Sunday, December 2, 2007

Harvard vs. Michigan: A Night to Remember

I'd like to kick off my sports blogging career with a review of one of the greatest broadcast evenings of my life. I had the chance to sit courtside as the Crimson Men's Basketball team hosted the Michigan Wolverines in the biggest non-conference matchup in the last decade. It turned out to be the biggest win in the history of this program, as the Crimson upset the Wolverines 62-51, giving newly minted Head Coach Tommy Amaker a sweet win against his former squad.

The Storylines
All week, it was impossible to ignore the impending matchup: Amaker vs. Michigan. To be honest, most people had conceded the victory to Michigan. There wasn't much expectation for a contest and why would there be? Michigan, a Big Ten School with tremendous tradition, and more importantly, physically imposing and agile athletes, playing against a bunch of Ivy Leaguers, the best of whom are awarded a 15 seed in the year end NCAA tournament-- doesn't exactly make for the most even of matchups. The more interesting question we presumed, was what the atmosphere would be like when Amaker came out of the locker room with coaches he hired and players he recruited, and lined up on the other sideline to coach for the Crimson.

And yet, herein lies perhaps Amaker's greatest success: despite the media's best efforts, he ensured that this game was not about him, and he got his team to believe that they could compete with the Wolverines, if they played intelligently, despite their comparative size disadvantage. He managed to transform a personal storyline into the quintessential Harvard storyline: smarts vs. brawn.

After the win, Amaker said: "This is not a win for Tommy Amaker, this is a win for our program." I'll go ahead and mark this one down as a win for both.

The Scene
For those of you that were not able to see the game live, I apologize, because no amount of description over the radio could do justice to the atmosphere at Lavietes Pavillion. I've covered a few games there over the last four years, and this was like nothing I've ever seen. The game was sold out and not entirely surprisingly, half the fans were decked out in maize and blue; Michigan has a sizable following across the country and their Boston contingent was present in full force.

Still, the Harvard student body showed up and was spirited from the opening tip. Catalyzed as always by the band, the crowd was boisterous and energetic, knowing just when to kick their support into the next gear. Amaker and several team members commented after the game about how they were able to feed off the energy of their crowd. Though it's rare at Harvard to see such student strong fan support, it's well known across university arenas that the college game is one of momentum and runs, and crowds are a significant part of those game-changing swings. The crowd certainly knew their role today with chants of "We Got Tommy", referring to Amaker's switched allegiances, and "Appalachian State" referencing the Wolverines stunning home opening Football Loss to the reigning Division I-AA champion.

Most importantly, there was a palpable sense of unbridled emotion -- the kind that moves you to leap the press tables and mob your players at center court after the game, and muscle your way through a crowd to get your face on the edges of the ESPNU camera, that genuine outpouring of interest in your team's success. There's no doubt this was as big a win as fans here will ever see, against as high-profile an opponent as fans will see (though I believe Duke played in Cambridge several years ago); and consequently. there's no guarantee that there will be a crowd like this again anytime soon. But for one night, Lavietes Pavillion rocked like the home of a traditional basketball powerhouse. Here's hoping that there is more to come as the season progresses.

The Balance
My first comment about the basketball played on the floor has to do with the Offensive Balance displayed by the Crimson. Andrew Pusar led all Crimson players with 12 coming on an assortment of pretty and heady backdoor cuts; Dan McGeary had 11 including three huge triples; Pat Magnarelli added a gritty 11 points included putbacks of off his 7 boards; Jeremy Lin had 9 with several deft slices into the lane; Evan Harris had 9 points to go with 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 blocks; point guard Drew Housman had a patient and timely 8 points, and Brad Unger chipped in a bucket. Amaker was quick to point out that such balance is a result of sharing the basketball, which has emerged as one of the early imprints of Amaker's coaching. The Crimson did an admirable job of swinging the ball around the perimeter until they found the openings inside, driving and kicking back out, and finding the open cutters. Led by Housman, whose point guard play has improved dramatically, Harvard was routinely patient, waiting for the best shot and slowing the game down by moving the basketball. The Crimson are equipped with several good passers: obviously Lin and Housman from the guard spots are expected to distribute the ball, but Unger, Harris and even Magnarelli are remarkable good passers for their size. The undisputed "cutter" of the evening was Andrew Pusar, who on 6 occasions was the beneficiary of the passing. Somebody's got to make a move to the basket, for the passing worthwhile and Pusar consistently attacked the weak spots in the Wolverines 1-3-1 zone, finding seams to the basket and converting early to prevent Harvard from being run off the floor.

While such balance is difficult to achieve on a regular basis, I do think it's imperative that the Crimson continue to get strong contributions from key sources: (1) Either Drew Housman or Jeremy Lin from the primary 1 and 2 Guard spots, (2) Either Andrew Pusar or Dan McGeary as the 2-Guard or Small Forward, and (3) Either Harris or Magnarelli (throw Unger into the mix as he gets healthier). Balance will help them keep defenses off guard and will increase their confidence as an offensive unit.

