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The NCAA's Worst Losses: Harvard Faces Vanderbilt to Open the NCAA Tournament

Vanderbilt is riding high going into the NCAA Tournament. Can they avoid a letdown and a third-straight first round loss?
Vanderbilt is riding high going into the NCAA Tournament. Can they avoid a letdown and a third-straight first round loss?

Winning the SEC Tournament title was huge, but for Vanderbilt to prove that this team is different, they'll have to do something they haven't done since Derrick Byars was the SEC Player of the Year - win a NCAA Tournament game.

Vandy will open up the 2012 NCAA Tournament against Ivy League Champion Harvard in a matchup that launched millions of simultaneous nerd jokes on Twitter. The postseason berth is the team's fourth in the past five years. All four times, Vanderbilt's opponent has been seeded 12th or higher. Leading into Thursday's game, the Commodores have yet to advance to the next round in that span.

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)

Worst Loss: at Fordham (10-19, #273 KenPom #240 CBS RPI), 54-60
Other Losses: at Connecticut, at Princeton, vs. Pennsylvania

Fordham fielded a bad team in 2011-2012. They finished last in the Atlantic 10 and were somehow worse than a University of Rhode Island team that won only seven games all season. They only beat two teams ranked in the top 150 all season - and Harvard was one of them.

The Rams overcame an early deficit to open up a double-digit lead in the second half, but that soon evaporated when turnovers curtailed Fordham's offensive possessions. Harvard rallied to tie the game with 3:28 to play, but had just one field goal - a desperation three-pointer - after that mark. Fordham didn't play terribly well down the stretch, but their defense and ability to make free throws were enough to keep the Crimson from leaving the Bronx with a win.

Key to Destruction: Limiting turnovers. Harvard wasn't great about creating turnovers during the regular season, but their ability to force Fordham into mistakes made a 10-point deficit disappear over an eight minute span late in the second half. Trailing 44-34, the Crimson forced the Rams into three straight turnovers (and four fouls) to spark a 6-0 run that took less than 90 seconds. After two more Fordham turnovers, the game was tied at 50 all.

Vanderbilt has been vulnerable to quick bursts like this all season. Teams like Xavier, Mississippi State, and Kentucky were able to turn Vandy miscues into game-changing runs. Harvard's comeback eventually fell short against Fordham, but not until after they had erased a double-digit second half lead. That feeling of losing a big lead late in the game is one the Commodores are familiar with.

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.