With Ivy League armageddon upon us Friday night at Lavietes Pavilion, we decided to mix things up a bit. Instead of bringing you an Xs and Os preview, Ray Curren and Kevin Whitaker had an e-mail conversation and here is what they discussed. Kevin has covered Harvard all season, while Ray has seen play of Yale. Can Yale repeat its victory at Harvard last season and put one hand on its first outright Ivy crown (and NCAA Tournament appearance) since 1962? Or will Harvard keep the championship belt for at least one more year?
Ray Curren: It should be a great atmosphere Friday night, and I know we’re not the only two looking forward to Friday as one of the college basketball events of the year. I just hope it’s under 120 degrees where we’re sitting. But for once, I won’t complain. I think it’s hard to underestimate how important this game is for the Yale program. Quietly, James Jones has built it into the second-best in the conference, passing Princeton and Penn. Jones has only had one losing record in Ivy play in 14 seasons, and I can remember some times in the early 90s where .500 would be awesome for Yale. But Harvard has just been that much better over the last few seasons, and I know it eats at Jones at least a little. I think they’ll be better than people think next season, but this might be their best shot at a title for a little while, and they’re so close.
Kevin Whitaker: The knock on James Jones has been that his teams can’t win the biggest games. That’s not really fair, because Yale’s never been the most talented team in the Ivy League, trumped in its up years by great Penn teams in the last decade and great Harvard teams in this one. This year, the Bulldogs should finish in KenPom’s top 100 for the first time ever, and Harvard looks beatable. Yale has the most efficient offense in Ivy play, but the Bulldogs scored just 50 points against Harvard at home (11 in the first half). From what you saw in that game, what can Yale do differently this time?
Ray: The thing I remember most about how that game started was how nervous Yale looked, which showed on the offensive end. Almost like they were too fired up for the game. That was an awful mix with Harvard’s defense. James Jones, as most coaches in his situation would, blamed most of it on Yale’s shooting woes. But Harvard clearly wanted to take Justin Sears out of the equation and had the manpower to do it with Moundou-Missi, Saunders, and Okolie on the floor. So, to simplify, Yale is going to have to hit some outside shots. Interestingly, when Yale won at Lavietes last season, it went 6-10 from behind the arc. When it lost in New Haven, Yale was 0-14 (Sears did have 28 and 11 in that game). So whatever James Jones can get them to do to relax before the game, he should probably do it.
Kevin: The focus will be on Sears and Duren, and Saunders and Chambers, but with both teams so strong defensively, this game might come down to which role players step up. One Bulldog I’m particularly interested in is Armani Cotton, one of the seniors you profiled earlier this year. With Saunders guarding Duren and Jack Montague likely drawing attention, Cotton may get the best looks among Yale’s starters. He went just 1-7 from three-point range in the first Harvard game, including a couple dreadful bricks, but he’s a 36% shooter for the season. And he’ll mostly be in charge of guarding Saunders on the other end.
Ray: Cotton is another guy who hit a big three at Lavietes last season, but went 0-3 back at Payne Whitney, and like you said, was 1-7 last month. Ironically, the dilemma here for Jones is lot like the one for Amaker, he wants Cotton on the floor because he’s a senior, a good defender, and a great defensive rebounder. Despite the Harvard and Columbia losses (0.82 and 0.86 ppp, respectively), Yale is still the most efficient Ivy offense in league play. A guy to watch is Khaliq Ghani, who’s actually a junior, and played in only nine minutes in his first two SEASONS in New Haven, yet got 25 minutes between the two games last weekend and hit 4-7 three-pointers. He’s athletic enough on defense to hang and may just be a wildcard Jones can bring off the bench to hit an open shot (he played six minutes in the first meeting and missed his only three).
Kevin: Steve Moundou-Missi doesn’t count as a “role player”, since he was second-team All-Ivy last year and is on a similar track this season, but he might be the most important guy on Harvard’s end. He’s returned to form on offense, pairing his explosive dunks with a strong midrange jumper. More importantly, he played 38 minutes in the first meeting and was glued to Justin Sears almost the whole time, the main reason why Sears had only nine points and limited impact. As you mentioned, Sears dropped 28 on Havard last year (and 21 in the other meeting) — and Moundou-Missi was in foul trouble both times.
Ray: Yea, while 16-11 was a little extreme the first time, it’s not like this game is going to be played in the 80s or anything. Interesting on Sears, Duren actually has a higher shot % and has nearly caught him in usage. Which if he’s on, is great. But if he isn’t? At the other end, when Chambers doesn’t shoot (and he hasn’t for most of the first 35 minutes of games), they often don’t have a shooter on the floor if Corbin Miller isn’t out there. Saunders will shoot it (well), but isn’t exactly a catch-and-shoot guy. That seems to leave the lane clogged with bodies, which helps to explain why Harvard’s two-point shooting (45.7%, 262nd) is so poor. Obviously, Miller changes the dynamic as Montague does at the other end.
Kevin: Harvard does have a couple players who score well in traffic, namely Saunders and Jonah Travis, who has the best offensive rating in Ivy play. (Miller is second, for what it’s worth.) Yale’s offense has better spacing, but the Bulldogs may need to get creative if the outside shots aren’t falling, since their guards don’t score particularly well inside either — and Harvard’s shot-blockers will be waiting at the rim. Columbia and Princeton have had success running backdoor cuts off Okolie and Saunders, or posting up bigger guards on Chambers. Can James Jones add some of those wrinkles this week?
Ray: They do like to run some back screens for Townsend, which has caught a couple people off guard, especially if it’s Sears setting the screen. But in the first meeting, Harvard recovered so quickly that it didn’t really work. The same with posting up someone like Duren, which should work in theory, but those guys inside are so quick and posting up is not exactly Duren’s best offensive move, that it didn’t work. One of the cool things about Ivy play is the time off, I’m sure both teams will have a couple of tricks up their sleeves, Yale will probably toy with pressure and might play a lot of zone, although the issue at that point becomes rebounding. Amaker doesn’t seem as comfortable to do something new at this point of the season, but you must have seen something that he might be able to introduce.
Kevin: Harvard’s motion offense doesn’t lend itself as well to the same kind of wrinkles, but they will show a couple new things. Saunders has become a much more willing three-point shooter, which will force Cotton and other defenders to play him more aggressively. Kenyatta Smith is healthy again, allowing the Crimson to give a different look inside against Sears (though I wouldn’t expect him to play big minutes). But for the most part, Harvard is going to just let its veteran group of Saunders, Chambers and Moundou-Missi play. It’s worked a few times before.
I guess we should do predictions. What’s your call?
Ray: As someone who saw many lean years in New Haven, my heart says Yale in this one. I obviously give them a fighting chance, it’s a veteran team that has worked toward this moment for four years (something we haven’t pointed out is that Saturday game at Dartmouth is going to be brutal no matter what happens Friday). The talk will be about Sears, but I think their hope comes in others hitting shots when Sears is doubled and tripled in the post. Almost everyone else is capable of hitting shots (even Matt Townsend and his long twos), but can they do it in such a big spot against such a good defense? They did it last year, but I see Harvard pulling it out similar to the way they did the first time (maybe not quite as low-scoring).
Kevin: I’m going the same way. I think it’ll still be low-scoring — since both defenses match up well with the other team, and neither is afraid of playing an ugly game — but I think Saunders will score in double digits, Harvard will get a few buckets from several other players, and the Crimson will make it five straight Ivy titles.