After earning its two best victories of the year, the Harvard men’s basketball team (5-6) will take on the No. 3/2 Oklahoma Sooners (10-0) in the final of the Diamond Head Classic (8:30 EST, ESPN2). Men’s basketball beat writer David Freed previews the matchup with a quick primer on the Sooners and three things to watch.
Best Wins: Villanova, Wisconsin, Hawaii
Worst Losses: N/A
Ken Pomeroy Ranking: 1
Tournament Results: Beat Washington State 88-60 in quarterfinals, defeated host Hawaii 84-81 in semifinals
Star Players: Senior guard Buddy Hield (24.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg), senior guard Isaiah Cousins (13.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.0 rpg)
A quick inspection of the Sooners’ resume reveals why Ken Pomeroy’s system considers them the best team in the country. Oklahoma has not only gone undefeated; it has barely come close to losing, with Thursday’s Hawaii scare the first single-digit margin of victory for the Sooners since their opener against Memphis.
Three Things to Watch
1. Playing Up a Level — One reassuring fact for Harvard fans is that the Crimson has already hung with KenPom’s second-ranked team, Kansas, for 40 minutes. The 75-69 loss, Harvard’s last, was a turnaround game for freshman point guard Tommy McCarthy, who had 11 points, five assists, and four rebounds in the losing effort. One crucial factor in keeping the game close was how McCarthy held his own against opposing point guard Frank Mason, Jr., preventing Kansas from getting out and running in the open floor. He will need to do the same against Cousins, the engine that gets the Oklahoma offense going. While Hield gets most of the headlines, Cousins’ ability to space the floor (51 percent three-point shooting on four attempts a game) gives the Sooner offense another dimension. Senior Agunwa Okolie, Harvard’s defensive ace, will likely get the call on Hield, and whether he and McCarthy can frustrate their matchups defensively will go a long way towards deciding the game.
2. Guarding The Line — Seemingly every game for the Crimson comes down to the three-point arc. After holding BYU to just three makes on 13 attempts, Harvard limited Auburn to just six makes in 25 tries. In both games, the Crimson outscored its opponent from behind the line, sinking a combined 19 threes in the two games. It could not be more crucial that Harvard complete the hat trick: Oklahoma launches 21 threes a game at a 47 percent clip. Four Sooner starters shoot better than 45 percent from behind the arc, three better than 51 percent. Against Kansas, a similarly strong jump-shooting team, the Crimson limited the Jayhawks to just 14 shots and six makes. If it can get similar results Friday, it will have a great shot at victory.
3. Making The Freebies — Amazingly, Harvard has been winning despite a lack of regression to the mean on its free throw shooting. The Crimson is the eighth worst free throw shooting squad in the country, converting just under 60 percent from the charity stripe. The statistic is deceptive, since only three Harvard players—forward Zena Edosomwan, Chris Egi, and Evan Cummins—shoot worse than 72 percent. Unfortunately, the three have taken half of the Crimson’s free throw attempts and both BYU coach Dave Rose and Auburn coach Bruce Pearl took to hacking Edosomwan at times in the last two games. The forward made just 10 of his 22 attempts, continuing a season-long regression that has him at 46 percent after shooting 60 percent or better in each of his first two years. The tactic, used in the NBA to help make up huge deficits, could be a crucial ploy down the stretch for Oklahoma against a Crimson team that hasn’t shown that it can overcome it.