North Carolina is the No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament West Region and will play 13th-seeded Harvard on Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla.
What about this particular match-up with Harvard, though?
Glad you asked. Here’s a deeper look at the Tar Heels vs. Crimson:
Harvard’s players to know:
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▪ Wesley Saunders is a 6-foot-5 senior wing forward who is Harvard’s best player, and perhaps the best player in the Ivy League. He averages 16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists, and he has scored more than 20 points eight times this season. He was a top-100 prospect out of high school in California and his commitment was among the most important of Tommy Amaker’s coaching tenure.
▪ Siyani Chambers (9.8 points per game) and Steve Moundou-Missi (9.7) are the Crimson’s next-leading scorers, after Saunders. Chambers, a 6-0 junior guard, has made 34.2 percent of his 3-point attempts, and Moundou-Missi, a 6-7 senior forward, is the team’s leading rebounder with 7.4 per game.
Both teams played Virginia and Boston College. UNC was 3-1 in games against those teams, and Harvard was 0-2. Harvard lost to Virginia 76-27 on Dec. 21. UNC lost against the Cavaliers in Chapel Hill but beat them in the ACC tournament. Harvard lost at Boston College in overtime, 64-57, on Jan. 14. UNC defeated Boston College by nine points on the road and by 18 in the ACC tournament.
How does Harvard play and what does it mean for UNC?
Full disclosure: I have not watched a single Harvard game this season.
That said, the first thing that jumps out about Harvard when studying its numbers is its slow tempo. The Crimson ranks 317th nationally in adjusted tempo (61.5 possessions per game), according to kenpom.com, and only nine teams in the NCAA tournament play at a slower pace (Virginia, the slowest of them all, being one of them).
So right away we can conclude that Harvard likes a slower, more methodical pace. Keep in mind UNC has struggled in slower games this season. The Tar Heels are 1-5 in games with fewer than 65 possessions. Harvard, meanwhile, has played in only eight games this season with more than 65 possessions, according to kenpom.com.
Offensively, Harvard goes through Saunders. He’s the only player who averages double figures in points, and in the games Harvard has lost Saunders has scored 20 just once. He had four points in that ugly, ugly (ugly) 76-27 defeat against Virginia. So if UNC can effectively limit Saunders, it likely all but eliminates the chance for a Crimson upset.
Defensively, Harvard isn’t bad. It’s actually pretty good, at least statistically. But you have to keep in mind that whatever Harvard’s numbers, they were mostly compiled against Ivy League competition. Still, Harvard ranks 34th in adjusted defensive efficiency (94.5 points per 100 possessions), according to kenpom.com. That’s pretty good regardless of the competition.
Anything else to know?
Sure. Harvard isn’t all that big. It ranks 162nd nationally in the country in effective height, according to kenpom.com. (UNC is 51st in that category.) Defending Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks – and Isaiah Hicks, for that matter – will be a challenge for Harvard.
The bottom-line hot take:
Harvard’s best chance of pulling the upset would be for it to successfully control the tempo – which means it must limit turnovers and long rebounds that lead to transition opportunities – and for Saunders to have a huge game. UNC should win regardless of the pace and Saunders’ production, but if the Tar Heels can force a quicker pace and limit Saunders, it probably shouldn’t be close.
UNC vs. Harvard
UNC, the No. 4 seed in the West, seeks to carry momentum into NCAA tournament
When: Thursday, 7:20 p.m.
Where: Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Jacksonville, Fla.