NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Ask any objective observer at John Lee Amphitheater, and they'd give you the same verdict: Harvard was better than Princeton on Saturday afternoon. That, of course, won't ever change what happened. Douglas Davis received an inbound pass with 2.8 seconds left, ducked, went up for a mid-range fadeaway jumper and watched the ball pass through the net as time expired for a 63-62 win for the Tigers.
So how did we get there?
Harvard outplayed Princeton for the entire first half. They looked fluid on offense, shooting over 50 percent, and played well on the other end, too, forcing turnovers and making Princeton look completely stagnant offensively. They led by as many as nine early in the second half and maintained a steady, albeit shrinking lead for the first 10 minutes of the half, holding a 50-44 advantage with 9:06 to go. Then the Tigers raised the tempo, Ian Hummer continually got to the rim, and those huge turnover and shooting percentage margins that had pointed Harvard's direction evened out.
With those facets of the game no longer a factor, those which had pointed in Princeton's direction the entire game — even while they had been losing — took over as determinants, as Princeton's 36-24 rebounding margin, 14-5, on the offensive glass and a 30 percent advantage at the free-throw, proved to be the difference.
The final 10 minutes were played at a frenetic pace, one that barely resembled the previous 30 minutes of action. With each team constantly taking it to the hole and drawing contact, free throws were pivotal, and it was at the line that Princeton inched back. Those opportunities came in large part because Harvard's Keith Wright, the game's most dominant player, picked up his fourth foul before crunch time began, and the Crimson's interior defense softened considerably.
Add it all up, throw in Davis' amazing buzzer-beater, and the Tigers managed to pull it out.
The thing is, Harvard would've been a better bet to reprise Cornell's Cinderella run of 2010 — though the Crimson could still possibly be granted an at-large chance.
What factors generally lead to Cinderella success? Teams that generate a ton of steals, limit turnovers, drain 3-pointers, rebound, and have a high positive point differential tend to be your best bet — think about a team like St. Mary's from last year, featuring a post presence in Omar Samhan, a bunch of distance shooters and pesky defense. In those metrics, the Tigers go just 1-for-5 — they can rebound. Their scoring differential? 5.7 to Harvard's 7.2. Their number of steals — 5.9 to Harvard's 6.0, neither of which would bode well. Turnovers? That's yet another stat where both are pretty average, 12.2 and 13.1 respectively for the Tigers and Crimson. Three-point shooting? Harvard shoots 37.9 percent, while Princeton goes 37.4 percent — both pretty good, but by comparison, Cornell shot 43.3 percent last season on the way to the Sweet 16.
That litany of stats, however, just doesn't tell the story. With the season on the line on Saturday, you could sense of how each team would fare in all of those categories, and the verdict was clear. Harvard is a good 3-point shooting team that generates open looks with good movement, Princeton not-so-much. Harvard is pesky on the defensive end. Princeton can be very careless with the ball. Again, Princeton is a strong rebounding team, and not just because they're playing in the Ivy League. They have big bodies. The question is whether or not it will be enough.
In Joe Lunardi's most recent Bracketology, the Ivy League winner is getting a 13 seed, matching them up with either Purdue, Wisconsin, Kentucky or Syracuse — none of which have a truly "bad loss" all season, and all of whom are big, athletic and talented as can be.
Could Princeton move up and become a No. 12 seed and face the likes of Arizona, St. Johns, Vandy or Texas A&M? Maybe, and if they do, they'd be in great shape to pull off the 12 over 5 upset. With the exception of the Red Storm, all of those teams have bad losses and go through stretches where they can look very poor.
It may, however, be likelier that Princeton ends up as a 14 seed, in which case they'd be looking at UConn, Lousville, Florida, San Diego State or BYU. That may actually be a better bet than being a 13 seed would be. While the Mountain West may have impressed this year, BYU and SDSU don't quite pass the eye test as dominant teams.
It's hard to say that Harvard would be a great bet to beat any of those teams, but with the interior presence of Wright, the perimeter play of Oliver McNally and Brandyn Curry and fluid offense, they looked like the kind of team that could be trouble in the tournament on Saturday — they just may not have a chance.
All of that, much like was the case as far as the playoff itself was concerned, leaves out one pivotal factor — which trumps everything when it comes to March Madness. Princeton can nail buzzer-beaters. We'll see if they have another one in them next week.