Throughout the 2014-15 Ivy League season, Harvard and Yale were evenly matched. The co-champions had identical 11-3 league records, split the season series with close games, and ended the regular season a mere four slots apart in KenPom’s national rankings. So it was fitting that Saturday’s playoff was tied heading into the final possession. Continue reading
With the 14-Game Tournament officially wrapped (even though a 15th game is still pending), it’s time for our panel of me, John, and Ray to announce our Ivy League individual awards. Continue reading
After losing to Yale the previous night, Harvard entered Saturday needing a win and a Yale loss to earn a share of the Ivy title. The Crimson’s game tipped an hour earlier, so when they finished a 72-62 victory over Brown, the Bulldogs still had 20 minutes left to play at Dartmouth. With their fate out of their hands, Harvard’s locker room was feeling, in the words of senior Wesley Saunders, apprehensive. Continue reading
Basketball is a funny sport to analyze. Over the past four months, we’ve all spent countless hours debating Harvard and Yale as championship contenders. This week, Ray and I exchanged 1,500 words previewing Friday’s matchup. And ultimately, the de facto title game — and the biggest Ivy League contest in four years, a college generation — was decided in large part by who made their three-pointers that night.
Playing at home with a chance to secure its fifth straight Ivy title, Harvard went just 2-17 from three-point range. The Crimson hasn’t been very prolific from beyond the arc all year, but their shots against Yale came mostly from their best shooters in good positions. Corbin Miller, a career 41% shooter from distance, went 0-8 on Friday. Siyani Chambers, 37% for his career, went 1-6. With the exception of two heaves late in the shot clock, most of Harvard’s attempts were open and in rhythm.
Meanwhile, Yale went 7-16 from beyond the arc, even though top shooter Jack Montague was bottled up for most of the game.
As if to underscore basketball’s randomness, Yale forward Justin Sears made his first two three-pointers of the year — both awkward line drives that snuck over the rim — at the best possible time.
“I thought we had a ton of shots. We just didn’t make them. I don’t know what else to say,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said.
None of that means Yale didn’t deserve to win. The Bulldogs put themselves in position to take advantage of Harvard’s drought, scoring 1.05 points per possession against the league’s best defense. Javier Duren constantly frustrated the Crimson, getting his 22 points on a combination of tough floaters and three-pointers, including a dagger from 23 feet in the final two minutes.
On the other end, the Bulldogs sent double-teams aggressively on the perimeter and in the post, which paid off when Harvard’s big men didn’t make the right passes. Zena Edosomwan played only nine minutes after missing four early shots in the face of Yale pressure.
Still, if Miller makes two or three of his treys, and if Chambers hits another — bringing both in line with their career marks — then a 10-point margin becomes a toss-up. Miller in particular had a rough night: Chambers and Wesley Saunders found him time after time, in transition and from kick-outs, sticking with their guns even as Miller struggled (as they should). But the sophomore’s shots kept finding the top of the rim, as he missed eight treys and another long jumper.
“He’s our marksman, our three-point guy, and what a tough night for him. Of his nine shots, only one I know for sure was forced or a bad shot,” Amaker said. “Boy, did he get some looks that we would kill to have for him tomorrow night, and I know he’s going to be better than he was tonight.”
Harvard’s loss overshadowed a dominant game from Steve Moundou-Missi. As in the first meeting, Moundou-Missi kept Justin Sears quiet: Sears got only one shot at the rim, which came off his only offensive rebound, and needed his two surprising treys to reach 10 points. And on the other end, the senior attacked Sears fearlessly, scoring 21 points on a combination of face-up jumpers, physical drives and put-backs from 10 rebounds.
“He was one of the few people out there who really battled, and I think he left it all out there on the floor,” Saunders said. “He was trying to spark us and get us energized, but we never really caught on.”
Harvard trailed 22-19 at halftime — not much prettier than the 16-11 score in the first meeting — but Yale ballooned its lead to 12 points, thanks to second-chance points from Armani Cotton (who finished with 14) and Sears. The hosts made several small runs, but each was answered by the Bulldogs — an athletic putback and-one from Khaliq Ghani here, a patented Matt Townsend two-point jumper there. Duren was perfect on free throws down the stretch, slowly hammering the penultimate nail in Harvard’s coffin.
Harvard’s only path to a fifth straight Ivy title is a win over Brown tomorrow night and a Yale loss at Dartmouth. (The latter is hardly a longshot, as the Big Green has won five of its last six.) If that parlay hits, Harvard and Yale will play a rubber match at The Palestra next week to determine the automatic qualifier to the NCAA Tournament.
And though Friday’s loss was devastating, the Crimson has received help in the past. In 2012, they lost at home to Penn with two games remaining, avoiding a playoff only when Princeton beat the Quakers in the season finale. In 2013, they were swept at Princeton and Penn in early March, regaining control of their own destiny only when the Tigers were swept the following weekend.
