Ivy League Playoff: A PreviewPosted by Brian Goodman on March 12th, 2011
This day seemed inevitable. From the first practice in October, these two schools were on a collision course; a date with destiny for the two most talented teams in the Ivy League. One with a storied tradition; one hoping to begin one. One looking to return to prominence; one looking to go where they had not before. One will be cutting down the nets; one will experience paradise lost. Princeton and Harvard–today at 4 PM at Lee Amphitheater on the campus of Yale and ESPN3.com on your computer screen. Round three, the playoff. The chance to dance.
How They Got Here
They both entered their first meeting on February 4 at Princeton on hot streaks. Princeton had won 12 of 13 and Harvard had won eight in a row. The game did not disappoint. Though both struggled from the field, it was close most of the way. Ian Hummer sealed the deal for the Tigers late with two free throws en route to a 65-61 Princeton victory. The loss continued a streak of Crimson frustration at Jadwin–now winless in their last 22 trips.
The prevailing thought was that neither team was likely to stumble before their rematch a month later in Cambridge and it would be that game that would decide the title. Wrong… and right. First to fall was Princeton, shooting 38% from the field, 19% from three, and watching Brown make 25 of 27 free throws, a recipe that resulted in a ten-point defeat. Harvard, not being able to stand prosperity, followed suit a week later, blowing a late lead, and suffering an excruciating one point loss at Yale (an omen perhaps?). It set up a must-win for the Crimson on March 5 at home. They thrilled their home crowd as they began the second half with a 21-12 run that turned a one point half time lead into a 58-48 advantage. Princeton would never get close. The weekend ended with Harvard clinging to a half game lead, pending the outcome of Princeton/Penn at the Palestra.
That game was played as if the Quakers couldn’t wait for the season to end and, despite protestations to the contrary, that the Tigers were looking ahead. Penn quickly scored the first two baskets of the second half and Princeton found themselves in an eight point hole. Time out. An agitated Sydney Johnson reminded his team what was at stake. An 11-0 run opened up a lead they would never relinquish. When the horn sounded, Harvard and Princeton were deadlocked at 12-2 atop the Ivy League.
Projected Starting Lineups:
F #34 Ian Hummer F #44 Keith Wright
F #44 Brendan Connolly F #30 Kyle Casey
F #22 Patrick Sanders G #11 Oliver McNally
G #20 Doug Davis G #10 Brandyn Curry
G #13 Dan Mavraides G #15 Christian Webster
Frontcourt Breakdown: Harvard basically plays only two bigs pretty much the entire game. And given their performance, the really have no need for others. 6’7 sophomore Kyle Casey and 6’8 240 junior Keith Wright are hard to stop. Casey, last year’s Ivy Newcomer of the Year, missed the first six games with an injury, but averages nearly 11 points and 6 rebounds per game. Wright, the 2010-2011 Player of the Year in some circles, was third in the league in scoring (14.9) and second in rebounding (8.5) The tandem has been particularly difficult for Princeton to control. In the head-to-head matchups they have scored nearly half of the Crimson points (64 out of 140) and have tallied 23 rebounds. Foul problems have plagued both and indeed Casey fouled out of their second meeting. Princeton starts three forwards but of the trio only Ian Hummer sees significant minutes. (Connolly, for example, has started every game but averages only 13 minutes) He is slight of frame but has good moves around the basket. He still managed to average close to seven boards a game while scoring at nearly a 14 ppg clip. The real “beast” up front for the Tigers is Senior Kareem Maddox (another in the POY conversation). He comes off the bench but plays over 30 minutes per game (both teams have four players who do so). He led the team in both scoring and rebounding–narrowly over Hummer in both categories. Anyone of the “Big Four” is capable of being the difference maker. Edge: Even
Backcourt Breakdown: Not only does Harvard start three guards, but their one sub of note is also a guard-freshman sensation Laurent Rivard. While Wright and Casey up front are pretty consistent, the backcourt foursome usually determines whether the Crimson will be in clover. Last year, RTC predicted stardom for the then-freshman pair of Brandyn Curry and Christian Webster. While they have not yet received national acclaim, they have had solid campaigns. Curry led the league (and ranked #16 nationally) in assists at nearly six per game. Webster was second on the team in scoring (13.3), and McNally and Rivard both shot over 40% from beyond the arc. In fact, Harvard was #42 in the country in three-point accuracy. The Crimson were also #2 nationally (trailing only Wisconsin) in free throw