Friday, December 27, 2013

Fordham/Harvard Preview

Tommy Amaker and Harvard return to Rose Hill seeking an 11-1 start going into 2014. (Photo courtesy of Harvard University)

For Fordham, tomorrow afternoon's matchup with Harvard is the biggest game Rose Hill Gym has seen in over ten months, since the Rams nearly upended Brad Stevens and Butler this past February.

At 7-4, Tom Pecora's Rams have already matched last season's win total, and have two more matchups; including this one, before Atlantic 10 play begins at Duquesne one week from Wednesday. Having already clinched a winning nonconference record, Fordham is not coming in with nothing to lose, but definitely enters their final home game before league play with everything to gain, hoping to steal a second consecutive home victory over the two-time reigning Ivy League champions, who of course captured headlines last March with their NCAA Tournament victory over New Mexico.

With virtually everyone coming back for Tommy Amaker's Crimson squad this season, the personnel has not changed much, but the product on the court has become mounds better with Harvard's 10-1 start. To further profile the intellectual powerhouse from Cambridge, we welcome John Ezekowitz of Harvard Hoops Online for our latest Q&A session, wherein he sheds further light on just what makes the Crimson such a strong outfit:

Jaden Daly: At 10-1, including a Great Alaska Shootout title, Harvard isn't showing much of an NCAA Tournament hangover. What has impressed you most with this team as they have followed up their round of 32 appearance?

John Ezekowitz: Because of injuries to Brandyn Curry and Kenyatta Smith, the 2014 Harvard team is essentially the 2013 team, but with Kyle Casey replacing Smith and no Christian Webster. Given this composition, I am most impressed by Harvard's improvement on defense. Last year, the Crimson were pedestrian defensively, but this year they have held opponents to under 1.1 points per possession in every game. I believe this improvement can largely be attributed to the play of the front court. Junior big men Steve Moundou-Missi and (especially) Jonah Travis have improved immensely defensively, and the emergence of sophomore Evan Cummins off the bench has been a big lift.

JD: Tommy Amaker employs a seven-man rotation, with only two of his reserves averaging more than 10 minutes per game. Against a Fordham team that matches up similarly in size and depth, does the clear definition of roles benefit the Crimson?

JE: As long as Siyani Chambers is on the court, Harvard will benefit from his leadership on the offensive end. Interestingly, despite the fairly short rotation previously, the unit that helped the Crimson come back from a late deficit against Vermont consisted of three bench players, Cummins, Travis, and Agunwa Okolie, with Chambers (26 points, including 6 threes) and Laurent Rivard.

Tommy Amaker's watchword since he arrived at Harvard has been execution. He expects all of his players to know their roles in the offensive and defensive schemes. While this occasionally leads to fairly boring motion offense passing around the perimeter that ends in a high pick and roll, it also means that the Crimson rarely beat themselves. 

The last time Harvard played at Rose Hill (2012 when they were ranked inside the top 25), the Rams won by throwing a tough zone defense at the Crimson. Harvard had no idea what to do down the stretch. By the middle of Ivy play, however, the Crimson had been drilled into shape and were making opponents pay for playing zone.

JD: Also much like Fordham, Harvard has excelled at defending the three-point shot, holding opponents to just 27 percent from beyond the arc. With that said, who will likely draw Jon Severe to start the game, and what scheme(s) can we expect from the Crimson defensively?

JE: I would bet that Wesley Saunders will get the Severe assignment. If Brandyn Curry plays, he will help as well. Wes is a very strong guard, and has played strong defense against the opponent's best guard most of the season. Keifer Sykes is really the only one who has had individual success. Harvard will play man, with a couple of zone possessions thrown in.

JD: Against a Harvard team that has handled the ball very well this season, what else must Fordham do other than look to get them turned over?

JE: Vermont did well defensively against Harvard by aggressively doubling the ball when Harvard attempted to enter the post and by rotating quickly. The Crimson struggle if they cannot get their spacing right, and Fordham could have success by crowding the post.

JD: Brandyn Curry is expected back after missing nine games. What does he bring to the lineup, and with the status of Mandell Thomas uncertain, how much of a matchup problem does he represent?

JE: Brandyn is a very important player for the Crimson going forward because he provides another shooting threat and is a fantastic perimeter defender. A lineup with Rivard, Saunders, and Curry on the perimeter will be tough on any set of opposing guards. Throw in Siyani Chambers on the offensive end, and Harvard has great depth. With that said, if Brandyn plays, I expect his minutes to be a bit limited as he gets back into the flow of the game.

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