Men's Basketball: Inconsistent Offense Hurts Title Chances

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Heading into the weekend, the Crimson looked to be on a roll. They had won 11 of their last 14 games, with the three losses coming to 2012 tournament teams—Memphis, St. Mary’s, and Connecticut. All three games were on the road, and in each Harvard was in the game late into the second half.

The Crimson was 4-0 in the Ivy League, holding on by the skin of its teeth, but still displaying that “clutch” factor at the end of games. Leads shrank and Lavietes Pavillion grew restless, but Harvard always seemed to hang on. Last Friday’s game at Cornell was more of the same—the Crimson led by as much as 21, but didn’t score for the final 5:42 and won by just two points.

And then came Columbia.

The Lions came out on Sunday and blitzed Harvard. Guard Steve Frankowski scored 27 points—20 coming in the first half—and Columbia shot a blistering 51 percent from the field and 53 percent from behind the arc. The lions beat the Crimson on the glass (four more offensive rebounds, eight more overall), played better team ball (18 assists to six), and took better care of the ball (three fewer turnovers). The result: a 15-point victory that Harvard fans should have seen coming.

Getting away by the skin of your teeth time after time is not a viable strategy for long-term success. In Harvard’s first five Ivy League games, it was twice down double-digits late before waking up just in time (Dartmouth on the road and again at home), and thrice nearly blew late double-digit leads with poor free throw shooting down the stretch (Brown, Cornell, Yale). Down the stretch, those teams revealed Harvard’s vulnerability and showed the Ivy League race to be wide open.

The Crimson offense consists of four roving perimeter players with a big man rotating in the middle and establishing good post position. The strategy is dependent on Harvard’s lights-out shooters. The team shoots a combined 41 percent from three and guards Wesley Saunders and Siyani Chambers both shoot better than 46 percent from that range. But when the jump shots aren’t falling, the Crimson struggles to put points on the board.

In the two teams’ second meeting, Dartmouth employed an aggressive man-to-man defense against Harvard and contained sharpshooter Laurent Rivard, who shot just one for seven from three on the day. The entire team made a combined five of 21 shots from distance.

The way to break man-to-man defense is with offensive players who can take their men off the dribble and get to the middle. The Crimson has two guards who do so consistently—Chambers and Saunders. However, when either one of the two is out, the team struggles to create offense and often ends possessions with ill-advised threes.

Chambers’ worrying foul tendency amplifies this problem. He picked up four in the second Dartmouth game and would have fouled out late if not for an overturned call. Against Brown, his four early fouls limited him to 28 minutes and the offense struggled without him. Against Memphis, Chambers’ fifth foul coincided with the Tigers’ 12-2 run to finish the game.

With Harvard boasting a cushy two-game lead against the non-Princeton Ancient Eight field, it is easy to look at the schedule as “the two Princeton games and everything else”. After all, with the Tigers only a half-game back of the Crimson, Harvard likely needs to defeat Princeton at least once.

However, three games stand out on the schedule besides those played against the Tigers. Friday’s game against Penn looms as a classic trap game the day before the highly anticipated matchup with a hated rival.

The week after, road games at Brown and Yale—teams whom Harvard was already lucky to escape from once—may very well decide the Ivy League outcome. And then there’s the trip to Jadwin, where Princeton lost Saturday for the first time in three years.

Harvard has not yet played a 40-minute game of good basketball against an Ivy League team. The Crimson is 4-6 on the road with four Ivy League road games still to be played. However, the team has two great opportunities to take control of the Ivy League this weekend. But should it neglect to capitalize, Harvard might find itself looking up in the standings for the rest of the year.

—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at davidfreed@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @CrimsonDPFreed.

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