Harvard’s 65-Year NCAA Tournament Drought May Hinge on Playoff

Harvard University’s basketball team, the preseason Ivy League favorite, now needs the University of Pennsylvania to lose one of its three remaining games to avoid a playoff for the conference championship.

The Crimson (24-4, 10-2) fell 55-54 to the Quakers (17-11, 9-2) on Feb. 25 in front of a sold-out crowd in Lavietes Pavilion in Boston. A win would have guaranteed first-place Harvard at least a share of the Ivy League men’s basketball title following a season in which they were ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in program history and set a school record for victories.

Should Harvard and Penn win their remaining games -- the Crimson have two left -- they would meet in a one-game playoff to decide who receives the conference’s automatic berth in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament. Yale (19-7, 9-3) and Princeton (16-11, 7-4) remain in contention as well.

“It’s a devastating loss, it’s a disappointing loss,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker told the Harvard Crimson, the school’s student newspaper, following the Penn loss. “The good thing is if we can channel it in the right way, maybe it can help us, and that’s what we’re hoping for next week.”

Harvard’s final two games are on the road next weekend against Cornell (11-15, 6-6) and Columbia (14-14, 3-9), who are fifth and sixth in the eight-team league. Penn hosts Brown (8-21, 2-10) and third-place Yale next weekend, before closing its season on March 6 at fourth-place Princeton.

Last Season

Last season in a similar situation, first-place Harvard lost to Yale in the second-to-last weekend of the regular season, and had to win its final two games to force a tie-breaker with Princeton. The Tigers won 63-62 in the game’s final second, pushing the Crimson tournament drought to 65 years.

Harvard this season returned 12 players, including senior co-captain and 2011 Ivy League Player of the Year Keith Wright, and has already won a school record 24 games, besting last year’s mark of 23. The team received 16 of the 17 first-place votes in a preseason poll of reporters who regularly cover the conference.

After opening the season 8-0, including a win over then-No. 22 Florida State, the Crimson were ranked No. 25 in the Associated Press poll, a spot that the team has held for one week at two separate times this season. It was the first Top 25 ranking ever for a team that has played in just one NCAA tournament, in 1946, when it went 0-2.

The Quakers are winless in three games this season against teams in the AP Top 25, including a Feb. 10 home loss to Harvard. Penn has won its last five conference games following that loss, four of which came by a winning margin of three or less.

‘Season of Heart’

“It’s been a season of heart so far, and it’s going to be a season of heart for three more games,” Penn senior guard Zack Rosen, who sunk two free throws with 23.2 seconds remaining on Feb. 25 against Harvard, told reporters after the game. “We want this thing.”

There have been eight tiebreakers in the history of the Ivy League, the only conference in basketball’s top division without a season-ending tournament. Penn has won at least a share of the league title 25 times since 1957, second to Princeton’s 26, while Harvard’s co-title last year was its first.

Plans for a time, location and date for a possible playoff this year has not yet been completed, Ivy League spokesman Scottie Rodgers said yesterday in an e-mail. Last season’s finale was played at a neutral location four days after the regular season ended.

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-- Editor: Michael Sillup, Jay Beberman

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