SEATTLE - When Seattle University scheduled Harvard for the game played Saturday at KeyArena, the Redhawks might not have realized just what a test they were in for. The Crimson entered the game ranked 24th in the nation in RPI, and even Ken Pomeroy's more reasonable ranking of 74th makes Harvard a very dangerous Ivy League foe. The Crimson certainly looked the part in a 92-71 final that was Seattle U's most lopsided loss of the season.
Harvard opened some eyes last January with a win over Boston College just days after BC had upset previously undefeated North Carolina, the eventual national champions. That win would prove a high-water mark in former Seton Hall and Michigan coach Tommy Amaker's second season at the helm. Harvard finished 14-14 and below .500 (6-8) in the Ivy League.
This time around, the Crimson has backed up a second straight win over its crosstown rivals from Boston College with a 10-3 start--the most non-league wins in the school's lengthy history. Harvard also boasts solid wins over William & Mary--one of just two losses for the Tribe--and George Washington as well as an impressive performance in a 79-73 loss at Connecticut.
The turnaround of a program that has reached the NCAA Tournament just once, in 1946, began with the hiring of Amaker, the one-time Duke star who proved himself as a recruiter at Seton Hall but underachieved during his time in Ann Arbor. The athletic department allowed Amaker more leeway with his recruits' academics than his predecessors, and he was also helped by Harvard's decision to not charge any tuition to students whose families earn less than $60,000 a year, making it easier for an Ivy school that does not offer academic scholarships to compete financially for top talent. Amaker's first recruiting class was ranked in the nation's top 25, and while a New York Times feature questioned whether he and his staff skirted NCAA rules in putting that class together, a conference investigation ultimately cleared Amaker.
Despite the improved recruiting, none of the players Amaker has brought in can match one he inherited--senior guard Jeremy Lin. A native of Palo Alto, Lin wasn't offered a scholarship out of high school (Pac-10 teams wanted him to walk on) but has emerged as an NBA prospect and the Crimson's star player. Lin truly has a chance to make history; no Harvard player has reached the NBA since Ed Smith in 1953-54, and Lin is perhaps an even greater outlier as an Asian-American.
As a prospect, Lin's calling card is his versatility. He has played both guard positions during his college career, and has good size (6'3") and strength for his playmaking ability. Lin is an underrated athlete, but he will struggle with the quickness of NBA point guards. His best hope at the next level might be defending bigger guards while sharing ballhandling duties with a smaller, score-first point guard. Extremely polished, Lin is nonetheless vulnerable to turnovers, something he will have to improve to handle NBA pressure. He has played well enough to earn second-round consideration this June, and at least should merit an invite to a training camp.
Lin anchors a young squad that gives regular minutes to just two other upperclassmen, but while he had huge efforts against UConn (30 points, nine boards) and Boston College (25 points, shooting 10-of-12 from the free throw line), he uses just 27.9 percent of the team's possessions, so this is hardly a one-man squad. (By contrast, the other NBA prospect on the floor, Seattle U's Charles Garcia, is using 37.2 percent of his team's possessions, the NCAA's second-highest usage rate after DeMarcus Cousins.)
Indeed, what stood out as Harvard breezed to a lead as large as 26 points by shooting nearly 75 percent from the field for the better part of the first half was the team's willingness to share the basketball. The crisp ball movement and well-timed backdoor cuts were straight out of the Ivy League playbook, only the Crimson complements them with the ability to compete athletically with quality competition.
Harvard's rate of assisted baskets--59.9 percent--is good but not extraordinary. Instead, the statistical proof of the Crimson's effectiveness on offense comes in the team's shooting percentage. Harvard doesn't boast an exceptional group of outside shooters, but the team is making 56.9 percent of its attempts inside the arc, good for fourth in the country. Against Seattle U's frenetic pressure defense, Harvard was able to improve that to 30-of-47 on two-pointers, 63.8 percent.
The key, as you might imagine, is Lin, an excellent finisher. Lin is making an impressive 61.2 percent of his two-point shots this season. Inside, sophomore Keith Wright is the Crimson's second-leading scorer and shoots 59.8 percent on twos, while emerging freshman Kyle Casey (who scored 19 points on Saturday), makes 69.2 percent of his two-point attempts. Lin is also the team's best playmaker, but four players average at least two assists per game, allowing him to play primarily off the ball.
The athleticism is a bigger factor at the defensive end, which is actually Harvard's strength. Per Pomeroy, the Crimson ranks 90th in the country in adjusted Offensive Efficiency, but 54th in Defensive Efficiency. Harvard makes life difficult on opponents by giving them few three-point looks and rarely sending them to the free throw line. The starting frontcourt of the 6'8" Wright and 6'7" senior Doug Miller is undersized (Casey, also 6'7", is the only other prominent big man), but the Crimson did a strong job of countering Garcia in the paint. While the Seattle U star was able to get to the free throw line 15 times, he shot just 6-of-16 from the field and was quiet much of the first half.
Ordinarily, an Ivy squad as strong as Harvard would be a lock to win the conference, but the Crimson must contend with two-time defending champion Cornell. The Big Red is not far behind in the Pomeroy Rankings at No. 80 and boasts a strong non-conference resume of its own, going 12-2 with wins over Alabama, UMass and St. John's. With such a large gap between the top two teams and the rest of the conference (the third-best team, per Pomeroy, is Princeton at No. 170), the all-important regular-season title (the Ivy League is the only remaining conference without a postseason tournament) will likely hinge on Cornell-Harvard clashes on Jan. 30 in Ithaca and Feb. 19 in Cambridge.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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