It’s been almost two weeks since the Harvard men’s basketball team (7-1) stepped onto the hardwood, its longest break of the season. Yet, although players have just concluded their exams, Harvard is still yet to take its toughest test: a matchup against the No. 5/6 University of Virginia Cavaliers in Charlottseville Sunday.
“It’s a big game,” NBCSports.com’s Rob Dauster told The Crimson in October. “When you look at the schedule you don’t see a lot of high name teams… if they can come out of there with a win, this a team that is going to be respected all year long.”
The matchup garnered significant hype early in the season, when Harvard held a top-25 ranking. However, the Crimson was upset early by Holy Cross (5-3) at TD Garden when senior Wesley Saunders missed a last second jumper that would have given the Crimson the win.
Harvard saw not only its top ranking, but also its regard as one the preeminent mid-major teams in the country slip away. Sunday’s contest is a chance to earn that all back. The Crimson carries a six-game win streak into the contest, with a chance to claim its largest scalp of the Tommy Amaker era. The Cavaliers are Harvard’s only scheduled ranked opponent this season and the highest ranked opponent that the team has faced since squaring off against No. 4/4 UConn exactly four years ago.
“I think it gives us a measuring stick and a target,” Amaker said.
Typically, upsets in college basketball are the product of stout defense and offensive outbursts. Harvard has the capability and pedigree—see its wins over New Mexico and Cincinnati—to produce both. The Crimson’s defense currently ranks 17th in the NCAA in scoring defense at 56.1 points per game and has held seven of its first eight opponents this season to 65 points or less and to 40.0 percent shooting or under.
Co-captain Steve Moundou-Missi and classmate Kenyatta Smith are two of the premier shot blockers in the country, both averaging 2.1 blocks per game. Add in Saunders’ 2.8 steals per game and Amaker has once again put out the most formidable defense in the Ancient Eight.
Offensively, Harvard boasts one the most feared backcourts in the nation. Saunders, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, is the only player in the nation currently averaging at least 20 points, seven rebounds, and four assists per game. ESPN college basketball columnist Eamonn Brennan predicted that it was Saunders’ performance that “we will be talking about Monday morning.”
“Replicating anything close to those numbers on the road against one of the nation's best defenses is a tremendous ask,” ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan wrote. “If Saunders can pull it off, he'll finally get some of the player-of-the-year love he probably already deserves.”
Starting alongside Saunders is junior captain and point guard Siyani Chambers. Chambers is a proven floor general who was named to the 2015 Bob Cousy Award Watch List, the third straight year that the he has been tabbed among the top point guards in the nation.
But none of that should faze Virginia. The Cavaliers defense ranks first in the NCAA in scoring defense at 47.9 a game, 20th in rebounds per game, and holds opponents to just 32.5 percent shooting from the floor. Offensively, Justin Anderson, a front-runner for the Wooden Award, leads Virginia at 15.8 points per game.
“They have been an outstanding defensive team. They don’t overextend themselves, they make you execute and be very efficient,” Amaker said Thursday. “Their personnel it outstanding and they play a style that they believe in.”
“I don’t think there’s a weakness [in the defense], to be honest with you,” he added.
Anderson has knocked down 22 of his 37 attempts thus far this year, the lone bright spot on a team without much shooting to space the floor. UVA players not named Anderson have made just 10 of their 58 attempts and if Amaker can lock down Anderson, a zone defense may be the formula for knocking off one of the nation’s top teams.
In fact, one need not look back far to find hints for how Amaker may hope to contain Anderson. Against fifth-seeded Cincinnati in the NCAA tournament last March, Amaker employed a plethora of different defensive schemes to shut down Bearcat star Sean Kilpatrick, perplexing Cincinnati’s offense in route to the win.
Virginia head coach Tony Bennett is not taking Harvard lightly, noting earlier this week that it was “another well coached team that has really established itself” before cracking a joke at the Crimson’s expense.
“Hopefully they had an 18-day break for their exams,” Bennett said, almost correctly guessing the Crimson’s 13-day break.
While Bennett was whimsical, Amaker was focused in the Thursday press conference. Waving off questions about the team’s national standing, the coach focused on his team’s ability to maintain efficiency on the offensive end.
“I don’t know that we are overrated or underrated,” Amaker said. “We are who we are. We think we are a solid basketball program and have had a solid start to our season. We are hopeful we have enough in the tank to go compete and be efficient [Sunday].”
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