Tourney Hopes Should Be Tempered

KessleMania

Four weeks after the Harvard men’s basketball team’s loss to Vanderbilt in its NCAA tournament opener, many Crimson fans are already looking ahead to Harvard’s follow-up performance this coming March.

With Crimson coach Tommy Amaker still at the helm and another solid crop of recruits coming in, Harvard should coast to its second straight NCAA tournament berth, right? Well, not exactly.

Here are three reasons why Crimson fans should hold off on booking hotel reservations for the 2013 NCAA tournament:

1. THE LOSSES OF OLIVER MCNALLY AND KEITH WRIGHT

Oliver McNally put up modest numbers as a senior (7.3 ppg, 3.1 apg) but the senior’s impact is not something that can be easily quantified. Harvard’s unquestioned vocal leader for the past two seasons, McNally also played an important role on the Crimson’s offense as its second point guard. As a senior, McNally finished second in the Ivy League in assist-turnover ratio and was a reliable ball handler and free-throw shooter in late-game situations. With freshman point guard Corbin Miller also leaving the Crimson for his mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Harvard will need another ball handler to emerge to aid junior point guard Brandyn Curry.

Keith Wright’s numbers were down this past season compared to his junior campaign (10.7 ppg and 8.1 rpg versus 14.8 and 6.3), but the forward’s importance to the Crimson remained paramount. As Amaker often remarked over the past two seasons, Harvard has been a team that likes to play inside-out. On offense, the Crimson looked to dump the ball into the paint and let Wright either go to work or kick it out to one of Harvard’s shooters. So even when the 6’8” forward wasn’t putting up big numbers, he remained the focal point of the team’s offense. It goes without saying, but it was Wright’s ability to score with his back to the basket that made the Crimson’s offense functional.

With Wright gone, Harvard will not only miss his 10.7 points per game, but it will also miss its only legitimate low-post, back-to-the-basket threat. So unless freshman Steve Moundou-Missi or one of the Crimson’s newcomers emerges to fill that role, Harvard will likely need to adjust its offense, something easier said than done.

That being said, the Crimson has had success altering its offensive strategy in the recent past. After the graduation of Jeremy Lin ’10, Harvard slowed down its offense (the Crimson averaged 68.8 possessions per 40 minutes during the 2009-10 season versus 64.4 possessions per 40 minutes during the 2010-11 campaign), but the Crimson’s efficiency barely took a dip. It remains to be seen whether another seamless transition will take place this time around.

2. THE DEPTH OF THE IVY LEAGUE

If there’s one thing that Harvard fans should have learned this past season, it’s that the Ivy League is no cakewalk. Even with the Ivy League’s most talented roster, the Crimson struggled to come away with wins in conference play, falling to Penn and Princeton and besting Cornell and Columbia by just four and five points, respectively.

With All-Ivy honorable mention Johnathan Gray and 2012 Ivy League Rookie of the Year Shonn Miller returning, Cornell will pose a threat, as will Brown, which returns second-team All-Ivy guard Sean McGonagill and former All-Ivy honorable mention Tucker Halpern.

As the Crimson saw this past season, just a pair of Ivy slip-ups could put the team’s NCAA tournament chances in serious jeopardy.

3. PRINCETON

Just like Will Ferrell’s character in “The Spy Who Shagged Me,” Princeton just never seems to die. Even after graduating Kareem Maddox—the Ivy League’s best defender—and Dan Mavraides—the guard with a sweet jumper who Harvard fans loved to hate—in 2011, the Tigers still managed to finish 10-4 in the Ivy League and to knock off the Crimson at Jadwin Gymnasium for the 23rd straight season.

And with Ivy League Player of the Year frontrunner Ian Hummer returning, Princeton is in a great position to not only extend that streak to 24 but also to pick up its 27th Ancient Eight crown.

The Tigers will need to replace the scoring of senior shooting guard Doug Davis and the minutes of senior forward Patrick Saunders, but, compared to Penn and Harvard, Princeton loses significantly less.

That’s scary news for the Quakers and Crimson, both of whom fell to the third-place Tigers this past season. Until Harvard can prove it can best Princeton on the road, Crimson fans shouldn’t pencil their team into the bracket quite yet.

—Staff writer Martin Kessler can be reached at martin.kessler@college.harvard.edu

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