BASKETBALL: how to beat Harvard, again

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Photo by William Freedberg.

When the Crimson comes to town tomorrow for the biggest game of the Ivy League season, it will be a clash of styles: grit vs. finesse. Harvard’s smooth shooting and passing-oriented offense will be tested against Yale’s tough defense and inside game.

“They’re a little bit … more flashy,” said forward Justin Sears ’16. “Whereas our games are ugly, grind-it-out, slow games. We get to the line playing half-court offense, just pounding the boards to get rebounds. Two proven styles. It’ll be interesting to see which one wins out.”

Harvard leads the conference in assists and points per game. They are second only to Princeton in threes made over 12 conference games.

Although the Elis’ inside game is their bread and butter, on Feb. 8, they were able to stretch the Harvard defense with 6-10 shooting from the arc. Over the last few games, teams have been packing the paint against Yale in an effort to discourage the Bulldogs’ low-post scoring. Yale’s shooting ability could hold the key to a sweep of Harvard.

“Mondays have been shooting practice for us,” Sears said. “Guys have been getting shots up in the gym. We know teams are going to be packing it in so we’re just trying to make sure we’re shooting the ball well. We’re at home now, so we know how the rims feel here, so I think we’ll definitely shoot well this weekend.”

Guard Javier Duren ’15 was integral in spacing the floor last time, going 2-3 from distance. Duren leads the Elis in threes attempted per game.

Yale has a number of matchup advantages that it will attempt to exploit against Harvard.

Last time the two teams played each other, guard Armani Cotton ’15 was a nightmare for the Crimson. Cotton’s unique combination of size, length, athleticism and shooting ability caused matchup problems for Harvard on both ends of the court.

In 12 games of conference play, Cotton’s versatility has been apparent: He is third on the team in three point percentage at 38.7 and second in rebounding with 7.1 boards per game. Cotton’s shooting from distance will be key in luring Harvard’s bigs out of the paint.

“I think we have some good matchups at a lot of positions,” forward Matt Townsend ’15 said. “Armani is a tough matchup for other teams because he has the size and length of a 4-man, a post player, but he crashes from the guard spot and the guards try to box him out, which [opposing guards] are often not used to doing. His second effort points and just being relentless is huge for us.”

Perhaps the key matchup of the game will be Sears vs. Harvard forward Kyle Casey. Sears said he will look to take advantage of his matchup with Casey, a player he admired in high school. Sears gives up 20 pounds to Casey, but makes up for it with quickness. In their first head-to-head in Sears’ breakout sophomore season, Casey struggled to guard Sears and had difficulty scoring on the Yale forward on the other end. Sears finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks to Casey’s eight points, six boards and four rejections.

“It’s definitely a matchup advantage for us,” Sears said. “Most of my matchups with guys are. I’m not as strong as other players so I’m quicker and I have an unorthodox game,” Sears said. “It’s harder for some guys to match up with me which gives me the advantage.”

Sears said he will look to exploit the Crimson in transition, where his speed and athleticism will allow him to get easy buckets.

A big part of the Elis’ success in Cambridge last month lay in their ability to get Harvard into foul trouble. Both teams finished with 25 personal fouls, but the Crimson’s fouls came early and disrupted their game plan. Two of Harvard’s centerpiece players, starters Wesley Saunders and Casey, fouled out of the game entirely.

“Part of the identity we try to have for our team, in addition to being a defensive stopping team and a good rebounding team, is a team that really gets to foul line, a team that forces other teams to foul us,” Townsend said. “We did a good job of that in the first game so that’s the goal for us in the second game.”

But Yale will also have to work hard to correct some of their errors from last time around. Number one on that list is turnovers. In their last matchup with Harvard, the Elis coughed the ball up a startling 19 times, with five of those coming from traveling violations. The Crimson are second in the Ivy League in steals per game with 7.4, but many of the Bulldogs’ turnovers in last month’s matchup were unforced.

The Elis will also have to be prepared to play against unorthodox defenses. Towards the end of the first half in last month’s matchup with the Crimson, Harvard dusted off a 3-2 zone defense in the hopes of limiting Yale’s frontcourt. In the preseason, much talk was made of an increased reliance on zone defense throughout the league as a result of rule changes intended to increase freedom of movement. The Elis have not played much zone themselves, but teams are relying on it more often now that they know about Yale’s game plan.

“We’ve been practicing against a lot of zone in practice the last two weeks,” Sears said, “so I think that we’re definitely getting better at it. I think the best part of when teams play zone against us is that it causes matchup problems for rebounding. It gives us a big advantage when the shot goes up and they struggle to find bodies to box out.”

But no matter what the variables are this time around, the game will be sure to have its classic appeal to fans on both sides.

“The Harvard-Yale rivalry is always going to be a special, high-emotions environment, whether we’re here or there,” Townsend said. “Guys are always pumped to play, emotions are always running high. It’ll be nice for it to be on our home turf where we’re most comfortable, but really it just comes down to the same basics.”

The Elis tip off against Harvard on Friday at 7:00 p.m. in John J. Lee Amphitheater.

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