Mixed Opponents Wait for the Crimson

The central thesis of Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath is that the best underdogs employ risky, high-variance strategies if they are to stand the best chance of knocking off a heavy favorite; in essence, they need all their big gambles to pay off. In a similar vein, the weakest favorites also tend to be high-variance squads—playing an average game would typically be enough to dispatch any pesky underdog, but a subpar performance could open the door to an upset.

All the major bracket projections—ESPN, USA Today, and CBS Sports—have the Harvard men’s basketball placed as either an 11 seed or a 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament. With that in mind, one can look at eight possible Crimson opponents using the most recent five and six seeds in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket.

The Crimson assessed all eight using five categories—three-point shooting frequency, three-point shooting frequency allowed, defensive rebounding percentage, offensive rebounding percentage, and opponent turnover percentage.

Below are the results for the eight teams Harvard is most likely to face. All numbers are percentages—OREB/DREB refer to percent of offensive (defensive) rebounds possessed, Op. TO% refers to the percentage of opponent possessions that ended in turnovers and (Op.) 3P Frequency refers to the percentage of (opponent) possessions ending in a three.

8. VCU: The Rams are the definition of the team Harvard does not want to play. The second-best team at walling off the three-point line, VCU’s “Havoc” defense would provide a full-court pressure Harvard has not seen all season. The Rams rebound the ball well on the offensive end (second-best in the sample) and force turnovers on an lofty 25.2 percent of opponent possessions. Stay away.

7. Ohio State: Fans of the Crimson may remember Harvard narrowly avoided the Buckeyes last year, and the Crimson will likely want to again. Not only are the Buckeyes a feisty defensive team with a perfect Siyani Chambers antidote in senior point guard Aaron Craft, but they close up the three-point line better than any other team in the sample. This team was ranked within the top five before a string of disappointing late-season losses and remains dangerous.

6. Kentucky: A matchup with the Wildcats would draw a lot of youth versus experience discussions given that of Kentucky’s main rotation includes just one upperclassman while among Harvard’s top seven players, just one is an underclassman. However, the real matchup would be on the glass. Behind likely top-five NBA draft pick freshman Julius Randle, the Wildcats get after the offensive boards. They don’t shoot a lot of three-pointers but defend the arc well, making them a fairly low variance team. Although Princeton nearly knocked off the Wildcats three years ago, don’t expect Harvard to be looking for Big Blue this year.

5. North Carolina: Although a high-variance team all year, the Tar Heels appear to have caught fire at the right time. Minus a couple of late-season losses to Pittsburgh and Duke, UNC has won 13 of 16 coming into the Dance with wins over Michigan State, Kentucky, Louisville, and Duke. They allow a lot of threes, but rebound the ball well and mostly shoot twos on the offensive end behind sophomore Marcus Paige and junior James McAdoo. Although not a terrible matchup—this team did, after all, lose to Belmont and UAB—better ones await the Crimson.

4. Oklahoma: The Sooners are as nondescript as any team in the sample. Oklahoma is an average rebounding team that cannot force turnovers (third-worst in the sample) and takes a fair amount of threes. In many respects, it is similar to New Mexico but comes in ranked as the 29th best team by KenPom—second worst in the sample and only four spots higher than Harvard—and so is clearly overrated as a projected five seed.

3. Connecticut: Harvard may have lost to UConn earlier this year, but the result comes with a big asterisk—the injury to junior Wesley Saunders. Without Saunders on him, Naismith Award nominee Shabazz Napier shook free for two late threes to seal a closely-fought game. Had Saunders played, the result looks like it could have been much different. UConn is a particularly poor rebounding team and is not excellent at forcing opponents off the three-point line. Throw in Harvard’s built-up frustration after a number of close losses to the Huskies, and you have a tasty Crimson matchup.

2. New Mexico: Running back last year’s second-round game could end with similar results. With the graduation of Alex Kirk, New Mexico’s lone inside threat is Cameron Bairstow. While it posts adequate defensive numbers, it forces turnovers on a meager 14.7 percent of possessions and cannot chase opponents off the free throw line. After Harvard killed the Lobos with an efficient offense that yielded open look after open look for co-captain Laurent Rivard (five threes during the contest) last year, little appears to have changed.

1. UCLA: The tastiest matchup for Harvard would reprise the coaching duel from last year. UCLA coach Steve Alford, who notably took out Harvard coach Tommy Amaker in his final college game while Alford played for Indiana and Amaker for Duke, was on the wrong end of last year’s Crimson first-round triumph and carries a weak UCLA team into the tourney. The Bruins, a poor offensive rebounding team, allow opponents to shoot three-pointers at a sky-high 34.4 percent rate. Against Rivard and company, that’s a recipe for disaster.

—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at


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