Season Preview: Harvard Crimson

Brandyn Curry, finally healthy after playing through knee problems the last two seasons, looks to have a breakout year in the Crimson backcourt. (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

 

Harvard enters this year with few unknowns. Returning its entire roster from last year’s Ivy League co-champions, anything less than an NCAA tournament appearance would be a massive disappointment. But that’s not to say reaching March Madness will be a cakewalk for Tommy Amaker’s crew. The Crimson faces a difficult non-conference slate before squaring off against the strongest field the Ancient Eight has seen in recent memory.The gauntlet begins in earnest the week of Thanksgiving, as the inaugural Battle 4 Atlantis will provide some measure of exactly how Harvard stacks up against premium competition. It begins the tournament with a matchup against Pac-12 newcomer Utah, and an opening win would probably pair the Crimson with Florida St., which is coming off a Sweet Sixteen appearance. Reigning national champion UConn looms as the top dog of the eight teams in the tournament, though in all likelihood Harvard would not face the Huskies in the Bahamas unless it reaches the final.

But the Crimson will face UConn in Storrs in early December, looking to avenge a 29-point loss at the XL Center a year ago. This game, the centerpiece of Harvard’s non-conference slate, is bracketed by a pair of road tests against America East favorites BU and Vermont (and a game against independent Seattle). The schedule hardly softens as it enters the holidays. Harvard hosts Sun Belt contender (and fellow NIT participant) Florida Atlantic in a student-bereft Lavietes on Dec. 22, and then it shoots for its annual “upset” of Boston College a week later. The Crimson rounds out its non-Ivy schedule against a trio of middling Atlantic 10 schools—St. Joe’s, at Fordham, and George Washington—as well as a gimme at Monmouth.

Of course, November and December are only a preamble to the games that actually matter—the 14-game tournament. Almost across the board, members of the Ancient Eight have improved, and each will save its best shot for the prohibitive favorite from Cambridge. The road to March will be difficult for Harvard. Rarely has a team been such a consensus preseason pick; rarely has a team had so much room to fall short of expectations.

Backcourt:

Outside the paint, the ball is in sure hands for the Crimson. Junior Brandyn Curry has proved to be one of the best distributors in the conference, averaging the most assists (5.9 per game, and 7.0 per 40 minutes) and boasting the best assist-to-turnover ratio (2.29) among Ivy players last season. Curry was at his best the last weekend of the regular season when he posted 13 points and 14 assists against Penn and then 10 points and 10 assists in the banner clinching win over Princeton. Bob Ryan gushed afterward, “Somewhere in America a ballyhooed power conference point guard might have exceeded Curry’s mastery of the position this weekend. But I doubt it.”

This year, Curry is finally healthy after healing from a knee injury that has nagged him the last two seasons. At times, the Harvard guard struggled finishing around the rim, shooting just 47 percent from two (en route to posting the lowest effective shooting percentage of all the Crimson’s major contributors), but if he regains some explosiveness, you should expect his scoring and his assists numbers to improve.

Joining Curry in the backcourt is co-captain Oliver McNally. The senior has perfected the art of doing the little things. He shoots over 90 percent from the stripe (after shooting 75 percent as a freshman); he turns the ball over just 1.5 times per game (the lowest rate among the top 15 league leaders in assists); and he only takes, and usually makes, good shots (a team-best 60.4 effective field goal percentage). This leadership is evident on the court as well as the stat sheet. McNally has a knack for drawing the tide-turning charge and draining the run-capping bucket. The great chemistry between him and Curry allow both players to stay on the court at the same time, and most Ivy opponents have a difficult time defending two All-Ivy caliber guards.

McNally and Curry generally combine for 80 percent of the backcourt minutes (with at least one of them on the court for an even larger percentage of game play). The small remainder of the ball-handling duties will fall to sophomore Matt Brown, who distinguished himself as a defensive specialist last year, and freshmen lookalikes Corbin Miller and Max Hooper (though Hooper might prove to be more of a wing player). Technically, sophomore Laurent Rivard is called upon to join the backcourt in free-throw situations as well.

Frontcourt:

Nominally forwards or off-guards, junior Christian Webster and Rivard provide wing play for the Crimson offense. Webster is primarily a slasher, unafraid to drive into the lane, though he also knocks down threes at almost a 40 percent clip. Webster’s aggressiveness is a crucial ingredient to Amaker’s offensive philosophy, as it earns the junior frequent trips to the charity stripe (123 free throw attempts on 246 field goal attempts) where he makes 89.4 percent of his freebies. This style of play makes Webster the most consistent perimeter scorer on Harvard’s roster: he was held to fewer than eight points just three times all season.

Though Rivard also showed a willingness to venture into the lane, he primarily specializes as a shooter. His 39.6 percentage from deep betrays the extent of his impact on the court. Rivard is a threat to shoot from as deep as 25 feet, denying defenses the choice to pack the middle. The Canadian emerged as an early contender for Ivy League Rookie of the Year after a torrid December and January, but his production dipped in the middle of conference play enough for Brown’s Sean McGonagill to pass him. Regardless, Rivard was, and will remain, one of the most feared shooters in the league as well as perhaps the Ivy’s best sixth man.

The Crimson’s true frontcourt consists of junior Kyle Casey and co-captain Keith Wright. Last year, Casey was a trendy preseason pick for Ivy League Player of the Year, but a well-documented foot injury hampered him all season. Still, he gutted out a 10.7 points, 6.0 rebounds per game line that earned him an all-league second team nod. This year, Casey returns at full strength. His combination of athleticism and size is unmatched by anyone in the conference. His ability to score in a variety of ways—off the dribble, catch-and-shoot, post ups—make him Harvard’s most interesting and fun-to-watch player. He has the highest ceiling of anyone on the Crimson and could be primed to make the same kind of leap we saw from Wright last year.

Wright’s transformation was the biggest reason for Harvard’s success a year ago. He became the go-to guy in place of Jeremy Lin and carried the Crimson further than it’s ever gone, averaging 14.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game en route to being named Ivy League Player of the Year. His ability to stay on the court last year (upping his minutes from 21.4 per game to 32.3) was perhaps the biggest reason for his success, and, continuing a trend throughout his college career, Wright has shown up to camp in tremendous shape yet again. For what he lacks in explosiveness, Wright makes up for in strength. Yale’s Greg Mangano was his only equal last season; until we see more competition, we can only assume Wright will provide more of the same dominance.

