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Harvard men need help for NCAA bid

The good news for the Harvard men’s basketball team is that it closes the regular season this weekend with two games at Lavietes Pavilion, where the Crimson have won their last nine games.

The bad news is that even if they beat both Columbia on Friday and Cornell on Saturday to extend their home win streak to 11, there’s no guarantee the Crimson will get to play another game this season. Home, road, or on a neutral court.

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At this point, they’d take any of the three options, because that would mean either playing for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, competing in the NCAA Tournament, or participating in one of the lower-tiered postseason events, such as the NIT or CBI.

But first they need to see how the Ivy League race shakes out.

Harvard forfeited control of the conference by losing two road games last weekend: 58-53 at Princeton on Friday, and 75-72 to Pennsylvania on Saturday at the Palestra. The losses dropped the Crimson (17-9) to 9-3 in the Ivy; combined with Princeton’s Saturday victory over Dartmouth, Harvard is now looking up at the Tigers (9-2) as the conference season enters the home stretch.

It’s the first time all year that Harvard has been anywhere but first in the Ivy.

Even though Princeton controls its fate, the battle for the Ivy title — and the automatic NCAA Tournament berth that comes with it — is far from decided. Harvard has two games left in the regular season, both at home. Princeton has three games remaining, all on the road. If the teams finish tied at the conclusion of the regular season, a one-game playoff will be held at a neutral site to determine who advances to the NCAA Tournament. It happened two years ago, when Princeton beat Harvard on a last-second shot at Yale.

Harvard didn’t require a playoff to win the Ivy a season ago, winning the title outright and playing in the NCAA Tournament for only the second time, and first since 1946.

The Crimson have owned or shared the last two conference championships. They have their sights set on a third, but will require some help to claim it, because they need Princeton to lose at least one of its final three games.

“The way that Penn played [Saturday] and knowing that they’re their biggest rival, and knowing they have to go at Yale . . . it’ll be tough,” Harvard senior guard Christian Webster said, when asked about Princeton’s closing stretch of games. The Tigers play at Yale — a team they’ve already lost to this season — on Friday, at Brown on Saturday, and at Penn on Tuesday.

Harvard might have an eye and an ear on Princeton’s scores this weekend, but the Crimson will need to play better if they want to win a game or two. In 80 minutes of game action last weekend, Harvard led for all of 79 seconds. It trailed early in both, shot poorly, and had late comebacks fall just short.

The Crimson also would be wise not to overlook their two opponents. Columbia handed Harvard its first Ivy loss of the season, 78-63, on Feb. 10. Two nights earlier, Harvard coughed up almost all of a 21-point lead before holding off Cornell, 67-65.

But those games, like the ones last weekend, were away from home.

Now Harvard is returning to Lavietes, hoping to get two more wins and some good news from out of town. Should Princeton stumble, the Crimson just might find themselves playing in the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.
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