The Keys To Victory for Men's Basketball

Published by David Freed on March 19, 2015 at 6:32PM

As covered earlier this week, the Harvard men’s basketball team (22-7, 11-3 Ivy) is being seen a substantial underdog to its first-round NCAA opponent—the North Carolina Tar Heels (24-11, 11-7 ACC). Below, men’s basketball beat writer David Freed looks at the five things Harvard needs to do to pull off the upset.

1. Control the Pace: In today’s media sessions, the top main topics were the pace of the game and the ability of the Tar Heels to control the boards. UNC likes to get out and run, where its athleticism can overcome opponents and generate early looks in transition. The Tar Heels just 1-5 in games with fewer than 65 possessions, whereas Harvard averages just 63.8 possessions a game. If the Crimson can keep the game slow, minimizing turnovers, they can keep a potent UNC offense in check.

2. Stop Marcus Paige: The heart and soul of the Tar Heels is junior point guard Marcus Paige, the team’s best perimeter scorer. Paige will be checked by a litany of Harvard defenders, likely starting with 6’0” starting point guard Siyani Chambers. Chambers guarded Yale combo guard Javier Duren for many of the final two contests with Yale and has improved vastly as a defender in year three. If he does not excel here, however, Harvard’s chances will fall from slim to none.

3. Hold its Own on the Glass: Against a team that ranked second in Division I in rebounding, it is crucial Harvard be able to keep defensive possessions to one shot. UNC boasts length, depth, and size across its front line, while Harvard often eschews defensive rebounding to send people (read: junior Agunwa Okolie) out in transition. Junior wing Wesley Saunders and co-captain Steve Moundou-Missi are the team’s two best rebounding rotation players and the two keys to the game. On the other side, Harvard will likely eschew rebounding to send extra players back in transition, as stopping the Tar Heel break is a priority for the squad.

4. Bench and Balance: Harvard coach Tommy Amaker is often quoted with these two words, his personal keys to the Harvard offense. Against a deep UNC squad, Harvard will need both its bench to provide solid minutes and support its big three—Chambers, Moundou-Missi, and Saunders—who will not overcome the Tar Heels on their own.

5. Regress To The Mean: In its biggest games of the year, Harvard’s shot has failed it when it needed it most. Two brutal three-point shooting performances against Yale were preceded by brick fests against Virginia and Boston College. Saunders went a combined four-of-26 in the two games, while the Crimson as a team shot just 24.5 percent. While some credit is due to the defenses of the opposing squads, Harvard missed a number of wide-open shots in each contest—against the Cavaliers in particular, the Crimson generated a series of early good looks. If the percentages revert back to the mean, Harvard will defy many of the doubters about its offense.  

—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at david.freed@thecrimson.com.

Men's Basketball Becomes Consistent Presence on Biggest Stages

Published by Andrew Farber on March 18, 2015 at 3:45AM
Television

Eleven of the Harvard men's basketball team's games were broadcast on national television this season.

Most “Crimson Crazies” will tell you that the last time their team played on national television, co-captain Steve Moundou-Missi was jogging back on defense with a face of restrained jubilation after hitting a jumper with 7.2 seconds left to clinch his teams fourth consecutive NCAA tournament berth. While those fans wouldn’t be wrong, they might be a little misguided.

Though ESPN3 did broadcast that 53-51 win over Yale to a national audience, the last time the entire rest of the college basketball world was fixated on the Harvard men’s basketball team (22-7, 11-3 Ivy), the scene was much different. In a December matchup that pitted the Crimson against the undefeated No. 6 Virginia Cavaliers, a sold-out crowd and national audience watched as the Cavaliers toyed with the Crimson, who had been nationally ranked themselves only a couple of weeks prior.

As ESPNU’s Mike Couzens and Dan Dakich began desperately and awkwardly scrambling for anything other than basketball to talk about amidst the 76-27 blowout, one couldn’t help but feel sorry for the Crimson, who failed to reach double digits in the first half. To an outsider, Harvard looked like a lowly Ivy League team that had mistakenly wandered onto the grounds of an almighty ACC, a league home to 12 official NCAA Basketball championships, unable to handle the limelight of such elite competition.

In fact, that same outsider would likely say that Harvard coach Tommy Amaker’s squad will meet a similar fate when it faces off on national television against perennial powerhouse and No. 4 seed North Carolina. Undeniably, there are plenty of similarities between Thursday night’s matchup and Harvard’s embarrassment in Charlottesville, Va. Having to play another top tier ACC opponent is certainly daunting enough, but doing so on TNT with millions of people watching could spell disaster for the Ancient Eight champions.

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Men's Basketball Starters Ranked Among Worst by ESPN Insider

Published by David Freed on March 18, 2015 at 12:06AM

In a post Tuesday night, ESPN Insider Jeff Goodman ranked Harvard junior Agunwa Okolie and sophomore Zena Edosomwan among the 10 worst starters in the NCAA tournament. No other team—including all of the 15 and 16 seeds—had two starters ranked among the worst 10. All in all, Okolie ranked 331rd of 340, with Edosomwan coming in just one spot behind.

Okolie and Edosomwan both had lackluster statistical seasons for the Crimson, averaging a combined 8.4 points and 7.1 rebounds—or roughly the output of Northeastern’s Zach Stahl (8.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg), the 299th ranked player on the list.