Barring injury, Harvard’s rotation is largely set. As a result, the much-heralded freshman class will likely play a complementary role and compete for minutes off the bench alongside veterans Andrew Van Nest, Jeff Georgatos, and Ugo Okam. Still, the Crimson is rightly excited to see exactly what it has in Steve Moundou-Missi, Wesley Saunders, Kenyatta Smith, and Jonah Travis. They provide some relief against the inevitable attrition from the Ivy League’s grueling schedule, as well as a glimpse into the future of Harvard hoops.

Final Thoughts:

If you could have any team’s frontcourt, you might pick the Yale or Princeton bigs over Harvard’s. If you could have any team’s backcourt, you might pick the Quaker or Big Red ball handlers ahead of the Crimson’s. But no team comes close to matching the talent from Cambridge in both areas.

Of course the season will surprise us in a million different ways, but right now, my guess is that Tommy Amaker feels like a man holding ace-king suited at the poker table. Who knows, maybe he’ll get screwed on the river, but pre-flop—before the first tipoff of a long season—he wouldn’t trade hands with anybody.

Preseason Teleconference: Coaches Say the Darndest Things

Ivy coaches around the league phoned in to share their thoughts on the upcoming season. (Photo credit: Google Images)

If you took everything said in the preseason media teleconference at face value, then you’d think every team has a shot to win the Ivy League title this year. Here are a few of the best sound bites from Wednesday, taken beyond face value.

Yale head coach James Jones on the Bulldogs’ preseason No. 2 ranking: “Every year for the last I don’t know how many, we’ve always been picked lower than we’ve finished. We’re picked second; there’s only one more spot to go to, so hopefully it works out for us.”

In the middle of a vanilla interview, Jones whips out this nugget. That’s a suspiciously juicy factoid for a coach—I’m guessing the SID gave it to him. For the record, the last time Yale failed to surpass its preseason ranking was 2007-08. By the way, looking through old preseason rankings is a hoot: last year Cornell got a first place vote; in 2009-10, Penn was picked third; the 2008-09 Tigers were chosen dead last. I wonder if the previous season is a better predictor of preseason polls than the end of year rankings.

Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson on the Tigers’ scheduling difficulties: “When you’re in a position like ours—we like being in a situation like this—where teams don’t want to play you, especially this year with a good group coming back, it’s a little more difficult to get your phone calls returned.”

Humblebrag! “They hate me cuz they ain’t me,” Henderson added.

Paul Franklin, The Trenton Times: “It hasn’t been that long, obviously, since you played…or maybe it is. [Pause for laughter]. Sorry about that.”

Penn head coach Jerome Allen: “It’s OK.” 

Paul Franklin of The Trenton Times stole the show on Wednesday. Reporter chumminess is an especially awkward variety of male flirting, but in the hands of a skilled veteran like Mr. Franklin, it’s borderline magical.

“1995 was like so long ago, AMIRITE?! ROFL!!!”

Jerome was unfazed, and in his chocolatey, midnight DJ voice he gave a courtesy chuckle and forgave the age crack.

Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker on 2009-10: “Jeremy made so many other people better. I think that’s always the mark of a special player, which Jeremy was for us.”

The Jeremy Lin narrative has taken a slightly disappointing turn, as he’s become one of those NBA bench players that fans cheer for ironically. Well Tommy Amaker is not going to let that spoil his legacy in Cambridge: JEREMY LIN IS THE BEST PLAYER IN HARVARD HISTORY. THAT’S THREE HUNDRED SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS.

Dartmouth head coach Paul Cormier on the Big Green’s inexperience: “One good thing about having freshmen is sometimes that lack of experience doesn’t affect their confidence and they just feel that they’ve been successful at whatever level they’ve been at and hopefully that some of that success can carry over.”

What Cormier is trying to say is that freshmen don’t have the Dartmouth stink yet. The Dartmouth stink doesn’t wash off. One season in Hanover and you’re permanently stinky. It sounds like his plan is to quarantine every member of last season’s 5-23 team by keeping them on bench rest and to start anew with this freshmen class. It’s like the plot of The Walking Dead.

Paul Franklin, Trenton Times: “Playing a little devil’s advocate with you here: if I’m a hardcore Cornell fan and I start harassing you with, ‘Hey coach, when are we going back to the Sweet Sixteen?’, what’s your response?”

Cornell head coach Bill Courtney: [Laughs] “I’ll tell you what, it’s funny because you get a lot of that when I go to the grocery store or the movies or something like that… We’re working towards that and we’ll continue to work until we get back to that point.”

Franklin: “Alright, you’ve got five years then I’m coming after you.”

Courtney: [Laughs] “I hear you.”

More gold from Franklin. The question is legitimate—when will the Big Red climb back to the top of the Ivy League?—but I wonder what he means by “coming after you.” I can only assume that Mr. Franklin has some ferocious tickling in store for Courtney if he can’t lead the Big Red back to March Madness by 2016.

Columbia head coach Kyle Smith, on senior guard Noruwa Agho: “I just feel he’s one of the best all-around players in the league and one of the best all-around players I’ve ever been around… I don’t know if that will show up as much in the stats, but it’s certainly showing up with his leadership.”

The Myth of Noruwa Agho lives on, but Smith at least seems to acknowledge that Agho’s raw stats hide his inefficiency. Thankfully for Columbia, Agho might lead the league in leadership, so they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.

Brown head coach Jesse Agel: “This league is really, really good. There are no nights off. There are no more weekends where, you know, Penn and Princeton would go somewhere and say, ‘Well, we’ve just got to get through this weekend and we should win two.’ I don’t think anyone’s thinking that anywhere now.”

Franklin: “No more sightseeing, huh?”

Agel: [Laughs] “I don’t know what you could see on some of those rides. Having lived up in the deep Northeast, not much sightseeing in the winter.”

Franklin: [Laughs] “Alright, thanks.”

Agel: “Sure.”

