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Know! Your! Foe! - Harvard.

Michael James of the @ivybball Twitter account joins us this afternoon to discuss the Harvard Crimson for the seventh of this site's Know! Your! Foe! conference previews.

My questions and his answers follow after the jump. I have a great deal of respect for the time and detail James puts in to his Ivy League analysis and I think you'll feel similarly after reading his in-depth responses.

I should also mention that James is a Rush The Court contributor.

Did you miss our Dartmouth K!Y!F! that was published yesterday? Check it out here.

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

Can you open by summarizing Harvard's first 20 games in as tidy a package as you're comfortable with?

Looking back now, it’s hard not to notice the similarities between this year’s campaign and the 2009-10 season. The beginning of each year brought reasons to hope, but with Cornell casting its shadow over the league then and Princeton now, there was little reason to expect a league title. Each time some strong non-conference performances soon had confidence soaring, masking the defensive deficiencies of which many were acutely aware. For the 2009-10 edition of the Crimson, it only took five games into Ivy play for Harvard’s lack of frontcourt depth and inability to guard on the perimeter to reveal the team as more pretender than contender. Here we are six games into the 2013 Ivy campaign, and Harvard has arrived at a similar crossroads. Somehow it has survived to get to 5-1 despite adjusted efficiency margins that fail to justify even being in the league’s upper division. The Crimson remains alive in the race, but unless it can figure out why an Adjusted Defensive Rating of 96 during the non-conference slate has ballooned to 113 in Ivy play, it won’t stay in the title chase much longer.

You were at Columbia on Sunday afternoon. I was napping through the entire contest. Let me know how it all went down! Did the Crimson play with fire once too often?

Those who couldn’t remember how the Lions took down Villanova got a refresher on Sunday afternoon. Early on, Harvard was going under too many screens and yielding good looks from long range, but even when the Crimson contested shots, they kept falling for Columbia. Sunday’s game was a perfect display of that variance term and how teams built around the three-point shot can look very bad and very good, even in consecutive games. Harvard has shot itself in the foot a lot en route to some of the more interesting near collapses during its earlier league games, but the loss to the Lions wasn’t so much anything the Crimson did wrong as how much Columbia did right.

Harvard has seen more than one Ivy contest almost completely deteriorate up 20+ in the final 10 minutes of the second half. Is there any unifying thread between these near-collapses?

It’s likely pace, more than anything. What made the Crimson more successful at putting games away over the past couple years was its comfort level with playing late into the shot clock. The strategy of burning 20 seconds and letting Curry do something wasn’t very different than what Harvard had been doing all game, so it never felt like the Crimson was milking the clock. While the Crimson still does a fair deal of the isolation resets at the end of the shot clock, Chambers has the team attacking earlier in the possession as well. In slow down mode, when good shots earlier in the shot clock are passed up, more pressure gets placed on those isolation resets, and Harvard clearly isn’t as good without Curry driving the bus there. String together 10 really bad offensive possessions and it’s not hard for a 20-point lead to dwindle well into the single digits.

Harvard's offensive and defensive numbers hold a striking dichotomy. Harvard shoots the ball so well (eighth nationally in EFG%, fourth in 3PT%) but opponents convert almost 50% of their attempts inside the arc and have a 50%+ EFG% of their own. To paint with a broad brush: Are they outscoring opponents more than they're stopping them?

Like many mid-major teams, Harvard has choices to make with its personnel. It’s nice to have your best offensive lineup be your best defensive lineup as well. For the Crimson, there isn’t really any grouping of five players that would provide great defense, but since its best offensive lineup plays pretty bad defense, you start getting into the question of which personnel tradeoffs would maximize the relationship between points scored and allowed. Harvard’s starting lineup of Siyani Chambers, Wesley Saunders, Laurent Rivard, Christian Webster and Jonah Travis scores at rates rarely seen by an Ivy team, but any stops those five generate are rare as well. The Crimson has been forced to go with Steve Moundou-Missi and Kenyatta Smith for their interior presence, but that stalls the offense on the other end – especially when Smith is on the floor. That’s what makes Harvard so hard to peg. Whether they’ll try to outscore you or defend you depends on the group on the floor at any given time, especially the players at the forward spots.

Wesley Saunders: Ivy League Player of the Year?

It was hard to imagine anyone coming close to Ian Hummer once Harvard’s Kyle Casey was removed from the discussion, but that Saunders is legitimately in the conversation is quite an accomplishment for the sophomore. The short answer is absolutely not. Even if the Crimson were to win the title, there’s no way a player using 30 percent of his team’s possessions at an efficiency rate above the national average can miss out on the award. Throw in the fact that Hummer is a senior, which always weighs in the mind of the coaches, and the Princeton forward is the prohibitive favorite. Saunders should be a unanimous first-team selection, a huge honor for a sophomore, but unless he plays out of his mind down the stretch, it’s unlikely that he’ll catch Hummer.

How does Siyani Chambers' season compare to other impactful Ivy freshmen?

In my database, which goes back to the 1996-1997 season, there are only 10 freshmen to eclipse 10 points produced per game (a measure that credits shares of points scored to all the players involved) while posting an offensive rating above a point per possession. Chambers leads that group by nearly two points produced per game and is a couple tenths of a point shy of the top freshman in the sample regardless of efficiency (Brown’s Earl Hunt). So, when it comes to output, he’s doing things almost never seen before from an Ivy freshman. The numbers are nice, but they miss the larger point here. Chambers is almost certainly the most valuable freshman of the Academic Index era (from a VORP perspective), given what Harvard’s replacement level at the point guard spot was after the abrupt loss of Brandyn Curry prior to the season.

What sort of step(s) forward has Jonah Travis taken as a sophomore? I've enjoyed what I've seen here and there out of him from a distance.

