Big-game week at Harvard. But the applied mathematics major who leads the team in rebounding — the Cameroon native whose parents have never seen him play a college game — still has his senior midterms.
“Just because we have this weekend doesn’t mean school stops,” Steve Moundou-Missi said on his way to study his economics. “Academics are the main reason we’re here.
Big-game week at Yale. But the Rhodes Scholar who leads the Ivy League in field goal percentage — the molecular, cellular and developmental biology major who just recently endured the indignity of his first B-plus grade — still has a seven-page paper due for his bioethics class.
“You’re definitely not given much slack as a student-athlete, holding up that student part of the deal,” Matt Townsend mentioned, on his way to study for his oratory in statecraft class.
Harvard vs. Yale. That usually speaks to November and a football game. The Game. Or which place can claim the most Nobel Prize winners. But not this week. This week is about basketball, and two ancient and modern rivals deciding who goes to the NCAA tournament.
The Ivy League is alone in having no conference tournament, letting regular season standings decide the golden ticket for March. The 14-Game Tournament, they call it. Here we are at Game No. 13, and both teams are together at the top at 10-2, and meet Friday night at Harvard. To the winner, goes the inside track to the big dance floor, and a chance to clinch with a win Saturday against Brown (Harvard) or Dartmouth (Yale).
Harvard gave us Natalie Portman and Tommy Lee Jones and Conan O’Brien. Yale gave us Paul Newman and Jodie Foster and Meryl Streep.
Harvard gave us Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Yale gave us Samuel Morse and the telegraph.
More to the issue this week: Harvard is 20-6, and first in the Ivy League in scoring defense. Yale is 21-8, and first in the Ivy League in scoring offense.
Yale leads this series 114-75. But Harvard won their first meeting this season 52-50. Harvard is 60-4 at home since the start of the 2010-11 season. But Yale has won 12 road games this season — including at Connecticut.
Three years ago, Harvard had not been to the NCAA tournament since 1945. Now, the Crimson seek to become the first Ivy League team in more than two decades to get there four consecutive seasons. For the seniors, it’s a last chance to add to the legacy.
“To be honest, I can’t even describe the feeling that I would have,” Moundou-Missi said. “To be able to leave your mark, and make an impact one last time.”
Yale has not been to the NCAA tournament since 1962, when a Harvard man named Kennedy was in the White House. But these seniors have won 73 games, the most for any Bulldog class since 1908. For them, it’s a last chance to end a half-century dry spell.
“The past four years I’ve looked up, and in the back corner of the gymnasium is a banner with all the postseasons, and under NCAA Tournament, it says 1962,” Townsend said. “To get that 2015 up there would obviously be a tremendous thing.”
This is Harvard and this is Yale. The pro scouts will not be flooding into Lavietes Pavilion Friday night — Harvard’s Jeremy Lin is the lone Ivy Leaguer on an NBA roster — but rather this game will be played by students with other plans for the future.
Take Moundou-Missi, team captain. His passion is numbers — in high school, he won a national math contest — and he hopes to one day take what he has learned to help Africa.
Back in Cameroon, both his father and mother once played for the national team. But as far as seeing their son play the sport for Harvard …
“Never. My dad came to an AAU game when I was in high school,” he said. And they saw him on TV. Once. But should the Crimson get to the NCAA tournament, might they find a way to watch from afar?
“Possibly. I really hope they do. It’d be a chance to make them proud,” he said. “It would have meant the world to me if they were present this weekend (Saturday’s Brown game is Harvard’s senior night). They won’t be, but I’ll be thinking of them a lot.”
Take Townsend. Him and his 3.98 grade point average, sullied only by that dastardly B-plus last fall in genetics. “It would have been nice to keep the streak going,” he said, “but at the end of the day, it’s not that important to me.”
What is important to him is one day working on the problems of obesity and diabetes and policies to combat them — after two years at Oxford, and medical school.
“When I’m done with school, when I’m 45 years old or whatever, I definitely hope to make a difference,” he said.
Townsend missed two early games this season to take his Rhodes Scholar interviews, then came back to go 5-for-5 his next start. He has also been named Academic All-American of the Year for Division I basketball. When he hasn’t been acing finals, he’s been shooting 53 percent.
“A remarkably special year,” he called it. “Also kind of a blur, to be honest. It feels like I’m just going out and doing the same things; just the stars are kind of aligned thus year, which is a great feeling to have. Hopefully, at the end of this weekend, I can say the stars are aligned one more time.”
His grandfather and two uncles were Harvard athletes. “I still tease my grandma for sometimes wearing crimson to my games,” he said. “But I think pretty much everyone else in my family is a devoted Bulldog at this point.”
One other question. What gets to the nerves faster, shooting late free throws in a close game or a Rhodes Scholar interview?
“Definitely the Rhodes committee,” he said. “I’ve taken a million free throws in my life, but only one interview in front of eight world leaders.”
This is a little different than the basketball bluebloods. Brandon Sherrod, Yale’s fourth leading scorer in 2014, skipped this season to tour the world with a renowned a cappella singing group.
This is Harvard, this is Yale.
But Friday night, it might as well be Kentucky vs. Duke.