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Harvard’s loss at UConn likely makes Ivy League title its only path to an NCAA bid

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Harvard forward Kyle Casey (USATSI)

Had Harvard managed to win either of its marquee non-league games against Colorado or UConn, the Crimson could have failed to win the Ivy League and still had hope of securing an at-large safety net.

Instead Harvard let both opportunities slip away, likely ensuring it will have to win the Ivy League to return to the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive season.

Harvard is still 13-2 after Wednesday night's 61-56 loss at UConn, but the Crimson are still lacking quality wins needed to impress the selection committee. Their most noteworthy non-league wins came against small-conference power Wisconsin Green Bay, floundering Boston College and a TCU team that has been slightly better than expected.

A resumé like that would be salvageable for a power-conference program, but the Ivy League doesn't afford Harvard many chances for quality wins. Even if Harvard were to tie for first in the Ivy League at 13-1 and drop the tie-breaking game against Princeton or another contender, a 26-4 Crimson team with an RPI in the 40s or 50s would still be an uncertain bet at best to receive a bid.

Harvard's potential NCAA tournament profile is relevant in January because the Crimson enter the season with higher expectations than any Ivy League team in recent memory.

Siyani Chambers, Wesley Saunders and the rest of the core returns from a young team that captured the Ivy League crown last season and toppled third-seeded New Mexico in the NCAA tournament. Also back are all-conference seniors Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey who were sidelined last season after being implicated in an academic scandal that caused over 100 students to withdraw from school.

The good news for Harvard is that nucleus should be enough to overwhelm most Ivy League programs. Heck, the Crimson were the better team for long stretches at UConn even with leading scorer Wesley Saunders sidelined with a knee injury and center Kenyatta Smith still out with a foot injury that has kept him from playing all season so far.

What undid Harvard on Wednesday was the same thing that hurt the Crimson in a 70-62 loss at Colorado on Nov. 24: They simply couldn't score consistently enough.

Harvard shot 35.7 percent from the field, got zero points from its bench and tallied only 25 points in the second half after entering halftime up 31-26. Speedy sophomore guard Siyani Chambers sank five 3-pointers and perimeter specialist Laurent Rivard had three, but the Crimson struggled to score inside over the outstretched arms of the longer UConn defenders.

Even with Saunders sidelined and the rest of the Crimson struggling to finish at the rim, Harvard still defended well enough to stay competitive throughout the second half. A Niels Giffey travel with nine seconds left gave Harvard the chance to tie the game with a 3-pointer, but Brandyn Curry turned it over on the Crimson's final possession, enabling UConn to close out a much-needed victory after losses to SMU and Houston.

A gritty performance from Harvard showed the Crimson have the firepower necessary to spring another upset in March. They just probably need to win the Ivy League now to ensure they have that opportunity.

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