SPOKANE, Wash.— The first comments from the Michigan State players at Friday’s media conference were respectful of the Harvard men’s basketball team, as if it were any other Big Ten or nonconference opponent.
“They’re a disciplined team,” sophomore guard Gary Harris said.
“They really don’t make a lot of mistakes, and they play together,” junior forward Branden Dawson said.
But when pressed whether they recognized any of the members of Harvard’s roster, the gap between the two programs became a little more evident. Outside of sophomore point guard Siyani Chambers, whose name Harris offered as playing in the same AAU circuit, the assembled Spartans could not name another one of the Crimson’s players.
Though they will undoubtedly learn them in the coming hours, the relative anonymity of Harvard’s roster reflects the size of the task in front of it. In its third-round NCAA Tournament matchup against Michigan State, the Crimson will be competing against one of college basketball’s best teams and a lineup full of superstars.
“They’re outstanding,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “Let’s not kid ourselves. They’re incredibly balanced. I think that they’re playing their best right now. I think they’re in an incredible rhythm with their ball club.”
For the first half of the season, Michigan State looked like a probable No. 1 seed and a national championship contender, starting the season 18-1 and holding the No. 1 ranking in both the AP and Coaches Polls for three weeks. But a series of significant injuries to four of the team’s five starters derailed the Spartans’ momentum and sent them into a 5-7 spin that knocked them down to No. 22 in the country.
After regaining its now-healthy starters for the final two weeks of the year, Michigan State displayed some of its early season form in dispatching Northwestern, Wisconsin, and rival Michigan on three straight days to earn the Big Ten Tournament Championship. Following the release of the brackets last Sunday, the Spartans became a popular pick to win it all, including in the bracket of Obama.
The Spartans’ potent starting lineup boasts two likely first-round NBA selections in Harris and senior forward Adreian Payne. Harris will present a similar challenge to that of Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick, a big two-guard with the ability to both shoot and get to the rim. As was the case against the Bearcats, the primary defensive responsibility for containing Harris will likely fall to junior wing Wesley Saunders, who has been effective in limiting the offense of the opposition’s best perimeter player all season.
The Crimson will have no obvious defensive strategy for guarding the 6’10”, 245-lb Payne, who scored a career-high 41 points in his team’s second-round victory over Delaware on Thursday, exhibiting each of the traits that make him such a formidable offensive threat. In one stretch of four possessions in the first half, Payne hit two three pointers, converted an and-one in the post with his off hand, and capped his personal 12-0 run with another three. And unlike against Cincinnati’s Justin Jackson, fouling Payne when he gets near the rim is not a productive strategy either—Payne went a perfect 17-of-17 from the line against Delaware.
“Their team is incredibly well balanced, and I think Payne is one of the bigger keys,” Amaker said. “[He can] score in the paint with his back to the basket, he can face up and knock down threes…and he’s also a big man that rebounds and blocks shots.”
If the Crimson manages to contain Harris and Payne, it still has to contend with McDonald’s All-American Keith Appling, the athletic Dawson, and playmaking guard Denzel Valentine, as well as the Spartans’ options off the bench.
Yet the Harvard players that took the stage prior to Michigan State did not look like the wide-eyed group that faced a second round of media obligations after their win over New Mexico a season ago. If they were intimidated by the challenge ahead of them, they gave no indication of it.
“I think that any team we match up against, we just try to play our game,” Saunders said. “We don’t really worry too much about what they do…. We just try to stick to our standards and principles, and do the things that have gotten us to this point.”
In last year’s third-round loss against another national power, Arizona, the Crimson looked overwhelmed, falling behind, 17-2, in the first seven minutes of the opening half. The team admitted that the glow of the previous round’s upset victory lasted longer than was healthy.
“Last year, we got emotionally drunk after that first win,” junior forward Steve Moundou-Missi said. “We kind of forgot the reason why we were there, and I think this year we are a lot more focused. I think we’re a lot more mature than we were last year.”
“We didn’t turn the page quickly enough,” co-captain Laurent Rivard added. “We made sure to do it differently this year.”
And though the Spartans have designs on making a deep run in this year’s tournament, Harvard has no intention of simply making way for them—it has milestones of its own to achieve.
“Absolutely our goal is to make more history,” co-captain Brandyn Curry said. “Our goal is every year to get better…from going to the CIT to the NIT to the NCAA to winning a game. We’re getting better and better slowly, so, obviously, the next step is we have to win two games in the NCAA Tournament.”
—Staff writer Andrew R. Mooney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.