With Harvard’s tournament fate decided—the Crimson will head to Salt Lake City to take on the University of New Mexico Lobos (Thursday, 9:50 ET)—David Freed profiles the matchup from every angle.
According to most common metrics, Harvard may be one of the unluckiest teams in the country. With all due respect to the Libertys and Florida Gulf Coasts of the world, looking around the draw, it would be easy for the Crimson to hang its heads. New Mexico is ranked second in the RPI, indicative of a dramatic underseeding. The Lobos won both the regular season and conference tournament of the Mountain West, a tough conference arguably better than the Big 12 and Pac 12 that sent five teams to the tournament. Fellow three seed Marquette won neither its conference’s regular season title outright nor its conference tournament and, according to Ken Pomeroy, is ranked about three or four seeds to high. But a number of silver linings exist for the Crimson. Digging deeper into the matchup, the numbers show that New Mexico is, in fact, a fairly decent draw for Harvard.
The Crimson and the Lobos played only one common opponent on the year: The University of Connecticut. Banned from postseason play this year, the Huskies are a formidable opponent who knocked off Syracuse and Michigan State during the year. The UConn starting backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatwright has an NBA future. The Huskies defeated the Crimson, 57-49, at Gampel Pavilion in mid-November but lost to the Lobos, 60-66, a pair of weeks earlier at a neutral location.
What can we infer from this? Well, the margins of victory show both games to be close, but New Mexico has the clear advantage. With inside post play from Alex Kirk (11.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 1.8 bpg), the Lobos have a stronger deterrent inside to prevent opposing guards from crashing the lane. Until the late-season emergence of Kenyatta Smith, the Crimson lacked such an enforcer. Both teams outrebounded the Huskies, but the Crimson gave up 31 points to the UConn front line, including 23 to forward DeAndre Daniels. By contrast, the Lobos gave up only 9 points to Daniels and 15 total to the front line. The Crimson also allowed the Huskies to shoot 52 percent from the field, while the Lobos held the Huskies to 43 percent shooting. But this is likely a function of the Lobos’ strong interior defense, as the UConn backcourt shot only 9-of-24 (37.5 percent) against the Crimson.
Strength of Schedule/Notable Wins:
This category clearly tilts in favor of the Lobos, whose conference is one of the best in America and features tournament teams Boise State, UNLV, Colorado State, and San Diego State. While the Crimson’s toughest conference opponent—Princeton—ranks just 116 overall according to the BPI (a metric adjusting a team’s winning percentage based on the teams it plays and its winning percentages as well as margins of victory), the Mountain West features five teams ranked in the BPI’s top 45.
Outside of conference, the Crimson played quite a few teams but came away with few notable wins. Although the team defeated the California Golden Bears, a 12 seed in the tournament, 67-62, it could not close down the stretch against St. Mary’s (11 seed, 70-69) and Memphis (six seed, 60-50). New Mexico similarly has few marquee wins outside of conference, taking down UConn and Cincinnati (ranked eighth in the county at the time, the Bearcats are now a 10 seed in the tournament). Notably, the Lobos lost to Saint Louis (4 seed, 60-46) and South Dakota State (13 seed, 70-65) in a three-game stretch after winning its first twelve games.
Although the RPI loves the Lobos, placing it second in the country, the BPI has it slightly lower at ninth. It ranks its strength of schedule eighth in the country, ahead of notable teams like Duke, Indiana, and Louisville. Ken Pomeroy is even less of a fan of the Lobos, ranking them just 17th in his rankings, right behind Creighton and St. Louis. Pomeroy ranks the Lobos’ defensive efficiency as 11th in the country, while their offense checks in as just the 45th best.
But the Lobos outrank Harvard in every category. The Crimson rank just 83rd and 147th in offense and defense, respectively. While the Lobos have 10 wins against the BPI top 50, the Crimson is 0-3 and just 3-7 against the top 150 (the Lobos are 24-5 by comparison).
Also of note is that the Lobos get 25 percent of their points off of free throws, a good sign for the Crimson. Officials tend to call the NCAA tournament looser than most games, which bodes well for Harvard. Similarly, Harvard’s worst weakness—rebounding—will be mitigated some by the New Mexico lineup. The Crimson gives up nearly ten offensive rebounds a game and is 334th in the country in rebounding. The Lobos are only 142nd overall in rebounding—good but not great.
But the team starts three players listed as 6'7" or taller, including the seven-footer, Kirk. Another stat that bodes well for the Crimson is that the Lobos are 240th in the nation in three-point percentage defense, while Harvard is seventh nationally in shooting from long distance. But New Mexico is 14th in the nation in two-point defense, so the Crimson will have to win this game behind the arc.
The Crimson does not match up well with the Lobos, but as a 14 seed Harvard is not in a place to complain about its matchup. The three-point defense and free-throw tendencies of New Mexico stand out as areas in which the Crimson will have to take advantage to win. Harvard will struggle against the large New Mexico front line and it will require an uncharacteristic performance from the steady and fundamentally sound Lobos to win. The odds are not tilted in Harvard’s favor, but—as always—three-point shooting may prove to be the Crimson’s saving grace.