Franklin does it again! It might be the preseason, but Mr. Franklin is in rare form. He forced a chuckle out of Jesse Agel, who might be the most humorless coach in the Ivies. But Agel snaps back into his sour mien with a terse “sure” to close out a riveting, if hardly informative, hour and a half teleconference.

Tweet of the Week

In this weekly series, we examine the wisest, most insightful, and profound Twitter musings of our favorite Ivy scholars who also happen to play basketball.

The preseason is a time of questions, from the immediate to the big picture. Who will win the league? Which freshmen will impress? Should the Ivy League have a postseason tournament? Does defense matter? Curiosity reigns this time of year, but I don’t think any basketball prognosticators have asked the weighty question on Keith Wright’s mind:

Maybe his tweet is just a question from class (it is), but I prefer to look at it out of context. First, we can relax, knowing that this is just a hypothetical situation. Real genies obviously don’t offer ultimatums. You tell a genie what you want, and he delivers. If your genie starts making conditions for your wishes, you find a new genie.

Second, I’m assuming Wright’s conundrum is choosing between one great lover and the possibility of many, good and bad, paramours. Although the phrasing of his question might suggest the genie is in fact the one responsible for the “awesome orgasm,” I’m willing to bet Wright is not actually tempted by the sexy advances of a smoky, probably blue, supernatural spirit.

Wright’s question, then, boils down to the tradeoff between physical satisfaction and personal choice. Is it better to have your needs met regardless of circumstance or, for better or for worse, to have the freedom to determine your own fortune? It’s an age-old question that governs everything from relationships to politics. So while Dickie V polishes his crystal ball for a clearer picture of March, Wright spends his fall pondering mankind’s fundamental questions. We might need to start calling the Harvard big man the Big Aristotle.

By the way, you tell that genie that you’d rather play the field.

The Great Debate: Cornell 2009-10 vs. Harvard 2011-12


Who would win a hypothetical one-game playoff between 2009-10 Cornell and 2011-12 Harvard? (Photo Credit: gocrimson.com)

Ed Note: Our Cornell and Harvard writers participated in a debate over how a one-game playoff between the 2009-10 Cornell squad and the 2011-12 Harvard team would play out. This was a hypothetical game pitting the teams against each other. The debate was not meant to compare what each team has accomplished because Harvard, despite the lofty expectations, has done nothing yet this year. The point of this exercise was to compare how these teams would match up with one another and perhaps determine a ceiling for this heralded Crimson bunch if their unprecedented Ivy recruiting class lives up to the hype. With that out of the way, Sam Aleinikoff (SA) represented Cornell and C. River Banks (CRB) wrote in support of Harvard.


SA:

A year removed from a gut-wrenching finish to Ivy play for the Crimson, we’re putting Harvard back in another one-game playoff at Ivy Hoops Online, fictionally pitting this year’s Crimson against the 2009-2010 squad from Cornell. Let’s start by taking a look at the rosters before we get the debate going.

Cornell Big Red

G – Louis Dale – 5-11, 180 lbs – Senior
Accolades: Three-time First Team All-Ivy, 2008 Ivy League POY, 2008-2009 AP All-American Honorable Mention, 2010 Mid-Major MVP (awarded by collegeinsider.com)
Stats: (2009-2010) 12.8 ppg, 4.7 ast, 2.9 reb, 1.4 stl, 39% 3pt, 85% FT
Currently: Playing his second pro-season in Germany. Nicknamed “The Solution” by ESPN during the 2010 NCAA Tournament, Dale is terrorizing the likes of “The Answer” (Allen Iverson) overseas.
Hit List Includes: Outplaying John Wall in the Sweet Sixteen to the tune of 17 pts, 4 reb and 2 ast; torching Trevon Hughes and Jordan Taylor of Wisconsin for 26 pts, 3 reb and 3 ast; dominating Juan Fernandez and Temple with 21 pts and 7 ast.

G – Chris Wroblewski – Sophomore
Accolades: 2008-2009 Ivy League ROY, 2009-2010 All-Ivy Honorable Mention, 2010-2011 Second Team All-Ivy
Stats: (2009-2010) 9 ppg, 3.2 ast, 2.7 reb, 46% 3PT, 87% FT
Currently: Trying to help the Red recapture the glory during his senior year at Cornell.
Worth Noting: Ski was named Third-Team Academic All-America and was honored as one of the top 15 student-athletes in college basketball.

F – Ryan Wittman – 6-7, 215 lbs. – Senior
Accolades: 2006-2007 Ivy ROY, Three-time unanimous first team All-Ivy, Unanimous 2009-2010 Ivy POY, 2009-2010 AP All-American Honorable Mention
Stats: (2009-2010) 17.5 ppg, 4 reb, 1.8 ast, 43% 3PT, 83% FT
Currently: After a year bouncing between Italy and the NBA D-League, Wittman is currently unsigned for the 2011-2012 season.
Ryan Wittman “Facts”: The UN Security Council has determined that Ryan Wittman’s jump shot is a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Poor shooters can’t hit the broad side of a barn; Ryan Wittman hits all sides with a single shot (Courtesy of ryanwittmanfacts.com).

F – Jon Jaques – 6-7, 220 lbs. – Senior
Accolades: Tri-captain with fellow senior Jeff Foote and Alex Tyler, burst onto the scene as a Senior after seeing limited time over the first 3 years
Stats: 8 ppg, 3.4 reb, 1.2 stl, 1 ast, 48% 3 PT
Currently: A year of pro-ball in Israel was enough on the other side of the pond for Jaques who will now turn to coaching and join the staff at Stevens Tech in New Jersey.
Clutch Moments: The first meaningful minutes of his career came when he stepped onto the floor to sink game-icing free-throws vs. Drexel. Just a few games later, scored 20 pts to lead Cornell over St. John’s in MSG.

C – Jeff Foote – 7-0, 265 lbs. – Senior
Accolades: 2-time Ivy Defensive Player of the Year, 2009-2010 First Team All-Ivy, two-time second team All-Ivy
Stats: 12.4 ppg, 8.1 reb, 2.3 ast, 1.9 blk, 63% FG
Currently: Unsigned after playing his first professional year in Israel and Spain.
Poster Collection Includes: Kyle Singler (Duke – 2010 NBA Draft), Jon Leuer (Wisconsin), Arinze Onuaku (Syracuse), Wes Johnson (Syracuse – Lottery Pick), JaMychal Green (Alabama).

