When new national darling Jeremy Lin was a senior at Harvard in 2009-10, he ranked among the nation's top 100 in true shooting percentage, assist rate, steal percentage, and fouls drawn per 40 minutes. He was also in the top 400 for minutes, overall offensive efficiency and blocks percentage. It would have been an understatement to call him well-rounded.
In Lin's senior season, the Crimson went 21-8 overall and 10-4 in the Ivy League; it was their first 20-win season since 1946. He helped coach Tommy Amaker break through in his third season in Cambridge. Since Lin left, however, Harvard has, improbably, gotten better. They went 23-5 and 12-2 in 2010-11, and in 2011-12 they are not only 20-2 and 6-0, but have spent a good portion of the season ranked in the AP Top 25 (they are currently 25th). The Crimson have not yet made an NCAA Tournament bid under Amaker -- their last bid came in that same 1945-46 season -- but a win tonight against Penn in The Palestra could do a lot to solidify their chances.
So how is Harvard doing it? And compared to some other surprising mid-majors -- Murray State, Long Beach State, Iona, Cleveland State (all of whom are receiving AP votes) -- how good, truly good, are the Crimson?
To answer this question, let's start by looking at their schedule to date. Obviously an Ivy League team is going to struggle to put together a quality strength of schedule, but the Crimson have at least played a FEW interesting teams.
Here are Harvard's results against Top 200 teams (according to Ken Pomeroy's rankings) and/or major conference competition:
- vs No. 24 Florida State -- W, 46-41
- at No. 40 Connecticut -- L, 53-67
- No. 66 Saint Joseph's -- W, 74-69
- vs No. 94 Central Florida -- W, 59-49
- at No. 139 Loyola Marymount -- W, 77-67
- at No. 142 Vermont -- W, 55-48
- at No. 166 Boston U. -- W, 76-52
- No. 170 Columbia -- W, 57-52
- No. 172 George Washington -- W, 69-48
- No. 174 Florida Atlantic -- W, 63-51
- at No. 177 Yale -- W, 65-35
- No. 179 Cornell -- W, 71-60
- at No. 240 Boston College -- W, 67-46
- vs No. 311 Utah -- W, 75-47
Looking only at these results, one gets the impression that the ceiling for this team is rather high. They have played their seven best opponents away from home and only lost at UConn. There is, however, one more result that lends to a different impression:
- at No. 277 Fordham -- L, 54-60
Versus Fordham, the Crimson turned the ball over 15 times (normal for them) and, more importantly, shot horribly. They shot 36 percent from the field, 27 percent on 3-pointers and just 50 percent on 12 free throws. This hinted at a couple of possible weaknesses overall:
1. They turn the ball over. A lot. They rank 232nd in turnover rate and 144th in steals allowed. In terms of usage, their four most frequent contributors -- juniors Kyle Casey (6-foot-7, 225 pounds) and Brandyn Curry (6-foot-1, 195 pounds), freshman Jonah Travis (6-foot-6, 225 pounds) and senior Keith Wright (6-foot-8, 240 pounds) -- all have turnover rates of at least 20 percent, as do senior Olivier McNally (6-foot-3, 180 pounds) and blue-chip freshman Wesley Saunders (6-foot-5, 215 pounds). Sophomore guard Laurent Rivard is a quality ball-handler, but he might be the only one (He also might be their only consistently good 3-point shooter). If they were to draw a turnover-happy defensive team like Kansas State or West Virginia in the Round of 64, their (likely) stay in the NCAA Tournament could be brief. However, if they were to be matched up with a a team that DOESN'T force turnovers (Wichita State, Notre Dame, Connecticut, Temple), then they might be able to overcome this deficiency.
2. Theirs is a jump-shooting offense. Typically this is okay -- they rank 65th in effective field goal percentage as a team, making 51 percent of their 2-pointers, 36 percent of their 3-pointers and 75 percent of their free throws. They do draw a ton of fouls, which is a good way to manufacture points when the jumpers aren't falling, but the more reliant you are on jumpers, the more prone you are to cold nights. If you cannot generate easy possessions, either with free throws (check), run-out opportunities (not so much) or second-chance points (not so much), then you are incredibly vulnerable in the NCAA Tournament.
Focusing on offensive droughts, however, ignores one major strength for this Crimson team: they play really, really good defense. They rank 20th overall in defensive efficiency, 22nd in def. effective field goal percentage, 33rd in defensive rebounding rate, and 42nd in fouls committed. They play wonderful perimeter defense without fouling -- opponents are making just 63 percent of their free throws (which suggests that most of their fouls come against bigs), and only 26 percent of opponents' shots come from 3-point range. They are not incredibly big -- only Wright is taller than 6-foot-7 -- but they are thick and strong, with seven of ten rotation players weighing at least 205 pounds. If you cannot take advantage of their turnover problems and generate points in transition, they will wear you down with their physical play and snail-slow pace (Their 61.7 possessions per game rank 325th in the nation).
In judging Harvard anecdotally, we are obviously dealing with a limited sample size; the Crimson have played just two games versus Top 50 teams and just four versus Top 100 teams. They shot 36 percent against Connecticut and 27 percent against Florida State, but their defense was stout enough in these four games that they still won three of them. They are a strong, physical team, one that is not altogether unlike last year's Butler team, which lacked in explosiveness but played such smart defense that they got back to the NCAA title game. But assuming they do indeed make their first NCAA Tournament in 66 years this March, their success will be, like most, dependent on their draw. A team with length and quickness can shut down their offense, but if the Crimson suck their opponents into a defensive slog, they could win a few games.
Of course, they have to win their conference first. At 6-0 in Ivy League play, they own a one-game lead over Yale, whom they defeated by 30 on the road two weeks ago; they do still have to play Penn (4-1) twice, however. The Quakers rank just 125th overall in Pomeroy's rankings, but they have won five of six and just handled a decent Saint Joseph's team by virtually the same margin (four points) as Harvard. Penn does indeed force turnovers at a reasonable rate, and at home they can get hot from 3-point range (they are making 37.3 percent of their long-balls on the season). Senior guards Zack Rosen and Tyler Bernardini have combined to make 100 3-pointers so far this season, and if they are getting the calls (they do tend to foul a lot while drawing few fouls of their own), they could pull an upset that at least briefly derails Harvard's plans of an easy Ivy title.