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Harvard goes on the defensive with man-to-man

03.15.12 at 11:04 am ET

When Tommy Amaker held a conference call Monday to discuss the Crimson’s NCAA tournament matchup Thursday (4:40 p.m., TNT) against Vanderbilt, one of the first questions came from a reporter from Nashville who clearly hadn’t done his homework.

The writer understandably expected that Harvard would be a team that would play mostly zone defense, especially when out of conference play. Surely, an Ivy League team needed to rely on zone or gimmick defenses to compete with bigger, stronger and faster players around the country.

How wrong he was.

Harvard plays man-to-man almost exclusively — “Our bread and butter,” a polite Amaker said in correcting the reporter. That’s the way Amaker coaches, and that’s the way he recruits.

“That’s the type of defense he wants,” junior guard Brandyn Curry said after a recent game. “He wants you up, denying the passing lanes, pressuring the ball, pressuring full court. That’s definitely the type of playing style I wanted to play with when I got here. I liked the sound of it. And then on offense he wants us to push the ball, move it and attack — so, on both sides of the court. When he was recruiting all of us, that definitely was very big to us.”

If you don’t think Harvard can be successful playing straight man against a Top 25 team, you only need to look at the Crimson’s victory over Florida State on Nov. 25. The Crimson didn’t just win the game, they held the Seminoles to 41 points on 36 percent shooting and outrebounded them 40-30. FSU turned over the ball 16 times.

Overall this season, Harvard opponents shoot just 40.6 percent from the field, and the Crimson are fourth nationally in allowing just 54.8 points per game.

“That’s what we do. We sit down and guard, no matter the team, no matter who you are, what league. It doesn’t matter,” junior forward Kyle Casey said recently. “We’re worried about what we do, and not so much about what other people do. We pride ourself on our defense. ‘€¦ I don’t see us changing our philosophy just to adapt to someone else.”

Added Casey: “[Amaker] got some guys who can really sit down and guard. We’ve got Wesley Saunders on the wing and Brandy Curry up front, just hassling the ball. Our bigs, we sit down and guard. Usually we’re oversized a lot in our out-of-conference games, but we use our quickness and things like that down low. We make it work. It’s a team defense. If everyone buys in, we’re really good at it.”

Harvard’s starting lineup consists of 6-foot-8 Keith Wright, the 6-7 Casey and three guards: 6-5 sharpshooter Laurent Rivard, 6-3 Oliver McNally and the 6-1 Curry. The tallest reserve who sees regular action is 6-7 freshman Steve Moundou-Missi.

Contrast that with Vanderbilt’s starters: 6-11 center Festus Ezeli, 6-8 forward Lance Goulbourne, 6-7 forward Jeffery Taylor, 6-4 shooting guard John Jenkins and 6-3 point guard Brad Tinsley. In case you weren’t keeping track, Vanderbilt is taller at every position. Not only that, the Commodores are athletic and have two of the top 3-point shooters in the country in Jenkins and Taylor.

But Harvard has seemingly been overmatched before. The Crimson just don’t view it that way.

“That thought never crossed our minds,” Curry said recently. “We just feel that as a team if we trust each other and have good help-side defense that we can guard any team in the nation. What it comes down to is us working as a team and talking. Coach has stressed that since Day 1 — communication is the most important thing.”

Said McNally after a recent win: “We’re really confident in who we are as individuals on this team and in our roles on this team. As long as we keep doing things that have been drilled in our heads and we’ve accepted and embraced as our roles, then I think we’re going to keep winning a lot of games.”


Don Swegan, a member of Harvard’s last NCAA tournament team in 1946, is attending Thursday’s game in Albuquerque, courtesy of the Friends of Harvard Basketball booster group.

“There are three of four guys who are underwriting the whole thing,” the 86-year-old Swegan told ESPN. “I’m sort of their guest. I’m going, and I’ll stay the whole time.”

Swegan said he has reconnected with the three other living members of the 1946 Crimson after a recent story made him aware of them.

“I reconnected with them,” he said. “The rest are deceased. The ones that are still alive, we’ve all connected by phone, but none of them can make it. I’ll be the only one from that team there.” …

Crimson co-captain Oliver McNally made sure the media knows that Harvard has loftier goals than just reaching the NCAA tournament. The Crimson are looking to repeat Cornell’s feat two years ago and pull off at least one upset (Steve Donahue‘s Big Red advanced to the Sweet 16).

‘€œWe’€™re going to face a really talented team and hot team in Vanderbilt,’€ McNally said at Wednesday’s media session in Albuquerque. ‘€œBut we’€™re not just happy to be here and win our first solo Ivy title and just throw in the towel. We’€™re here to win, and that’€™s what we’€™re expecting to do.’€

McNally’s older brother, Xander McNally, a senior at Dominican University in Northern California, leads Division 2 in steals. Despite playing on a team that rarely pressed, McNally amassed a school-record 104 steals in 26 games, an average of 4.0 per game. Xander, who started his college career at Denver, was named to the Pacific West Conference second team.

Read More: Brandyn Curry, Don Swegan, Keith Wright, Kyle Casey
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