Breaking down why Harvard is still the class of the Ivy League

As a Harvard optimist, I was unfazed by the Crimson’s lackluster performance against Virginia on Dec. 21. I concede that Harvard is not on the Cavaliers’ level. This past Sunday, the Crimson needed a strong bounce-back performance versus a more suitable opponent, Arizona State, but once again, Harvard could not establish the upper hand in a 56-46 loss to a tough Sun Devils team. Three obvious takeaways from this game are:

  • Harvard’s defense continues to be top-notch.
  • Harvard’s offense continues to sputter.
  • Playing away from its home court at Lavietes Pavilion is tough for the Crimson.

So the real question is, can Harvard escape the Ivy League gauntlet with a stingy defense and an offense that’s weaker than last year’s? To examine this question, I decided to take a closer look at how Harvard and the other Ivy League teams have fared against “Ivy League-caliber” competition.

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The shellacking in Charlottesville: No big deal

Field goals were few and far between for Harvard at Virginia Sunday. (foxsports.com)
Field goals were few and far between for Harvard at Virginia Sunday. (foxsports.com)

There is no way to sugarcoat a 49-point loss: Harvard shot a pitiful 16 percent percent from the floor, while Virginia shot almost 60 percent. No matter how many cringe-inducing Harvard statistics are highlighted, however, this game’s story was all about Virginia’s excellence; not about Harvard’s incompetence. Over 40 minutes of play, Virginia showed us all that they really are a Final Four-caliber team. Crimson fans who delusionally believed that Harvard might be of the same caliber learned today that they’re not. For the rest of Harvard’s fan base, however, this game shouldn’t be too concerning.

First of all, in the same way that “a win is a win,” a loss is just a loss. When the dust settles from this debacle, Harvard’s players will realize that, in the big picture, nonconference regular season games against top opponents don’t matter much (unless, of course, you win). What matters most for Ivy League teams is that they perform well in the “14-game tournament.” On a day when the Crimson’s unluckiness seemed to show no bounds, Harvard is lucky that this flat performance came against a nonconference foe.

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What No. 6 UVA's 76-27 annihilation of Harvard means

Tommy Amaker holds up one finger for every field goal the Crimson made at UVA ... except he
Tommy Amaker holds up one finger for every field goal the Crimson made at UVA … except he”s holding up two too many. (cbssports.com)

Harvard embarrassed itself in Charlottesville Sunday, scoring just eight points in the entire first half en route to a 76-27 loss.

It was the rare game in which the box score really does tell the story. Wesley Saunders and Siyani Chambers went a combined 0-for-17 from the field, and Steve Moundou-Missi was the only Crimson player to score a single field goal (and yes, he scored just one). The Crimson took 50 shots. They best online casino missed 42 of them. They notched one assist the entire afternoon. UVA, in stark contrast, shot 59.6 percent, including 54.5 percent from beyond the arc.

It’s beyond obvious to say that a 49-point loss doesn’t bode well for Harvard, but the devil is in the details. Under coach Tony Bennett, UVA’s defenses have always been stout, and this year’s edition is no different, as it’s currently ranked third in the country by KenPom. Harvard’s lack of sharpshooters beyond Corbin Miller was obvious all game. If the Crimson can’t get high-percentage shots off of dribble-drives, this is apparently what happens.

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Watch out for Harvard’s Corbin Miller

Corbin Miller has scored in double figures in three of Harvard's past five games. (gocrimson.com)
Corbin Miller has scored in double figures in three of Harvard’s past five games. (gocrimson.com)

On Monday night, Harvard’s tough defense and late-game toughness pushed the Crimson over Boston University, 70-56, at Lavietes Pavilion in Cambridge. For the first thirty minutes of the game, Harvard and BU traded leads and the scrappy Terriers just would not go away. Then halfway through the second half, Harvard pulled ahead for good on a Wesley Saunders three-pointer, and the game was never in doubt after that. BU’s head coach, Joe Jones, noted after the game that Harvard played like a “winning team” down the stretch, and BU simply did not.

Once again, Saunders had an outstanding night, with 15 points, seven rebounds and eight assists. Great performances from Saunders are becoming the norm (he is currently the only player in the NCAA averaging at least 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists per game), so it was another Harvard player’s performance that caught the attention of Crimson fans.

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Harvard vs. Northeastern: A win is a win

Wesley Saunders notched 10 second-half points following a scoreless first stanza against Northeastern. (gocrimson.com)
Wesley Saunders notched 10 second-half points following a scoreless first stanza against Northeastern. (gocrimson.com)

In the Crimson’s fourth game against a fellow Boston team, Harvard pushed its record to 5-1 overall and 5-0 at home with a scrappy (and interesting) win against Northeastern. After leading 16-4 just seven minutes into the game, Harvard allowed Northeastern to claw its way back. Second-chance opportunities burned the Crimson, accounting for 10 of Northeastern’s 22 first-half points. In the last 13 minutes of the first half, Harvard scored a mere 11 points. Given that Harvard was favored to win by eight points, its five-point lead going into the break should have felt encouraging, but considering Northeastern’s weak play, it was actually a disappointment.