The Crimson snuck only one player inside the top-250, senior wing Wesley Saunders. Saunders, who had received some fringe Naismith Award buzz earlier in the year, came in at No. 178 despite averaging 16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three. Ten spots ahead of Saunders was Georgetown freshman forward L.J. Peak, who averaged 7.8 points and 2.4 rebounds on 38 percent shooting from the field.

Harvard co-captains, junior point guard Siyani Chambers and forward Steve Moundou-Missi, came in at No. 252 and No. 264, respectively.

The list was overall very top heavy. Kentucky placed all five starters within the top-66, while Arizona had all five in the top-80. Harvard’s first-round opponent, the North Carolina Tar Heels, had all five starters ranked in the top-100, headlined by junior point guard Marcus Paige, who ranked No. 29. 

—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at david.freed@thecrimson.com.

The Prediction Markets For Men's Basketball's Chances Against North Carolina

Published by David Freed on March 17, 2015 at 3:49AM

With the Ivy League championship in hand, the Harvard men’s basketball team (22-7, 11-3 Ivy) has set its attention squarely on first-round foe North Carolina (24-11, 11-7 Atlantic Coast Conference). Before the Crimson kick off its fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament campaign Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla., The Back Page takes a look at what online prediction markets are saying about the Crimson’s chances.

FiveThirtyEight: The FiveThirtyEight model, which liked the Crimson’s chances a lot in recent years, has given Harvard just a 13 percent chance to advance. This model includes in its analysis a team’s preseason ranking, giving UNC (sixth) and Harvard (25th) a boost. Like most other models, FiveThirtyEight likes the Crimson’s chances if it can get past UNC, giving it nearly a 40 percent chance to beat its third round opponent.

Las Vegas: The most notable online sportsbook, Bovada, opened with Harvard +10.5 and the line has barely moved since it was first set. Lines at other books are similar, ranging from -9.5 to -11 down the Strip. According to Oddsshark.com, early action is favoring UNC—with 69 percent of early bets taking the Tar Heels with the spread and barely any action on the over-under of 133. On the year, Harvard has been a dismal bet, going just 9-14 against the spread (ATS), including losing records both at home and away. North Carolina, by contrast, has been an ATS darling, going 19-15-1 (11-5 on the road) and 7-3 in its last 10, which included upsets of Louisville and Virginia.

TeamRankings/NumberFire: ESPN’s insider account hosts information from the two sites, which both favor Harvard at the initial odds. TeamRankings gives Harvard a 52-percent chance to cover its +10 line and NumberFire is even more bullish, giving the Crimson a 61-percent chance and nabbing the over on the total points as well.

KenPom: Harvard, which ranked among Ken Pomeroy’s top-40 teams in the country before getting demolished in Virginia, has slipped all the way down to No. 78 entering the tournament. It is the second-lowest 13 seed, coming in 15 spots behind Valpariso of the Horizon League, but ranks ahead of 12 seeds Wofford and Wyoming. Of interest to Crimson fans: UNC lost to Pitt, ranked two spots below Harvard, by 13 points earlier this year.

Public Consensus: On Yahoo’s personal bracket site, only seven percent of users have picked Harvard to beat UNC. ESPN’s users are slightly more bullish, with just over 10 percent picking the Crimson (slightly below the 15 percent chance the site’s model gives Harvard). 

—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at david.freed@thecrimson.com.

Does Harvard Have a Chance? Arkansas

Published by Kurt T. Bullard on March 16, 2015 at 6:09PM

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.

Record: 26-7, 13-5 SEC

Best Wins:  #20 SMU, Dayton

Worst Loss:  Clemson, Tennessee

RPI: 17

Ken Pomeroy Ranking: 29

Projected Seed (from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi): 5

Star Players: Bobby Portis (So. Forward) 17.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg; Michael Qualis (Jr. Guard) 15.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg

Harvard should become acquainted with the name Bobby Portis.

The sophomore has been one of the most productive players in the nation this year. He was named to the Wooden Award Late Season Top 20 List. He’s averaged almost 18 points per game and over eight boards per contest, and is projected to go in the first round of the NBA Draft by many experts. 

His partner-in-crime is junior guard Michael Qualis, who also has been a consistent scorer and has cleaned up on the boards. Together, they’ll be a tough duo to stop down low, with heights of 6’11” and 6’6”, respectively. In its late season loss and postseason win against Yale, Harvard lost the battle on the glass. The Crimson’s frontcourt of co-captain Steve Moundou-Missi and sophomore Zena Edosomwan will need to match up well against the Razorback duo.

Arkansas finished in second place in the SEC–a conference that is often maligned for its lack of depth in quality teams behind No. 1 Kentucky. They also made it to the conference championship on Sunday before losing to the Wildcats for the second time on the season.

One knock on Arkansas is that the team plays much better at home than on the road. Bud Walton Arena is one of the toughest places to play in the country, as the Razorbacks went 17-2 in Little Rock this season. The team is only 7-5 on the road, however.

The Razorbacks are 8-4 against the RPI top 50 this season, including a win over No. 20 Southern Methodist. The team has come up short against Tennessee and Clemson, who are ranked 98th and 103rd in the RPI, respectively. Harvard sits tied for No. 53 in the RPI.

—Staff writer Kurt Bullard can be reached at kurtbullard@college.harvard.edu.