Harvard-Northeastern preview: A paint battle

Here’s something you may not expect: According to Ken Pomeroy’s projections, Harvard is actually more likely to split this week’s games — at Northeastern on Wednesday and at Boston University on Saturday — than it is to sweep them.

If Harvard does lose to the Huskies or Terriers, my hunch is that the national reaction will be disappointment — that a team with Top 25 hype shouldn’t be losing to less esteemed mid-majors. Per Pomeroy’s current ratings, however, these are actually two of Harvard’s four toughest regular-season games remaining (behind games at Connecticut and Princeton). And while that’s partly an indictment of Harvard’s non-conference schedule, it’s also a reflection of the fact that beating above-average teams on the road is very difficult.

Northeastern is just 2-5 — but it already beat Georgetown, took Florida State to the wire and matched VCU for 30 minutes. BU doesn’t have the same signature win, but the Terriers are 6-2 with solid road wins at UC Irvine and Quinnipiac. Harvard is good enough to beat both teams in four days, but it shouldn’t really be a shock if the Crimson slips up.

I’m particularly interested in tonight’s game. The key battleground will be within five feet of Northeastern’s basket, where the Huskies will take the majority of their shots:

Team

% of shots at rim

1. Louisiana-Monroe

58.8%

2. St. Bonaventure

58.8

3. Indiana

57.2

4. Xavier

56.2

5. Central Florida

54.9

6. Massachusetts

54.6

7. Kansas

53.5

8. South Florida

53.3

9. Oregon St.

51.9

10. Northeastern

51.7%

(Data from Hoop-Math.com)

On defense, Harvard has the best counter to a paint-focused offense — the ability to block shots. So far this season, the Crimson has blocked 18 percent of opponents’ attempts at the rim, 36th in Division I. Steve Moundou-Missi is a terrific shot-blocker, and Kyle Casey and Wesley Saunders also average about a block per game each. (Harvard’s frontcourt would be even more formidable with a healthy Kenyatta Smith, who blocked shots at an insane rate in a part-time role last season.)

But at the same time, the Crimson has struggled with foul trouble this season (particularly Casey, who has been foul-prone throughout his career), and after Casey, Moundou-Missi and Jonah Travis, Harvard’s frontcourt drops off considerably at this point. In Scott Eatherton and Zach Stahl, Northeastern has two players who excel at drawing fouls around the basket. They might get a few shots swatted early on — but if they keep attacking the rim, they could force Harvard to play more cautiously.

That’s the battle I’ll be watching tonight: Northeastern’s paint offense against Harvard’s intimidating defense. Of course, the Crimson could avoid that battle altogether by forcing turnovers — the Huskies have coughed up the ball on 22.2 percent of possessions (322nd in Division I), while Harvard’s defense has a 21.9 percent turnover rate (30th).

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