The longest NCAA tournament drought in Division I is over, as the Harvard men’s basketball team is finally dancing. Now, the Crimson simply has to find a way to avoid going home early.
In its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1946, twelfth-seeded Harvard (26-4, 12-2 Ivy) will face No. 5 Vanderbilt (24-10, 10-6 SEC) at 4:40 EST tomorrow in Albuquerque, N.M. in the East region’s second round.
The Commodores come into March Madness fresh off making history of their own after sweeping Georgia, Mississippi, and No. 1 Kentucky to win their first SEC tournament championship since 1951. Vanderbilt, then, must avoid a championship hangover in getting ready to face a Crimson squad that spent four more weeks ranked in the Top 25 this season than it did.
“Our challenge is to regain our focus on what lies ahead, not what lies behind us, and get ready for a very good Harvard team,” Commodores coach Kevin Stallings said.
On the whole, it has been an up-and-down season for Vanderbilt, which entered the 2011-12 campaign ranked No. 7 in the country but started just 6-4. But—as was made evident in its 61-54 upset of the Wildcats—the Commodores are loaded with talent.
Vanderbilt will pose a major challenge defensively for the Crimson, especially up front, where 6’11” center Festus Ezeli has a three-inch height advantage over Harvard co-captain Keith Wright. But Ezeli is prone to get into foul trouble—he has accumulated at least four fouls in four of his previous five games—meaning Harvard could look to feed Wright inside in an effort to get Ezeli to the bench.
But even with Ezeli out of the game, Vanderbilt has a number of weapons to turn to. The most dangerous of those is junior guard John Jenkins, who led the SEC with 19.9 points per game this season and shot 44.8 percent from long range.
“I’ve had a chance to peak in on different games Vandy has played this season,” Crimson coach Tommy Amaker said. “They’re a veteran team, a team that can score. [They’re] very athletic.... I knew right away how challenging this matchup would be.”
Senior Jeffrey Taylor will pose another threat to the Crimson. A quick, athletic forward who is averaging 16.4 points per game, Taylor will look to help the Commodores take its NCAA tournament opener, something they have failed to do in each of their last three Big Dance appearances.
Those three losses came at the hands of No. 12 Richmond last season, No. 13 Murray State in 2010, and No. 13 Siena in 2008. In 2012, the Crimson hopes it will be the next double-digit seed to upset the Commodores.
“[Vanderbilt] has been built for an opportunity to make a deep run with their experience, their balance, and their athleticism,” Amaker said. “I think they’re a team that, having come off a few early round losses in the past, will be very motivated, so I’m hopeful we can match those things.”
To do so, Harvard will need Wright and junior forward Kyle Casey to stay out of foul trouble while hoping its best perimeter shooters—sophomore Laurent Rivard, freshman Corbin Miller, and co-captain Oliver McNally—are on early and often. The Commodores shot nearly 40 percent from deep as a team this season, and Harvard could have trouble keeping up offensively if the Commodores are shooting well.
Thus, the Crimson will have to rely on its defense—third in the nation in points per game allowed—to slow Vanderbilt down, and to try to turn the game into a low-possession battle.
“I saw [Harvard] play part of one game, and Florida State couldn’t even come up with a good shot against them,” Stallings said. “So they must be pretty good defensively because last time I checked Florida State’s pretty good.”
The Seminoles, whom the Crimson beat at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November, are also in the East region as the No. 3 seed, behind No. 1 Syracuse and No. 2 Ohio State. But rather than speculating on potential matchups, Harvard is simply taking things one step at a time.
“We have a drive and a motivation to continue to achieve our goals,” Casey said. “We’re going to go in confident and play our game, and stick to who we are, and I think the outcome will speak for itself.”
Another interesting storyline emerging from tomorrow’s contest revolves around the two squads’ recruiting duels over the past few years. Casey turned down an offer from Vanderbilt to attend Harvard, while the Commodores’ Rod Odom and Shelby Moats, along with Ezeli, strongly considered the Crimson.
But those decisions are in the past, and both squads are now looking to end individual streaks of tournament egregiousness. The winner will face either No. 4 Wisconsin or No. 13 Montana in the third round, and if the Crimson can get past that point, it will get to play in its own backyard with the East region's Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games being held at Boston’s T.D. Garden.
“We walk into every game thinking and believing that we can win,” McNally said. “We're going to face a really talented team, but we're not just happy to be here. We're here to win.”
—Staff writer Scott A. Sherman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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