For the first time since 2011, the team will be competing in the National Invitational Tournament, or NIT, by virtue of winning the regular-season Ivy League title.
The first-round matchup between No.7 Harvard (18-13, 12-2 Ivy) and No.2 Marquette (19-13, 9-9 Big East) gives the Crimson another opportunity to square up against a top-rated Division I opponent on national television, as the game will be featured on ESPN2 at 7 PM Wednesday night.
The other unignorable storyline: Harvard coach Tommy Amaker will reunite with former Duke graduate Steve Wojciechowski for the first time in both coaches’ careers. The current Marquette coach, known informally as “Wojo”, followed a near identical player-to-coach path as Amaker. Wojciechowski was a point guard under Coach Mike Krzyzewski between 1994-1998 before joining the Blue Devils coaching staff for 16 years.
In two of those four playing seasons, Wojo’s associate head coach was Amaker, who subsequently accepted a head coaching position at Seton Hall after 10 seasons as a Duke assistant and four seasons as Coach K’s point guard from 1983-1987. For Wojciechowski, this Duke connection remains as strong as ever.
“I love Tommy Amaker,” Wojciechowski said. “He’s one of the finest people and classiest men not just in college basketball but in general. He is an incredible coach. He’s done a fantastic job at Harvard and we know that they are really good. It is going to be a very difficult game, but it is not me and him playing one-on-one. It’s Marquette versus Harvard.”
This season, Marquette finished .500 in the Big East and finished right outside of the March Madness bubble. Quality wins against VCU, LSU, and Wisconsin highlighted a 9-3 non-conference schedule, but an inability to defeat top-tier Big East opponents such as Villanova and Xavier as well as losses to bottom feeders like DePaul and St. John’s put the Golden Eagles in a precarious position come Selection Sunday.
In the Big East Tournament played at Madison Square Garden, Marquette advanced to the quarterfinals after narrowly edging out DePaul 72-69 but lost to No.2 Villanova by 24 to end its conference season.
“The Big East is such a tough conference, in my opinion the best in the country,” sophomore guard Markus Howard said. “To see those teams make the tournament, as they should, we are happy for them. But at the same time, we know we deserve to be there as well...we are just working with what we have and looking forward to continuing to grow as a team.”
Howard and redshirt senior Andrew Rowsey will be the Crimson’s two main defensive challenges on a three-point shooting heavy team. Although neither Howard nor Rowsey stand above six feet tall, the two backcourt shooters have put up the bulk of Marquette’s shooting numbers.
Both guards are averaging more than 20 points per game during the season and have combined for 212 triples on the season at around a .400 clip. As a team, the Golden Eagles hold the eighth highest made threes in the NCAA at 354 and the fourth highest shooting percentage from deep, at .415.
Harvard did hold conference opponents to a 32.1 percent rate from three-point range and had the best defensive field goal percentages in the Ivies, but this matchup against Marquette will certainly be at a higher level. Crimson guards Christian Juzang and Rio Haskett will likely see much of the backcourt defensive responsibilities, with team defensive “MVP” Justin Bassey also contributing important minutes.
Losing Towns with sophomore point guard Bryce Aiken already out for the season only reduces Harvard’s odds at an upset. The Crimson willed itself to 13-0 run when Towns first checked out of the contest against Penn, but could not close out Sunday’s back-and-forth thriller with its leading scorer on the bench.
“Not sure where [Seth] is in terms of the status of his injury,” said Amaker after Sunday’s Penn loss. “ So I don’t know anything about that at this point, but it certainly wasn’t easy. We still had opportunities to push through and I was very proud of our kids for battling like that without Seth.”
Even without Towns, the Crimson still feature a supporting cast of young talent, one that Wojciechowski highlighted when praising his former coach.
“I know what a job Tommy has done there,” Wojo said. “He has recruited like crazy there. If this was the old Ivy League they would be in the NCAA Tournament. I know they have a couple of really good young pieces and so do we. This will be great for both programs.”
One of those heavily recruited and talented players—sophomore forward Chris Lewis—will face up against 6-foot-10 junior big Matt Heldt, who is sixth in the Big East in blocks at 0.9 rejections per game. Given Marquette’s guard-heavy offense, Lewis may not need to extend himself outside of the paint as much as he did against Cornell’s Stone Gettings or Penn’s AJ Brodeur. Nevertheless, 6-foot-8 sophomore wing Sam Hauser and freshman forward Jamal Cain will pose new defensive challenges to the Harvard frontcourt.
This will likely push Harvard’s primary post presence in Lewis outwards, and make it more challenging for guards like Haskett, Juzang, and Bassey to reach the interior with defenders picking up their marks further out in the perimeter. The Crimson’s slow and methodical offensive pace will also be tested through another one of the new rules, as teams only having 20 seconds compared to 30 seconds of time on the shot clock after an offensive rebound.
Adding onto its matchup challenges, Harvard will also be playing in front of a sold-out home crowd. Although Marquette games are typically played in BMO Bradley Center in Milwaukee—home of the NBA’s Bucks—this contest will instead by held on campus at the Al McGuire Center. Within seven hours of ticket availability on Monday, the 3,700-seat women’s volleyball and basketball complex had completely sold-out. This includes the 500 tickets that Wojo had purchased for any students still on campus during the university’s spring break holiday.
To put it short, the Crimson will certainly be playing with a bounty of difficult but familiar challenges including a hostile environment(see Palestra), injuries to star players(see Aiken), and defensive responsibilities against elite perimeter weapons(see Matt Morgan). In a season filled with adversity and up-and-down play, Harvard will need a strong game from Lewis and the supporting cast to prolong its season and earn a program-defining victory against the Golden Eagles.
—Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Zhuhen88.
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