The Poise and Preparation
The second aspect of the Crimson performance that was truly impressive was the poise they demonstrated down the stretch. After the Crimson led 37-26 with about 15 minutes to go in the 2nd Half, Michigan turned its intensity up a notch and transformed the deficit into a 45-42 lead with 8:28 to play. It is at this point in most games over the last several years that the Crimson would fold. I remember an important game last year against Princeton that they managed to lose -- one that would have catapulted the Crimson to a lead in the Ivy League Standings -- in which they were up by at least 5 with 30 seconds to go. For a few tense moments, you could sense a collective holding of the breath as the crowd wondered which way this would turn. Would Michigan run away with the game or would the Crimson stand tough? Behind Housman, the Amaker Edition of the Crimson chose the latter whereas many former Crimson squads might have succumbed to the former.

This is the second time this season, this week in fact, that the Crimson have come away with a solid second half win, and both times -- Harvard defeated New Hampshire on Wednesady -- two factors have played an important role: End Game Coaching, and Big Shots from leaders.

With the Crimson attack faltering in the second half, Amaker got his squad together and slowed them down. The Wolverines were intent on turning the game into a track meet, in which their size and athleticism advantages could be realized. Amaker made sure his squad resisted the temptation by preaching methodical offensive basketball with designed options for McGeary and Pusar to shoot open shots from the wing, or for Harris and Magnarelli to establish position inside. The latter was no easy task against Michigan's Monstrous bigs, which is I believe, why you didn't see more inside presence from the Crimson. Nonetheless and Magnarelli both got to the line in the last two minutes by attacking the basket. Amakers messages of slowing the game down by sharing the basketball and rebounding hard got through. There were definite lapses, occasions on which the offense was out of sync searching for a shot on the perimeter with 5 seconds to shoot, usually when Housman was not in charge, or instances in which the Wolverines were tapping offensive rebounds around the rim. But overall, the Crimson won the battle of the Paint which is a testament to Amaker's coaching, and in the most important two minutes of the game (the last two minutes), Harvard seemed comfortable with its offensive identity and gameplan.

The second component of a big second half win is strong play and big shots from your leaders. Housman and Pusar came through with some mildly unexpected contributions from Dan McGeary as well. Housman scored all 8 of his points in the second 20 minutes, including a triple and key drive and scoop with under 4 minutes to play that buoyed the Crimson offense. He also converted 3-4 from the free throw line. McGeary hit two huge threes for the Crimson in the second half to add to his 5 first half points. When the Wolverines were charging and maize and blue senior Ron Coleman was starting to stroke from downtown, McGeary kept the Crimson afloat with trifectas of his own. And finally, Pusar made play after play not just with cuts to the hole, but with hustle including a strip and rebound off of a missed Evan Harris free throw with 35 seconds to go, which probably sealed the deal for the Crimson. I would have liked to see some more aggressive inside play from Harris and Magnarelli, and we'll look for that in games to come.

What Does it All Mean?
Often the rhetoric after a signature win like this is to downplay -- a win against Michigan is still only one non-conference win, and the Crimson travel downtown to play BU on Monday in the next non-conference matchup. You take one game at a time, refusing to linger on past successes, and preparing for the next opportunity. In some ways that's true. Many would point out (many Maize and Blue fans I'm sure -- I happen to know them intimately well, being one myself) that this is a down Michigan squad. It's young and developing under a new coach, and if there was a time to catch them, this was it.

However, Michigan is still Michigan, and Harvard University, preseason #7 of the Ivy League, just beat the Michigan Wolverines of the Big Ten. This is without question, the biggest win in the History of Harvard Men's Basketball. It does a few things: (1) It gives Amaker instant credibility as a coach and as a recruiter. As a former Duke Point Guard and Coach K disciple, he was already the highest profile coach in the Ancient Eight, but now he walks into the schools of potential recruits armed with a win over Michigan. It makes his proposition that much more compelling. (2) It gives his team a great deal of confidence and a tremendous platform from which to buid. The next month of basketball will be critical. Will the Crimson point to their successes in this game and continue to play with balance, poise and dare I say some swagger? Or will they revert to some of their older hindering habits. For this game to retain lasting luster, the Crimson will have to build on the lessons they have learned. You have to believe they have been brought together as a team, and now they must work together to improve -- a task made much easier with a win over one of the biggest names in collegiate athletics. (3) Finally, this game serves as just a small reminder to the rest of the country, that small conference basketball, and Ivy League Basketball in particular, is increasingly relevant. Every year in the NCAA tournament, the myriad upsets highlight just how good some of these smaller teams can be. No Ivy League team has done as much in recent times as Princeton did with its opening round triumph over defending national champion UCLA in 1996, but to their credit, Penn and Princeton as Ivy League representative have regularly come close. Harvard, with this win announces that even the biggest names are susceptible to falling to ... well the biggest names (just in terms of Academics as oppose to Athletics).

The prediction here is that in the coming years, Harvard becomes a bigger and bigger player on the Ivy League Basketball scene, and who knows, maybe they'll have a shot at their first postseason win ever. Till then, this one is plenty sweet. Congratulations to Coach Amaker and the Men's Basketball Team on a win that was a privilege to cover.

As always, catch coverage of Men's Basketball on 95.3FM or online at

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