On Friday, Harvard heads down to Philadelphia for another one of those games, the exceptional few that shape the title race. Penn, although a half-game behind Yale in the standings after last week’s loss in New Haven, is actually in the best position to catch the Crimson because it hasn’t yet conceded a home defeat to the league leaders. What we have in effect, then, is another No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup, this time staged in one of basketball’s most hallowed gymnasiums.
If this year’s game is even half as good as last year’s, it will
be a memorable night (at the very least, it’s virtually guaranteed to eclipse the 30-point drubbing that Harvard laid on the Elis two weeks ago). In 2011, it took two overtimes to determine the outcome, an 83-82 Crimson victory, and that was not without a fair share of controversy (punctuated by Steve Bilksy wagging his finger in the face of Reggie Greenwood).
But this is a new year. The main personnel differences are a thinner Quaker front line, sans Jack Eggleston and Conor Turley, and a deeper Harvard bench, with freshmen Steve Moundou-Missi, Jonah Travis, Corbin Miller, and Wesley Saunders. The net effect is not necessarily negative for Penn, though. Zack Rosen, who has somehow managed to improve on his First Team All-Ivy season, is playing at a Player of the Year level and Tyler Bernardini, who has bounced back from a disappointing 2010-11, is not far behind; the teammates have the second and third highest offensive ratings among players using at least 20 percent of their team’s possessions.
Meanwhile, the Crimson’s own reigning Player of the Year, Keith Wright, is not putting up the same individual numbers as a year ago (though I’d argue he’s just as effective), and the Harvard offense is slightly less efficient in favor of a more defense-oriented approach. At the risk of being reductive, it seems that Friday night’s game will shape up as a battle between exceptional individual talent and total team effort. (This premise is not as pejorative as it may sound: riding the performance of a pair of All-Ivy veterans is a sound strategy, if not a luxury; and, at times, the Crimson’s team-first attitude has led to passivity on the part of its stars).
The numbers online casino favor Harvard: 20-2 versus 12-10; 0.90 points allowed per possession to 1.00; 1.07 points scored per possession to 1.04. The matchups seem to favor the Crimson as well. Rosen will find a worthy adversary in Brandyn Curry (one of the top perimeter defenders in the nation), while Penn’s front line does not pose the same kind of challenge to the Crimson’s greatest weapons, Wright and Kyle Casey.
And yet, I think the Quakers will prevail.
Friday night’s game is a must win for Penn. The senior class, whose title-less legacy is a black mark on the history of Quaker basketball, knows that it must beat Harvard to avoid infamy. A motivated Zack Rosen is a dangerous thing. Also, this Penn squad has already played nine top 100 teams and is unlikely to be as shell-shocked by the quality of competition as Yale. And perhaps I have too much reverence for the Palestra, but the drama that place inspires makes it the most likely location for an upset, ala Cornell in 2010 (at the very least, I expect the loony Quaker fans will harangue the officials into making a few friendly calls for the hometown team).
To keep the title race alive, Penn will need to frustrate Harvard’s attack and limit the number of possessions to prevent the Crimson from finding its offensive rhythm (if Harvard cracks 60 points, the game is as good as over). That means the Quakers will need to defend the post, execute well on offense at the end of the shot clock (that’s where having playmakers like Rosen, Bernardini, and Miles Cartwright comes in handy), and win all the Tommy points.
My own rules state that unless you believe a team will go undefeated, you should pick against them at least once. Well, Penn, you’re it.
Penn 58, Harvard 56.