A Beginner's Guide to March Madness: Harvard Edition
To the casual sports fan, it is now time to create bracket pools, re-download the March Madness app, and quickly obtain a College Basketball 101 of how fringe teams in the A-10, MAAC, and yes, Ivy League have performed. Everyone knows that one guy who can give a halfhearted yet cogent breakdown of the No. 13 seed school no one has ever heard of. Or taking credit when the Florida Gulf Coasts and La Salles of the basketball ecosystem make it past the first weekend.
If you are that guy, here is your chance to quickly acquaint yourself with the 2017-2018 Harvard basketball season and the Ivy League. Trust me, this will be quick and painless. Then you can go shamelessly back to watching Trae Young’s 30-foot highlights and hating on Grayson Allen.
I present you the Harvard Crimson Basketball FAQs.
How is the team playing this season? Who is playing well?
Ah, the classic one.
The easy answer is this: 15-12 overall after a challenging non-conference schedule with opponents like Kentucky and Minnesota. 10-2 in Ivy League play and second only to Penn, whose sole Ivy loss was to Harvard.
Before the start of play in the Ancient Eight, the Crimson held its ground with tight defeats to the aforementioned Wildcats and Gophers. However, shooting woes and inconsistent play haunted Harvard against some of its lesser opponents, leading to disappointing losses against Holy Cross, Manhattan, and George Washington.
Fast forward to today. Team performance on the court has improved, a combination of re-discovered perimeter accuracy and lock-down defense throughout the conference season. The Crimson is situated as the second seed in the Ivy League heading into the final weekend of play, despite losing arguably its top player in sophomore guard Bryce Aiken to a knee injury for much of the calendar year. More on this later.
In his absence, sophomore forwards Chris Lewis and Seth Towns have taken on the offensive load. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, who is currently in his 11th year leading the team, has emphasized “inside-out” basketball.
Amaker’s main interior anchor in this style of play? Lewis, a 6-foot-9, 235-pound big man who deploys a traditional back-to-the-basket, post-up game.
Ranked No. 68 nationally on the ESPN 100 coming out of high school—the highest-ranked recruit ever to come to Harvard—Lewis is averaging 12.1 points this season and has the highest field goal percentage—60.6—in the Ivies. Primarily deploying backboard hook-shots and relying on an effective left-handed finish, the sophomore scored a career-high 25 points in the Crimson’s victory over Penn on Feb. 10.
The other offensive centerpiece, Towns, has put up even more impressive numbers in the Ancient Eight. Leading the Ivies in scoring and averaging 15.8 points per game this season, Towns has been Amaker’s go-to man late in games.
The sophomore recently said that he models his game after James Harden. Unsurprisingly, the Columbus, Ohio, native—who turned down offers from Ohio State and Michigan to come to Cambridge—has taken on the isolation, slash-to-the-paint playing style of the Houston superstar.
Defensively, sophomore forward Justin Bassey is Amaker’s “MVP.” Marking up on the opponent’s lead offensive weapon, Bassey has contributed largely to Harvard’s defensive efficiency, one of the top in the nation. The Crimson has held Ancient Eight opponents to just 63.2 points this season.
Oh yes, what about Bryce?
The outlook on the point guard is poor, and he is highly questionable to return back to the court this season, according to Amaker.
“[The knee] is just not progressing the way we need it to or he wanted it to put him in a position to feel comfortable,” said Amaker in a Feb. 28 press conference. “I don’t anticipate that changing as we go down the stretch.”
In his place, sophomore guard Christian Juzang has taken over almost literally all of the minutes at the point guard position. For context, Juzang has played in an average of 40 minutes in the last five games. Without another reserve point guard on Amaker’s healthy roster, the Crimson has seen two 20-plus point games from Juzang since early February. Two weeks ago, Juzang combined for seven triples and 11 made field goals in two contests.
Another theme for this season, according to Amaker? Improved contribution from the reserves.
“We talk so much about our bench and our balance,” said Amaker after the Feb. 9 win. “You look at our stat sheet, we had tremendous balance. Henry Welsh off the bench gave us great minutes. Robert Baker had a few plays, a big block, big defensive rebounds here and there.”