Head Coach – Steve Donahue – 10th Year with Cornell
Bio: Donahue won the Ivy title in each of his final three years with the Red. After a run to the Sweet Sixteen to close the 2009-2010 season Donahue jumped to the ACC, accepting the job at Boston College.

Bench
In the rotation: Alex Tyler (captain, 2 year starter), Geoff Reeves (2 year starter, lock-down defender), Max Groebe (UMass transfer, deadly shooter), Adam Wire (inch-for-inch likely the top defender on a team that included the Ivy League Defensive POY), Mark Coury (starter at Kentucky, relegated to the bench at Cornell, known for his toughness and defense), Errick Peck (Freshman Phenom)

The Case for the Red
The glass slipper never quite fit for the Red during the 2009-2010 season because Cornell was no Cinderella. Legitimately one of the top 25 teams in the country, the Red were thrown onto the national scene after a near-miss at top-ranked Kansas. The non-conference slate included wins over St. John’s, Alabama, UMass, St. Joe’s and La Salle. The conference schedule was a 13 game victory lap (with a 1-game hiccup) that made the rest of the league look like a group of high school teams. Highlights included a 36-point blowout of a 21-win Harvard team, a 14-point average margin of victory in league play and carrying the league back to national prominence with the Ancient Eight’s first Sweet Sixteen appearance in 30 years.

Harvard has an uber-athletic, highly-experienced squad returning this year, but the depth, talent, cohesion and intangibles just don’t match up. Anything short of a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament should be a disappointment for the Crimson this year, but in a one-game playoff there’s no question that 2009-2010 Cornell comes away victorious. Let’s just remember how clutch Harvard is in one-game playoffs…

CRB:

Harvard Crimson

G – Oliver McNally – 6-3, 180 lbs. – Senior
Accolades: Two-year co-captain
Stats: 10.1 ppg, 3.3 rebs, 3.1 ast, 49.1% FG, 44.2% 3PT, 92.6% FT
Worth Noting: Playing in the shadow of somewhat flashier company, McNally is the heart and soul of the Crimson, often supplying the biggest buckets in the biggest moments, like his game-winning runner at the Palestra last season or his last second free throw to force overtime at Yale in 2010.

G – Brandyn Curry – 6-1, 195 lbs. – Junior
Accolades: 2010-11 Second Team All-Ivy, 2010-11 Academic All-Ivy
Stats: 9.3 ppg, 5.9 ast, 3.8 rebs, 2.3 A-T ratio, 73.3% FT, 42.3% FG
Worth Noting: A crafty lefty and a sizzling ball-handler, Curry is the Crimson’s quarterback on offense and a lockdown perimeter defender.

F – Christian Webster – 6-5, 205 lbs. – Junior
Accolades: 2010-11 Honorable Mention All-Ivy
Stats: 13.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.5 ast, 89.4% FT, 43.5% FG, 39.9% 3PT
Worth Noting: Webster is a slasher from the wing, who is often tasked with jumpstarting the Crimson offense by attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line.

F – Kyle Casey – 6-7, 225 lbs. – Junior
Accolades: 2009-10 Ivy League ROY, 2010-11 Second Team All-Ivy, 2009-10 Honorable Mention All-Ivy
Stats: 10.7 ppg, 6.0 rebs, 1.1 blks, 50.5% FG, 78.6% FT
Worth Noting: An athletic scorer, Casey improved on a stalwart freshman campaign despite being hampered by a broken foot for much of last season.

C – Keith Wright – 6-8, 240 lbs. – Senior
Accolades: Two-time co-captain, 2010-11 Ivy League POY, 2010-11 Unanimous First Team All-Ivy, 2010-11 AP All-America Honorable Mention
Stats: 14.8 ppg, 8.3 rebs, 1.8 blk, 1.5 ast, 58.4% FG, 70.4% FT
Worth Noting: Wright made the leap last season from good big man to veritable paint monster; a willing passer and skilled finisher, he was a nightmare matchup for each opponent and the foundation of Harvard’s historically efficient offense.

Head Coach – Tommy Amaker – Fifth Year with Harvard
Bio: After stints at Seton Hall and Michigan, Amaker arrived in Cambridge, and, ever since, he has piloted Harvard’s meteoric rise to the top of the Ivy League standings. He is one of the most in-demand coaches for top college basketball programs.

Bench
In the rotation (projected): Laurent Rivard (standout sharp-shooter, looking to build on a superb rookie campaign), Wesley Saunders (much-heralded freshman who will try to crack the rotation), Kenyatta Smith (see Saunders), Steve Moundou-Missi (see Smith), Jonah Travis (see Moundou-Missi), Ugo Okam (giant center with developing skills and five-fouls to give), Matt Brown (energy guy and defensive specialist), Andrew Van Nest (serviceable big man who likes to launch the three), Jeff Georgatos (steady frontcourt presence who can hold it down in the post)

The Case for the Crimson

There is a growing trend among sportswriters to christen champions in the preseason. Considering the fates of the Miami Heat, the Boston Red Sox, and the Philadelphia Eagles, I don’t want to join that chorus and anoint the 2011-12 Harvard basketball team the successors to the 2009-10 Big Red. But for the sake of discussion (and out of enthusiasm for the upcoming season), I’m willing to consider a hypothetical one-game playoff between the two teams.

Can Harvard win? Yes. I don’t have the luxury of pointing to a list of accomplishments because, well, they haven’t accomplished anything as of yet. But Curry-McNally-Webster-Casey-Wright match up with Dale-Reeves-Jaques-Wittman-Foote at least as well as the Penn team that authored the lone blemish on Cornell’s league record and the Princeton squad that took the Big Red down to the wire twice. I’ll grant that those midseason games lack the urgency of a one-game playoff, and Cornell would likely be at its best in this imaginary playoff against Harvard. But I still think the Crimson has a decent shot. Here’s how I see it going down:

Foote is the Big Red’s big advantage (literally). His size was almost impossible to counter, especially with the Ivies’ lack of size on the bench. However, this Harvard team is unique in its ability to make Foote earn his points. It has at least eight different players that it can put on the big man—that’s forty fouls on a sub-60 percent free-throw shooter. On the other end, the Crimson has the offensive talent to challenge Foote in the paint and perhaps put him in foul trouble. In the backcourt, McNally and Curry are arguably the equals to Dale and Reeves (if that seems outlandish, please just wait to see the kind of year Curry has). That leaves Wittman and Casey. I know Wittman is a demigod in Ithaca, but, despite whatever memes you’ve created for him, he still missed 57.4 percent of his threes. I think a healthy Casey can bring as much to the table as the Big Red POY, though I guess this season will be the true test for that statement.

