Key matchups for pivotal Princeton-Harvard showdown

Before Harvard and Princeton continue the Ivy League’s hottest rivalry in Cambridge tonight, it’s worth remembering what happened the last time the Tigers and Crimson met. Heading into the first weekend of March, Princeton was fifth nationally in three-point percentage, while Harvard ranked eighth, leading most prognosticators — myself included — to claim three-point shooting would be a key factor that night. As it turned out, Harvard missed all of its threes and the Tigers nearly did the same, as the two teams combined for a 1-for-18 performance in a 58-53 Princeton win.

The lesson? Don’t take anything you’re about to read in this preview too seriously.

Much like that meeting 11 months ago, Princeton enters tonight’s game with its back more or less against the wall, at least from an Ivy League title perspective. After opening conference play with a 77-74 loss at Penn, the Tigers would fall two games behind Harvard with a defeat — meaning a 12-0 finish might be necessary to catch the Crimson. On the other hand, a Princeton win would prove Harvard is vulnerable, opening up the league considerably.

This isn’t quite the same Princeton team that had #2BidIvy hopes last month, however. After an impressive 9-1 start to the season, the Tigers were whacked by Portland, squeaked past Kent State and Liberty, and lost to the maddeningly inconsistent Quakers. Harvard has had its own occasional struggles in 2014 but is playing at a noticeably higher level overall.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Harvard will score. Sure, the odd 14-for-61 performance can always happen, but there’s no particular reason to expect Princeton to shut the Crimson down, especially at Lavietes Pavilion. The Tigers’ defense overall is average at best — and considerably worse recently, allowing 1.17 points per possession to their last four D-I opponents — and they don’t match up well with Harvard’s offense. Penn exposed Princeton’s weakness against quick guards and physical forwards, and while the Tigers were able to hang around at The Palestra (mainly because the Quakers take care of the ball with all the poise of a grizzly bear on rollerblades), they gave up an average 1.43 points on possessions not ending in turnovers. With guards like Brandyn Curry and Siyani Chambers, and forwards like Kyle Casey and Steve Moundou-Missi, Harvard will be able to take advantage of the same areas.

The fun will happen on the other end, where the Tigers have been lighting up opponents with a modified Princeton offense. No team in the nation takes more three-pointers than Princeton, which has six players shooting at least 37 percent with at least two attempts per game. And no team takes fewer two-point jumpers than the Tigers, at 9 percent, according to Hoop-Math.com.

Harvard’s defense is actually well-built to defend a three-point-bombing squad like Princeton; the Crimson traditionally pressures the perimeter and chases shooters off the arc aggressively. This pressure leaves Harvard susceptible to the traditional Princeton backdoor cut, and the Crimson usually gives up a couple backdoor layups in every meeting, but I suspect Tommy Amaker would trade that for a hand in the face of every Princeton shooter. But the Tigers often have five three-point shooters on the court at once, including center Hans Brase; will Moundou-Missi and Kenyatta Smith be as comfortable defending the perimeter as their teammates are? (Update: Smith will miss the rest of the season, as first reported by the Harvard Crimson and confirmed by the team today.)

Because they are built so differently, Princeton and Harvard offer each other a delightful array of cross-matching opportunities. After missing the first three games due to injury, T.J. Bray has been unfathomably good since, shooting 65 percent on threes and 41 percent on twos with the nation’s sixth-best assist rate. He’s the Tigers’ nominal point guard, but Harvard should use its longer perimeter defenders — Wesley Saunders and Agunwa Okolie — to counteract the 6-foot-5 Bray’s devastating post game. Princeton likewise has hard matchup choices to make on defense (when not playing a 1-3-1 zone that has been effective this season), and if the game is close in the final minutes, both teams have opportunities to make intriguing offense-defense substitutions.

For most of this series’ recent history, foul trouble has been Harvard’s Achilles heel; Casey has 28 fouls in seven career games against Princeton (with two foulouts), and last year’s Crimson team was so thin that any foul trouble was worrisome. But with Saunders, Curry and Smith all (presumably) in uniform after recovering from various injuries this month, Harvard has a 9- or 10-man rotation with no truly indispensable players. If foul trouble affects tonight’s game, it will likely hurt Princeton, which needs Brase and Will Barrett to stay on the court.

The betting line for tonight’s game has Harvard as a 9-10 point favorite, and that feels about right. Truthfully, I’d be surprised if Harvard loses at home this season; since 2011, the Crimson is 21-1 in Ivy League games at home, and the lone defeat came on a disputed last-possession charge. But if anybody from the Ancient Eight is going to conquer Lavietes, Princeton (along with Columbia) might have the best chance.

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