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Saunders, Crimson squeak by Minutemen

Wesley Saunders notched 27 points in Harvard's victory over UMass Saturday. (ivyleaguesports.com)
Wesley Saunders notched 27 points in Harvard’s victory over UMass Saturday. (ivyleaguesports.com)

In what seemed like a home game for UMass (half of the fans at Lavietes Pavilion were cheering for the Minutemen), Harvard eked out a much-needed win in the final seconds against a very good non-conference opponent. This victory, Harvard’s third in a row, was exactly what the Crimson needed as they continue to rebound from their tough early-season loss to Holy Cross. And in terms of their potential seeding in the NCAA Tournament (if they are fortunate enough to get there again), this game was huge. Harvard is starting to look like the national contender they were predicted to be going into the season. Individual performances in the UMass game, however, may provide the greatest reasons for the Crimson faithful to rejoice.

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The Cougars cower, while Crimson fans wonder: ‘What if?’

Harvard HoustonAfter the Crimson led a balanced attack on both sides of the ball versus Houston at Lavietes Pavilion on Tuesday night, many fans wondered, “Where was this when we needed it?” This is not to say that Harvard has had a bad year so far. In three of its four games this fall, Harvard has gone unmatched. In other words, the dominating performance Harvard turned in against Houston has been routine – for the most part.

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The Quakers, the Hoosiers and the Dolphins are all safe

Hey, 1979 Penn Final Four Team? Don’t worry, you’re safe! And for that matter so too are the 1976 undefeated Indiana Hoosiers. Might as well throw in the 1972 undefeated Miami Dolphins. The 2014-15 Harvard Crimson men’s basketball team is not going undefeated. And it’s probably not going to the Final Four.

But let’s put Sunday’s one-point loss on a neutral court to a good Holy Cross team that had given the Crimson challenging games in each of the past two years in proper perspective … a perspective that all the Crimson-haters throughout the league often forget.

This is a very good Harvard team, incredibly athletic, with a mix of seasoned veterans and young learners. They were probably worthy of a No. 25 preseason AP ranking and will probably end up near that recognition as well.

But what they have to learn, and what other nationally ranked Ivy League teams of recent memory (Cornell, Princeton – although that wasn’t so recent) had to learn, is that a national ranking brings with it expectations and pressure to perform like a nationally ranked team every night. And frankly, that’s not easy for an Ivy League team, nor should it be.

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What to make of No. 25 Harvard’s loss to Holy Cross

No. 25 Harvard’s 58-57 loss to Holy Cross tonight in Boston was surprising mostly because of how it went down – turnovers at every turn.

Committing 24 turnovers is an easy way to lose games and it was the Harvard way tonight. Nine of those 24 turnovers came from Siyani Chambers, who scored one solitary point on 0-for-3 shooting a year after he scored seven straight points down the stretch to beat Holy Cross in 2013-14. Wesley Saunders exploded for 24 points, 12 boards and four steals, but last night proved that Saunders taking nearly 40 percent of the team’s shots wasn’t necessarily a good thing as the rest of the offense struggled to get in sync. Chambers especially looked apprehensive and too often tried to make plays that just weren’t there.

What does this mean for the Crimson going forward? Well, it means that when Chambers has one of the worst games of his career, Harvard isn’t likely to do too well. Beyond that, though, this game demonstrates that the tendency to rely overly on Saunders to make things happen is there and will continue be there when Chambers is struggling. That’s good news for the rest of the Ivy League. Harvard still needs to find an athletic wing that can come in and provide perimeter shooting when Chambers or Saunders aren’t getting it done. That was the narrative for Harvard all offseason and after a Beantown-based loss to Holy Cross, it still is.

 

Harvard Roster Preview – 2014-15 Edition

Sorry, rest of the Ivy League. Harvard’s still Harvard.

Laurent Rivard, Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey may be gone, but Harvard’s ranked No. 25 in the nation and appears to be locked in cruise control en route to a fourth straight NCAA appearance, even in a loaded Ivy League. But let’s start with the negatives. Where is the perimeter depth now? 2013-14 Ivy Player of the Year Wesley Saunders is back and so is Siyani Chambers, who we’ll get to below. Agunwa Okolie, two-year Mormon church mission hiatus-taker Corbin Miller and rookie Andre Chatfield will all be stepping up to provide that depth. The frontcourt boasts the return of shot-blocking phenom Kenyatta Smith as well as the very well-rounded Steve Moundou-Missi. If the Crimson can find a potent three-point shooting wing who can complement Saunders and Chambers, they’ll be just as good as last year. Even if they don’t, they’ll win the Ivy League anyway.

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