Of course, a Crimson victory is predicated on a lot of breaks falling its way, but none of them seem too farfetched, no? How do you see The Game playing out tactically and strategically?

One more question: Without trying to sound controversial, I personally think the Big Red dynasty has been overly mythologized. Of course, they won all of those games, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, and they deserve every bit of the credit that has come their way. But other unheralded mid-majors have advanced beyond the first weekend—Richmond and VCU last year, St. Mary’s and Northern Iowa in 2010, Davidson and Western Kentucky in 2008, etc.—all of which were stellar teams, but these squads can easily be thought to have “outperformed” their expected result. Yet, for some reason, Ivy fans have taken it for granted that Cornell was exactly as good as its No. 17 ranking. Does even a little part of you think maybe the Big Red was fortunate to beat Temple and Wisconsin (despite the one-sidedness of those contests)? Are these just the sour grapes of a Harvard fan who still hasn’t gotten over that 36-point shit-kicking?

SA:

First of all, let’s take a look at that final point…”fortunate”?

Quite honestly, Temple and Wisconsin were both fortunate that the score didn’t truly represent how one sided those match-ups were. The shellackings that the 2009-2010 Red put on their NCAA tournament foes in the first two rounds were far from fortunate.

A comparison to 2010 Richmond (13-3 in the Atlantic 10, regular season wins over Purdue, Arizona State, Seton Hall and Wake Forest) is welcomed. Richmond looked like a Sweet Sixteen team and was a Sweet Sixteen team.

I’ll take the Northern Iowa comparison too. A team that lost just five games all year, was under-seeded because of the conference it plays in, had a seven foot center who gave BCS big men fits, knocked down shots from every part of the floor and played Kansas tight – sound familiar? Oh yeah. Cornell and Northern Iowa from 2009-2010 were comparable teams, were legit top-25 teams and would both beat 2011-2012 Harvard nine times out of ten.

Davidson 2008 – close calls against top-10 teams in the non-conference, dominate in their league, show their true colors against the big conferences in the Tournament. Davidson was also deserving of it’s spot in the final rankings.

VCU went from a slightly above average CAA team to a Final Four participant. Yes, agreed, they outperformed in March (April finally brought them back down). Cornell was no VCU. There is no Final Four banner in the rafters of Newman Arena, but there were also no 11-loss regular season and no consistent slip ups against the likes of Georgia State, James Madison or Drexel. There should be no questions that Cornell 2009-2010 is no VCU.

Cornell was also no St. Mary’s. See the match-ups against a one-year-away Richmond team and an imploding Villanova squad if you want to understand what it means to be fortunate in March.

Western Kentucky? They needed OT to beat Drake and then got 13-seeded San Diego in Round 2. Again, see Western Kentucky’s 2008 NCAA Tournament for an example of fortune.

Cornell was not fortunate. March of 2009 was merely a continuation of what they had done since November.

Let’s digress from the Cornell – (insert successful mid-major team here) comparisons. The real debate is Cornell vs. Harvard.

In the frontcourt: Hack-a-Foote still gives the 7-footer a chance at the line and even a 60% FT shooter makes a majority of his shots. Also – suggesting Van Nest or Okam in the post against Foote? Please, please, Tommy Amaker, make that mistake again. On the defensive end, Donahue’s constant substitutions between Foote, Coury, Tyler and Wire – not to mention his man, 1-3-1, 2-3, 3-2 and match-up zones – and Wright and Casey would get nothing in the paint. Wright finds foul trouble much to quickly against lesser, smaller foes. Foote, with 4 inches and 25 pounds on him would be virtually unstoppable. Casey is a nice piece but he has neither the strength to match Coury or Tyler in the post, nor the perimeter play to match Jaques. Forget Wittman, Casey wouldn’t be tabbed with that responsibility.

On the wing: Webster on Wittman might be the best matchup Harvard would get. Webster’s length and athleticism could frustrate Wittman on the perimeter, but Webster is a glorified slasher and an overrated defender. Wittman would get his in transition or off a quick release from the Red’s ball movement. Best case for Harvard: Wittman puts up 15 points on 15 shots and Webster manages to get a few buckets in transition to make up for his lack of legitimate half court production against such a long, smart, athletically-underrated team.

In the backcourt: McNally on Wroblewski could be a toss up. McNally has more size. Ski has the passing ability. Both have stability, consistency. The only difference is that McNally is asked to take on a bigger role with his teammates around him faltering. Against Cornell’s best on ball defender he can’t get much.

Dale vs. Curry is almost a joke. Curry may have the quickness but in every other facet of the game Dale has the edge – shooting, off the dribble, on the boards, generally leading a team…the list goes on. If he puts up 17 on John Wall and 20 on the combination of Jeremy Lin, Curry (as a freshman) and anyone else the Crimson had in the backcourt, please, please bring on Curry on his own. Turn the TV on because Dale is about to go off.

On the bench: Talent, experience and cohesion (Red) vs. unproven, yet highly touted, underclassmen (Harvard). Good luck Harvard.

A neutral site keeps this game within 20 and interesting until midway through the second half. That’s when Wright is sitting with 4 fouls apiece, Van Nest and Okam have been thrashed for a few too many and the freshman are tabbed with fighting the top true center the mid-majors have seen since Andrew Bogut.

Yes, Harvard is talented and could steal one out of 10 from Cornell – that was better than Penn’s chances and they pulled it off in the Palestra – so maybe, just maybe, in Lavietes the Crimson could too. The Princeton comparison is ridiculous. A slow-it-down team that relies on steady coaching is a far cry from Harvard’s up and down style.

Keith Wright and Harvard look like a poor man’s Levoy Allen and Temple who the good-not-lucky Red beat handily in March. Cornell wins going away, 78-63.