So Harvard’s hopes for a fourth straight tournament bid are on life support. But they’re not dashed yet.
“We just have to take care of business tomorrow and see where the chips fall,” Saunders said. “Crazier stuff has happened.”
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?
The scoreboard doesn’t lie, of course, but even when the numbers on the Cornell side started to get significantly greater than Harvard’s and the time began to dwindle, there was still little doubt that the Crimson being the Crimson, they would come back and win.
And sure enough, soon the run began. But on this night, it never finished. And Cornell did, with head coach Bill Courtney beating Tommy Amaker for the first time in 10 meetings and throwing the Ivy League race back into chaos with a 57-49 upset of the four-time defending Ivy champs at Newman Arena Friday night.
One month ago, Harvard was coming off of a home loss to Dartmouth, and their chances for a fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance were very much in doubt. The Crimson had lost four of seven D-I games, they were about to embark on a four-game road trip, and for only the second time in four years, they trailed an Ivy foe, unbeaten Yale, in the league standings.
Since then, they’ve won eight straight games, and January’s worries seem distant. Harvard has had its share of close calls — and nothing has been clinched yet — but entering this weekend’s trip to Cornell and Columbia, the Crimson appears to be in top form.
What has changed in the last month?
(All charts include Division-I games only. Data via KenPom.com)
Harvard’s defense, ranked 13th nationally per KenPom, has been remarkably consistent. Its midseason struggles came almost entirely on the other end: Starting with an embarrassing loss to Virginia, the Crimson averaged less than .90 points per possession through their 3-4 stretch. But they’ve been above 1.00 in nearly every game since (save for the rockfight at Yale), thanks to a few key improvements.
Wesley Saunders wasn’t to blame for Harvard’s January struggles; he was the team’s best player then, just as he’s been all year. But in the Crimson’s 4-3 stretch, Saunders had a below-average offensive rating in five games, and reduced usage in the other two.
Back in the swing of Ivy play, the star wing’s efficiency has risen. While not quite at the All-America level he showed early on, Saunders has carried Harvard at key times this month — such as his 23-point performance against Princeton, his second-best game this season in combined usage and efficiency.
(The area of each box represents total production per game, with usage on the x-axis and efficiency on the y-axis.)
Saunders has made one obvious adjustment this month: He’s attempted 4.2 three-pointers per game in February; his prior career high in any game was four. Saunders is making those shots, most of which are wide-open, at a 40% clip, a dastardly counter to defenses who focus on walling off the paint.
“If they’re going to slough off him and play him for the drive, which a lot of people have done — and rightly so, he’s a tremendous slasher — when he has an open three, he’s a pretty good shooter with that shot,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “We’re hopeful that he can mix it in and keep the defense off balance.”
Saunders has also nearly doubled his assist-to-turnover ratio in recent weeks; his 37.4% assist rate is the best in Ivy play. In part, that’s been possible because…
Supporting stars step up
Siyani Chambers entered the year as a Player of the Year candidate, but as recently as mid-January, his offensive rating was among the league’s worst. More quietly, Steve Moundou-Missi’s was in the same range. Both players, second-team All-Ivy teammates last year, were due to improve — and both have posted triple-digit offensive ratings in each of their last four games.
Chambers struggled against physical defenses and had to bail Harvard out of some doomed possessions early in the year; but other issues, such as sub-30% shooting on three-pointers, were his own doing. The point guard’s shooting has regressed in the good way (44% in the last four weeks), and he’s become more opportunistic about driving inside.
One of the league’s most efficient scorers a year ago, Moundou-Missi’s true shooting percentage has cratered by more than 10 percentage points. The culprit is clear: After attempting 64% of his shots at the rim as a junior (and 70% as a sophomore), the forward has taken only 45% of his shots at the cylinder this season, per Hoop-Math.com.
Moundou-Missi has improved his midrange game, but it’s frustrating to see one of the league’s most dynamic athletes consigned to spot-up duty from 15 feet. He’s still shooting plenty of jumpers, but he’s been more involved at the rim lately, and his efficiency has risen.
More offensive lineups
Harvard’s rotation has been debated constantly, but Amaker’s adjustments this month have helped the Crimson score more points:
Along with injured center Kenyatta Smith, the three players who have seen substantially less time in February are Agunwa Okolie, Evan Cummins and Matt Brown — three of the lowest-usage players on Harvard’s roster. In their place, more minutes are going to higher-volume shooters in Moundou-Misssi and Zena Edosomwan, as well as Jonah Travis, the most efficient scorer in Ivy play. Even Andre Chatfield, though his usage rate is low as he plays back from injury, earns respect from opposing defenses as an explosive guard with a three-star pedigree.
With more offensive threats on the floor, foes can’t load up to stop Saunders, nor can they direct more attention to Chambers and Moundou-Missi. Harvard’s stars have taken advantage, rebounding from a tough January while still playing stout defense.
