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Know! Your! Foe! - Harvard.

Harvard may return everyone of import from the team Princeton beat at the buzzer in 2011's Ivy League playoff, but they're actually quite different in several respects. To discuss the Crimson in detail for the site's Know! Your! Foe! series, I hit up Michael James of the @ivybball Twitter account. James is also a Rush The Court contributor and once the brains behind The 14-Game Tournament.

My questions and his answers follow after the jump.

If you cover a team the Tigers will face down the line, let us know. We'd love to talk with you.

Harvard's offense is no surprise to anyone who pays attention to the Ivy League, but their defensive improvement in 2011-12 has been unexpected with the same personnel returning. Why have the Crimson been so good defensively?

The offense has been a little surprising, as it has regressed a bit this season despite having the same personnel. No one has really noticed because the defense has been neck-and-neck with Princeton’s 1991 squad for the title of best in the Academic Index era (1980 to present).

Tommy Amaker teams have historically been very good at keeping opponents off the free throw line – three of his five Harvard teams have ranked among the Top 50 nationally in that category – and rebounding on the defensive end – the Crimson has been Top 100 each of the last three years. There just weren’t many misses to corral until this season. Harvard’s depth has allowed it to be very active defensively, scaring opponents off the three-point line and forcing them inside, where the Crimson has been very proficient at blocking and changing shots. Effective field goal percentage allowed is now Harvard’s best Four Factor category (22nd nationally), which means the Crimson forces a lot of misses, and its stellar rebounding allows it to turn those into stops at very high rates.

How good is this year's freshman class for Harvard and how good could they ultimately be? Can you say a few words about these new members of the squad even though we're now 22 games in?

As a whole, the class is getting more than a fifth of the minutes on a team that is by all ranking systems at least Top 50 nationally. The production has been somewhat inversely related to the preseason hype, as the two highest-rated members of the class (Wesley Saunders and Kenyatta Smith) are really the only two without a signature game to this point, and Smith hasn’t been able to crack the rotation.

Steve Moundou-Missi has creepily similar rate-based numbers to Keith Wright on both ends of the floor. He’s a slightly smaller version of Wright, but has better leaping ability. Corbin Miller will be a dangerous three-point shooter in this league, but his LDS mission is on tap for the next two years, so he won’t visit Jadwin next until 2015. Jonah Travis is the most interesting member of the class. He’s woefully undersized for the power forward spot, but he’s athletic enough to compete for boards and score among much larger bodies.

Then you get to the frontline members of the class. Saunders needs to tighten his handle and learn not to defer as much, because if he doesn’t turn the ball over, Ivy defenders cannot stop him without fouling him (he has the top free throw rate among all Ivy regulars by a country mile). Smith just doesn’t have the post footwork down yet either on offense or defense. For him, it’s a learning curve issue, and it will take a full offseason in the program to gain the polish that will earn him playing time.

Has sophomore sharpshooter Laurent Rivard taken a step forward as a sophomore or is he just getting more minutes and thus more attempts? I was actually surprised to see he's currently the Crimson's leading scorer.

Rivard is a work-in-progress on defense, but he’s a clone of Ryan Wittman on offense. He’s just off the pace to break Harvard’s single-season, three-point record (74 by Kevin Rogus in 2004) in over 30 fewer attempts. He’s pretty much the same player as he was as a freshman, but he’s finally forced Christian Webster out of the starting lineup and the team has benefitted from it.

As for why he’s the scoring leader, that has as much to do with his increased minutes and amazing efficiency as it does with the fact that Kyle Casey can’t stay on the floor (Casey’s points produced per 40 minutes is higher than Rivard’s) and Keith Wright has taken a much lower percentage of team shots than last year.

Looking at the numbers, it seems like the only area where Harvard has struggled is in keeping care of the basketball (turnovers on 21.5% of their possessions). Why is that?

Amaker really wants the offense to flow through the post, and for good reason – Harvard’s offense is more productive when the defense is getting attacked both in the paint and from the perimeter. At times, though, Crimson perimeter players have a tendency to float lazy and ill-advised passes to Wright and those attempts either get picked off or slide out-of-bounds.

To be fair, Amaker teams have never really been good at taking care of the basketball. A turnover rate of 21.5% would be the fourth lowest for an Amaker squad in his past 10 years, and he hasn’t coached a team in that span with a rate lower than 20.3% (last year’s Harvard team).

Does this team have an Achilles heel? Is it slowing the pace down as Columbia did in a 54 possession game last weekend?