CRB:

I only brought up the possibility that 2009-10 Cornell is remembered too fondly in the context of this playoff, not in order to besmirch the best Ivy team of this decade. But since I’m the lone wolf crying in the wilderness on this point, I guess we’ll drop the argument.

In the frontcourt: I witnessed Foote’s abuse of Van Nest in 2010—it wasn’t pretty. So believe me, I don’t have any delusions of Van Nest, Okam, or any of the freshmen somehow stopping “the top true center the mid-majors have seen since Andrew Bogut.” They are perfectly capable of fouling Foote though, and the visual of the 7-footer standing on the free-throw line does not inspire much fear in the heart of this Harvard fan. If the Crimson loses by Foote hitting his freebies, so be it. Also, I think you might be underrating Casey’s impact. Sure, you can say he doesn’t have Tyler’s strength or Jaques’ “perimeter play,” but I’d argue that Tyler doesn’t have Casey’s “perimeter play” and Jaques doesn’t have the big man’s strength. What’s to prevent Casey from exposing their weaknesses as opposed to the other way around? Lastly, to clarify, I didn’t mean to suggest that Wittman and Casey would be matched up in my initial Wittman/Casey comparison; I meant to contrast only their production.

On the wing: I’m glad you afford Webster as much respect as you do. He’s the least flashy of Harvard’s contributors and sometimes overlooked, but without Webster’s wing play, the Crimson’s inside-out offense becomes one dimensional. I’ve never considered Webster a great defender, and Wittman is so tall with such a quick release that I don’t see him being all that effective stopping the shooter. I’d hope for the kind of 15-point off night from Wittman that you’re describing.

In the backcourt: As pleased as I am over your feelings on Webster, I’m just as disappointed in your assessment of Curry. The kid can play. He’s not as essential to Harvard as Wright, but I think you could argue that he was the Crimson’s best player throughout league play last year. Your flippant dismissal of him as a “joke” really only conveys to me that you haven’t seen him play enough. A junior, his story is only half written at this point, but I would not at all be surprised if, when all is said and done, his mantel has some of the same hardware as Dale’s. I would absolutely turn on my TV and get my popcorn ready for the Dale-Curry matchup. I don’t think it would be nearly as one-sided as you imagine.

On the bench: I’ll concede any and all points in this area because, at this stage, the Harvard freshmen are a relative unknown.

Coaching: Amaker knows how to run a program, but, fairly or unfairly, his Xs-and-Os have always been called into question. Donahue’s bona fides are stronger, and he is more familiar with the 2009-10 team than Amaker is with his 2011-12 squad. Coach D probably has the edge in a game situation.

I’m surprised that you think Cornell would win nine of out ten times. If you wanted a number from me, I would have said two out of three and a mean outcome of Cornell 75, Harvard 71 (I hope commenters won’t hesitate to post their predictions below). That’s no slight to the Big Red, I just think this Harvard team can be that good. If the Crimson manages to live up to the expectations for this season, it would be interesting to revisit this argument again in the spring.

SA:

Curry is no joke. Watching him twice in person last year, I thought as a sophomore he was the most impressive member of a highly-talented Harvard squad. It is the Dale-Curry match-up that I think would be a joke. My memory of Dale may be tainted because his final three games in a Cornell uniform were likely the best three games of his career, but if Dale were to play in his NCAA Tournament form (which I’ll mention once again was good enough to outplay John Wall, Trevon Hughes and Juan Fernandez), then I think this is no contest.

Nonetheless, you bring up a good point. This analysis completely depends on the time of year that we’re talking about. Cornell in November 2009 was very different from Cornell in March 2010. I’m sure the same will be true for this year’s Harvard team. Cornell in March vs. Harvard in November is a no-brainer for me. Cornell in March vs. Harvard in March could be a very different story.

If the young bench develops and Wright, Casey and Co. continue to improve, I could easily see Harvard raising a Sweet Sixteen banner of their own in Cambridge. If the team is virtually the same as the one we saw last year, I see a quick exit from the tournament. Regardless, the fact that Harvard has the talent and experience to even warrant this discussion says something about the Crimson’s outlook for the year.

The one thing that struck me watching Harvard last year is that they looked like a BCS conference team minus a couple inches. Keith Wright at 6-10, Kyle Casey at 6-9, Christian Webster at 6-7, Oliver McNally at 6-5 and Brandyn Curry at 6-2 – that’s a scary starting five in any conference in America. The athleticism and talent is there at every position to compete with just about anyone in the country. They can score in bunches, defend and force turnovers, get up and down the floor like a major conference school. With a couple added inches this team would be a top-25 team all year.

The Cornell 2009 – Harvard 2011 should be an interesting argument in the Spring once we have a better sense of this year’s group in Cambridge. Who knows, maybe I’ll be eating my words if Harvard manages to run the table in the Ivy League and make a little noise in the nonconference.

Either way, basketball season is upon us. Midnight Madness publicly kicked off the season for Harvard earlier this weekend and Cornell faithful will get their first glimpse of their team in less than a week at the annual Red-White scrimmage. Regardless of who you root for, with the hardwood squeaking once again and slates wiped completely clean, its tough to complain this time of year.

CRB:

Absolutely. This frivolous comparison is just one of the many subplots in what should be a fascinating season. I wish you the worst of luck, my friend.

Crimson Madness

The Harvard Crimson raised its first championship banner at the inaugural "Crimson Madness" event to kick off the season on Saturday. (Photo Credit: gocrimson.com)

As part of its quest to become a legitimate college basketball destination, Harvard held the inaugural “Crimson Madness” to kick off its season on Saturday. I had been hoping for an event like this for the last couple of years, but I was skeptical that the program could pull it off. Considering Harvard’s frequently apathetic student body, I was afraid that Lavietes Pavilion would be mostly empty with an awkward, party-that-nobody-showed-up-to vibe. Fortunately for Tommy Amaker, Crimson Madness exceeded expectations.

The staff deserves a lot of credit for making the event work. They slated it for after the Harvard-Bucknell football game to capture the departing crowd, they invited student groups to perform, and they incorporated the banner-raising ceremony into the festivities. The building wasn’t quite filled (maybe three-quarters full), the atmosphere wasn’t exactly fever-pitched (fans didn’t know who to root for in the scrimmage), and the play wasn’t always watchable (both sides struggled with shooting and turnovers), but students and locals turned out and a residual optimism from the spring was palpable.

