Lately, Harvard has been a completely different team than it was back in November. After a close loss at Kansas and a nice win at Boston University, the Crimson traveled to Hawaii to partake in the 2015 Diamond Head Classic. The Crimson drew BYU in the first round. The tournament was a huge test for Harvard: would the Crimson revert back to its November self? Or would Harvard build on its two previous good performances and play well?
The answer was the latter, as the Crimson jumped out to a 16-point lead less than eight minutes into its first game vs. BYU. The game turned out to be a close one, and it took a Patrick Steeves driving layup to send the ballgame to overtime. With 50 seconds remaining in overtime, Harvard trailed by three. Evan Cummins, a 57 percent free-throw shooter, stood at the line for two shots. He sunk both. Agunwa Okolie then did what he does best, forcing a turnover. The Crimson had a chance to take the lead with under 30 seconds to play. The Cougars then fouled Agunwa Okolie, who went to the line and sunk both free throws. Another turnover by BYU and two more free throws for Okolie sealed the win. The Crimson had finally showed the grit and toughness of an experienced team to pull out the win.
Harvard carried this momentum into the semi-final matchup vs. Auburn. “The Tigers are quicker, stronger, and more athletic than the Crimson. We’ll see how this one goes,” ESPN’s pregame analyst said before the game. The Crimson continued to surprise and prove people wrong on its way to a dismantling of Auburn. The final was 69-51.
The Diamond Head Classic final warranted a tougher foe in No. 3 Oklahoma. Harvard hung with the Sooners in the first half and led by two at the break. But a second half surge by the Sooners, fueled by lights-out three-point shooting from one of the best shooting teams in the nation, was simply too much for the Crimson. The Crimson dropped this one by a score of 83-71. But once again, they proved their mettle; excluding the first half of the second half, the Crimson outscored Oklahoma by a point. (Against No. 2 Kansas, the Crimson also “won” by five, excluding the first 10 minutes of play.)
So what has fueled this success?
The three ball was falling for the Crimson in Hawaii, and during this three-game run, the Crimson shot a scorching 47 percent from downtown. Harvard currently has three players shooting above 40 percent from beyond the arc (Corey Johnson 42 percent, Corbin Miller 43 percent, and Patrick Steeves 48 percent). Harvard and Columbia are the only two Ivy League teams to have three players shooting more than 40 percent from three (min. 20 attempts). Tommy McCarthy is also shooting 37 percent from behind the line.
Harvard’s 41 percent three-point percentage on the season is the best in the Ivy League, and 18th best in the country. This success from downtown has also come at a time when Tommy McCarthy has been underperforming. But Corbin Miller has stepped up, making huge shots whenever Harvard needs him to, and for a true off-ball guard, he has run the point very smoothly when called upon.
Harvard was able to keep this success going versus Wofford on New Year’s Eve, shooting 8-for-17 from three-point land. Harvard rode a scorching-hot shooting night (64 percent from the floor) to beat up on a lesser opponent in that one.
Zena Edosomwan has also continued to improve. He was a force inside versus No. 3 Oklahoma, scoring 25 points and eating up 16 boards. He will likely attract many double-teams in Ivy play, as he did versus Wofford (15 points), and his improved passing ability from the post makes him an even scarier presence down low. Against Wofford, Edosomwan had five assists. Evan Cummins can attest to Edosomwan’s ability to dish: he leads the Ivy League in field goal percentage, scoring many easy buckets after the defense focuses too much on Edosomwan.
With the Crimson’s rapid improvement and sustained good play, Harvard has launched itself into the Ivy League title conversation with under two weeks to go before the 14-Game Tournament commences. My take on the league is this: Yale is the safe pick, but the gap between the Bulldogs and the Crimson is narrowing. Especially considering Harvard’s constant improvement, all signs point to the Crimson being legitimate contenders for the league title. Picking a favorite, though, is almost moot. Even if there is one frontrunner, that team can only be projected one game (at most) ahead of the rest of the pack. The title race is going to come down to one or two crucial games, no matter what.
Let’s play the games.