Watson, Thomas, Kennedy transfer, leaving BU with little returning

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Boston University point guard Maurice Watson, Jr., announced Wednesday that he plans to transfer from BU. One of only two underclassmen on the first All-Patriot League team this year, Watson would have been a Player of the Year frontrunner for each of his final two seasons in the league. The speedy penetrator set up everyone in the Terriers’ offense with the nation’s second-best assist rate (he assisted 50% of teammates’ baskets when on the floor), including a Division I-best 17 dimes in the Patriot League tournament semifinals.

Watson’s motivation is obvious — he has clear major-conference talent, if not major-conference size. The ideal team for Watson would play up-tempo and let its point guard initiate everything on offense (it’s an easy comparison several have already made, but could he be the heir to Chaz Williams, a different type of undersized lead guard, at UMass?) , and Watson’s quick hands led to a top-30 steal rate this season, helping hide his lack of size.

“He had a wonderful career playing in the Patriot League, playing in the America East,” Watson’s father, Maurice Watson, Sr., told City of Basketball Love. But we feel now that he needs to take his basketball ability and play on a bigger stage.”

Without Watson, the Terriers will be completely different in 2014-15. Things would have certainly been different with the graduation of seniors D.J. Irving and Dom Morris, but Watson, surrounded by a solid set of shooters and two eligible transfers, would have still made BU a title contender. Now, not only will the Terriers be without Watson, but they’ll be without redshirt junior Malik Thomas and redshirt sophomore James Kennedy — whose transfers were reported shortly after Watson’s — it’s hard to see BU’s second season in the Patriot League being as successful as its first.

Assuming no more roster changes before next fall, the Terriers will return only 30% of this year’s possession minutes (combining playing time and usage), by far the lowest in the Patriot League:

Patriot_League_Returning_Possession_Minutes_2014-15

Teams listed in order of 2013-14 finish. Includes effect of BU transfers; I’m not aware of any other confirmed departures.

The transfer wheel won’t entirely work against the Terriers — sophomores Blaise Mbargorba (from SMU) and Eric Fanning (from Wagner) will be eligible for BU next season — but there are a lot of holes to fill. For context, every Patriot League team last season returned at least 40% of its possession minutes. (Of course, the optimistic view is that the most turnover last year belonged to American, which defied expectations to improve from 10-20 to 20-13 and an NCAA tournament bid.)

From an off-the-court perspective, do these transfers reflect poorly on coach Joe Jones or the BU program? I doubt it. Watson’s departure is a clear case of up-transferring, which has become much more common in the last 2-3 years; his Tweets seemed genuinely grateful for his experience at BU. The departures of Thomas (a graduate transfer with one year of eligibility left) and Kennedy (reportedly in search of playing time) won’t likely seek the same heights, but remember that players stuck with BU and Jones through the 2012-13 season, in which they were ineligible for the America East autobid and could have transferred without sitting a year.

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Strengthening students’ voice: Two paths for college sports

Despite all the NCAA tournament excitement, last week’s biggest sports news was the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling that Northwestern’s football players are legally allowed to unionize. No direct ramifications of the ruling will be felt until the end of an indefinitely long appeal process, but a unionized group of athletes — which could spawn many similar groups — presents a long-term threat to the current business model of college athletics. As it does, the NCAA announced its disagreement with the ruling; then, predictably, it was mocked by people who support change, who were in turn mocked by those who support the status quo, and so forth. (For legal implications of the NLRB’s ruling, I recommend John Infante, Erin Buzuvis and Michael McCann.)

One of the most fundamental problems in college athletics is that students don’t actually have much of a voice in how their programs are run. However it shakes out, the Northwestern players’ unionization efforts have drawn attention to that fact and should ultimately give athletes some power, which is a good thing.

Further, I think it could force universities to commit to one of two models of college athletics. On one hand, schools claim that athletic departments exist to serve students’ college experience, and they receive the legal benefits (tax status) and burdens (Title IX) of an educational institution. On the other hand, athletic departments are largely operated as businesses for engaging alumni, marketing the university and, at the largest schools, generating revenue outright. And as the NLRB found, athletes are treated just like employees — ones without much say in the employee-employer relationship, and with their pay capped at the value of a scholarship.

