1. Play to your strengths
The only way Harvard can win this game is if they continue to play stingy defense and to rebound exceptionally well. UNC boasts the 44th-best defensive efficiency in the country (with the second-toughest “strength of schedule”), so Harvard has practically no chance of winning a high-scoring game. Also, the Crimson must limit Carolina’s scoring opportunities by not allowing the Tar Heels any offensive rebounds. At the other end of the court, offensive rebounds would be a bonus for the Crimson, but second chances against this UNC defense (which held Duke’s Jahlil Okafor to his lowest offensive rating of the season) won’t be easy to come by. If the Crimson’s defense isn’t clicking, the Tar Heels will be headed to the round of 32.
2. The Crimson may have to settle – and get hot
The Crimson is a team that relies on getting to the rim and drawing fouls, but against North Carolina it might have to settle for jump shots. Wesley Saunders will still probably be able to get to the rim, but other Crimson players may not have similar success. Whether they be threes or twos, the Crimson must take any open shots they can get. They will also need to get hot and make those shots, but Harvard can’t get greedy – they have to take what UNC gives them.
3. Heart needs to make up for height
North Carolina has four starters at 6-6 or above. Harvard’s usual secondary big man (Jonah Travis) is 6-6. Travis has proven time after time that he can make up for a height disadvantage with his skill, smarts, hustle, and athleticism, but the talent level of the Tar Heels’ big men is superior to the competition Harvard faced this season. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker should not shy away from playing Travis because of his height; his hustle and heart can make up for this, and Harvard’s other big men will also face a height disadvantage. No analytics can predict the answer to this question: Can Harvard outwork UNC? If yes, the Crimson will have a fighting chance.
4. Corbin Miller needs to step up
Former Harvard captain Laurent Rivard came up huge for Harvard during the Crimson’s last two NCAA Tournament wins (and during the close loss to Michigan State). Without Rivard, someone else has to spread the floor, and that responsibility falls to Corbin Miller (Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders can fill this role too, but this may limit their ability to fill other critical roles). An open three-pointer is an open three-pointer no matter the opponent, so Miller has to make those threes early and often to get the Crimson offense going.
5. Big-time players need to play their best in big-time games
In the end, the Crimson’s chances of winning boil down to one thing: can Wesley Saunders be the best player on the floor? He needs to shut down UNC’s Marcus Paige on defense and still be able to get his shots on the offensive end. Thirty points would be great, maybe even necessary, but Saunders has to do it all – defend, rebound, facilitate, as well as score – if the Crimson are to advance to the next round for the third straight year.
Achieving all of these imperatives will be a tall task for the Crimson, but it is possible. North Carolina is favored, but they call this tournament “March Madness” for a reason. If Harvard can follow the instructions above, they just might pull off the biggest win in their program’s history on Thursday night.