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College basketball notes

Putting it all together

Team concept serves united Harvard best

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / February 24, 2012
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It could be easily argued that Harvard is the best team in the Ivy League. We will know more about that after the Crimson’s weekend series with Princeton and Penn.

But if you take a leap of faith and suggest that Harvard may be the best team in the country, you will get laughed out of the room. After all, the Crimson have lost to Connecticut, Princeton, and Fordham.

But we want to make a different argument, using “team’’ in the strictest sense of the word. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, it means “a group of players forming one side in a competitive game or sport’’ or “two or more people working together’’ or “to come together as a team to achieve a common goal.’’

By those definitions, no one in college basketball has done it better than Tommy Amaker’s Crimson.

Look at the Harvard starting lineup of Brandyn Curry, Oliver McNally, Laurent Rivard, Kyle Casey, and Keith Wright. None is averaging more than 11 points per game or fewer than 6.

The Crimson have played 26 games, won 23, and 10 different players have been the leading scorer at least once. “Go-to guy’’? The Crimson have a “go-to team.’’ On any given night, any player can step out of the pack and control the flow of the game.

In a 66-51 win over Yale Saturday night, it was Curry, the 6-foot-1-inch junior guard, who became the offensive focus with 18 points.

“We’re a deep team, we’re a scary team like that,’’ said Casey, a junior who is one of the veterans on a team that goes eight or nine deep. “We have so many weapons. On any given night, somebody can come out and score.

McNally, a 6-3 senior and cocaptain, said, “It starts with how competitive we are in practice. We go at each other hard. But off the court, we are really good, from the freshmen to the seniors.

“The whole team gets along. It started last year as we developed as a team and it’s carried over to this year.’’

McNally cited the diversity of the Harvard attack, whether it’s Curry running the show as a point guard, Rivard or Corbin Miller popping in 3-point shots, or Wright providing muscle underneath.

“We have a lot of weapons,’’ said McNally. “If any of us is ‘feeling it,’ we just go. No one really cares who scores. It’s been fun. It makes it a lot of fun to play.’’

For most opponents - including Florida State, which the Crimson beat - Harvard is not much fun to play, even if you do come away with a win.

The Crimson are closing in on their first NCAA Tournament bid in 66 years. The problem they may have is doing too a good job.

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Harvard projected as a No. 10 seed, which puts it against the No. 7 seed in the first round. Harvard can win a game as a 10 seed; it could even win two.

The danger is moving up one or two spots, since the winner of the 8-vs.-9 game must face the No. 1 seed in the second round.

Harvard’s vulnerable spot is size. Even against a middle-of-the-pack Ivy team such as Columbia and against Princeton - which gave Harvard its only league loss - the Crimson can be overwhelmed in that area.

Amaker, of course, stays away from projecting past the next game. That makes sense, since Harvard has not clinched anything yet.

Having said that, Harvard is a very good team in many areas, and in the strictest definition of the word, it is a great team, which makes this a special season.

The BracketBuster games didn’t turn up many surprises. Saint Mary’s lost at Murray State, but Saint Mary’s stock is tumbling because it looks like a much different team (a.k.a. average) away from the friendly confines of cozy McKeon Pavilion . . . It’s one thing to have a season in which your team gets pounded each night simply because it’s not good enough. But consider what Villanova coach Jay Wright is enduring. The Wildcats lost a 73-70 overtime decision to UConn Monday night that dropped them to 11-16, 4-11 in the Big East. But they had another major meltdown during the game, leading by 18 after the first 12 minutes. Two days earlier against Notre Dame, Villanova had a 22-point lead and lost in overtime. “Right after, it’s painful,’’ said Wright. “But it’s part of the process of earning it. It’s what sports is all about.’’ Talk to BC’s Steve Donahue, who is coaching with nine freshmen this season, and you hear a similar lament. For Donahue, whose Cornell team reached the Sweet 16 two years ago, and for Wright, whose team made the Final Four in 2009, it doesn’t make it any easier.

It’s been a tough season in the state of Rhode Island. Providence is at the bottom of the Big East, the University of Rhode Island is at the bottom of the Atlantic 10, Brown is at the bottom of the Ivy League, and Bryant is at the bottom of the Northeast Conference . . . Conversely, it’s been a good season in the city of Philadelphia. Temple and Drexel may be the best teams in the A10 and the Colonial Athletic Association . . . Baylor’s 77-72 win over Texas Monday night was much-needed, as the Bears had been sliding with three losses in four games. The Big 12 still looks like a Kansas-Missouri league, but the Bears can do some damage in March . . . Who would have thought we’d see a Big East tournament in which UConn, Pittsburgh, Villanova, and St. John’s all could be playing on Tuesday - when the bottom teams try to play their way into the second day? Of course, who would have thought that UConn could win the national championship a year ago starting from the same spot? Its five-wins-in five-nights run is still one of the more amazing feats in Big East tournament history.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.

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