I think either model of college athletics — as a true student-serving experience, or as a business — can be viable. But universities need to follow one path, instead of cherry-picking the best of both models, and each requires a stronger student voice.

A student-serving approach

What would a truly student-centric approach to college sports look like? Athletics would be treated as a student experience first and a commercial product second. TV contracts and changes in conference affiliation would be considered based on how they affect athletes as much as revenue. NCAA rules that protect the interests of coaches and athletic departments, such as transfer restrictions and renewable scholarships, would be abolished. Coaches and administrators would be accountable to the athletes themselves, not to the fans and viewers who demand wins above all else.

Perhaps more importantly, it would require a less authoritarian approach to coaching. Shouting homophobic slurs at players would be not only unacceptable but unfathomable. Attempts to legislate what players do outside the field of play — for example, forbidding or censoring the use of social media — would be incongruous with a truly student-centric mission. And other team rules, such as curfews or possibly practice times, might involve an open discussion with athletes: If they thought the benefit to the team was worth their personal costs, they would agree to it; if not, they wouldn’t.

It would not require “amateurism”, as currently defined. Nothing about banning outside benefits, in general, improves the student experience. Not only would forming a relationship with an agent not be prohibited, but it would be encouraged, to help students make the best decisions for their future. Athletic departments would be free to make their own decisions about what to do with whatever revenue they made, but at least some of it would probably go to athletes — through some combination of scholarships, paychecks and disbursements — and there would be no national cap on compensation.

Above all, this model would require students to have a strong voice in the direction of college sports. That might or might not be a “union”, per se, but athletes would need some way of holding universities accountable and ensuring that athletic programs are actually serving them appropriately.

A business-centric model

The business-centric model looks much more like the current state of college sports. Universities would manage their athletic departments to maximize exposure and profit, and in general, the best way to do that is by winning. Coaches and athletic directors would be held accountable by fans, who would give more support to winning programs. In this world, there would be a place for rules that protect the product of college sports (competitive and high-quality games) which might include transfer restrictions, renewable scholarships, and flexible game scheduling that might inhibit students’ academic experience.

But crucially, as the key employees in this business model, athletes would have to sign off on these rules. Given the examples in American pro sports and the short working life of college athletes, this is probably best accomplished with a players’ union (or unions). If athletes are happy shuffling their academic schedules to play Tuesday night football games on ESPN, they can choose to do so. Maybe they would accept transfer restrictions, but only in exchange for some other benefit — more resources to protect player safety, perhaps.

And in this model, there would be no pretending that athletes are “amateurs.” They would be under a coach’s control, working substantial hours to help market and generate revenue for the athletic department and university. Athletes would be employees of the athletic department — employees who love their jobs, to be sure, but still employees — like other students who work for their universities in various ways. And as employees, they would be able to negotiate and receive compensation in line with their value to their employer.

Which path?

I honestly have no idea which path would be better for college sports. The easy emotional reaction is to say, of course, college athletics should be run for the athletes — but I’m not sure the answer is that obvious. As today’s market shows, there is a lot of equity in the current product of college sports, which might be lost in the student-education model. Fans like Tuesday night football games, millions watch made-for-TV conferences, and most alumni want their teams run as if winning is the only goal. Given the vast financial incentives at stake, it might actually be a better outcome for everybody if college athletics — or at least the revenue sports in power conferences — continued to be run as a business, with players compensated accordingly.

Realistically, college athletics has been trending toward professionalization for several decades, and that trend doesn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which college sports, or at least the most visible subset of them, don’t eventually commit fully to the business-centric model. (Lots of people worry about what the effects of paid players will be, but a true student-centric model, at least as outlined above, brings much more drastic changes.) And if the student experience isn’t the primary goal of college athletics, that’s okay — as long as schools aren’t allowed to pretend otherwise, and as long as players still have some say in how their sports are run.

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Harvard’s late run not enough to top Michigan State in NCAA tournament

laurent_rivard_three-pointer

Laurent Rivard celebrates after his three-pointer gave Harvard its first and only lead over Michigan State, 62-60. (Screencap via NCAA.com)

At halftime of Harvard and Michigan State’s Round of 32 matchup, the only question seemed to be how many points the Spartans would end up scoring. The No. 4-seed and East Regional favorite led 45-33, and it felt like the score could have been even more lopsided. Nothing the Crimson tried could slow down what might be the nation’s hottest offense, a fact that was punctuated with two dunks early in the second half, stretching the Spartans’ lead to 16.

