Vanderbilt is riding high going into the NCAA Tournament. Can they avoid a letdown and a third-straight first round loss?
The Crimson will bring a four-loss team to Albuquerque, but Tommy Amaker's squad didn't finish the season with the same strength they started it. Harvard jumped out to a 21-2 record through mid-February and actually spent more time in the national rankings this season (nine weeks) than Vanderbilt (six weeks). However, fatigue seemed to set in as the season wore down, and a Crimson team that had become known for double-digit conference wins slowed to a 5-2 record in their last seven games. The wins they got over that period were tough ones; they included an overtime win over 15-15 Columbia, a four-point win over 12-16 Cornell, and a three-point win over 19-11 Princeton.
Is Harvard regressing at the same time Vanderbilt is peaking? The two teams share 5-2 records in their last seven games, but Vandy's strength of schedule is streets ahead of the Crimson. Harvard hasn't played a top 75 opponent in 2012. The Commodores have faced 10 teams that fit that description since January began.
So how can Kevin Stallings take advantage of this? A baffling January loss to Fordham could provide some insight into how to beat the Crimson.
Harvard (26-4, #36 in the AP rankings, #39 in the Pomeroy Rankings)
Keys to the Game:
Force them to get impatient and take tough jumpers. Harvard overcome a 12-0 Fordham run in the second half to knot things at 50-50, but were unable to pull ahead thanks to an over-reliance on long shots. The Crimson had several opportunities to take the lead as time wore down, but they settled for deep jumpers that ultimately gave Fordham the chance to capitalize. The Rams only had one field goal in the final six minutes of play, but clutch free throws and Harvard's inability to convert on the offensive end were enough to pull the upset.
Vanderbilt has earned a reputation this season as a tough team to score on from outside. Their zone defense has had its flaws, but for the most part the team has limited their opponents' ability to score from behind the arc. If Vandy can stagnate the Harvard offense to the point where they're settling for long jumpers, they could end up finding success in the same way that Fordham did.
Limit Harvard's frontcourt efficiency. The Crimson play a 2-3 lineup without a traditional center, and they are anchored by a pair of solid players in 6'7" Kyle Casey and 6'8" Keith Wright. Wright is the more proficient player around the rim, while Casey has more finesse and a stronger jumper. Against Fordham, the pair combined for 17 points on just seven shots. They also pulled down 16 rebounds - seven on the offensive end. The rest of the team shot just 29.2 percent behind them.
Casey and Wright are nice, efficient players. The two lead this team in both scoring and rebounding. However, they'll cede size and athleticism to Vanderbilt's rotation of Festus Ezeli, Lance Goulbourne, and Steve Tchiengang. The trio proved on Sunday that they can keep athletic big men like Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones away from the rim. Containing Casey and Wright will be a different challenge, but if this team's forwards can press the action to Harvard's backcourt, it will be an advantage for the Commodores in Albuquerque.
Play to your strength, not your opponent's. Vanderbilt showed a tendency to play up or down to the level of their opponent throughout the SEC Tournament, putting together awful first half performances against Georgia and Ole Miss before pulling away in the second halves of each game. It was a strange departure for a team that, for the most part, dispatched lower-level competition handily in conference play.
Vandy turned it around when they got to their third showdown with Kentucky, and they proved once again that they can be a strong finisher with an 71-64 win. A slow start against Harvard could wash away this momentum and allow doubt to permeate through this team. Vanderbilt is stocked with veteran leaders, but this is still a very emotional team. If Harvard plays a steady, composed game against the Commodores, they'll have opportunities to find the cracks in this team's armor.