It’s foolish to read too much into an hour-long practice, but Crimson Madness provided a first glimpse into the 2011-12 Ivy League favorites. Keith Wright and Brandyn Curry dominated the scrimmage, accounting for 29 of the crimson team’s 40 points. Putting on an aerial display in warm-ups, Kyle Casey looked totally recuperated from foot surgery in the spring. The freshmen too—Saunders, Moundou-Missi, Smith, Travis—really threw it down during lay-up lines, though they struggled on both ends in the scrimmage. Ugo Okam (who, frankly, I had discounted entirely after an unimpressive rookie year) showed much improved dexterity around the rim. No one shot very well, as Max Hooper hit the only three-pointer in the entire 20-minute game. Kenyatta Smith was sporting an awful pubescent mustache.

Generally, play was sloppy, but that didn’t matter in the slightest. Crimson Madness had nothing to do with the team’s performance; it was more of a gauge on the basketball squad’s relevance within the Harvard, as well as the local, community. In that sense, the event was a resounding success, and I fully expect to see it return in the coming seasons.

Around the League, Midnight Madness Edition: 10.14.11

A few links to take you into the weekend on Midnight Madness Day, the first official day of the season:

Harvard prepares for Saturday’s inaugural Crimson Madness, where the team will unveil its first championship banner from last year’s historic run that ended with a share of the conference title.

“The festivities, which begin at Lavietes Pavilion at 4 p.m., will include a team scrimmage and the raising of Harvard’s first-ever Ivy League championship banner.” (thecrimson.com)

 

The Buzz touches briefly on what the Quakers have in store for the upcoming year.

“The Quakers have arguably the best backcourt in the league with the trio of Zack Rosen, Tyler Bernardini and Miles Cartwright. But their depth in the frontcourt is a major vulnerability. The key questions for Penn will be whether senior forward Mike Howlett can stay healthy, whether sophomore big men Cam Gunter and Fran Dougherty can step up to replace graduated seniors, and whether the freshmen forwards can make an immediate impact.” (thedp.com/thebuzz)

 

The Trentonian talks to Mitch Henderson and takes a look at Princeton’s schedule.

“‘We are very excited,’ Henderson said. ‘All summer we have been talking as a staff about finding our identity…Everyone is looking to get to work. We have a good schedule for us and it is challenging… We want to play a style of basketball that we can be proud of.'”  (www.trentonian.com)

 

GoLocalProv has an optimistic preview of the Brown Bears

“The Bears have reason to be optimistic as they feature a roster that may be as talented and as deep as any the program has seen since the 2002-2003 team that won 17 games and played in the NIT.” (golocalprov.com)

 

 

Breaking Down Rivals' Ivy League Preview

Rivals.com picked the Crimson to win the league title and Keith Wright to repeat as Player of the Year. (Photo Credit: 5-Star Basketball)

Rivals.com (Yahoo Sports) ranked the Ivy League 20th in their countdown of college basketball”s 32 conferences. The first half of the article consists of the usual praise for Cornell and Princeton”s recent postseason performance. The author, David Fox, seems to suggest that Harvard, this year”s prohibitive favorite, may have a different competitor to deal with at the top of the standings with Princeton losing Maddox and Mavraides. He cites Penn and Yale as the two squads with which the Crimson may have to contend, while suggesting Brown may make a leap from the bottom behind the youth movement led by McGonagill and Rafael Maia.

The rankings below the article though, at times, seem to be disconnected from the analysis. Princeton is left in the #2 spot, ahead of Penn and Yale even though Fox claimed Harvard would have different competition for the title. Additionally, Ian Hummer is given a spot on the league”s second team. If Hummer carries the Tigers to a second place finish this year after losing Maddox and Mavraides, I have to like his chances to make the first team.

The projected standings also show Brown staying put in the #7 slot despite the aforementioned praise and the prediction that Maia will be the league”s Rookie of the Year. While there are certainly minutes for Maia in the Bears” frontcourt that other freshmen may not see, a ROY season combined with last year”s ROY in the backcourt in McGonagill as well as All-Ivy Honorable Mention Tucker Halpern on the wing, who shot 40% from distance last year, and it seems like the Bears should be able to finish higher than 7th.

Other choices that deserve further examination include “Best frontcourt: Harvard,” which could also have been awarded to the Yale Bulldogs with the duo of Mangano and Kreisberg (with freshmen Sherrod and Childs-Klein coming off the bench). Best backcourt was given to Penn, though Brandyn Curry, Christian Webster, Oliver McNally, and Laurent Rivard may have something to say about that up in Cambridge.

Interestingly, in the “Coach on the hot seat” category, Rivals chose “None.” But if, as they predicted, the Bears fail to move up from the bottom this year, you have to think that things are going to get uncomfortably warm for Coach Agel in Providence.

Around the League: 10.12.11

A couple interesting mid-week links that you may have missed:

 

Coach Tommy Amaker spoke yesterday at the inaugural Massachusetts College Basketball Media Day at Boston University. (Photo Credit: gocrimson.com)

 

  • “Reggie Willhite also had a unique basketball experience, training with former Duke stars Christian Laettner and Grant Hill…” (yalebulldogs.com)

 

Penn will face Canadian champion Carleton University in exhibition

  • “Based in Canada, Carleton is a member of the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) conference and last year won the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) championship for the seventh time in nine years. During the months of August and September, Carleton went 5-4 in the Cross-Border Battle, including wins over Saint Louis, Niagara and UC-Santa Barbara as well as a two-point loss to La Salle.” (pennathletics.com)

 

Amaker, McNally, and Joe Jones discuss college basketball”s opportunity for increased exposure during the NBA lockout

  • “[Amaker]: Although I would love to see the NBA season, given how things are shaping up it could be something that college basketball could benefit from. With how popular and great the Celtics have been, not to have part of their season, maybe it will be an opportunity for college basketball to gain some traction and momentum.” (bostonherald.com)

 

 

Season in Review: Harvard Crimson

Fans celebrated at Lavietes Pavilion when Harvard knocked off Princeton, 79-67, on March 5th, 2011 to capture their first share of an Ivy League crown. (Photo Credit: gocrimson.com)
This is the fourth piece in a series looking back at how each Ivy League squad fared during the 2010-11 season. The Harvard Crimson ended the year at 23-7 (12-2), finishing in a tie for first place and earning an NIT bid.