And then, over seven-and-a-half minutes, Harvard totally changed the game. In that span, the Spartans committed seven turnovers — after giving the ball away only twice to that point — and shot just three-for-nine from the field; meanwhile, the Crimson’s offense was nearly perfect, with several points earned in the paint complemented with key three-pointers. By the time Laurent Rivard made his first trey of the game with seven minutes remaining, producing the screenshot above, Harvard had turned that 16-point deficit into a two-point lead.

That lead, of course, lasted only 19 seconds, until Travis Trice answered with a three-pointer, sparking an 11-1 run that ultimately sent Michigan State to the Sweet 16. Throughout the game, the Spartans answered nearly every big Harvard shot with one of its own, showing why it’s on the short list of favorites to cut down the nets at AT&T Stadium in a couple weeks. But by seriously scaring that favorite in Saturday’s second half, the Crimson showed one last time that it was truly a nationally relevant team.

Most of Harvard’s run came with a four-guard lineup of Siyani Chambers, Brandyn Curry, Wesley Saunders and Rivard surrounding Steve Moundou-Missi, an alignment that has had iffy results for the Crimson this season. But with starting forward Kyle Casey ineffective (1-for-5, four ugly turnovers, and two frustration fouls early in the second half; he was minus-15 for the game), Harvard coach Tommy Amaker rolled the dice with his small lineup, and it paid off. Jonah Travis played three high-energy minutes, but otherwise, those five played the entire final 17:35 together.

The Crimson’s run wouldn’t have happened without a monster performance from Moundou-Missi. The Spartans collected eight offensive rebounds in the first 22 minutes, making a small lineup risky for Harvard; Saunders and Curry checked back to help on the glass, but the brunt of the work fell to Moundou-Missi, who finished with a game-high 10 rebounds.

Perhaps more important was the junior’s defense on imposing Michigan State center Adreian Payne. Payne showed flashes of Thursday’s dominant 41-point performance — when a 6’10”, 245-pound center swishes a pull-up 15-footer off the dribble, all you can really do is laugh — but finished the game with just 12 points, four after halftime. Moundou-Missi (and, occasionally, Travis) forced Payne to shoot while moving away from the basket despite a size advantage, contributing to a 4-for-10 shooting performance.

With Moundou-Missi manning the interior, Harvard was able to play Chambers, Curry and Saunders together, bolstering its perimeter defense. The Crimson’s rotations were much crisper than they had been in the first half, when the Spartans wreaked havoc with ballscreens, and its guards became more aggressive ball-hunters. In one key play midway through the half, Saunders rotated onto Payne and deflected his pass after Moundou-Missi trapped a pick-and-pop on the wing; Moundou-Missi collected the loose ball near the sideline, raced to the rim and finished with a thunderous dunk for two of his 11 points — all after halftime.

Curry, coming off the bench, ended his career with one of the most impactful performances of his senior season. On defense, his energy and quick hands helped Harvard turn up its defensive pressure — his steal set up Rivard’s go-ahead three — and his usual one-on-one defense was generally solid against Gary Harris and the Spartans’ glut of talented guards. And on offense, Curry drilled three triples — two of which kick-started Harvard’s second-half run — and penetrated the Spartans’ defense more effectively than Chambers.

And Saunders looked completely in his element against one of the nation’s best teams, showing why he was the Ivy Player of the Year with 22 points, three steals and two assists. He consistently made his way into the paint, taking 10 of his 14 shots at the rim and drawing 10 free throws, and did well guarding the likes of Harris. Most telling, however, was Saunders’ attitude. For a great player, he doesn’t always take over games in an obvious way — but he did so on Saturday, playing at the center of Harvard’s offense for several stretches and attacking defenders. Early in the second half, he turned the corner on a drive and tried to dunk straight on the noggin of Matt Costello; he lost the ball on the way up, but it showed his tenacious approach.

Ultimately, Harvard’s first-half struggles were too much to overcome. The Spartans’ Branden Dawson scored 20 of his career-high 26 points in the first half, taking advantage of his quickness advantage over Moundou-Missi and finishing fast-breaks after Harvard’s numerous live-ball turnovers. But Harvard’s season had to end sometime — and given its second-half play against a Final Four contender, it ended on a fairly good note.