So what do we need to do to make March Madness?
This is where things get complicated. Only one representative from the Ivy League will qualify.
To do so, the Crimson will need to win a four-team playoff held in Philadelphia, Pa., on March 10-11 at the Quaker’s home ground, the Palestra.
Last year’s victor, Princeton, capped off an undefeated conference season with a trip to Buffalo, where it fell in the last minute to fifth-seeded Notre Dame. Having lost three key seniors from last season, the Tigers currently are tied for seventh in the conference table. Let’s just say they need a miracle to even make the four-team Ivy Tournament.
So where does this leave everyone else? The topdog this year is Penn, which carried an experienced team forward when most of its competitors, including the Crimson, are breeding youth in their programs. The Quakers just beat Harvard by three last weekend, leaving them situated at the top of the Ancient Eight with an 11-1 record. Full breakdown below:
1. Penn 11-1
2. Harvard 10-2
3. Yale 7-5
4. Cornell 5-7
5. Columbia 5-7
6. Princeton 4-8
7. Brown 4-8
8. Dartmouth 2-10
There you go. Two games left in the regular season for each team. Top four seeds make the conference tournament. Winner qualifies for the first round of March Madness. Given how late the tournament is played, Selection Sunday will also be the same day as the championship game.
A whirlwind of emotions for the victor, to say the least.
But wait, tell me more about this tournament. How are teams seeded?
The Ivy League is notoriously stubborn. So stubborn that only last season did it abandon the antiquated round-robin, winner-take-all format of the past. No more hunched-over fans watching on laptops at a remote Dartmouth-Yale game to determine the Crimson’s postseason fate. It’s time for the playoffs, baby.
For the second straight year, the tournament will be held at the historic Palestra. Massive home-court advantage, you might say? That’s one side of the coin. The flip side is that no other Ivy League location can seat more than 7,000 fans. Philly really likes its sports teams. Sorry about that, Cambridge. Or New Haven. Or Ithaca. Yes, even Ithaca. I apologize.
“It was a pretty cool experience,” said freshman forward Danilo Djuricic after his first game at the Palestra on Feb. 24, in which the Crimson fell 74-71. “It’s a great gym with a lot of history, and I am looking forward to returning and making sure there is a different result.”
Obviously, the top four teams with the best conference records qualify. But here is time for even more breakdown of the esoteric tiebreaker rules. Bear with me.
If two teams are tied, the team with the best head-to-head record against each other is seeded higher. What if two teams split their season series? Then it goes to the head-to-head of the next highest seeded conference team. So basically here, who has the better record against No. 3 Yale? Same record against Yale? Go down to the record of the No. 4 team. Get it?
So what does Harvard have to do this weekend to be the No.1 seed at the Ivy League Tournament?
There are four possible situations. Harvard plays Cornell and Columbia, while Penn plays Yale and Brown this weekend. Essentially, Penn needs to lose at least one game to be jumped by the Crimson. Here are the desired scenarios for Harvard fans:Harvard sweeps and Penn loses both games.Harvard sweeps and Penn loses to Yale (Crimson 2-0 against Bulldogs, Penn 1-1)Harvard sweeps, Penn loses to Brown, Princeton also loses to Brown, and Dartmouth beats Columbia (This would be utter madness).
In short, if Penn beats Yale and either Brown or Dartmouth loses on Friday, Harvard stays at the two seed heading into the tournament.
Things to look out for as Harvard as it hosts Cornell and Columbia?
Saturday is Senior Day for Zach Yoshor, Andre Chatfield, and team captain Chris Egi.
Both games this weekend will be tipping off at 7 p.m. at Lavietes Pavilion. It is the last opportunity for Cornell and Columbia to fight their way into the tournament as the fourth seed. Columbia has the tiebreaker in its favor given the Lions’ Feb. 2 victory against the Crimson, but all bets are off for who gets that coveted spot. It would take another FAQ in itself to explain the current No. 4 tiebreaker.
There’s a breakdown of the season for all the casual fans out there. Missed anything? No worries. Read up on our weekly coverage and live game updates. And yes, no shame in pubbing at the end of my first column. All the best.
—Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at email@example.com.
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