The outlook: Harvard is the better team, but Cornell has given the Crimson fits in recent years. The top seed is rightly favored, but it may need to continue shooting the lights out to top the Big Red’s surging offense.
How we got here: Harvard was picked first in the preseason poll, and it shared the league title with Penn. Simple, right? It wasn’t: The Crimson struggled mightily throughout non-conference play, going 4-10 against D-I opponents, and they needed good fortune to escape each of their first three Ivy games unscathed. Reigning Rookie of the Year Bryce Aiken was a non-factor after a December knee injury (he hasn’t played since re-injuring it more than a month ago), torpedoing the Crimson’s offense for a while. But Harvard found its groove in February, finishing with the league’s third-best offense (1.07 points per possession) and the best defense (0.97 ppp).
Cornell snuck into the Ivy League Tournament on the final weekend, beating Dartmouth on the road and watching its competitors lose. The Big Red doesn’t have the profile of a playoff team, having been outscored by 0.06 points per possession in Ivy play while ranking sixth on offense (1.05 ppp) and seventh on defense (1.11 ppp). But those results are skewed by the three road losses — by a combined 71 points! — that opened Ivy play (leaving coach Brian Earl saying, “I’m not looking forward to much right now”). Since then, Cornell has been competitive in every game, thanks to an offense that is finally living up to potential.
The Big Red overcame a late 10-point deficit to force double overtime at Harvard last weekend before falling 98-88. The first meeting was nearly as exciting, with Cornell leading for most of the second half before the Crimson pulled out a 76-73 win. The Big Red have consistently played Harvard tough for several years now (the upset in Ithaca in 2015, the Matt Morgan Breakout Game in 2016, Harvard’s 21-point comeback later that year), usually because their pressure rattles the Crimson’s ball-handlers.
Three-point shooting has been the story of Harvard’s season: It was ice-cold (sub-30%) in November and December, driving its non-conference struggles; but the Crimson hit 42% in Ivy play, the best the league has seen in five years. They shot 48% from distance in each meeting with the Big Red this year, which made the difference in both close wins. Everyone knows that Seth Towns and Corey Johnson can shoot, but a bigger surprise has been the shooting of Justin Bassey (49%). Bassey has been turnover-prone when trying to make plays with the ball, but he’s been a deadly spot-up shooter, and he’s even added a smooth step-back move that keyed Harvard’s comeback at Princeton.
But most of the Crimson’s scoring runs through their two All-Ivy stars. Towns was the deserving Player of the Year, having carried his team’s offense in the wake of Aiken’s injury. He was limited by foul trouble against the Big Red but still managed 35 points across two meetings, including big shots down the stretch of both games. Towns smartly took advantage of switches, especially when matched up against Stone Gettings, and even good defense couldn’t stop him:
— Harvard Basketball (@HarvardMBB) February 4, 2018
Chris Lewis is even more of a matchup problem for the Big Red, scoring 46 points on 78% shooting across two meetings. Lewis excelled off of pick-and-rolls, a sore spot for Cornell’s defense this season, but also on post-ups and in transition after breaking full-court pressure. The Big Red doesn’t have a good answer: If they collapse on Lewis (as in the clip below), they’ll give up wide open threes to the league’s top-shooting team — but that’s a risk they may have to take.
— Harvard Basketball (@HarvardMBB) March 3, 2018
Harvard wouldn’t be atop the league without a remarkable step forward from Christian Juzang. As a fourth-string point guard, he played a total of three minutes in Ivy play last season; this year, only Princeton’s Devin Cannady played more. Pressed into full-time service after injuries to Aiken and Tommy McCarthy, Juzang initially struggled. But Harvard adapted to his weaknesses (letting teammates share the heavy lifting against full-court pressure) and strengths (a surprising ability to heat up off the dribble and from the outside). Juzang averaged six assists a game down the stretch, and he should get even more opportunities to work pick-and-rolls with Lewis on Saturday.
Cornell is even more reliant on its two stars: Gettings and Morgan had the league’s third- and fourth-highest shot rates, respectively, and they combined for nearly 39.6 ppg this season, more than half their team’s total. When surrounded by the right role players who pick their spots — a powerful forward in Steven Julian, a strong shooter in Jack Gordon, a second ball-handler in Terrance McBride — Gettings and Morgan are the core of a lethal offense, but it breaks apart when others are asked to play a bigger role.
If you’re reading this preview, you already know about Matt Morgan’s shooting ability. Morgan has had the green light to launch shots from anywhere since he was a rookie, and he made 37% of his threes even while taking most of them off the dribble or from beyond NBA range. But over the course of his career, the junior has done more and more of his work from other spots on the floor, and you should expect the same on Saturday. Morgan’s shooting threat has made him the league’s best backdoor cutter (under Earl, a former Princeton player and assistant), which is especially effective against Harvard’s high-pressure defense. And his ballscreens with Gettings or another big often draw mismatches, which he can attack directly or use to free a teammate. (On my favorite possession last weekend, Morgan drew Lewis on a switch and then just stood at halfcourt so his teammates could attack 4-on-4 without Harvard’s best rim protector, although it ultimately failed.)
Cornell’s screening on and off the ball often threw Harvard’s defense out of sorts in the last meeting — two Crimson defenders got so scrambled they ran into each other in open space, not once but twice. They looked uncomfortable switching so many screens, and it resulted in a lot of mismatches, but there’s no good answer — normal hedge-and-recover strategies left Gettings wide open on pick-and-pops in the first meeting. Harvard’s zone was effective early in Ithaca, but Cornell eventually found cutters and open shooters.
Mascot Battle: Just no. Colors are not mascots, and they certainly can’t battle. Both teams are disqualified.
The Prediction: After Cornell took Harvard to overtime on the road just a week ago, its path to victory seems a lot wider. If the Big Red keeps forcing turnovers, if its offense keeps confusing defenders, if the Crimson’s shooting slows just a little bit, Cornell’s unlikely run could continue at least another day. But don’t overthink it — Harvard is the better team, and even if there are no easy adjustments to make defensively, it can still win a shootout. Harvard 77, Cornell 74.
Also see: #3 Yale vs. #2 Penn