney's Sorcery. When it was over last Saturday at Lavietes, Johnson had his team linger and watch as the exultant Harvard crowd rushed the court. Will this reverse psychology be a motivational masterstroke?
• Neutral, My A--! Sure, New Haven is smack dab in the middle -- 128 miles from Princeton and 135 from Cambridge, give or take. But any Crimson fan can tell you: This is like Ohio State playing a neutral game at Michigan. Expect any Elis fans in attendance to lend their voices to the Tigers. On Feb. 26 Harvard lost on this very court 70-69; and it hasn't beaten Princeton outside Cambridge since 1989.
• Is there truly no tomorrow? The $68 million question is whether the loser might still have a chance to crack the NCAA field. Princeton has a very good RPI (49) but no wins over any Top 50 teams other than its victory over the Crimson. There's a better case to be made for Harvard. Its RPI stands at 34; a loss probably would drop it into the still-impressive 40s. Moreover, it beat Colorado (RPI 67) at home 82-66, and took Boston College (44) apart on the road, 78-69. Both of those teams are widely projected to be seeded around 12th. The Crimson also had a close (65-62) loss at Michigan (57), whose berth also seems to be solid.
The Ivy League never has gotten an at-large bid, but this Harvard team is eminently worthy. Besides, shouldn't the addition of three tournament spots put the Crimson in the discussion?
Still, a victory would mean Harvard wouldn't have to plead its case. With my heart winning over my head, I'll say the Crimson will get it, 72-66.
Of course, now I can never eat lunch on Nassau Street again.