They might generally have more bounce in California, but the Harvard men's basketball team is hoping that will not be the case with its two opponents this week when it travels to the Golden State to face Cal and St. Mary's.
The Crimson (6-4) will face the Pac-12's Golden Bears on Dec. 29 and the WAC's Gaels—one of the few mid-majors to finish last season ranked in the Top 25 by the USA Today Coaches Poll—two days later in a pair of challenging contests as it winds down its non-conference schedule.
Harvard is coming off a 72-65 home win against Holy Cross in which it nearly blew a double-digit second-half lead. According to co-captain Christian Webster, the Crimson will need to improve on that performance in order to compete on the West Coast.
"Those [will be] two tough games," Webster said. "We've got a lot of work to do to be ready for those two teams."
The Golden Bears (8-3), though, have struggled against their toughest opponents this season. Over a three game stretch in early December, they got blown out by Wisconsin, lost by one to then-No. 21 UNLV, and lost by 10 to then-No. 16 Creighton. Cal's one win over a BCS-conference opponent thus far came on Nov. 23, when it topped Georgia Tech at home, 68-57. Two days later, the Yellow Jackets responded with a nine-point victory over St. Mary’s.
Cal is led by junior guard Allen Crabbe, a former elite recruit who ranks in the top 15 nationally with 20.4 points per game and is considered a potential first-round NBA draft prospect.
Redshirt junior Justin Cobbs has contributed 16.5 points per contest for the Golden Bears this season, while 6‘9” sophomore David Kravish averages 7.6 rebounds and will pose a tough matchup inside for sophomore Jonah Travis and the rest of the Crimson bigs.
Harvard has had a large amount of success against Pac-12 opponents of late, defeating Utah by 28 in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis last season and besting Colorado by 16 in 2010. But Crimson coach Tommy Amaker says that winning a third straight against the conference will be no easy task.
"It's a big challenge for us," he said of Harvard’s upcoming matchups. "We knew that scheduling these games, and we're [just] hopeful for a chance if we can go out and play well."
Despite their strong record, the Gaels (8-3) have yet to beat a BCS-conference opponent. But it will not be easy for the Crimson to keep pace with St. Mary’s offensively, as St. Mary's ranks in the top 15 nationally in both points per game (80.8) and field goal percentage (.509). Harvard, in contrast, is 166th and 43rd in the country in those two categories, respectively.
Australian point guard Matthew Dellavedova (18.5 points per game, 6.1 assists per game) will pose a major test for Crimson rookie point guard Siyani Chambers. But Webster believes his teammate will be up to the New Year's Eve challenge, which will be televised nationally on ESPN2.
"Siyani has been tremendous [this season]," the senior said. "He's really confident. He has a lot of poise for a young guy, and you don't see that often."
Junior guard Stephen Holt contributes 10.9 points per contest for St. Mary’s, which does not have anyone averaging over 5.7 rebounds per game—sophomore forward Brad Waldow holds his team’s top mark in the category. That makes the Gaels a potentially good matchup for the Crimson, which starts four perimeter players and has had trouble defensively against bigger teams this year.
"Our post defense is pretty lacking right now," Webster said. "We've got to get better at that.... Teams are trying to take advantage of our interior."
Harvard has never faced St. Mary’s, while it is 0-2 all-time against Cal—the most recent matchup being a 69-54 Crimson loss in 2001.
Like Harvard, both of the Crimson’s opponents this week appeared in the NCAA tournament last season, with Cal losing in its first-round playoff game to South Florida and St. Mary’s losing its second-round matchup against Purdue.
And according to Amaker, even if his team does not come away with two wins, the experience of playing a pair of strong squads will be beneficial as the schedule turns towards the conference season.
"Our goal and feeling right now is to maintain our identity, get back here, get to work, and see if we can feel good about how we played on the West Coast," Amaker said. "You can still take steps forwards even though you might not win basketball games, so we're hopeful that we can still maintain our momentum going forward."
—Staff writer Scott A. Sherman can be reached at email@example.com.