Saturday, January 30, 2010

The newest, hottest college basketball rivalry you didn't know about: Harvard and Cornell

Harvard's in Cornell to play the Big Red today in college basketball. "So what?" you ask?

Unless you're an absolute sports geek or an Ivy League fan (and outside of Princeton most people know nothing about Ivy League basketball), you probably haven't noticed that Harvard men's basketball is having their best season in decades, currently off to a 14-3 start. Harvard's schedule features a road win over Boston College, road wins over halfway decent Seattle U and Santa Clara teams (the Seattle win was a blowout), and their only losses being a close aberration at lowly Army, a reasonably close loss at 19th ranked Connecticut and a 16 point loss at 11th ranked Georgetown. Harvard has run the table at home and gone 7-3 on the road overall against a varied non-conference road schedule.

Jeff Sagarin's ratings currently has them pegged as the 59th best team out of 347 in NCAA Division I Men's Basketball. To give an idea of how impressive that is, the rating of the Ivy League's top team in most years is etched firmly in the 100-200 range. NCAA Tournament at-large bids usually dry up around the 35-45 range of rankings, so Harvard's not far from the talent level of teams that the NCAA lets in without a conference tournament title. Harvard may not have a power conference resume or a superstar talent, but they are legitimately good and this year's team could probably play .500 ball in most multi-bid major and mid-major conferences.

Harvard's emergence likely traces back to coach Tommy Amaker, who played and later cut his coaching teeth with Duke during the 80's and 90's. Amaker's first coaching gig with Seton Hall during 1997-2001 featured middling results (only one 20 win season and NCAA tourney bid), though his Seton Hall teams never finished under .500. Amaker then took over a scandal-tarnished Michigan program and struggled under the weight of sanctions and the always-competitive Big Ten schedule, never reaching the NCAA Tournament during his six seasons there, posting two losing seasons and eventually getting bought out and fired in 2007.

The biggest criticisms of Amaker to this point were that his teams tended to buckle under pressure, especially down the stretch of the regular season. Of course, he also had the pressure of trying to revive two once-proud programs that had fallen on hard times and fell behind their peers in their respective power conferences.

So he made a smart move and took over a team with much less history and much lower expectations in a much less competitive conference. Harvard hired him, figuring why the hell not, and in two seasons Amaker turned what was a typically uncompetitive Harvard squad into the competitive, defensively tough 14-3 squad they are today.

Harvard's led by Senior Jeremy Lin, whose 16.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game is actually a slight downtrend from last season (17.8 ppg, 5.5 reb, 4.3 asst). From there, there's not a ton of scoring: Forward Keith Wright is the only other player who averages double digit scoring (10.7) per game. They struggle with turnovers on offense (23.9% of possessions), but they are tremendous at getting to the line (48.7 attempts per), and do a decent job of nailing their free throws (75.2%, 12th best in the nation out of 340+ teams).

Again, defense is Harvard's strength. Teams shoot 43.9% against them (15th best in the nation), commit a lot of turnovers, tend to struggle for offensive rebounds, struggle to nail their shots (44.2% field goals against, 27.8% on threes, both in the top 60). Harvard blocks 12.6% of shots and steals on 11.9% of possessions, both numbers in the top 50. Games with Harvard are sloppy, turnover ridden affairs where Harvard gets an edge by nailing inside shots, getting to the line, nailing free throws, then blocking out and putting down the clamps on the defensive end. If you beat Harvard, it's because you're nailing your shots and playing well. If you're sloppy, mistake ridden and can't hit your shots, Harvard's going to stay with and beat you no matter how good you are.

With no conference tournament, and overall Ivy League record determining the NCAA tourney entrant, the pair of games between the two Ivy League leaders (both of which are currently 3-0 in Ivy League play) becomes supremely important. With Cornell sitting in the low 30's in the Sagarin Ratings, they could get in at large if they hold serve. While Harvard is a relatively impressive 59th, they need to win out and win the Ivy League title to get in, and beating Cornell is the biggest step to doing so. These are easily the biggest guns in a traditionally weak conference, and the Ivy League's 2010 ticket to the NCAA Tournament likely comes down to these two teams.

Cornell's resume and history looks a bit better thanks to a gradually built program by coach Steve Donahue. A longtime assistant before taking over at Cornell in 2001, Donahue turned a crappy Cornell team into a average Ivy League team, but has put all the pieces together over the last three years: Cornell is the current back-to-back reigning Ivy League champ.

Like Harvard, Cornell has a modest but strong resume this season in their 17-3 start. Their only blemishes came in a close loss to highly ranked Kansas, a 15 point rout early this season at highly ranked Syracuse, and a 10 point loss at home to 12-7 Seton Hall... all good teams. Wins against middling big/mid conference teams like Alabama, UMass and St Joe's have buoyed their Sagarin ratings along, obviously, with beating 12 non-conference D-1 opponents overall to date.

Cornell is more offense minded and has more offensive weapons. Like Harvard they have a clear leader, in Ryan Wittman (17.9 PPG) but post man Jeff Foote (12.3 PPG, 8.4 rebounds) and point guard Louis Dale (10.5, 5.0 asst) also do damage. The Big Red's strength makes them Harvard's perfect foil: Hitting the shots they take, especially their 3's. Cornell plays decent defense, but their 54.9% effective field goal rate is 14th best in the nation, while they hit 42.1% of their 3's (3rd in the nation).

Like Harvard, Cornell nails their free throws (74.0%, 29th best) and their inside defense is good (43.4% on 2-pointers, with a decent 46.7% effective FG% against). But they take better care of the basketball (turnovers on only 20.3% of plays, around average), and their perimeter defense has issues as teams can nail 3's against them (36.5%, 272nd overall). Fortunately for Cornell, Harvard is not a good 3-point shooting team.

Harvard could still win the Ivy League if they lose this game, but it's not likely: They'd definitely have to hold serve on February 19 when Cornell comes to Harvard, and Harvard would not only have to probably run the table the rest of the way, but either hope that Cornell slips up, not as likely as you think: Ken Pomeroy's estimations indicate that Cornell has a 34% chance of running the table save for one loss to Harvard. Harvard, meanwhile, has only a 29% chance of running the table with a Cornell road loss, as Princeton matches up with the Crimson somewhat well. If Cornell runs the table, Harvard would have to win a playoff game with Cornell per Ivy League tiebreak rules to get the tourney bid.

Ivy League fans have some intrigue to this season even if they're not Cornell or Harvard loyalists, as this has the makings of a great new Ivy rivalry, no matter who comes out on top this season.

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