Last season, Harvard went into the tournament facing a hot New Mexico squad that was a trendy Final Four pick. Those Lobos had a scoring duo in the form of Tony Snell and Kendall Williams, two strong bigs named Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow… and Harvard took them down with only their starting lineup plus two bench subs all game.
Snell and Williams were held to a mere 5-for-18 from the floor and were kept out of the paint all night, allowing the bigs to get theirs but no more - which looks great on the stat sheet but isn't how the Lobos built their success all season. Wesley Saunders was strong and Laurent Rivard got hot from long range, and it was on to the second round.
That's bad news for Cincinnati – Saunders and Rivard are back and playing better, Siyani Chambers is another year older and better, and more importantly Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey are back. Furthermore, Cinci’s offense is less versatile than UNM’s was last year – they’re less skilled from three-point range and from the free-throw line, and they can struggle to defend aggressively without getting in foul trouble.
Harvard is very experienced, in general and in the tournament, and they've got no obvious disadvantage in this game. Six players see at least 20 minutes per game, and this is either the second or third tourney appearance for all of them. Cincinnati isn't bigger, or more experienced, or more athletic. They don’t shoot or score better, and while Sean Kilpatrick (20.9 ppg) is truly a phenomenal player, the Bearcats often rely far too heavily on him to make things go, and not even Justin Jackson has regularly stepped up when teams have managed to slow down Kilpatrick.
Cincinnati is well known for compensating for their offensive shortcomings with absolutely stifling defense (7th in defensive efficiency), where a worst case scenario has their defense keeping them in the game just long enough for Kilpatrick to play hero. The problem is that such close games mean their opponent is always in it as well. They are clearly the better rebounding squad in this contest, but less depth and balance on offense could mean serious trouble with any kind of early foul accumulation.
How Cincinnati Can Win
Much like they have all season, slow things down, and use their size to dominate the low post in the form of blocked shots and aggressive rebounding - from Jackson certainly, but hopefully from fellow senior Titus Rubles among others - without winding up in foul trouble. Allow Fitzpatrick to dictate the pace of the game, as well as the offense, but make sure that he is finding alternative options for producing points. Keep Harvard from establishing an offensive rhythm, and force them into ample ill-advised three-point shots.
How Harvard Can Win
Get out and run. While Cinci isn't incapable of playing a transition game, they don't exactly have experienced depth, and hitting the up-tempo button could lead to that desired early foul trouble, which would tilt the court heavily in the Crimson's favor. Make sure everyone is at least involved in the offense, even if they aren't scoring, and be smart with their three-point shooting - Rivard and Curry shoot it well, but the Crimson don't rebound well enough, especially compared to Cinci, to get trey-happy. Maintain poise, since all the relevant players have been here before at least once.
Who Will Win
Harvard, and it's not likely to be in question all game. The Bearcats are a great matchup for Harvard - there's no way they are seven slots worse than Cinci, and the 'Cats have been very uneven and susceptible to teams lesser than the Crimson this year. Their offensive imbalance will be their undoing in a 75-68 loss to Harvard.
Harvard vs Cincinnati
Where: Spokane, Washington
Time: 2:10 p.m. Eastern, Thursday