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?
By 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.