Madness To Ensue as Men's Basketball Waits To Hear Opponent
Since Princeton’s loss to Brown on Saturday clinched Harvard’s bid to the NCAA tournament, the Crimson hasn’t had much to do but practice and dream, waiting for its first-round opponent and location to be announced this Sunday.
ESPN’s resident bracket wizard, Joe Lunardi, currently projects Harvard as a 14-seed, and unless some wacky things happen in the mid-major conference tournaments this week, its seed won’t climb any higher than that. This would match the Crimson up against a 3-seed, which makes an upset a daunting challenge. In the last decade, only three 14-seeds have won their first NCAA tournament game. If Harvard is to pull off the improbable next week, what type of opponent should it look for?
The Crimson’s recent ascendance in the Ivy League has come about not because of some regimented offensive sets or revolutionary playing style, but because Tommy Amaker has recruited excellent talent to Cambridge, specifically in the form of players whose skill sets are not often found in the Ancient Eight. Your average Ivy recruit scores with deadeye shooting, nifty back cuts, or wily post moves; sophomore guard Wesley Saunders’ offensive strategy is “I’m stronger than you,” and it was awfully effective all season.
But Harvard likely won’t have that athletic advantage against one of the top-seeded, big-conference squads with which it will be matched on Sunday. As its last two postseason outings have proven, the types of teams that the Crimson struggles to compete with are those that play a fast style with athletes superior to its own. The size and athleticism of Oklahoma State in 2011 and Vanderbilt in 2012 flustered Harvard, particularly Ivy Player of the Year Keith Wright, who found it quite difficult to bully the Commodores’ Festus Ezeli, a first-round pick in that year’s NBA Draft, in the same way that he did the big men of the Ivy League.
Offering more hope is the Crimson’s performance against non-Ivy tournament teams this season. Harvard proved it can hang around with athletic teams in hostile environments in losses to Connecticut on Dec. 7 and Memphis on Jan. 19. Despite trailing by as many as 20 points and getting outrebounded on the offensive glass, 16-3, the Crimson managed to grab the lead from the Tigers with seven minutes remaining and was within four with under two minutes to play before ultimately falling, 60-50.
Harvard’s most impressive nonconference win came on a visit to Berkeley to take on Pac-12 opponent California. Led by junior co-captain Laurent Rivard’s 19 points, the Crimson overcame an ugly 36.7 shooting percentage to sneak by the Golden Bears, 67-62. “This don’t make no sense,” Cal guard Allen Crabbe tweeted after the game.
The Crimson’s best chance to extend its Cinderella story this March will come as the result of turning the game into a slow defensive slog, reminiscent of its upset of Florida St. in last season’s Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. Harvard hung with the No. 20 Seminoles through a combination of stingy defense and abominable shooting that resulted in, among other things, a 14-14 halftime score. If you haven’t worked that one out with your therapist yet, I’m sorry for bringing it up.
Whoever it plays, the Crimson won’t win if its opponent brings its best game, so its best chance of success is against a team that has a style of play that exposes it to more risk. This ideal team shoots a lot of threes and doesn’t have the type of overpowering size that would allow it to get easy buckets against Harvard’s small front line. Interestingly enough, this team might just be Amaker’s previous employer, the Michigan Wolverines, currently projected by Lunardi as a three seed—though leading Wooden Award candidate Trey Burke might do some unmentionable things to the Crimson backcourt.
The team Harvard matches up worst with might be the Wolverines’ cross-state rival, the Spartans of Michigan State, who Lunardi currently has the Crimson slated to play in Auburn Hills, Mich. Frenzied home crowd notwithstanding, the Spartans would dominate Harvard athletically at every position, from slick 6’1” point guard Keith Appling to its rugged frontcourt of 270-pound Derrick Nix and 6’10” Adreian Payne, an NBA first-round prospect.
Ultimately, the Crimson’s projected opponent may change quite a bit in the next few days, as the top squads duke it out in their respective conference tournaments. But if Harvard is to advance against whichever team it finds itself matched up against, it will have to do what it hasn’t been afraid to do against other big-time foes in recent seasons: play ugly.
—Staff writer Andrew R. Mooney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mooneyar.