Last year Harvard parlayed a strong non-conference performance and their first Ivy League title in 66 years into a 12 seed in the NCAA tournament, although they fell to Vanderbilt in their first game. The Crimson aren't expected to be quite as good as last year's 26-5 overachievers, but they're again one of the favorites to win the Ivy League title and they're good enough to challenge a team like Cal, even in Berkeley.
The main reason Harvard isn't quite as highly regarded this year? Well, imagine if Harper Kamp and Jorge Gutierrez were both suspended before their senior seasons for potential academic violations. Yeah, that essentially happened to Harvard when Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry dropped out in an attempt to preserve their college elibility amidst a widespread cheating allegation. Thanks to graduation and scandal, Harvard is without their starting point guard and two best rebounders from last year's team. It's a testament to how well Tommy Amaker (formerly of Seton Hall and Michigan) has recruited that Harvard is still reasonably competitive without such important veterans.
So far Harvard has done about what you'd expect them to do against a mediocre schedule. They've beaten the bad teams (Fordham, Holy Cross, a weakened Boston College) and lost to the good teams (St. Joe's, UConn, UMass). Depending on what you think of UConn, Cal might be the best team Harvard has played so far, so the Bears are certainly favorites, but not overwhelmingly so.
Siyani Chambers, 6'0'' Fr. point guard
Laurent Rivard, 6'5'' Jr. guard
Wesley Saunders, 6'5'' So. guard
Christian Webster, 6'5'' Sr. guard
Jonah Travis, 6'6'' So. forward
Steve Moundou-Missi, 6'7'' So. forward
Kenyatta Smith, 6'8'' So. forward
Without their vets, Harvard has gotten great production out of a couple of young guys. Wesley Saunders, the rare top 100 recruit from L.A. that headed to the Ivy Leagues, is an athletic slasher who gets to the rim, finishes, and draws plenty of fouls.
Siyani Chambers has stepped in to fill the point guard role admirably, and he's playing the 6th most minutes of any player in D1 basketball, which speaks volumes of Amaker's confidence or Harvard's lack of bench options, or both. Where Harvard is vulnerable is inside. The Crimson lack both experience and size in their front court, and so far this year Harvard is 296th in the country in 2 point shot percentage defense. Teams are having a field day getting the ball into the key and converting.
Our Computer Overlords Predict: Cal 73, Harvard 64, 79% confidence
Keys to the game:
1. Pay lots of attention to Saunders. Thanks to attrition, Harvard simply doesn't have many options offensively. Saunders is their most talented player, and they rely on his ability to get to the basket. Ideally, Cal would have Ricky Kreklow healthy and able to play 30 minutes. I don't know if he'll go zero minutes, 15 minutes, or 25, but if he's available he'll be a big help in keeping Saunders as far away from the rim as possible.
2. Attack the paint. In every way possible. Cobbs and Crabbe driving the ball. Post up Solomon. Play the high-low offense. Anything that gets the ball into the key is likely to result in a high percentage shot. Harvard simply doesn't have the depth to challenge Cal on defense and get in any foul trouble, so they probably won't strongly contest certain shots. There's a glaring weakness in their defense that should be easy for a team like Cal to exploit.
3. Control the 3 point line. Against UCSB, the Bears were unable to prevent the Gauchos from getting open looks from three, despite knowing that it was the key to their offense. Threes aren't quite as important for Harvard, but they are currently 13th in the country in three point percentage. I want Cal to prevent open looks both because it will help against Harvard and because I want to feel more confident about Cal's defense in Pac-12 play.