Can Tommy Amaker coach Harvard to its first NCAA Tournament appearance?
The Harvard Crimson—yes, Harvard University’s basketball team—will not only be the best Ivy League squad in 2011-12, but they will also be one of the nation’s premier mid-majors.
With the sour memories of Douglas Davis’ dooming buzzer-beater in last season’s one-game Ivy League playoff still ripe, the Crimson, who return every key player and are led by a strong core of upperclassmen, are poised to write a different story in 2011-12.
Balanced offensive units and experienced rotations have been vital to mid-major success in the NCAA Tournament, and Harvard meets both criteria. Six returnees averaged between 9.3 and 14.8 points last season, and five of those players will be upperclassmen this year.
Opposing defenses will have their hands full because Harvard has a legitimate threat at each position.
Senior Keith Wright, the defending Ivy League Player of the Year, led the team in points (14.8 PPG), rebounds (8.3), blocks (1.8) and field-goal percentage (58.4 percent) as a junior. He's complemented in the frontcourt by Kyle Casey, a junior who averaged 10.7 points and six rebounds per game last year.
Tommy Amaker also lured two Californian bigs away from the likes of Pac-12, Big Ten and SEC schools. Kenyatta Smith and Wesley Saunders, a tweener according to ESPN's scouting report, will work their way into the rotation.
Amaker has a primary guard corps of Christian Webster, Oliver McNally, Brandyn Curry and Laurent Rivard. They're all threats to score in a variety of ways—ranging beyond the arc, where they collectively shot 39.7 percent. As a team, Harvard shoots 37.8 percent from deep.
Curry, the team's point guard, led the Ivy League in assists with 5.9 per game in 2010-11.
Who would you tab as the Ivy League favorite?
The Crimson slow the game down and efficiently put points on the board. Kenpom ranked Harvard as the No. 53 most efficient offense last season.
Amaker's offense works to draw fouls—the Crimson averaged 21.6 free throw attempts in 2010-11, converting 17.4 of them at an 80.8 percent rate. Only Wisconsin shot better from the stripe.
Defensively, Harvard was mediocre last season, ranking No. 153 in Kenpom's defensive efficiency and allowing opponents to shoot 43.3 percent from the field. Even if the defense hasn't improved much, the efficient offense should be able to keep the Crimson in high-scoring games. Harvard went 4-3 in games in which their opponent scored 70 or more points last year.
Harvard has a mildly challenging non-conference slate featuring an appearance in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament as well as trips to UConn and Boston College. The Crimson can potentially play the Huskies in the Battle 4 Atlantis as well if both teams produce the same result in their first round games.
If the Ivy League couldn't get two bids last season, it won't this year. That being said, Harvard's results in key non-conference games still matter for seeding in the Big Dance.
In the Ivy League, Princeton still poses the most viable threat. However, Kareem Maddox and Dan Mavraides graduated, leaving Harvard as the indisputable favorite.
If Harvard wins the Ivy League, the Crimson will dance for the first time since 1946.