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Postseason Preview: Harvard vs. Michigan State, NCAA Round of 32

The game: 12. Harvard (27-4) vs. 4. Michigan State (27-8); 8:40 ET Saturday, TNT, in Spokane, Wash.

One key chart: Harvard’s defense has been excellent this year, but it hasn’t yet been tested by the likes of Michigan State:

Harvard_basketball_opposing_offensesData via KenPom.com

Harvard’s defense has more than held its own against the best offenses it has played so far, holding Boston College, Connecticut and Denver below a point per possession; in 10 games against top-150 offenses, the Crimson has only twice allowed a team to score better than the national average of 1.05 points per game. But Harvard hasn’t yet faced a 6’10” behemoth capable of scoring 41 points in 24 minutes (with four threes!). The Spartans burned Wisconsin for 86 points last weekend and torched Delaware for 93 on Thursday. Harvard should provide stiffer resistance, but by how much?

Superior mascot: We’ve been over this before. Even if the Spartans were merely Corinthians or Tegeans, they would surely be superior to the dye of certain insects.

Critical matchup: Adreian Payne versus … well, everybody. It’s hard to think of any scheme with which Harvard — or most teams, for that matter — can shut down a 6’10”, 245-pound center who shoots 44 percent from three-point range and 78 percent from the line, but that’s the task Tommy Amaker and the Crimson will have tonight. Payne went for 41 points on 10-for-15 shooting in just 24 minutes against Delaware in the Round of 64, the second-most efficient 40+ point performance of the season, according to SI’s Luke Winn. Delaware’s defense isn’t very good, and the Blue Hens looked disinterested on that end for much of the second half, but Payne’s game was impressive in any context.

Steve Moundou-Missi has struggled to guard mobile centers at the three-point line, but Harvard may have to live with Payne’s threes and hope they don’t fall. Kyle Casey isn’t at a physical disadvantage against many players, and might be a foul-trouble time bomb with lots of time against Payne one-on-one. Could Evan Cummins be effective in stretches off the bench? In any case, Harvard will probably send plenty of help Payne’s way, putting lots of pressure on its perimeter defenders to stop the Spartans’ talented guards. (A zone is also a possibility, but the Crimson’s defensive ethos is more of a switching man-to-man scheme, and it looked uncomfortable in one or two zone possessions against Cincinnati.) Payne doesn’t score 41 points every night, but it’s hard not to be scared of him after Thursday’s game.

History: Harvard is 2-2 all-time against Michigan State, with all four appearances coming in the 1940s. Since then, maybe the two best Ivy League teams of the past 35 years have had their seasons ended at the Spartans’ hands in the NCAA tournament. In 1979, before Michigan State beat Indiana State in the famous Magic-Bird championship, the Spartans met 9-seed Penn in the Final Four, cruising 101-67 behind a 29-point triple-double on nearly perfect shooting from Johnson. And in 1998, a one-loss, Top 10-ranked Princeton team fell to No. 4-seeded Michigan State in the Round of 32, 63-56.

One thought on Harvard: Thursday’s game was a great example of a pattern that fascinates me: Siyani Chambers is Harvard’s most visible player despite not being its best player. Chambers hit the biggest shot against Cincinnati, a pull-up jumper in the final two minutes, earning lionizing tweets from national sportswriters and lead mention in game stories. But the thing is, Chambers didn’t have a particularly good game; he shot 2-10 from the floor (6-8 FTs) with one assist, one steal and two turnovers. His final shot was huge, but even huger was the defense of Wesley Saunders and Brandyn Curry, which limited Sean Kilpatrick to a mediocre outing, and the paint play of Moundou-Missi and Casey.

Because Chambers is such a visible player, however, he’s portrayed as Harvard’s star on national lists and among fans. I think that’s a bit of a disservice to other Crimson players, especially Saunders. Saunders doesn’t initiate the offense or take the hero-ball shots at the end of games, but he consistently creates opportunities inside the arc for himself and teammates, and he’s an excellent wing defender. I don’t think I would have picked Saunders as the Ivy Player of the Year (would’ve taken Justin Sears instead), but I wasn’t the least bit shocked when he won the coaches’ vote, because he is truly the best player on the best team.

