Night Line: Harvard’s Ability to Hang Tough With Connecticut Bodes Well For FuturePosted by EJacoby on December 9th, 2011
Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist. You can find him @evanJacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
Harvard may have lost its first game of the season on Thursday night by double figures, but there were plenty of positive signs that came out of their efforts at No. 9 Connecticut. Tommy Amaker’s team looked like it belonged on the floor against UConn, able to handle physical play and hit tough shots against the defending national champions. Few teams in the country are as physically dominant as UConn, and the Crimson will not play another team with that kind of athletic superiority unless or until they reach the NCAA Tournament. Based on how they competed against one of the top teams in the nation on an off-shooting, ineffective night, Harvard looks like a team that will in fact get that opportunity in March.
The Huskies have a far more athletic roster than the Crimson, and this showed throughout the game. Harvard’s leading scorer, Keith Wright, had no room to operate while being defended by Alex Oriakhi and, mainly, Andre Drummond, two of the top interior defenders in the nation. Wright converted just 3-10 field goals and finished with only nine points. He also did not get double-teamed upon receiving post entries, so there were no open shots for his teammates when he made post moves near the basket. Give Connecticut all the credit for executing its defensive game plan to shut down the Crimson’s number one option. Additionally, Harvard couldn’t knock down a high percentage of perimeter shots (7-21 from three) nor stop UConn from converting theirs (7-14). They also turned the ball over a couple of times more than their opponent. Again, credit goes to Jim Calhoun’s team full of long, athletic players for defending the perimeter at a high level.
Yet, even with little going its way offensively, Harvard still hung in this game thanks to its resolve and a few timely buckets. They trailed by just two at halftime without their leading scorer having made a single shot. They trailed by 16 and 15 points at the 12:20 and 6:53 points in the second half, respectively, but quickly cut both leads to more reasonable margins with scoring runs in both cases. It felt like the Crimson never really had a chance to win the game, but it also never felt like Connecticut could cruise to a victory. Last season, UConn dominated this matchup, 81-52, and that was against a Harvard team that shared the Ivy League title. This year’s matchup was a massive improvement and a solid effort, and the 14-point loss would have been much closer if Harvard had converted a few more of its open looks.
What got No. 19 Harvard ranked in the first place was its solid defense and collective offensive efforts. Even after Thursday’s first loss of the year, they still rank 15th in the nation by allowing just 55.8 points per game, thanks to a meticulous game plan that limits the total number of possessions. Harvard games average 62.7 possessions this season, the 23rd slowest pace in the country. When the Crimson took shots in this game, the team sprinted back on defense to prevent fast break opportunities for UConn — in that respect, the team was well prepared with a smart game plan. They didn’t hit enough shots to win (36% from the field), but they didn’t get rattled in the harsh road environment either, a sign of maturity. Harvard’s starting lineup is composed of all upperclassmen, and it shows, but they have talent, too. The one-two punch of Wright and Kyle Casey down low both average 11 PPG and shoot 53% or better from the field. Junior point Brandyn Curry is a solid on-ball defender (2.1 SPG) and distributor (4.3 APG) that runs an effective offense, especially when he avoids shooting threes (he’s only 24% from deep). Laurent Rivard, Christian Webster, and Oliver McNally can all make perimeter shots and move the ball well in the flow of the offense.
With many friendlier matchups on the horizon, Harvard should be able to find easier offensive flow and less taxing defensive possessions going forward. Assuming their top players stay healthy, there are enough solid contributors on this team to make an impact in March. At this point in the season, it would be a bigger surprise if Tommy Amaker’s team was not playing in the Big Dance this year than if they won a game or two in the NCAA Tournament, especially considering that the Ivy League determines its automatic qualifier by regular season conference record. Thursday’s loss to a super-athletic UConn team should not deter the outlook of this exciting Harvard team and its collection of confident, veteran players. Expect to hear from them again down the line, looking to repeat the kind of run that fellow Ivy League school Cornell made during its Sweet Sixteen appearance two seasons ago.