Maybe New Mexico didn’t have to feel so bad after all.
For the second year in a row, the Harvard Crimson have opened their NCAA tournament by convincingly outplaying a higher seed with a great defense. The Lobos were 2013’s victim in what was billed as an epic upset, but now that fifth-seeded Cincinnati has fallen to the Ivy champs—61-57 on Thursday—it may be time to give Harvard credit for being more than a plucky Cinderella.
"I've heard this before where there really aren't upsets anymore," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker told reporters after the game. "There may be some surprises, but I just think when you're looking at seeds and if you're playing this time of year, you're probably a pretty good basketball team."
Once again, the key for Amaker’s squad was a deep, balanced offense that featured all three starting guards score in double figures. Of course, the defense did more than its share as well, taking advantage of Cincy’s recurring shooting slumps and holding eight of nine Bearcats (excepting star Sean Kilpatrick) to 15-of-44 shooting.
"In my mind, today’s game was anything but an upset," Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin said afterward. "They've got a great team. Tough draw for us. In my opinion, they’re one of the best teams we played all year."
Putting all that together, it’s little wonder the Crimson were such a popular pick in this game. As ESPN associate editor Jack McCluskey notes, this is a very good team, not your normal Ivy champion:
Technically it's an upset, but honestly @hoopsatharvard beating Cincinnati isn't a shock. Crimson are talented, well coached and confident.— Jack McCluskey (@jack_mccluskey) March 20, 2014
Moreover, the Crimson's emergence isn't as recent a phenomenon as it looks. Even before their current run of three straight NCAA bids, Amaker had done plenty to transform a program whose only pre-2012 berth in March Madness came back in 1946.
Increasing the the talent level was job one. Although Harvard still wasn't (and isn't) getting Andrew Wiggins or Jahlil Okafor to apply, the Crimson started to move toward the NBA-fringe caliber of previous Ivy powers when point guard Jeremy Lin helped Amaker put the program on the map during his 21-8 senior season (2009-10).
Lin's personal rise to prominence, plus the boost his team had gotten from attention, such as a Sports Illustrated feature that February, helped Amaker bring in even more players who could impress with PPG as well as GPA. Junior Wesley Saunders, a childhood friend of injured Colorado star Spencer Dinwiddie, serves as a fitting symbol for a new breed of Crimson hoopster who is literally at home with the nation's best players.
Now, of course, the question becomes how far those new-look Crimson can go. A large part of that answer will depend on whether another talent-rich underdog (CAA champion Delaware) can score an upset over Michigan State. A Blue Hens win in that game would tilt the balance heavily toward Harvard and its wealth of Big Dance experience.
Even against the Spartans, though, Harvard is too good to write off. Michigan State’s defense, tough as it is, doesn’t have the elite shot-blocker in the middle that Cincinnati’s did, so stopping the Crimson penetrators will be even tougher for Tom Izzo’s team.
On the flip side, Harvard’s D—which played extremely well against the vulnerable Bearcats—will have a very difficult task slowing down the deep, athletic Spartans lineup. None of the Crimson’s committee of big men has much chance to contain Adreian Payne if he gets in a groove.
So, a shootout (at least in relative terms) is the likeliest scenario for that hypothetical third-round contest, and that’s not an impossible obstacle for a deep Harvard offense that’s playing with confidence. A Sweet 16 is not out of the question, but that’s probably as far as the Crimson can go.
It’s less a matter of matchups at that point—Harvard can play with anyone in the East region on a good day—than the loss of a major asset: by the time the second weekend of the tourney rolls around, the underdogs don’t have the element of surprise anymore.
The last time an Ivy champ made it that far (Cornell in 2010), it ran into a Kentucky team that was ready to take it seriously. After leading at half their first two games, the Big Red trailed 32-16 after 20 minutes en route to a decisive loss to the Wildcats.
Don’t be surprised if Siyani Chambers and his mates follow a similar trajectory in the next week. Of course, they won’t complain too loudly about the part of it that gives them a serious chance to set a school record by advancing to the Sweet 16.