One thought on Michigan State: Remember way back in November, when Michigan State was the best team in the nation because it beat Kentucky, until it almost lost at home to Columbia? That was back when we all thought Columbia would be an Ivy League cellar-dweller, instead of the top-150 team it became. Michigan State remained awesome (starting 18-1), until it wasn’t (injury-plagued, losing seven of 12), until it became a clear national title contender again by winning three straight games last weekend. The point is, perceptions change a lot over the course of a season, every year. (Especially, it seems, for teams in the Big Ten, where no one can avoid the occasional losing streak.)

Winner gets: Virginia or Memphis at Madison Square Garden in the Sweet 16. The Cavaliers got a scare from 16-seed Coastal Carolina before advancing, while the Tigers held off George Washington.

Prediction: The Pomeroy rankings and Vegas lines are usually pretty well-aligned, but not in this case; the Crimson is a 7.5-point underdog in sports books, while Pomeroy has the spread at only three points. Some of this is adjusting for Michigan State’s players back from injury, but there’s also a lot of public momentum behind the Spartans, stemming from two really good games in the Big Ten Tournament last week. That’s partly warranted — Michigan State has a great roster and a great coach, and showed flashes of greatness this season — but the same team lost at home to Nebraska and Illinois a month ago. The Crimson isn’t likely to win, but I sense the perception is that Harvard has no shot, and I don’t think that’s true either. Michigan State 71, Harvard 65.

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Hardly an upset: Harvard tops Cincinnati, returns to Round of 32

One year ago, Harvard won its first NCAA tournament game ever, to the surprise of the nation. The Crimson’s story was known nationally, but hardly anyone expected Harvard, a double-digit underdog to New Mexico, to do what only a handful of No. 14-seeds had done before and knock off a No. 3-seed. But behind hot shooting by Laurent Rivard and Christian Webster, the Crimson did just that, stunning the Lobos in a first-round nightcap.

On Thursday afternoon, Harvard won its second NCAA tournament game ever — and this time, it didn’t feel like an upset. The No. 12-seed Crimson simply outplayed No. 5-seed Cincinnati in a game between two very good, if flawed, basketball teams, returning to the Round of 32 with a 61-57 victory.

“In my mind, today’s game was anything but an upset.” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “They’ve got a great team — tough draw for us. In my opinion, they’re one of the best teams we played all year.”

A main reason the Crimson’s victory didn’t feel like a big upset is that, well, it really wasn’t. The Bearcats were favored, but only by about three points, a line more befitting a 7-10 game. Harvard was dinged seeding points for its lack of “quality wins,” while a long midseason win streak raised Cincinnati’s profile, but the true talent gap between the two teams was never expected to be large.

Sure, there were brief stretches where the Crimson appeared to be in over its heads. Early in the first half, Cincinnati grabbed five offensive rebounds on one endless possession; the Bearcats finished the game with a 40% offensive rebound rate. And late in the period, the Crimson committed three turnovers in four possessions against a Cincinnati press, which caused problems throughout the game.

But despite those issues, as well as foul trouble that limited Wesley Saunders’ and Kyle Casey’s minutes, Harvard led 36-29 at halftime. Some of those 36 points required a fair amount of fortune, but others showed Harvard matching or one-upping Cincinnati’s imposing inside defense:

(GIF via SBNation)

Cincinnati rallied early in the second half, scoring 10 points on four consecutive possessions to pull within two points. This was the spot where, if Harvard was truly an underdog, it would have likely succumbed. Instead, the Crimson defense held Cincinnati scoreless over the following six minutes. Though Harvard’s poor free-throw shooting (17-for-28) and a few ugly offensive possessions kept the Bearcats close, they never tied or led the game in the second half.

Siyani Chambers hit a pull-up jumper from the free-throw line to break open a one-point game in the penultimate minute; Kyle Casey drew a charge on Cincinnati star Sean Kilpatrick on the following possession, and the Crimson locked up its victory from there.

The Bearcats’ offense is ugly in the best of times (ranking 249th nationally in effective field goal percentage), and against Harvard’s quality defense, contested layups and errant jumpers incessantly clanked off the rims. Cincinnati shot a putrid 10-for-26 at the rim (Harvard was 10-for-18), and made only seven of 19 two-point jumpers.

