One month ago, Harvard was coming off of a home loss to Dartmouth, and their chances for a fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance were very much in doubt. The Crimson had lost four of seven D-I games, they were about to embark on a four-game road trip, and for only the second time in four years, they trailed an Ivy foe, unbeaten Yale, in the league standings.
Since then, they’ve won eight straight games, and January’s worries seem distant. Harvard has had its share of close calls — and nothing has been clinched yet — but entering this weekend’s trip to Cornell and Columbia, the Crimson appears to be in top form.
What has changed in the last month?
(All charts include Division-I games only. Data via KenPom.com)
Harvard’s defense, ranked 13th nationally per KenPom, has been remarkably consistent. Its midseason struggles came almost entirely on the other end: Starting with an embarrassing loss to Virginia, the Crimson averaged less than .90 points per possession through their 3-4 stretch. But they’ve been above 1.00 in nearly every game since (save for the rockfight at Yale), thanks to a few key improvements.
Wesley Saunders wasn’t to blame for Harvard’s January struggles; he was the team’s best player then, just as he’s been all year. But in the Crimson’s 4-3 stretch, Saunders had a below-average offensive rating in five games, and reduced usage in the other two.
Back in the swing of Ivy play, the star wing’s efficiency has risen. While not quite at the All-America level he showed early on, Saunders has carried Harvard at key times this month — such as his 23-point performance against Princeton, his second-best game this season in combined usage and efficiency.
(The area of each box represents total production per game, with usage on the x-axis and efficiency on the y-axis.)
Saunders has made one obvious adjustment this month: He’s attempted 4.2 three-pointers per game in February; his prior career high in any game was four. Saunders is making those shots, most of which are wide-open, at a 40% clip, a dastardly counter to defenses who focus on walling off the paint.
“If they’re going to slough off him and play him for the drive, which a lot of people have done — and rightly so, he’s a tremendous slasher — when he has an open three, he’s a pretty good shooter with that shot,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “We’re hopeful that he can mix it in and keep the defense off balance.”
Saunders has also nearly doubled his assist-to-turnover ratio in recent weeks; his 37.4% assist rate is the best in Ivy play. In part, that’s been possible because…
Supporting stars step up
Siyani Chambers entered the year as a Player of the Year candidate, but as recently as mid-January, his offensive rating was among the league’s worst. More quietly, Steve Moundou-Missi’s was in the same range. Both players, second-team All-Ivy teammates last year, were due to improve — and both have posted triple-digit offensive ratings in each of their last four games.
Chambers struggled against physical defenses and had to bail Harvard out of some doomed possessions early in the year; but other issues, such as sub-30% shooting on three-pointers, were his own doing. The point guard’s shooting has regressed in the good way (44% in the last four weeks), and he’s become more opportunistic about driving inside.
One of the league’s most efficient scorers a year ago, Moundou-Missi’s true shooting percentage has cratered by more than 10 percentage points. The culprit is clear: After attempting 64% of his shots at the rim as a junior (and 70% as a sophomore), the forward has taken only 45% of his shots at the cylinder this season, per Hoop-Math.com.
Moundou-Missi has improved his midrange game, but it’s frustrating to see one of the league’s most dynamic athletes consigned to spot-up duty from 15 feet. He’s still shooting plenty of jumpers, but he’s been more involved at the rim lately, and his efficiency has risen.
More offensive lineups
Harvard’s rotation has been debated constantly, but Amaker’s adjustments this month have helped the Crimson score more points:
Along with injured center Kenyatta Smith, the three players who have seen substantially less time in February are Agunwa Okolie, Evan Cummins and Matt Brown — three of the lowest-usage players on Harvard’s roster. In their place, more minutes are going to higher-volume shooters in Moundou-Misssi and Zena Edosomwan, as well as Jonah Travis, the most efficient scorer in Ivy play. Even Andre Chatfield, though his usage rate is low as he plays back from injury, earns respect from opposing defenses as an explosive guard with a three-star pedigree.
With more offensive threats on the floor, foes can’t load up to stop Saunders, nor can they direct more attention to Chambers and Moundou-Missi. Harvard’s stars have taken advantage, rebounding from a tough January while still playing stout defense.
None of this means the Crimson are in the clear. Today’s visit to Cornell is their toughest offensive matchup of the Ivy season; Saturday’s trip to Columbia will be one of their toughest matchups, period. Even with its improved offense, Harvard is more likely than not to drop a game this weekend. But with a fine-tuned rotation and their stars peaking, the Crimson has given themselves some room for error.