Thursday, November 11, 2010

No. 2 Harvard Crimson

Step one is complete. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker has built a winner at Harvard, something which hadn't (and some believed couldn't) be done in the modern era.

The ascent becomes steeper at the top, though, and Amaker will have to attack the summit without recent face-of-the-program guard Jeremy Lin. The second phase of the program's overhaul won't see gaudy win improvements like the six and seven Harvard registered in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Now the focus is far narrower: Win the school's first-ever Ivy title.

The Crimson has never had a better shot than it does this season. Amaker has had three recruiting classes to stockpile talent, and the league landscape has only been as wide open a couple times in the past 20 years. It's not as if the window is closing. In fact, with a stellar six-man recruiting class on board for next season, the opportunity should only grow with time. For a program that has been aggressive at achieving goals under Amaker, don't expect it to be satisfied with waiting.

Last Season: 21-8, 10-4 Ivy
Pomeroy Ratings: .6617 Win Pct (120th), 106.0 Offense (102nd), 100.0 Defense (152nd)
Key Losses: G Jeremy Lin, F Doug Miller, F Pat Magnarelli

Player Outlook:

For the first time since Amaker arrived at Harvard, he must deal with losing talent rather than just slotting the new recruits. Yes, dynamic guards have left Cambridge in the past three years - Drew Housman's 2009 senior season was nothing short of spectacular. But even there, however, there was a logical replacement for whom the expectations were as high or even higher.

With Lin gone to Golden State, a huge gap opens up at both guard positions. The point guard spot is an easy fill, as both true PG Brandyn Curry and combo guard Oliver McNally can bring All-Ivy level performance to the position. Finding scoring from the wings, however, might not be as easy. Christian Webster came alive toward the end of last season, finishing with a team-high in three pointers made (41) while connecting at a 38 percent clip. Webster didn't rebound well at all, and neither did another of the Crimson's potential wings, Dee Giger, who also shot a below-average 30 percent from long range. That should open the door for a couple of Harvard's freshman guards, specifically Laurent Rivard, to get a shot at earning a lot of playing time.

The frontcourt is where things get tricky for the Crimson. Keith Wright can be a force in the paint, but over his first two years, he's been at 100 percent slightly less often than your average NFL player. Kyle Casey is a matchup nightmare for many power forwards, but he's already on the shelf with a broken foot until at least December. Andrew Van Nest can provide depth, but his rebound, block and post scoring rates are terrible for a big man. Ugo Okam is the only potential answer among the freshmen, but he's likely far too raw and untested to be relied upon as a heavy minutes eater in the rotation.

Until Casey returns to action, watch for Harvard to try to steal stretches of the game with a four-guard lineup, hoping that the added scoring from another member of its potent backcourt will be enough to overcome the huge rebounding gap at the other end.

Team Outlook:

Expected Record: 20-8, 11-3 Ivy (T-1st)
Expected Efficiency Stats: .6524 Win Pct, 104.5 Offense, 96.6 Defense

Most Ivy teams either beefed up or maintained their already beefed up non-conference schedules this season, and Harvard was no different. The Crimson has four BCS games dotting the schedule, as well as meetings with potential at-large George Mason and the A-10's George Washington. With Holy Cross and Boston University likely to settle in the top 150 nationally, Harvard not only faces a tough top-heavy schedule, but many of its mid-major games are also treacherous as well. Given that Casey could miss as much as half or even more of the non-conference slate, matching last year's school-best 11-3 out-of-league mark will be almost impossible.

The league schedule, on the other hand, sets up quite nicely for the Crimson. Harvard gets five of its first eight Ivy games at home, with those home dates sandwiched around what is, once again, the league's toughest road trip (at Penn and Princeton). If the Crimson can survive the two other league roadtrips in succession in late February, it should have the opportunity to host the Quakers and Tigers on the first weekend in March with a title shot on the line.

Amaker's teams have bucked the historical trend in Cambridge and closed well over the past two years (4-1 in 2009 and 7-2 in 2010). With another 7-2 finish or better in 2011, Harvard would almost certainly find itself with at least a share of the Ivy title and a very real shot at claiming the league's automatic NCAA bid for the first time ever.

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