Following a dominant 69-51 victory over Auburn in the semifinals of the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic, Harvard (5-6) will turn its attention to No. 3/2 Oklahoma (10-0) in the tournament championship game on Friday night (8:30 p.m., ESPN2). Men’s basketball beat writer Stephen Gleason analyzes the individual matchups in what may be the Crimson’s toughest game of the season.
Point guard: Tommy McCarthy vs. Isaiah Cousins
It’s the freshman who has played in all of 11 collegiate contests going against the tested senior who has started 92 in his career and is the glue for a team with national title aspirations. While senior wing Buddy Hield will be the best player on the floor whenever he is on it, McCarthy will need to neutralize Cousins, who is second on the team in points and leads the Sooners in assists. As is always the case with McCarthy, the key on the offensive end will be limiting turnovers. The freshman has averaged 6.5 turnovers in Harvard’s two games in Hawaii. Oklahoma’s opponents average 11.2 turnovers per contest, which is one fewer turnover than the Sooners average. Harvard has turned the ball over less than 12 times in just three games this season. The Crimson is 5-0 this season when it wins or ties the turnover battle and ball control starts with this matchup.
Shooting guard: Corey Johnson vs. Jordan Woodard
Oklahoma is averaging over 87 points per game this season and has been in that neighborhood for both of its Diamond Head Classic contests. For Harvard to keep pace, it will need a strong offensive game from the freshman sharpshooter, who went four-for-nine from three-point range in both of the team’s tournament games. That task will be easier said than done as the Sooners’ defense has limited its opponents to 27.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc this season. The Crimson is 4-2 this season when Johnson posts double-digit scoring outputs. After being the starting point guard for his first two seasons in Norman, Woodard began flanking Cousins in the starting lineup last month. The junior is the team’s third-leading scorer, is almost automatic from the free throw line, and is one of three Oklahoma starters who shoots over 50 percent from beyond the arc.
Small forward: Agunwa Okolie vs. Buddy Hield
This will be the matchup to watch on Friday night and will ultimately dictate whether Harvard can hang with the Sooners. The Crimson senior will be tasked with covering a Naismith Award finalist, but this is nothing new for Okolie. The Ajax, Ontario native has already squared off with the likes of Providence’s Kris Dunn, Kansas’ Wayne Selden, BYU’s Kyle Collinsworth, and Auburn’s Kareem Canty, holding all but the BYU co-captain below his average field goal percentage. During Wednesday’s broadcast, color commentator Cory Alexander noted that Okolie ought to be considered one of the best perimeter defenders in all of college basketball, and the former Virginia star has a point. Okolie utilizes his 6’8” frame to alter shots and the senior’s size is not an inhibition off the dribble. Hield is averaging 28.8 points per game in his last four contests, but the senior may have the best supporting backcourt of any of the four superstars Okolie has had to guard.
Power forward: Evan Cummins vs. Ryan Spangler
While junior Zena Edosomwan stole the show against BYU on Tuesday, Cummins capitalized on the double-teams Auburn threw at his front court partner to set a career-high with 13 points. If Oklahoma looks to double-team Edosomwan, as most teams have this season, Cummins will need to convert offensively and knock down his free throws (52.6 percent on the season). Spangler leads the Sooners in minutes and rebounds and has a jump shot that can be extended out past the three-point line. While the guards run the show for Oklahoma, Spangler has had six double-digit scoring games this season. Cummins will have to prevent offensive rebounds and stay out of foul trouble against the versatile Sooner big.
Center: Zena Edosomwan vs. Khadeem Lattin
In order for Harvard to stand a chance, the team’s best player must set the tone. Edosomwan posted the best offensive performance of his collegiate career on Tuesday against BYU and will need to put up similar numbers against Lattin, especially if Oklahoma decides not to double the 6’9” Los Angeles native. If Sooners coach Lon Kruger decides to call for defensive help, Edosomwan will have to find Cummins underneath or sharpshooters Johnson and Corbin Miller on the perimeter. Edosomwan oftentimes discusses setting the tone on the glass and letting his offense stem from there, and the junior will certainly need to attack the glass as Oklahoma is outrebounding its opponents by 8.5 boards per contest. While Lattin is the fifth option offensively for the Sooners, the sophomore leads the team in field goal percentage and as Hawaii will tell you, he can score if too much attention is put on Hield and the other Oklahoma guards.
In its two Diamond Head Classic games, the Crimson bench has averaged 21 points and avoided a dropoff in production when Edosomwan and McCarthy struggled with foul trouble. Miller has played more minutes in the two games in Hawaii than he has in any other games this season and has established himself as a viable backup for McCarthy. Like Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, Kruger typically utilizes a four-deep bench in close games. Freshman forward Dante Buford, freshman guard Christian James, junior center Akolda Manyang, and senior guard Dinjiyl Walker combine to average almost 16 points, nine rebounds, and three assists off the bench. Spangler, Hield, and Cousins each average around 30 minutes a game for the Sooners. The Crimson is still trying to discover who its third big man will be this season. Sophomore Chris Egi has seen action in both Diamond Head Classic games but has not scored and has made just 22.2 percent of his free throws this season. Freshman Weisner Perez, an undersized power forward, has seen limited action since his 15-point performance against Kansas. Senior small forward Patrick Steeves has been a bright spot for Harvard in Hawaii, finding open teammates and hitting free throws down the stretch against BYU and making two three-pointers and corralling seven rebounds against Auburn.
The first few minutes of Friday’s contest will most likely set the tone for the entire contest. Oklahoma is coming off its first single-digit victory since its season opener against Memphis. Hawaii provided the wake-up call that the Sooners had not had all season and Oklahoma figures to be hungry from the opening tip. The Crimson has gotten off to uncharacteristically hot starts at the Diamond Head Classic, holding double-digit first half leads in its two victories on the island, but Oklahoma has been excellent all season in the first half, never having trailing at the break thus far.
In slowing down two potent offenses, Harvard forced BYU and Auburn to play the half-court style Amaker and company favor. Oklahoma thrives in transition and shoots a blistering 47.2 percent from beyond the arc. Even if Okolie shuts down Hield, the supporting cast of Cousins, Woodard, and Spangler is talented enough to overcome the Crimson. While Harvard is the 11th-youngest team in the nation, The Sooners are led by upperclassmen, many of whom led the team to last March’s Sweet Sixteen. Size-wise, the Crimson and Oklahoma are very similar. Okolie has four inches on Hield, but the two starting front courts are identical in height. The Sooner defense is not particularly good at forcing turnovers, but McCarthy and company will have to take care of the ball to upset Oklahoma and bring home Harvard’s third straight regular season tournament championship.