A slow pace isn’t really an Achilles heel beyond the mathematical implications of a higher variance result (fewer possessions bring more randomness into play). Harvard’s real Achilles heel is offensive complacency. Brandyn Curry drives the offense. When he attacks the rim, good things happen. The team is built to draw fouls and hit open three-pointers, and Curry puts the squad in good situations for both to occur. Sometimes for long stretches of the game, Harvard will run its motion around the three-point line without ever looking inside and settle for a desperation Curry drive as the shot clock is expiring. When the Crimson starts doing that, its half of the scoreboard starts moving a whole lot slower.

Why haven't I mentioned Keith Wright or Kyle Casey so far? That's rhetorical, unless you don't want it to be.

If the world were a tempo-free place, Wright and Casey would get their just desserts. Wright is having a great defensive season and has only had a slight offensive decline due to more turnovers, fewer fouls drawn and a worse conversion rate when he gets to the line. With Moundou-Missi and Travis as more capable backups than last year’s rotation of Andrew Van Nest, Jeff Georgatos and Ugo Okam, Wright has only played 69% of team minutes versus 80% last year.

The same goes for Casey, though his decline in minutes played is equal parts depth and foul trouble. The 6'7" junior has been as good or better at both ends of the floor this year, but it’s hard to tell, because he’s playing less than 24 minutes a game. If Harvard felt like it was losing a ton with the rookie big men on the floor, both Wright and Casey would see their minutes increase and their production rise accordingly.

What's the most interesting statistic you observe as it relates to this matchup?

Other than the fact that Harvard hasn’t won at Jadwin since I was four years old (February 1989)?

I’m going to start with something odd: Free Throw Percentage Defense. Both teams are Top 20 in that almost completely uncontrollable category, but how the opposition shoots from the line can be of critical importance in a close game. Ian Hummer, Denton Koon and Brendan Connolly have been poor free throw shooters all season. They will likely see the line at points during the game and how they perform could be the difference. On the other end, Harvard gave Columbia a lot of life last weekend by shooting uncharacteristically poorly from the stripe.

That leads into the true top statistic to watch, and it’s the same one as last year: free throws attempted. Harvard has had 14 or fewer trips to the line in five Division I games this year. It is 3-2 in those games. It is 16-0 when it takes 15 or more. It is essential to the Crimson’s offense that it gets to the line early and often, and that means attacking the Tigers’ big interior presences.

I get a lot of back-channel emails about Harvard recruiting, and the Crimson staff seems like they're trying to get involved with recruits earlier and earlier in the process. Would you agree and how much do you think their approach has changed recruiting tactics around the league?

I struggle with this one. I think a lot of the change in recruiting has been driven by Twitter. We just have more information about the recruits that each school is pursuing all throughout the process. So it’s difficult to separate what Harvard and other schools might be doing differently in terms of the recruiting timeline from the general increased visibility into the process.

The only real change that I perceive is that certain Ivies are actively pursuing higher-level targets now, primarily because higher-level recruits have been picking league schools. To some extent, I think that Harvard landing a couple big names has shown that it’s not a waste of time to pursue BCS-type prospects and now more Ivies are joining that effort.

Blank time. Harvard ends an epic losing streak at Jadwin Gym and continues their roll towards destiny if...

…it hops out big early. The Crimson has a tendency to start slow and wear a team down over time. If the pace isn’t fast enough though, time runs out before Harvard can get to the portion of the game where it can take advantage of its superior depth.

The Harvard-Princeton game won’t be played fast, that’s for sure. The closer the game stays on the road the tighter the Crimson will get and the better chance Princeton will have. That’s why it’s imperative that Harvard get out in front early in a big way, especially if the Crimson takes its first league loss the night before at The Palestra.

Princeton plays up to their level of competition once more and hands the Crimson their first (or second but probably first) conference loss if...

…the Tigers let Harvard play slow, and Douglas Davis has a huge game. Hummer’s going to get his points, and some of the complementary guys are going to contribute in their usual ways. Davis is the piece that can really change the complexion of this Princeton team. Sometimes he plays a huge role, but sometimes he disappears. He’s the “extra” player the Tigers need to go toe-to-toe with the Crimson.

Let people know: Who you are! What you do! Where you do it! How they can keep track of your work!

I run two twitter feeds – my personal account @mrjames2006 which is primarily Harvard basketball focused and @ivybball which is a league-centric account. I also contribute the Ivy Check-Ins to Rush The Court every two weeks. I used to run The 14-Game Tournament blog, but the demands of my day job have since gotten in the way.

Thanks for joining us again. I better meet you at Jadwin on Saturday or the rumors you're really a well-programmed algorithm will start to increase substantially (because I'll be spreading them).

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