NCAA Tournament Scouting Report: Harvard

Did you see that big monkey jump off the backs of Kevin Stallings, Festus Ezeli, Brad Tinsley, Jeffery Taylor, Lance Goulbourne, John Jenkins, and the rest of a basketball program this past Sunday inside New Orleans Arena? It can't be allowed to jump back on in Albuquerque on Thursday afternoon.


First, the prelude to the 2012 NCAA Tournament: The Vanderbilt Commodores enter it with a new identity, an identity of champions. After 61 years in the desert, the VU crew won an SEC Tournament, proving itself in the crucible of March. After 61 years, Vanderbilt was once again able to beat Kentucky on a grand stage. After three-plus seasons of March failure, this senior class finally delivered the goods the way every Vanderbilt fan knew it could… if it only stayed the course and developed the cranial courage needed to stay strong under pressure. Now, the loser label doesn't have to persist. Now, the "Charmin soft" tag doesn't have to stick. Now, the fragile mindset and the shaky demeanor can exit stage right. The Commodores have given all their demons permission to go away. They don't have to let them back in. The spell has been broken. The black cloud has been chased from the sky.

That's how a team is supposed to enter the NCAA Tournament.

Now, here's the challenge Vanderbilt faces: pacing itself while not looking ahead. The Commodores played in high altitude in last year's NCAA tourney before losing to Richmond in the final minutes, making poor decisions and cracking under pressure. Vanderbilt is now returning to a high-altitude city, but with only three rest days since it played on an SEC Tournament Sunday (something it naturally hadn't done for 61 years). This is a short turnaround against a Harvard team that hasn't played since March 3 and will be minty-fresh as a result. Vanderbilt has crossed a mental threshold, but the Dores' bodies and especially their lungs might keep them from playing their best. VU will therefore have to manage its energy and resources in this contest.

Moreover, Vanderbilt obviously knows that Syracuse – the top seed in its half of the East Region bracket – will be without its most important defensive player, Fab Melo, for the entire NCAA tournament. The temptation for VU is to look ahead and dream of everything it could accomplish, but naturally, the focus must relentlessly remain on Harvard. It's only fitting that if this senior class wants to build on its SEC Tournament title, it will have to pass a different set of mental tests in this game. You can talk about Xs and Os all you want, but this is a game that will once again be won or lost between the ears… just for different reasons than VU fans might have been expecting a week ago at this time.

HARVARD AT-A-GLANCE

If it took Vanderbilt a long time to finally win another SEC Tournament championship, it took Harvard a little longer to make another NCAA tournament appearance. Harvard hadn't made the Big Dance since 1946, when the event was not really very big at all. Tommy Amaker, the former point guard for Mike Krzyzewski's first Final Four team at Duke in 1986 and a former assistant of Coach K, has guided Harvard to the promised land, clearly the biggest achievement of a 15-year head coaching career that has included stops at Seton Hall and Michigan. It's true that Amaker led Seton Hall to the Sweet 16 in the year 2000 (the Pirates lost to Oklahoma State in the East Regional semifinals), but the Hall is a program with resources, prominence on television, and an appreciable brand name. Harvard owned no tradition of excellence on the hardwood, making the Crimson's ascendancy that much more remarkable. This job is a great fit for Amaker. His team responds to him the way he responded to Krzyzewski roughly a quarter of a century ago. Harvard never mails in possessions on defense. The team's surprisingly high average number of blocked shots per game (see statistical profile, below) shows how well this team establishes good position at the defensive end of the floor. This is why Harvard has accumulated a 26-4 record, going 12-3 in road or neutral-court games. The Crimson have only one bad loss to their credit, a 60-54 setback against Fordham on Jan. 3. Otherwise, they've lost to quality opposition. The second- and third-place teams in the Ivy League, Penn and Princeton, picked off Harvard once. The fourth loss this team suffered was at Connecticut in early December. This is simply a team that doesn't give much of anything away, and that's the best attribute about the Crimson. It's what makes them particularly formidable.

BONUS SECTION: STATISTICAL PROFILE

-- Harvard's shooting percentage (.467) placed the Crimson among the nation's top 50 teams.

-- Harvard allows only 54.8 points per game, miles below the national average of 67.1.

-- Harvard commits only 12.1 turnovers per game, slightly below the national average of 13.5. This puts the Crimson second in the Ivy League in fewest turnovers committed, and in the top 70 of the national rankings in this category.

-- Points per possession scored: 1.05 – best in the Ivy League, 65th in the nation

-- Points per possession allowed: 0.88 – best in the Ivy League, 10th in the nation

-- Effective field goal percentage (shooting percentage weighted to include three-point shots): 52.5, which is second in the Ivy League and 50th in the United States.

-- Field goal percentage defense: 40.4 percent, best in the Ivy League and 35th in the United States.

-- Three-point field goal defense: 33.6 percent, a solid showing, but only 137th in the nation

-- Two-point field goal defense: 42.6 percent, best in the Ivy League and 20th in the nation

-- Harvard averages 4.6 blocks per game, 43rd in the nation

Starting Lineup

Forward – Paul Casey –
Junior, 6-7, 215 2011-12: 11.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, .519 FG %

Casey is a well-rounded player. What you don't see in the stat line above is that he averages just under one steal (0.8), just under one assist (0.8), and just above one block (1.2) per game. He is capable of doing anything on the floor, even though he focuses on rebounding and defense. Casey is an intelligent, vigilant presence on the court who could probably score more if he wanted to, but places emphasis on playing a blended game that magnifies his teammates. He also reserves most of his energy for the defensive end of the floor, as everyone on the Harvard roster does. Casey is the best representation of a team that exhibits sparkling collective attributes.