Kilpatrick showed flashes of brilliance, but for the game, Saunders and Brandyn Curry held the potential All-America to a mediocre outing — 18 points on 15 shooting possessions and five turnovers, including an unforced error in the final minute.

At the final buzzer, of course there was joy for the Crimson; any NCAA tournament victory is worth celebration, especially the second in team history (and the first individually for Casey and Curry). But on the court, across the college basketball twittersphere, and even in the West Wing, there was certainly no surprise.

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Alternative NCAA tournament brackets

It’s now Thursday morning, which means many of you have already filled your NCAA tournament brackets and second-guessed yourself until your pens run dry. But if you’re a procrastinator — or if you just want a fresh start — here’s a different perspective.

One way to make your picks is to know a lot about college basketball. But as anyone who has ever played an office pool knows, sometimes not knowing anything is an even more effective strategy. Therefore, what could be better than a bracket-filling strategy that has absolutely nothing to do with hardwood?

Three suggested methods, and their results, are below. The only guarantee is that one of these brackets will outperform my “real” picks.

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“The Hot Hands”

Lots of pundits will talk about how important it is for teams to be hot at the right time (hence the support for Louisville and Michigan State). So why not choose your winners based on how hot they are? Don’t settle for the metaphorical sense of the word — actually choose the highest-temperature schools for each game:

NCAA_bracket_The_Hot_HandsI used the average April temperature, because that was the closest this source had to March (it’s not the most credible-looking website, but the data seems reasonable). For two second-round games in the East region (UNC-NC Central and Villanova-St. Joe’s), both schools are in the same weather-reporting area, so I broke the tie with a coin flip.

The left half of this bracket is, given the circumstances, startlingly reasonable. Louisiana-Lafayette and its average April temperature of 68 degrees, however, make the right half a little bit suboptimal from a basketball standpoint. (And if you thought the Midwest Region was loaded already, it’s even worse by this method — Texas and Arizona State, two of the four hottest campuses in the bracket, face off in the first round.)

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“White Houses Can’t Jump”

If meteorology isn’t your thing, try history instead. Our current Commander-in-Chief is a noted basketball fan, continuing a presidential tradition dating back to the days when Abe Lincoln was a fearsome shot-blocker in Midwestern pickup games. What could be more patriotic than choosing each winner based on the number of presidents produced by their state?

NCAA_bracket_White_Houses_Cant_JumpPresidents are allocated by birthplace, with the following tiebreakers: (1) If both teams’ states have the same number of presidents, the one with the closest campus to a presidential birth city advances. (2) If both schools are in states with no presidents, the one who joined the Union last (and has thus had fewer opportunities to produce a president) advances. (3) American and George Washington lose by default, because they aren’t located in a state. This might seem unfair to the latter, given that it’s actually named after a president, but it’ll have to take that up with Congress.

Manhattan in the championship game is a long shot; this bracket would’ve looked a bit better if Xavier had won its play-in game, as it would’ve reached the Final Four on the strength of Ohio’s seven presidents. Virginia wins the championship with eight, while Baylor benefits from the draw as the only West Region team with multiple leaders of the executive branch.

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“One Shining Moment of Area”

Or you can stick with something so simple it requires no coin flips or complicated tiebreakers: Proximity to the middle of the United States. According to Wikipedia, the (unofficial) geographic center of the contiguous U.S. is outside Lebanon, Kansas, giving us a Midwestern Final Four:

NCAA_bracket_One_Shining_Moment_Of_AreaI have to admit, I was hoping for Creighton and/or Wichita State to be slightly better, because then the predicted Final Four would have been totally normal. As it is, Wichita and Creighton get bounced by tough draws in the Round of 32, and this bracket relies on deep runs by Kansas State and Nebraska. But hey, similarly crazy things have happened in March.

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Postseason Preview: Harvard vs. Cincinnati, NCAA Round of 64

The game: No. 12 Harvard (26-4) vs. No. 5 Cincinnati (27-6); 2:10 ET Thursday, TNT, in Spokane, Wash.

One key chart: Which players in the NCAA tournament bear the largest share of their teams’ scoring loads?

