Last year, Harvard (1-0) dropped a tight defensive battle to the Crusaders (1-1), losing 65-57. Holy Cross went on to win the Patriot League and took top-seeded Kansas to the wire in the NCAA Tournament.
Harvard coach Frank Sullivan expects another low-scoring affair this time around—last year, the teams combined for a mere 39 points in the first half.
“This game will be a little bit slower [than the Fairfield game],” Sullivan said.
The Crimson will need to contend with a Holy Cross half-court offense that is similar to those run by NBA teams. To do so, Harvard will utilize the same combination of zone and man-to-man defense which slowed the Crusaders last year.
Sullivan has devoted the last few days of practice to play recognition drills, designed to prepare the squad for the set plays Holy Cross is sure to run.
The Crimson will also need to contend with the Crusaders’ tremendous size advantage.
“They’re big,” said senior guard Pat Harvey. “That’s their main edge on us. They’re a lot of big bodies.”
To offset height disparity, Harvey said Harvard’s guards will sag into the paint to double-team the Holy Cross big men.
That defensive game plan will suffer if senior guard Elliott Prasse-Freeman finds himself on the bench in foul trouble as often as he did against Fairfield.
Though his last-second shot lifted Harvard to victory on Friday, Prasse-Freeman was limited to 19 minutes of total playing time as a result of his poor defense.
“He’s got to stay out of foul trouble,” Sullivan said. “[To do that] you lean on his experience.”
If either of the guards gets into foul trouble, look for sophomore Jason Norman to be the first man off the bench. Norman had four points in 20 minutes against Fairfield.
Prasse-Freeman’s foul woes Friday also upset the Crimson’s offensive game plan, undermining other players’ scoring efforts. The senior guard is Harvard’s best at distributing the ball, leading the team with just over five assists per game last season. With him out of the picture, the offensive attack takes a giant step backwards.
Since Harvard has no proven backup point guard, Harvey was forced to take over the majority of the ball-handling duties against Fairfield, driving down his offensive numbers. Harvey had fewer looks at the basket running up the point, and wound up scoring a mere seven points.
And since tonight’s game already figures to be short on points, Harvard cannot afford to have Harvey playing out of position and putting up mediocre numbers.
Harvey and Prasse-Freeman put up 34 of the team’s 57 points against the Crusaders last year, and if the Crimson wants to alter the result this time around, the backcourt duo will need to be firing on all cylinders.
But the pair cannot win the game alone.
Holy Cross will focus on shutting down Harvey, and if the Crimson cannot find a secondary outlet, the squad has little hope of winning.
Captain and forward Brady Merchant turned in a stellar performance against Fairfield and may provide this much-needed second offensive option.
His 18 points kept the Crimson in the game during Prasse-Freeman’s time on the bench.
“It was certainly encouraging to see him, in his first extended minutes, having the type of minutes he had,” Sullivan said. “He really rose to the occasion.”
Senior center Brian Sigafoos has recovered fully from a foot injury suffered last season and turned in a strong effort against Fairfield.
“He stayed out of foul trouble,” Sullivan said. “He rebounded well and passed out of the post well.”
Sigafoos provided a viable low-post scoring threat, converting on seven of his nine field goal attempts.
He and senior Sam Winter, who dropped in 11 of his own, should help to spread the floor against a tough Holy Cross defense.
“It’s a very experienced line-up,” Sullivan said. “Exploitation [of any one player] is kind of hard. They’ve all had a bit of success against us.”
The Crusaders will invade Lavietes Pavilion tonight at 7 p.m.