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November 29, 2011
The Harvard Surprise
Best Ivy Team Ever?

by John Gasaway

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Consider the unlikely series of events that has Harvard lurking just outside the top 25 in both major polls. As a mid-major in a one-bid conference, you don't often certify yourself as ready for national attention by shooting 12-of-44 from the field. Yet that is exactly what Tommy Amaker's team did. The Crimson's 46-41 win over Florida State last Friday in the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinals in the Bahamas put this team on the map, so to speak. No one, except for a certain cunning and modest ESPN Insider, expected Harvard to beat an FSU team that, at the time, was ranked No. 20 in the nation. But look at the Crimson now. What's their secret, and just how far can they go?

Let's toss out Harvard's season-opening win over Division III MIT, vital though that may have been for bragging rights this year at various colloquia and symposia around greater Boston. Based solely on the Crimson's five games against D-I opponents, here's what you need to know about the surprising team from Cambridge:

It's all about defense.
Amaker's on the record as saying, "We've played well defensively lately." That's putting it mildly. Harvard's played 315 possessions this season, and they've allowed their foes just 268 points. You don't have to be an Ivy League graduate to know that holding teams to just 0.85 points per possession will win you some games.

What's interesting, though, is that this doesn't necessarily gibe with our expectations for a surprisingly good mid-major. If a team from the Ivy League is knocking off ranked opponents, they must have come up with some inscrutable and fiendishly effective offensive scheme, right? (Think Cornell 2010.) Not this time. The Crimson defend as well as those "long and athletic" major-conference teams you hear so much about. Opposing offenses are making just 42 percent of their twos against this D. And one defensive wrinkle Amaker apparently picked up from his old coach, Mike Krzyzewski, is to prevent opponents from even attempting (much less making) threes. The strength of this defense is on the interior, and that is precisely where opponents have attempted 77 percent of their shots. Right now this defense is dictating highly unfavorable and one-sided terms to opposing teams.

Well, maybe not all about defense....
Reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Keith Wright is already making a strong case for another bite at that particular apple. The 6-8 senior has made 65 percent of his twos thus far on the young season, and bear in mind he's doing that not as some uber-efficient role player but as Amaker's leading scorer. That being said, Wright's hardly a one-man show. Kyle Casey is even more likely to shoot on a given possession than Wright. The 6-7 junior personally accounts for 29 percent of his team's shots during his minutes, and he's been draining 59 percent of his twos. Casey's only problem is those minutes have been too scarce: he's averaging over five fouls per 40 minutes.

Meet the new, improved, and most importantly deeper Crimson
An optimist might say Casey's foul woes have at least helped spread the playing time around. Indeed one concern with this team last year was depth, as Amaker played a rotation that effectively included just six players. So it's a good sign for Crimson fans that this year eight players are already seeing quality minutes. Laurent Rivard has followed up on a promising freshman year by making 45 percent of his threes so far as a sophomore. (Don't be fooled by Rivard's average of nine points per game. He's this team's primary and, perhaps, solitary perimeter threat, one whose presence can stretch defenses.) Oliver McNally rarely shoots from the field, but he's lethal at the line, where he's making 95 percent of his attempts. Freshman Steve Moundou-Missi is already giving Amaker offensive and defensive rebounding on par with Wright's. And Brandyn Curry's recorded 14 steals in a mere 258 personal defensive possessions. I know you're not used to hearing the term "weapons" deployed with reference to an Ivy League team, but you can make the case that Amaker has some weapons this season.

This team could well lead us into some strange new territory....
Harvard will face a test Thursday when they journey north to play at Vermont, and certainly the game at Connecticut on December 8 won't be a stroll in the park. But aside from those two contests we have to seriously entertain the possibility that this team could run the proverbial table. True, the Crimson will have to face two solid A-10 opponents, Saint Joseph's and George Washington, but they will play both teams at home. Barring injury, a 26-4 finish for Amaker's team would be well within the range of expectation, and something more like 28-2 wouldn't be at all surprising.

In the brief but detailed history of my colleague Ken Pomeroy's web site, no Ivy League team has ever rated out higher than No. 52 in the country. (Again, Cornell 2010.) Harvard appears to be on track to smash through that ceiling with ease. With no conference tournament and thus no crazy March upset to worry about -- a sensitive topic in Cambridge -- the Crimson should be in good shape to make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1946 (which, by the way, represents the only bid the program's ever received). If Amaker's team makes it that far, their opponent is going to face a very stiff test on offense. Ask Florida State.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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