Forward – Keith Wright – Senior, 6-8, 240; 2011-12: 10.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg, .594 FG %, .649 FT %

Wright is only 6-8; it's not as though he's a 6-11 bruiser or a 7-1 sequoia in the paint. However, he has not taken a single three-point shot this season, meaning that his 59.4 shooting percentage is also his effective field goal percentage as well. Casey, his frontcourt teammate, takes some threes and drags his shooting percentage down to "only" 51.9, but Wright is so disciplined with his shot selection that the Crimson regularly produce better possessions than their opponents. There is one weakness in Wright's game, however: his foul shooting. Wright is the only Harvard starter who hits under 70 percent of his foul shots. If Vanderbilt needs to make Harvard sweat out a one-and-one in the final minutes, Wright is the man the Commodores will need to foul (obviously, they hope the game doesn't get to that point, but it's something the coaching staff must be aware of).

Guard – Laurent Rivard – Sophomore, 6-5, 215; 2011-12: 9.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, .390 3-PT %

The simple thing to realize about Rivard is that he averages fewer minutes per game than most Harvard starters. Rivard has played under 20 minutes in three of Harvard's last five games, averaging only 21.4 minutes per contest (one of those games being an overtime affair against Columbia). Rivard is therefore a scorer Vanderbilt must pay attention to. If he logged 33 to 35 minutes per game, he might have a better scoring average than Casey, the Crimson's leading point producer.

Guard – Oliver McNally – Senior, 6-3, 180; 2011-12: 7.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 3.1 apg, .884 FT %

McNally pulls off an impressive feat in one telling respect: His backcourt mate, Brandyn Curry (see below), leads Harvard with five assists per game. Yet, that fact doesn't turn McNally into a gunner. The senior displays the wisdom of an upperclassman, finding a way to continue to share the ball with the rest of the Crimson. It's true that there's a risk in being too unselfish – sometimes, the right basketball play is to shoot instead of looking for the pass – but McNally helps Harvard's starting backcourt to average nine assists per game (Rivard chips in with roughly one assist per contest). Winning basketball is unselfish basketball, and McNally allows Harvard to be even more team-oriented than it otherwise would be.

Guard – Brandyn Curry – Junior, 6-1, 195; 2011-12: 7.8 ppg, 5 apg

Curry is a terrific point guard on a team full of ballhandlers and ball-sharers. Curry leads his team in assists, but what's far more revealing about Curry's quality is that his assist-to-turnover ratio is a stellar 2.7-to-1. Curry also leads the Crimson in steals with 1.6 per game. He is perhaps the one player on this roster who can substantially affect a game without scoring a point. Casey will need to produce points at crunch time, and Wright – a rebounder – scores off his putbacks. Curry, though, could probably feed his teammates and play lockdown defense on the perimeter without detracting from Harvard's overall performance.

Bench

Harvard has a nine-man rotation. Amaker looks to forward Steve Moundou-Missi and three guards, Christian Webster, Wesley Saunders, and Corbin Miller. Webster is the only non-freshman in this quartet of reserves, making him a valued defensive performer if Amaker needs to call upon him. Saunders is a big guard who, at 6-5, can get his shot more than other players on the Crimson's roster. He scored 10 points against Pennsylvania on Feb. 25, and Penn is the last really good team Harvard has faced. Vanderbilt has to pay attention to Saunders if he enters the game at a point in time when the Crimson need some scoring punch.

Keys to the Game

1) Play the first half to set up the second.
This is a game in which Stallings's bench management will be important. It's true that the extended TV timeouts will give Vanderbilt's players extended breaks during this game, but with the SEC final having been played on Sunday, this Thursday game involves a very short turnaround. Moreover, it's a game that's being played in another Mountain time zone city with appreciably high altitude. Stallings has to give his starters plenty of rests, taking them out about 75 seconds before TV timeouts in the first half so that he can steal several extra minutes. Harvard is a team that plays patiently and demands an accordingly disciplined approach. If one were to apply a boxing metaphor to this game, Vanderbilt can't become George Foreman to Harvard's Muhammad Ali. The Commodores, tired after Sunday's game against Kentucky and a three-day span in which they played three games within 42 hours, simply cannot expect to deliver a knockout blow in the early stages of this game. VU cannot be "rope-a-doped" or overextended in the first 25 to 30 minutes, losing its legs and its belief the way it did in Denver versus Richmond a year ago. Vanderbilt played roughly even in the first halves of its three SEC Tournament games, only to blow the doors (or the Dores?) off in the second half. That's the way this game needs to flow; instilling second-half belief and trust into his team is how Stallings can maintain the momentum that was generated this past weekend in New Orleans.

2) Crunch-time rebounding and attacking. Harvard is too good a team to get blown out, but the obvious advantage Vanderbilt has in this contest is that it owns more size and bulk near the rim. There's no one on Harvard's roster who can stand up to Festus Ezeli in the paint. There's no one on Harvard's roster who can leap the way Jeffery Taylor can. There's no one on the Crimson roster who can attack the glass like Lance Goulbourne when he's playing at his best. This game will probably be a two-possession game at the five- or six-minute mark of regulation. At that point in time (partly flowing from point one, above), the Commodores need to have fresh legs and focused minds. Vanderbilt must own the final five minutes, attacking the basket with Taylor and feeding Ezeli in the post. The boards must belong to the guys in the home white jerseys as the higher seed. This team finally showed this past weekend that it is capable of overpowering opponents – even Kentucky – within four feet of the basket in a pressure situation. Now is the time to consistently replicate that formula against a non-SEC foe.

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