It was almost destined to happen. The Harvard Crimson were the fashionable choice around the nation’s office pools to pull off the “12-5” upset and advance to the Round of 32 at the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Even President Obama had Harvard in his bracket, although he may have been biased (J.D. magna cum laude, 1991). Sure enough, the No. 12 Crimson got the job done, beating the No. 5 Cincinnati Bearcats 61-57 on Thursday as 3-point underdogs.
Casual observers may be surprised by the result. Harvard is not a big name in college basketball; the Crimson were available at 250-1 on the tournament futures before putting the boots to the Bearcats. But Harvard has made a concerted effort to upgrade its basketball program in recent years. We told you earlier this year about the school’s decision in 2006 to start handing out financial aid to students, followed by the hire of Tommy Amaker in 2007. Those decisions have borne fruit.
This isn’t even Harvard’s first trip to the Big Dance. The Crimson reached the Round of 32 last March as a No. 14 seed, dusting off the No. 3 New Mexico Lobos 68-62 as 10.5-point underdogs. The game plan was pretty much the same; Harvard was 8-for-18 from downtown against the Lobos, and 6-of-17 against the Bearcats.
No doubt we’ll see more long-distance dialing on Saturday when Harvard faces the No. 4 Michigan State Spartans. The Spartans (early second favorites at 6-1 to win the tournament) advanced with a convincing 93-78 win over the Delaware Blue Hens, who could have been a solid upset pick themselves had they gotten a more favorable matchup from the Selection Committee. Instead, they barely managed a push as 15-point underdogs against the Big Ten champions.
As impressive as the Spartans may be — and as snubbed as they were by getting just a 4-seed in the East Region — there’s hope for Harvard in Saturday’s matchup. Michigan State is not all that great at perimeter defense, ranking No. 117 in Division I with opponents shooting 33.2 percent from behind the arc. Sparty also has some difficulty stopping opponents from grabbing offensive rebounds, ranking No. 155 in that department.
At the other end of the floor, the Spartans are No. 21 in the nation in 3-point shooting at 39.1 percent, but again, they’re not very good at crashing the boards, checking in at No. 120 in offensive rebounding. The Crimson have a chance to take advantage at both ends of the floor; they’re No. 31 in 3-point shooting at 38.7 percent, and No. 29 in preventing opponents from grabbing offensive rebounds.
It’s still going to be a tough row to hoe for Harvard. The opening lines for Saturday’s contest have Michigan State favored by eight points, although that’s already been bet down to 7.5 points as we go to press. But if Harvard keeps hitting those threes, anything is possible when these two teams meet in Spokane.