Travis has benefited most from additional playing time, if anything. Even as a freshman, he showed flashes of what he has become this season. He was always a menace on the offensive glass (17% OREB as a freshman and 13% this year), and he’s exhibited the same slippery post moves all along. The problem has always been, and continues to be, his defense. He gets lost after hedging pick and rolls, struggles guarding any true centers he faces and isn’t an effective defensive rebounder. Since he’s most frequently on the court alone, his defensive numbers are atrocious, pretty much canceling out his offensive benefits. It remains to be seen whether he would be a competent defender if he could match up with opposing forwards rather than centers. If so, Harvard might be able to take advantage of his offensive benefits while not suffering as much on the other end.

What's a number or a statistical line for either Harvard or Princeton that might surprise people?

This one is partially a repeat, but it’s worth digging into a little deeper. Harvard’s Adjusted Defensive Rating (points per 100 possessions allowed adjusted for opponent strength) during non-conference play was 96, but over the first six Ivy games the Crimson has seen that number balloon to 113. Understanding the drivers of that change is fundamental to assessing whether the staunch defense to start the season was merely a mirage or whether the metrics from Ivy play will soon regress back toward that pre-league mean. Harvard opponents have posted a true shooting percentage five percentage points higher in Ivy play than during the non-conference slate, despite the Crimson’s foes being much higher quality during the latter than the former. That rise has been driven by Ivy opponents taking and hitting more three points and free throws, each of which are as much luck driven as skill driven, so those might be expected to regress. Harvard’s rebounding struggles – down 6.5 percentage points combined between the offensive and defensive end – might be real, however. The Crimson does have some control over that metric, as it could choose to play Moundou-Missi or Smith more to lock down the defensive boards, but thus far it has been reticent to do so.

Princeton hasn’t been immune to this issue either, as its non-conference Defensive Rating of 94 has become an ugly 107 in Ivy play. How quickly one or both of these two offensive juggernauts can figure out their defensive woes will determine how soon this becomes a true one- or two-horse Ivy race.

How do your Ivy simulations look heading into this weekend?

For every team but Columbia, the league projections have held pretty steady since the start of the season. Princeton still has a slight edge over Harvard and both of those teams have win expectations that put them three games clear of the chase pack. Yale right now has the slight inside track for the third spot, which would extend the remarkable upper division finish streak for James Jones, but Columbia and Cornell join the Bulldogs with win expectations right around seven. Penn, Brown and Dartmouth are all slated for about four to five Ivy wins, and the Big Green is only 38 percent to finish in the cellar alone, a fate it hasn’t avoided since Alex Barnett went nuts on the league in 2009.

The more interesting piece of the odds puzzle is the impact of this weekend’s outcomes on the Ivy title race. If Harvard sweeps the weekend, it will be just shy of 80 percent to win at least a share of the title, but if Princeton sweeps the trip, it wins at least a share of the Ivy crown almost 90 percent of the time. The downside odds make it even clearer that the pressure is on Harvard this weekend. A split for the Crimson drops it to just 34 percent to win a share of the title, while Princeton would remain just above 50 percent to win a share with a split.

B!L!A!N!K!S! The road to the Ivy title continues to go through Cambridge as of Sunday morning if...

The formula is pretty simple. Harvard has to scare Princeton off the three-point line and rebound much better than it did against Columbia. Having its first night with a turnover rate under 20 percent since its West Coast trip would be helpful as well. Those are the top level ideas, but there are some checkpoints to monitor as the game goes along. The defensive lineup of Rivard and Travis as the two bigs won’t work against Princeton, so the longer those two are out there together, the less likely it is that Harvard will win. If Chambers and Saunders start venturing toward 10 turnovers combined, the Crimson will be very unlikely to win. Finally, Harvard needs to stay even with the Tigers from three and make close to 20 trips to the line. Those are the metrics to watch.

Princeton slides back into the driver's seat by topping Harvard if...

The Tigers really just need to execute their offense well, and they should walk out with a victory. Harvard is very young and until you’ve seen this Princeton offense – even a modified version of it as the Tigers run today – it’s very difficult to defend, especially for a team that gets lost on pick and rolls and backcuts already. Princeton is much more balanced than it was to start the season that it can attack a defense in a number of ways, so even if Harvard figures out how to stop the backdoor cuts, the Tigers can bomb away for three or let bigger guards like Denton Koon score over their smaller Crimson defenders. On the other end, Princeton has the length to frustrate a Harvard team that likes to get into the lane and score in traffic.

Here's the space where you can plug whatever you like. Plug whatever you like!

Feel free to check out my pieces as the Ivy Correspondent for Rush The Court and follow me on Twitter for more musings about our great league at @ivybball.

Steven Postrel said,

February 14, 2013 @ 9:27 pm

Always nice to hear Mr. James' insights. I have a good feeling about the Harvard game, but the defensive task will not be easy.

George Clark said,

February 15, 2013 @ 5:25 am

James' insights are produced by painstaking statistical analysis. For the stat guys the appeal of sports is based to some extent in the gold mine of data generated in each minute of action. James and, of course, Solomon help us expand our knowledge and understanding of what unfolds before our eyes. And while what Hummer does usually shows up in the stat sheet, sometimes you have to see it to believe it. If I understand James' numbers, the Harvard and Princeton defenses have weakened somewhat during the League action. Relative to Harvard our rebounding numbers appear to give us an advantage in that important area. Since our offensive efficiency has been a strength, on balance we may have a slight statistical edge. Hence, I too have a good feeling going into the weekend. Then how come my stomach feels like a clenched fist? Because the stat sheet tells us what happened, not what will happen. In the Ivy League we have Saturday night referees to do that!!!! Can't wait to get there.....

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