 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. 2010-11 was Harvard basketball’s most successful season to date and its most heartbreaking. The Crimson won 23 games and earned its first-ever share of an Ivy League title, but, thanks to a Doug Davis leaner, it failed to punch a ticket to the Dance, and, like every other year since the Truman administration, it was on the outside looking in on the Madness.

Still, the final result—an NIT bid—was not an insignificant achievement for a team that began the season with serious question marks. The departure of jack-of-all-trades guard Jeremy Lin left an enormous void across the board in Harvard’s production. Lacking a star of Lin’s stature, the team would need to rely on all of its players to collectively compensate for the loss of the Golden State guard. But before the season even began, that task grew more difficult when reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year Kyle Casey suffered a broken bone in his foot, sidelining the big man for eight weeks and hampering him throughout the season.

Harvard began its schedule with a lackluster road performance against a very strong George Mason team, which ran away from the Crimson in the second half en route to a 66-53 victory. Two weeks later, Harvard labored throughout a three-point win over a lowly Bryant squad that went 1-29 the year before. But the Crimson hit its stride a few days later when it defended Lavietes, 82-66, against a Colorado team that featured future first-round pick Alec Burks. Although Harvard coughed up a 12-point lead in a loss to Michigan and got run off the court by eventual national champions UConn, the Crimson picked up a win over another BCS school at the end of non-conference play with its third straight victory over Boston College, 78-69.

By the time January rolled around, it was clear that the Crimson was an improved team over last year and, without juggernaut Cornell in the picture, it was a frontrunner for the league title. Part of its success came from expected sources: the team got superb guard play out of sophomore Brandyn Curry and junior Oliver McNally, reliable wing scoring from sophomore Christian Webster, and versatility mixed with athleticism from Casey. Perhaps unexpected, though, was the immediate impact of Canadian sharpshooter Laurent Rivard, who posed a serious threat from deep, and, most importantly, the development of forward Keith Wright.

Wright changed from a big body with bad hands into a beast on the block. His ability to finish and willingness to pass made him virtually indefensible, for beefy BCS bigs and brainy Ivy defenders alike. He carried the Crimson with 12 double-doubles on the season, and he finished the year with a stat line of 14.9 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game. Wright’s performance was good enough to earn him Ivy League Most Valuable Player (though not without controversy, as evinced by Greg Mangano’s Twitter outburst), just the second Harvard player to win that distinction.

The Crimson’s hot start to league play did little to temper the optimism surrounding the team, as Harvard breezed through its first four conference games before facing Princeton at Jadwin. The Tigers outplayed the Crimson, especially in the final 30 minutes, earning a 65-61 victory and putting an end to Harvard’s eight-game winning streak. But the Crimson had little time to wallow in the loss. The next night they played an epic double overtime game against Penn. After giving up a 15-point lead, Harvard was tied with Penn and had a chance to win at the buzzer, but an apparent foul that would have sent Curry to the line with no time left was waved off, and the game was sent into overtime. In the first extra period, the Crimson had a two-point lead in the waning moments. Penn guard Zack Rosen drove into the lane, hung in the air, and connected on a shot that video later indicated came after the buzzer. The referees didn’t have the luxury of instant replay though, and we were heading into another overtime. A McNally baseline drive gave Harvard a one-point lead in the final seconds, and this time Casey blocked Rosen’s last-ditch attempt. After the game, Wright correctly observed, “We beat that team three times.”

The rest of the season had its share of memorable games: a 3-point barnburner versus Yale, 24- and 15-point comebacks against Brown. A Princeton loss to the Bears meant the Crimson controlled its own destiny for the final two weeks, but Harvard squandered the opportunity by faltering in a 70-69 loss to the Bulldogs at John J. Lee Amphitheater. The defeat set the stage for a showdown with league-leader Princeton on the final Saturday of the regular season. The atmosphere in Lavietes was electric. After a back-and-forth first half, the Crimson began to control the game in the second frame. Casey, whose baseline drive and jam ignited the second-half run, led his team in scoring with 24 points, all the while hobbling on a broken foot that would require surgery after the season. When the final seconds ticked off the 79-67 victory, Harvard students rushed the court to celebrate at least a share of the school’s first-ever Ivy League title.

Of course, the story of the 2010-11 Harvard basketball team has a bitter ending. Princeton earned a one-game playoff after beating Penn, and the two teams squared off at JJLA for a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. You already know what happened, so spare me the misery of reliving it. 2.8 seconds.

There was some noise about the Crimson receiving an at-large bid to the Tourney, but, to be honest, the team didn’t deserve it. They had their chance. The NIT was a nice consolation, but, given the emotional defeat just days earlier, no one expected Harvard to do much damage. Indeed, Oklahoma St. throttled the Crimson, 71-54, ending what was the greatest season in school history.

Thankfully for the Harvard faithful, the future is bright. The team returns all of its players as well as head coach Tommy Amaker, and it will benefit from another much-heralded freshman class. If it plays its cards right, come this March, Cambridge might just party like its 1946.

Ivy League POY Keith Wright among Wooden Award Preseason Top 50

 

Harvard's Keith Wright was honored as a Wooden Award Preseason nominee. (Photo Credit: gocrimson.com)

Reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Keith Wright added another honor to his resume on Monday when he was included on the Wooden Award Preseason Top 50 list. The Wooden Award is given to the nation’s most outstanding basketball player who also maintains a minimum 2.0 GPA and demonstrates strength of character both on and off the court.

Wright acknowledged the recognition in a tweet earlier today, “Truly honored & blessed to be on such a prestigious list w/ so many talented players. Wouldn’t be there without my teammates & the man above.” He was the only Ivy League player to make the list.

Looking ahead, the Preseason Top 50 list will be whittled down to 20 student-athletes by college basketball media members around midseason. Those voters will mark their ballots, and choose the Top 10, who will then be named to the Wooden All-American team during the weekend of the Elite Eight in March.