The Harvard Crimson have been one of the most fun college basketball teams to follow over the past few years because of all the narratives that can be applied to them. You have the tired, but true, "student-athlete" narrative; the Tommy Amaker coming good narrative; the rising like a phoenix from the ashes of academic scandal narrative - but ultimately the only narrative that holds any water is the one where the Crimson have been the Ivy League's representative in the NCAA Tournament for four straight years.
The Crimson will take on the 4-seed North Carolina Tar Heels on Thursday March 19 at 7:20 p.m., in the Round of 64 in Jacksonville, Fla., with the hope of pulling off yet another upset over one of basketball's Goliaths.
Amaker's men enter the tournament with a 22-7 overall record, and 12-3 record in Ivy League play. Those marks were good enough to earn the Crimson the Ivy League's automatic bid after beating the Yale Bulldogs, 53-51, in the conference's play-in/championship game.
However, Harvard backed into that game after losing the defacto championship game to the Bulldogs on March 6. They would go on to beat Brown in the regular season finale, but had to sit to see if Dartmouth could hold off Yale to force the aforementioned play-in game. They did, Harvard prevailed, and here we are.
Wesley Saunders & Co.
Harvard boasts one of the most tournament-tested lineups you will find in a mid-major team. Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers, Steve Moundou-Missi, Kenyatta Smith, and Jonah Travis have all contributed to Harvard's past tournament teams and will bring a steady hand to what would otherwise be a nervy matchup.
Saunders is a legit candidate for the Stephen Curry "Don't You Wish You'd Known How Good This Guy Was Before You Picked Against Him" Award. He averaged 16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game while playing 34.1 minutes on a team that plays most of its games on back-to-back nights. He scored 22 points in last year's second-round loss to Michigan State and his NCAA Tournament average of 12 points per game falls right in line with his career numbers.
Beyond Saunders are Chambers and Moundou-Missi averaging 34.5 and 29.8 minutes per game to go along with 9.8 and 9.7 point per game averages. Moundou-Missi hit the game-winner against Yale in the play-in game and is generally the engine that keeps the Crimson going on the inside.
These three players will be key in Harvard keeping pace with North Carolina.
For Once, a Harvard Resume is Terrible
In terms of NCAA Tournament selection, you would be advised to pass on Harvard's resume. The Crimson faced just one top 50 opponent and were lambasted by the Virginia Cavaliers, 76-27. The view doesn't get better with a wider lens as Harvard's only wins against the top 100 came against Yale (twice), fellow tournament team Northeastern, and UMass.
Losing to Arizona State, Boston College, and Holy Cross would, in some years, be acceptable. However, with ASU not making the tournament, BC breaking in a new coach and Holy Cross underwhelming many, it's hard to fault the selection committee for placing the Crimson on the 13 line.
For the sake of comparison, UNC split with Virginia and beat BC twice by a combined 29 points. Yikes.
North Carolina is Really Good
The Tar Heels are the 4-seed for a reason. Roy Williams' team is fresh off a run to the ACC Tournament Championship and boasts four players averaging at least 10 points per game. While their height won't overwhelm Harvard, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks are multi-talented big men whose size and athleticism will likely overpower the Crimson inside.
Outside, Marcus Paige has matured into an excellent guard who can hurt you in a bunch of ways. Watching Paige and Chambers battle should be excellent, but if Paige gets into a shooting groove it ultimately won't matter who is covering him -- he will win that matchup.
They go nine-deep with players averaging at least 10 minutes per game and play a fast-paced game that suits their athleticism and depth. This is a tough matchup for Harvard and one that Amaker and Co. will need to be extremely well prepared for.
What you, the reader/viewer/fan/bettor, should be prepared for is a game that isn't likely to be a blowout. You will hear the TNT color analysts talk about the academic rigor of the Harvard program and how they are "true student-athletes" and how this is "David vs. Goliath" and all sorts of other commentator-speak nonsense. Tune it out, watch the game, and enjoy what should be a competitive game for 30 or so minutes.
If we get more than that, blame it on the narrative.