Harvard’s visit to No. 6 Virginia shaped up as one of Sunday’s most interesting showdowns, with the Crimson riding a six-game win streak and the Cavaliers still unbeaten. But it quickly became a rout, as Virginia ran up a 39-8 lead by halftime and won 76-27. The visitors’ defense faltered as the game got out of hand, but the game was decided on the other end, where the Crimson managed just .46 points per possession, shattering the previous Tommy Amaker-era low of .72.
Few teams defend better than the Cavaliers, who matched up particularly well in this game, but the blowout still raises questions about Harvard’s offense going forward.
1. Virginia’s defense is outstanding. The Cavaliers’ defense, ranked third in the nation by KenPom, was at its best on Saturday, switching seamlessly, double-teaming smartly and denying Harvard space throughout the game. They combine excellent one-on-one defense with great shot-blockers, resulting in the nation’s lowest field-goal percentage allowed at the rim (per hoop-math.com) — which happens to be where Harvard scores most of its points. The Crimson made just one field goal in the first 23 minutes, missing 24 of their first 25 shots from the floor; they rushed their few clean looks, but even if every open shot had dropped, it would have been a rough offensive day.
2. Harvard will struggle against disciplined defenses. The Crimson often seemed to be playing 2.5-on-5 offensively, which won’t work against Virginia. Wesley Saunders and Steve Moundou-Missi created most of Harvard’s shots in the first half, but they were constantly surrounded by defenders, finishing the game a combined 1-for-15. Siyani Chambers made a few explosive plays, but his shooting woes continued with an 0-for-10 performance; he now has the worst true shooting percentage among Ivy regulars. And aside from a Zena Edosomwan cameo, the rest of Harvard’s offense was hardly relevant for most of the game.
Harvard can overwhelm bad defenses with sheer talent, and it passes well enough to beat opponents who gamble and overcommit. But against disciplined teams — especially those who can protect the rim — the Crimson’s lack of outside shooting hurts severely. With Chambers struggling, Corbin Miller is the only consistent three-point threat; however, his looks come from spot-up shots, which won’t materialize unless the opponent is scrambling. Harvard won’t face another team like Virginia this season, but Ivy contenders Yale and Columbia each have top-100 defenses. To repeat as league champions, Harvard may have to get creative on offense or win several low-scoring games.
3. How will Harvard play on the road? Harvard has been excellent at Lavietes Pavilion this season, going 6-0 with five double-digit victories and a big win over UMass. But it’s been much less impressive away from home, losing a neutral-site game to Holy Cross, edging Vermont in double overtime and now getting blown out at Virginia. Granting that the competition has been tougher, Harvard has particularly struggled on offense, failing to crack .90 points per possession away from home this season. With 10 of their next 11 D-I games coming on the road, including five of their first six Ivy contests, the Crimson must figure out how to score in less friendly environments.