None of this means the Crimson are in the clear. Today’s visit to Cornell is their toughest offensive matchup of the Ivy season; Saturday’s trip to Columbia will be one of their toughest matchups, period. Even with its improved offense, Harvard is more likely than not to drop a game this weekend. But with a fine-tuned rotation and their stars peaking, the Crimson has given themselves some room for error.
For the first half of this decade, the Ivy League’s defining rivalry was Harvard-Princeton. The two teams traded positions atop the preseason media poll from 2011-14, finishing first and second in the Ancient Eight in efficiency margin all four years. The axis of power might have shifted from Harvard-Princeton to Harvard-Yale of late, but Saturday night showed the Crimson and Tigers still have intense battles.
In a sold-out Lavietes Pavilion, Harvard trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half, and it was tied with the Tigers in the final three minutes before pulling away for a 63-55 win. With Yale’s concurrent loss at home to Columbia, the Crimson is alone atop the Ivy League — a familiar place for the four-time reigning champions.
“We get up for every Ivy League team, but given the history we have with Princeton and the battles we’ve had throughout the years, we definitely get up for Princeton, as they do with us,” Harvard senior Wesley Saunders said.
Harvard has swept Princeton each of the last two years — its first four-game win streak in the series since 1902-04 — but neither of the last two victories came easily. After Harvard survived a second-half Princeton rally for a 75-72 shootout win in January, the shape of Saturday’s rematch was flipped, with the Tigers rolling to an early lead. The visitors buried five of their first six three-pointers and held the Crimson scoreless for a six-minute span, taking a 33-19 lead late in the first half.
The traditional elements of Princeton’s offense have long frustrated Harvard, with backdoor cuts countering the Crimson’s high pressure on the perimeter; Princeton scored at least a dozen points directly off backdoor passes Saturday. And with four or five outside threats on the court for Princeton at all times, Harvard’s shot-blockers were drawn away from the rim, leaving the paint wide open for drives and cutters. Princeton shot at least 58% on two-pointers in both meetings this season, well above the Crimson’s season average of 43% allowed.
“We were trying our tails off to defend it,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said of Princeton’s backdoors. “It’s hard — they space you, they’ve got a center who can handle the ball and make those passes. Against our personnel right now, it’s hard for us to defend it.”
But the Crimson’s aggressiveness on the perimeter often paid off. Princeton committed 20 turnovers on 60 possessions, many of which allowed Harvard to open the floor in transition: The hosts turned eight second-half steals into 14 points. Meanwhile, the Crimson committed just seven turnovers of their own, overcoming less efficient shooting with more opportunities.
Fittingly, the game’s defining play came down to a Princeton miscue. With the score tied at 53 inside the three-minute mark, Hans Brase tried to find Clay Wilson at the top of the key, but Wilson cut toward the basket instead. Harvard point guard Siyani Chambers controlled the ball and took it the other way for a fast-break layup, giving the hosts the lead for good.
Chambers, as he is known to do, also slammed the door on Princeton’s hopes with a last-minute shot. Nursing a four-point lead with the shot clock winding down, he pulled up from inside the top of the key and swished a jumper to put Harvard up by six. “The coaching staff and my teammates really have confidence in me shooting that shot,” Chambers said. “We practice that shot every day in practice. It’s the shot I’m confident in.”
The game (which featured a classic Ivy Saturday refereeing performance, though head-scratchers favored both teams) contrasted Harvard’s star power against Princeton’s scoring depth. Only four players scored more than one basket for the Crimson, but all four were in double figures, led by another Wesley Saunders masterpiece (23 points, eight rebounds, three assists, four steals). Meanwhile, seven Tigers scored at least four points, led by Spencer Weisz’s 13. Mitch Henderson constantly juggled his team’s eight-man rotation (all eight played at least 15 minutes), but the lack of a go-to scorer led to lots of passes and turnovers. After halftime, the Tigers scored just 18 points on 29 possessions.
An upset could have kept Princeton on the fringe of the title race; instead, the Tigers fell to 5-4, a half-game ahead of the Lions for third place. Harvard is alone at 9-1, but it can’t rest easily with four games remaining. Its final road trip looms next weekend — including a Saturday visit to Columbia, which prior to upsetting Yale, nearly did the same at Harvard last week.
Harvard point guard Siyani Chambers is best known for his clutch shots. There was the short floater to beat Boston University in just his seventh college game. There was the layup against Dartmouth later that year to cap a 10-point comeback and force overtime, and the last-minute three-point play against Columbia to take the lead for good. And last year, his pull-up jumper was a dagger to Cincinnati in the NCAA tournament. Continue reading
What Happened Last Week: Harvard beat Yale 52-50 on the road, pulling into a tie for first place at 5-1. The Crimson almost slipped up at Brown the previous night, but after pulling out an overtime win in Providence, they shut down the Bulldogs with stifling defense. Every other Ivy League team is at least 1.5 games back after Princeton beat Columbia but lost at Cornell. Continue reading