percentage thanks to Rivard, Webster, and McNally who all shoot over 90%. Princeton’s backcourt duos are no slouches. Doug Davis is a steady but unspectacular point guard-if there is a true one in the Princeton style of offense. He averaged close to 12 point per contest and certainly takes care of the ball-averaging less than two turnovers per game in over 33 minutes of action. Dan Mavraides does a little bit of everything for the Tigers – a stat sheet stuffer who averages nearly 13 points, three assists, and five rebounds per game in 33 minutes. He has been particularly effective against Harvard, scoring 15 in their first meeting while single-handedly keeping then in shouting distance in the rematch with 25. No Tiger guard sees meaningful minutes off the bench. Edge: Harvard
Bench: Only two players to speak about. Laurent Rivard of Harvard has been a revelation in his first season and indeed is a candidate for both Newcomer of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year. He is third on the team in scoring (11.4), and as already mentioned, is deadly from beyond the arc and on the free throw line. Because of these talents, he is most often on the floor during crunch time. Senior Kareem Maddox of Princeton brings intensity and experience to the floor. He is the favorite to win Sixth Man of the Year along with other possible league honors. Though he only started four games, Maddox led the team in scoring and rebounding while playing over 30 minutes He will be responsible for neutralizing Casey and Wright off the boards. Edge: Princeton
Coaching Matchups: Sydney Johnson of Princeton has had his second straight 20-win campaign and, perhaps, his second trip to the post-season (2010 CBI) since taking over four years ago. The youngest coach in the league and Princeton alum, Johnson was also the league’s 1997 Player of the Year. The Tigers came into this season as the overwhelming favorites to walk away with the crown, given last year’s success which included two heartbreaking defeats to champion Cornell. Substitutes well and is a better than average game coach. Tommy Amaker of Harvard had perhaps a more storied playing career as an All-American at Duke. After eight years at the elbow of Coach K, Amaker took the first seat at Seton Hall. And while he went to the postseason all four years, the prevailing opinion was that his teams underachieved (three first round NIT exits). He left for Michigan soon after and while he did clean up a program with numerous sanctions, he never made the NCAA tournament in six years at the helm. His stoic bench demeanor (expressionless, arms folded across chest) is often inexplicable during key moments of games. Edge: Princeton
X-Factors: Harvard can be streaky, as evidenced by having to climb out of first-half deficits against Brown twice ( 22 and 11 points) and blowing an 18 point lead at Penn. Turnovers have also been an issue in their losses and they have had defensive lapses. And they have never been here before. On the plus side is their deadly free throw shooting (25% of their total points come from the line) and their out of conference success-wins against likely NCAA bound Boston College and Colorado. While this Princeton class has had to play in the shadow of Cornell for three years, the came close last year and feel this is the time for their ascendancy. They are more experienced than Harvard with Seniors Maddox and Mavraides. They play on a more even keel than do the Crimson and are better built to withstand foul trouble. Their Achilles heel has been their shooting. In their six losses, they have shot 42% and that figure goes down if you only consider their two Ivy losses (41%). Their three-point and free throw shooting can also be erratic. Edge: Princeton
Prediction: In this column at the start of the season, I took the unpopular view and predicted that Harvard would represent the Ancient Eight in the NCAA tournament. And in fact a strong case could made that they deserve a spot–win or lose. As of this writing they stand at #34 in the RPI, ahead of numerous teams considered locks to be selected–Tennessee, Illinois, Villanova and BC among them. And there is no doubt in my mind that they are clearly more talented than Princeton. But here’s the thing. In all sports, we have seen a pecking order; a natural progression to the top. Princeton has waited their turn, while this young Harvard squad is now first tasting success. There is also the feeling that Princeton has a decided advantage on the bench-the two guys in sports jackets calling the shots. If Harvard has a lead late, they won’t be caught. But the game figures to be close–more like their first meeting than their last. A week ago, Sydney Johnson made his players sit and watch as Harvard students had their RTC moment to celebrate their share of the title. I wonder what Tommy Amaker will have his players do tomorrow at the end of the game. Princeton 67, Harvard 64.