SPOKANE, Wash.—On Saturday night (8:40 EST, TNT), the Harvard men’s basketball team will take on the Michigan State Spartans in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. In part II of his two-part preview, staff writer David Freed looks at the individual matchups of the competing squads.
Point Guard: Siyani Chambers v. Keith Appling
The matchup here is youth versus experience. The Crimson sophomore, described by Izzo as “one tough cookie” on Wednesday, carried himself well against the tough Bearcat press, as Harvard had just four turnovers in the second half with Chambers playing nearly every minute. Chambers is fearless, even to the point of disregard. Sometimes that results in barreling at full speed towards a waiting Justin Jackson, only to see his layup swallowed whole by the Bearcat center. Other times it results in being able to shut out his 1-of-9 shooting performance in the contest’s first 38 minutes to nail a game-clinching jumper from the free-throw line.
Such is confidence, which Appling also has in spades. The senior guard, who averages 12 points and 4.7 assists per game for Izzo’s squad, will be motivated to avoid being the first player to graduate under Izzo without going to the Final Four. Like Bearcat point guard Ge’Lawn Guyn, Appling is long and rangy, and will use his length to contain the smaller Chambers all night.
Shooting Guard: Wesley Saunders v. Gary Harris
Despite his position as the Crimson’s leading scorer, Saunders has had a relatively quiet second half to his season. After scoring in double figures in each of the team’s first 29 games last year, Saunders had 12 or less in six consecutive games late in the 2013-2014 Ivy League season. No longer the offense’s focal point and last resort, he takes fewer shots per game, but has been less effective this year—registering just a 46 percent field goal percentage.
Harris has likewise seen a drop in efficiency, only it has corresponded with a strong increase in usage. He was a prohibitive first-round pick after his freshman season but returned to lead a loaded Spartan squad. He averaged 17 points per game, but shot just 35 percent from three after shooting 41 percent the year before. However, he remains a rangy defender whom Izzo can rely on to shut down opposing perimeter weapons.
Harvard will need the assertive Saunders early and often in Saturday’s matchup. The junior knocked down key shots against the Bearcats, but did the majority of his work on the defensive end guarding Cincinnati co-captain Sean Kilpatrick. He must succeed on both sides if he and his team are to emerge victorious.
Small Forward: Laurent Rivard v. Denzel Valentine
Although Rivard is primarily known for his shooting, against Valentine it will be crucial that he be able to rebound the ball as well. The co-captain pulled down five rebounds against the physical Bearcats, including a couple key late-game boards in traffic to seal the win for the Crimson. Valentine (6’5”, 225 pounds) is nearly identical in size to Rivard (6’5”, 215) but could not play more differently.
Although Valentine shoots 36.5 percent from deep, he operates mostly as a slasher who does a little bit of everything for Izzo’s team. The Spartan forward dishes out nearly four assists a game, second-best on the team, and pulls down almost six rebounds from the small forward position. Rivard shoots the ball almost exclusively from three and is not relied on to be a playmaker, only a steady ball handler, in the Crimson offense. His ability to prevent Valentine from getting to the rim and his success crashing the boards will be almost as crucial as his three-point stroke in this one, however.
Power Forward: Steve Moundou-Missi v. Branden Dawson
Both Moundou-Missi and Dawson are tough, underrated post players that lead their teams in rebounding while shooting better than 50 percent from the floor. Moundou-Missi is the most reliable post presence Harvard has and dunks everything in sight. He will try to contain the versatile Dawson on the other side, while making sure to box out the aggressive Spartan on the glass.
As a group, the Spartans pound both the offensive and defensive boards, and it will be crucial for Moundou-Missi—often the only player Amaker leaves behind to hit the offensive glass—to post double-digit rebounds on Saturday. Delaware shot well against Michigan State but was dominated, 42-24, on the glass—a fate Harvard will look to avoid.
Center: Kyle Casey v. Adreian Payne