Harvard Opens as 6 1/2-Point Underdog Against Vanderbilt, Long Shot to Win East Region

Nearly every season in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, at least one No. 5 seed loses to a No. 12 seed.

Last year, one No. 12 seed beat a No. 5. In 2010, three No. 12 seeds won their first game.

Could Harvard be that No. 12 this season?

The Crimson play their first NCAA tournament game in 66 years on Thursday in Albuquerque against No. 5 Vanderbilt, and opened as 6 1/2-point underdogs on Bovada.

Here’s a look at Bovada’s odds to win the East Region, which Harvard and Vanderbilt are playing in.

Ohio State: 8-5
Syracuse: 9-4
Florida State: 17-2
Vanderbilt: 9-1
Wisconsin: 9-1
Kansas State: 18-1
Cincinnati: 20-1
Gonzaga: 30-1
Texas: 30-1
West Virginia: 30-1
Harvard: 60-1
Southern Miss: 60-1
Montana: 100-1
St. Bonaventure: 150-1
Loyola (Md.): 200-1
UNC-Ashville: 200-1

While No. 12s have never taken all four meetings in a tournament, they’ve been shut out only three times (1988, 2000, 2007). Overall, No. 12 seeds have won at least one game in 21 of the past 23 years (no wins in 2000 and 2007) and at least two games in 10 of the past 11 years. In fact, No. 12 seeds have reached more Sweet 16s than No. 7 and No. 11 seeds, more than 8s and 9s combined and just one fewer than No. 10s.

So that all bodes well for Harvard (26-4), which is 250-1 on Bovada to win the national title. As does the fact that Vanderbilt (24-10) has lost its first NCAA tournament game in each of the past three years — as a No. 4 seed in 2009 and 2010 and as a No. 5 seed a year ago against Richmond.

However, these Commodores are soaring, having ended top-ranked Kentucky’s 24-game winning streak in Sunday’s SEC Championship Game, 71-64. Kentucky, which ran the table in the SEC regular season, didn’t score a field goal over the final 8:04, and shot just 35.9 percent from the field (23 of 64). Vanderbilt rallied with a 16-2 run over the final five minutes to win its first SEC Tournament crown since 1951.

There’s a reason Vanderbilt opened the season as the No. 7 team in the nation. It is a veteran club that has a stellar big man in senior forward Festus Ezeli, who controlled the post for 17 points and six boards against Kentucky’s outstanding frontcourt.

The Commodores also have one of the nation’s top shooters in guard John Jenkins (19.9 points per game), the SEC Tournament MVP. This season, he became the first player to lead the SEC in scoring in two consecutive seasons since 1995 and 1996. Jenkins also led the SEC in 3-pointers made per game at 3.9 and shoots a stellar 44.8 percent from long range. He likely would have been the SEC Player of the Year if not for Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis.

Backcourt mate Jeffrey Taylor was second in the SEC in scoring and leads all active scorers in the SEC in career points. He was also named to the conference’s All-Defensive team this season for the third year in a row, only the second player in history to achieve that feat. Jenkins and Taylor are the first pair of Commodores named to the All-SEC first team since 1989.

The deepest the Commodores have made it into the NCAA tournament has been a regional final in 1965, when the SEC champion earned an automatic spot into the regional semifinals.

Vanderbilt, the only private school in the SEC, is ranked 20th in the latest AP poll and 24th in the coaches’ poll. Ironically, Vandy heavily recruited current Crimson star Kyle Casey.

Harvard is unranked, falling out of the Top 25 after a Feb. 10 loss at Princeton. The Crimson this season became the first Ivy League team in the AP Top 25 since Princeton back in March 1998. Brown is now the only Ivy League team that has never been ranked.

Harvard, which set a school record for wins this year, had not been to the NCAA tournament since 1946. Back then, the Crimson lost to Ohio State and then fell to NYU in a regional third-place game. Harvard had never won an Ivy League title before sharing the crown with Princeton last season. This year, Harvard won the Ivy title outright, clinching it when Princeton beat Penn in the regular-season finale last Tuesday. Had Penn won that game, it would have played Harvard in a winner-take-all game for the Ivy’s automatic berth. Princeton beat Harvard in just such a game last season, winning on a buzzer-beater. That sent the Crimson to the NIT.

The winner of the Harvard-Vandy matchup will get the winner of the No. 4 vs. No. 13 game pairing Wisconsin and Montana. Should Harvard manage to win its first two games, it would then play essentially a home game at TD Garden in the Sweet 16.

The Crimson were 2-1 against NCAA tournament teams this year, beating ACC Tournament champion Florida State on Nov. 25 in the Bahamas and America East Tournament winner Vermont in Burlington on Dec. 1. Harvard lost at reigning national champion Connecticut on Dec. 8 in the Crimson’s first game this season as a ranked team.

NESN.com’s college basketball coverage is presented by Bovada.net.

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