With Selection Sunday just around the corner, the Harvard men’s basketball team will know who it will be matched up with in the round of 64 of the NCAA tournament soon enough. But sometimes speculation is more fun than reality, so we at The Back Page decided to look at what we consider to be the Crimson’s potential opponents in the NCAA tournament and to try and speculate what chance—if any—Harvard will have at pulling the upset. Here, we take a look at the No. 8 Michigan State Spartans from the Big Ten.
Record: 25-7 (13-5 Big Ten)
Best Wins: No. 6/7 Kansas, No. 9/10 Ohio State, No. 6/8 Michigan.
Worst Loss: vs. Connecticut (in Germany)
Ken Pomeroy Ranking: 10
Projected Seed (from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi): 3
Star Players: Keith Appling (Sr. Guard) 13.5 ppg, 3.6 apg, Gary Harris (Fr. Guard) 13.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg, Adreian Payne (Jr. Forward) 10.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg
In his most recent projection, ESPN’s bracket man Joe Lunardi has Harvard slated to play three-seeded Michigan State in Auburn Hills, Mich. Of all the opponents in all the locations, this might be the worst possible combination for the Crimson.
Depending on whom you consult, the Spartans may have played the toughest schedule in the country in 2012-13 and showed up for just about every game; their only loss to a team rated outside the Top 25 on the day of the game was to Miami (Fla.), which now sits at No. 9/10 in the polls. A reflection of its self-described “blue-collar” head coach Tom Izzo, Michigan State boasts one of the country’s stingiest defenses, allowing just 87 points per 100 possessions, good for seventh-best nationwide. The Spartans’ offense isn’t too shabby either, at 24th in the country in offensive efficiency with 112.5 points per 100 possessions.
For Harvard, matching up with the Spartans is a nightmare at every position, starting at point guard, where Crimson freshman Siyani Chambers would have to check one of the Big Ten’s best guards in junior Keith Appling. At 6’1” and 190 pounds, Appling has 20 pounds and a couple inches on Chambers, not to mention an advantage in quickness. Appling would be able to get into the lane at will, breaking down the Harvard defense and laying the ball off to the Spartans’ big men.
Ah, the big men—this is where the Crimson’s small frontcourt would be drastically exposed. Michigan State’s two starting forwards are probably the strongest, most rugged players Harvard would have seen all season. Senior forward Derrick Nix weighs in at 270 pounds, and that’s after losing about 40 pounds since his freshman season. Nix combines his prodigious girth with a soft left-handed touch in the lane and some deft post moves that belie his bulk. His counterpart in the paint, junior forward Adreian Payne, is considered an NBA first-round draft prospect for his freakish athleticism and improving outside touch, shooting 45.2 percent from three-point range.
Harvard coach Tommy Amaker has generally played only one forward at a time this year, but he simply couldn’t afford to do so against these two, likely matching up sophomore forward Steve Moundou-Missi on Nix and his classmate Kenyatta Smith on Payne. Both Smith and Moundou-Missi would have to be on the court for most of the game, something they’re not used to, if the Crimson want to prevent the Spartans from getting easy buckets down low.
And easy buckets are their specialty. Michigan State’s aforementioned offensive efficiency comes despite attempting 14.6 three-pointers per game, 309th in Division I. Michigan State thrives off the slashing ability of Appling and 6’4” freshman guard Gary Harris, who then distribute the ball to be finished at the rim by Nix, Payne, and explosive 6’6” wing Branden Dawson.
At every position, the Spartans are bigger and more athletic than Harvard. They play a conservative offensive style, not taking a lot of risks and looking for high-percentage shot attempts. And they’ll likely be playing in front of a quasi-home crowd in Auburn Hills, at the home of the Detroit Pistons. If the Crimson draws Michigan State on Sunday, this one could get ugly.