Sean_Kilpatrick_Cincinnati_NCAA_tournament_scoring_leadersBy pure points per game, only two teams in the field of 68 rely more heavily on their top scorer than Cincinnati does on Kilpatrick. A first-team All-America contender, Kilpatrick was the offensive star for the defense-first Bearcats, taking 32 percent of his team’s shots with a 120 offensive rating. Only once this season has the senior been held under 10 points — he scored nine in an infamous 44-43 win over Pittsburgh in December.

Superior mascot: Harvard has the worst mascot in the tournament, bar none. Sure, Syracuse and Stanford are also named for colors, and sure, their anthropomorphic orange and tree, respectively, are pretty silly … but for the love of god, at least they’re tangible. The Crimson is electromagnetic radiation of a certain wavelength, inherently no better or worse than any other section of the visible light spectrum. I’m not particularly fond of Bearcats, but colors are eternally 16-seeds in the tournament of mascots, and their winless streak will never be broken.

Critical matchup: Kilpatrick vs. Wesley Saunders. Last week, Saunders was named the Ivy League Player of the Year; this week, he gets to show why against one of the nation’s top players. Harvard’s defensive pressure isn’t likely to rattle Kilpatrick, who will be playing his seventh NCAA tournament game and commits few giveaways for a high-usage playmaker (13% turnover rate), so its one-on-one defenders — most likely Saunders at first — will have to contain him. Saunders will be spelled in the stopper role by Brandyn Curry, who did well against the closest thing Harvard has faced to Kilpatrick, Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier, with Saunders injured in January.

On the other side, Laurent Rivard has been critical in two of Harvard’s three NCAA tournament games, and I’m not sure that’s a coincidence. Rivard generally draws the opponent’s weakest perimeter defender; though top teams usually have shutdown defenders to challenge Harvard’s primary threats, they might not have the discipline to stick with Rivard for 40 minutes. Cincinnati wouldn’t have a top-10 defense without being at least good in all areas; still, I think Rivard will get his shots tomorrow.

History: December 13, 1974: Harvard 77, Cincinnati 76. The only previous meeting between the two schools, nearly 40 years ago, ended in a Harvard upset, as the Crimson knocked off previously unbeaten Cincinnati at the Volunteer Classic at Tennessee. The Bearcats would go on to post a 21-5 regular-season record and reach the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament, while Harvard finished 12-13. Harvard captain Lou Silver scored 38 points in the win, tied for fifth in the program record books.

One thought on Harvard: If the Crimson loses on Thursday, how will this generation of Harvard basketball be remembered? Over the last four years, Harvard has had two top-50 teams, and three that won at least 23 games … and yet, of course, the defining moment is last year’s NCAA tournament victory over New Mexico. That 2012-13 team was, by any reasonable standard, the worst of the four — it had the worst overall record, conference record, RPI and Pomeroy ranking, and even on paper, wasn’t nearly as deep as the others — but March victories have a way of clouding any other memories several years down the road.

One thought on Cincinnati: Entering the Dance, Cincinnati has the nation’s ninth-best defense, per Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, but just the 110th-best offense. I wondered, how have similar teams fared in past NCAA tournaments? (Fellow 5-seed St. Louis is an even more extreme case, boasting the #8 defense and the #178 offense.)

Without having easy access to pre-tournament Pomeroy data, it’s hard to get an exact comparison set, but roughly similar teams include last year’s Oregon and Wisconsin, 2012’s Alabama and Virginia, and 2010’s UTEP and Tennessee. Naturally, there are some hits and misses, but Cincy can be inspired by the success of the Ducks and Vols.

Winner gets: No. 4 Michigan State or No. 13 Delaware. The Blue Hens are dangerous, having nearly taken out Villanova on the road early in the season, and I bet they’d have some upset buzz if not for their opponent. But after rolling to the Big 10 tournament title last weekend, the Spartans are Vegas’ favorite to escape the East Region and ESPN pundits’ favorite to go all the way. Harvard or Cincinnati will have a tough path to the second weekend.

Prediction: Pomeroy has Cincinnati winning 62-60, giving Harvard a 44% chance of victory; Vegas says the Bearcats by three, while FiveThirtyEight gives the Crimson a 42% win probability. One thing is for sure — this won’t be a pretty offensive game, as both teams have better offenses than defenses and don’t mind a slow pace. I’ll say Harvard 59, Cincinnati 57.

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