The 27-6 Cincinnati Bearcats are a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament and will face the 12 seed Harvard Crimson in their opening round matchup. Tip off is at 2:10 EST today on TNT.
Harvard has become an Ivy League powerhouse. The Crimson have won the last four conference titles and wrapped up an impressive 26-4 season. Harvard went 13-1 in the Ivy League behind a stellar starting five led by junior Wesley Saunders. As a whole, the Crimson are a team with a mix of experienced vets and talented youngsters. Head coach Tommy Amaker has done a nice job anchoring Harvard with seniors while creating an environment that allows them to pull along the underclassmen. It’s been a recipe for success that has bolstered the Crimson basketball team the last few years.
Harvard is at or near the top of the Ivy League in several statistical categories. This is a smaller team that is driven for the most part by their guard and wing play. As such it’s no surprise to see the Crimson so strong in many shooting categories and weak on the boards. Harvard boasts the 7th best field goal percentage from beyond the arc (39.8%) and the 15th best field goal percentage in general (47.5%). They average a solid 68.3 points per game (153rd nationally) and 1.06 points per possession (72nd nationally).
But, like I mentioned, the Crimson struggle on the glass. Harvard averages just 29.4 rebounds per game (334th nationally) and ranked 343rd and 260th in offensive and defense boards, respectively. This is not a team that will grind it out around the paint but look to do most of their damage on the outside and with mid-range jumpers. If Cincinnati can own the paint and grab rebounds, preventing the Crimson from getting extra possessions, the Bearcats can succeed tomorrow.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Wesley Saunders (#23): He is essentially Harvard’s answer to Sean Kilpatrick on the edge. Saunders is a 6’5″ wing who doesn’t really shoot the three ball but does most of his damage from inside the arc and at the free throw line. The junior leaders all Crimson players in free throw attempts, evidently playing aggressively in the lane to draw fouls. He’s an outside-in threat on offense so Bearcats who absolutely can’t get into foul trouble today (i.e. Justin Jackson) need to stay as far away from him as possible.
Siyani Chambers (#1): Harvard’s back court is the key to their success and the other half of that equation is Siyani Chambers. Just a sophomore, he has started every game this year for the Crimson and looks to be the heir apparent for Saunders as the leader of the offense when #23 graduates after next season. Chambers leads Harvard in assists with an impressive 4.6 per game and averages 11.1 points per outing. Mick will need to decide who lines up on the 6’0″ guard but I would be curious if that responsibility falls on players in Cincinnati’s own back court or UC’s more lanky wings. That includes Bearcats like Shaq Thomas who can overwhelm the smaller Chambers by his sheer long arms, not giving him any room to shoot. Regardless of who Mick tabs to slow the sophomore down, doing so will certainly go a long way to halting this Crimson offense.
Sean Kilpatrick v. Wesley Saunders: GeLawn Guyn will probably be tasked with slowing down Siyani Chambers at the point but that’s not the most important matchup tomorrow. It’s a key one, for sure, but Kilpatrick v. Saunders edges it slightly. As mentioned, the Harvard wing will drive to the hoop moreso than step back for a shot beyond the three point line. Kilpatrick will need to keep him in check because Saunders will try to force the issue whenever he has the ball in his hands. That includes drawing fouls. I could see Mick Cronin shading Titus Rubles and Shaq Thomas over to the Harvard wing but for the most part #23 will have to cover his number on his own.
FINAL THOUGHTS AND PREDICTION
On the surface I’d be worried about Harvard’s ability to spread the floor and generate scoring chances from their talented back court. But Cincinnati should be ready for that having played the likes of Memphis, and succeeding I might add. The Bearcats have an advantage in this game due to their length and height, which theoretically should help swallow up the smaller Crimson guards. UC can get into trouble, however, if key cogs to their success such as Justin Jackson get into foul trouble, opening up the court even more for Harvard. Believe you me, this is not an easy opening round matchup for the Bearcats but they’ve been in this situation before and should come out on top.