Ivy League teams are typically viewed in college basketball circles as somewhat of a novelty, but the next team on the Non-BCS Watch List has made a remarkable turnaround in recent years and is poised for a breakout season.
Tommy Amaker’s first Harvard squad won just eight games in 2007-08, but he has engineered an impressive resurgence and was within a last-second shot in of making the NCAA Tournament last year. In all, the Crimson finished 23-7 after losing in the Ivy League “playoff” to Princeton and subsequently falling to Oklahoma State in the opening round of the NIT. Along the way, they lost a close game toMichigan and knocked off Colorado and Boston College.
Harvard finished the season ranked 83rd in the Pomeroy Ratings, fueled largely by an offensive efficiency rating just outside the Top 50. The Crimson were 14th in the nation in effective field goal percentage to go with a strong free throw rate. Their turnover and offensive rebound percentages both left some room for improvement heading into this season. As a team, they shot nearly 38 percent from beyond the arc, and their free throw percentage was second in the country.
On defense, the Crimson ranked 153rd in overall efficiency. They were in the Top 10 in opponents’ free throw rate and were relatively effective at limiting offensive rebounds. Harvard struggled to create turnovers and needs to more effectively hold opposing shooters in check.
Perhaps most importantly, Amaker lost absolutely no one from last year’s team, leaving expectations at an all-time high coming into the 2011-12 campaign.
This Year’s Crimson
With so much talent returning, what better place to start than with the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, Keith Wright. The 6-foot-8 forward led the team with 14.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game. He shot better than 58 percent from the field, posted 12 double-doubles, and scored at least 10 points in all but three games. In terms of advanced stats, Wright posted Top 100 numbers in both effective field goal and true shooting percentages while climbing into the Top 50 in offensive rebound percentage. He was also solid on the defensive glass and altered a number of shots due to his shot-blocking ability. In short, Wright was a beast and is one of the best players casual fans haven’t heard much about heading into his senior season.
Wright is joined up front by Kyle Casey, who played the majority of last season with a broken foot. He still managed to average double-digit points and finished second on the team with 6.0 rebounds per game. Casey was particularly strong on the defensive glass and shot better than 50 percent from the field. With his foot at full strength, look for even better numbers from Casey as he helps to anchor the frontline.
A quartet of talented guards complement Wright and Casey inside. Christian Webster led the backcourt in scoring with 13.0 points per game and canned 39.3 percent of his three-pointers. When you factor in his nearly 90 percent conversion rate from the stripe, his true shooting percentage ranked 68th in the country. The only chink in his armor is an above average turnover rate, but that’s something Amaker will live with in exchange for his efficient shooting.
Fellow guard Laurent Rivard put up 11.0 points in just over 25 minutes per game and hit just under 40 percent from beyond the arc. He took nearly two-thirds of his shots from three-point land, and like Webster, his true shooting percentage ranked in the Top 100. Rivard posted a strong turnover rate and should continue to improve as a sophomore.
Despite their gaudy shooting numbers, neither Webster nor Rivard can match the accuracy of Oliver McNally, who knocked down 44.2 percent from deep. In addition to being the team’s fifth double-digit scorer, McNally finished second on the team in assists and added better than one steal per game. He also hit nearly 93 percent from the stripe and finished third in the nation in true shooting percentage. McNally’s free throw rate and effective field goal percentage are also impressive and propelled him to a 127.7 offensive rating, good for 18th in the country.
Rounding out the glut of impressive guards is Brandyn Curry, who led the team with 5.9 assists per game. He added 9.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, and a team-high 1.3 steals while leading the team in minutes played. Curry can step out and knock down open three-pointers as well, but his passing ability is his calling card. He ranked 26th in assist rate and was one of six Harvard players with an offensive rating over 104.
A few other reserves also return for the Crimson. Big man Andrew Van Nest provides additional depth and size inside, but his overall offensive numbers weren’t particularly impressive. Guard Matt Brown and forward Jeff Georgatos both played sparingly and should see similar roles this season off the bench.
Five freshmen also join the roster, with a few likely to earn playing time even on such a deep team. Kenyatta Smith was a Top 20 center according to some services, and he will be able to learn from the likes of Wright and Casey. Combo forward Wesley Saunders drew some interest from major conference teams and should provide additional versatility and athleticism on the wing. Steve Moundou-Missi gives Harvard another physical and “rugged” player to help out on the glass.
With the entire roster back, expectations have never been higher for the Crimson, and anything less than a trip to The Big Dance will be considered a disappointment. That’s a testament to just how much Amaker has turned things around at Harvard during his brief tenure.
The Crimson will be tested early in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament. They open against Utah and should face Florida State in the second round. UConn would likely await if they make the finals, but regardless, Harvard has a road date with the Huskies in December. Outside of those matchups, the Crimson should be able to navigate their non-conference slate without much trouble. While the Ivy League is improving, Harvard is the prohibitive favorite to emerge as the champion.
Harvard has a tremendous inside-outside combination with Wright and Casey inside to go with a number of talented shooters on the perimeter and a terrific point guard in Curry. No one in the Ivy League can match their depth and experience, so a tournament bid looks to be theirs for the taking. With a number of talented and efficient offensive players, Harvard is a team no higher seed will want to see in their draw.