SALT LAKE CITY — Arizona Wildcats senior Solomon Hill speaks for many when he says, “I never really watched Harvard basketball.”
The Cats have taken a crash course in Crimson, preparing for Saturday’s Round of 32 game against 14th-seeded Harvard in the West regional.
“Harvard is a high major team that just happens to play in the Ivy,” said Arizona assistant coach Book Richardson.
“They are a really talented team and they don’t get enough credit. To the outside world, it’s like Arizona has this cakewalk. This is going to be the toughest game for us. It is. … They’re not here for show. They’re not just carrying Harvard, they’re carrying the Ivy, the East.”
Let’s take a five-point closer look at Harvard and the matchup vs. Arizona:
1. Freshman point guard Siyani Chambers is a star
Chambers is averaging 12.6 points, 5.8 assists and 38 minutes per game.
“He’s talented. I love him,” Richardson said. “He runs his team. He’s a floor general. He’s a consummate point guard. He does everything that it takes for his team to win, whether it be scoring, assisting, defending.”
Harvard has no choice but to lean on the freshman, who stepped into basically a 40-minute role when second-team All-Ivy League point guard Brandyn Curry withdrew from school amid a cheating scandal. Chambers is small but quick, able to take advantage of the spacing created by the 3-point shooters in Harvard’s offense.
“(ASU’s) Jahii Carson is arguably the national freshman of the year,” Richardson said. “Siyani Chambers, he’s right there.”
2. The Crimson is short
Harvard starts only one player taller than 6-5 — that being sophomore Kenyatta Smith (6-8, 250) — so the Wildcats will try to establish the kind of iron-fisted rule it had in the paint against tinier Belmont on Thursday. UA had a 44-18 rebounding edge.
Harvard has been out-rebounded in each of the past six games and 12 of the past 14. New Mexico center Alex Kirk has 22 points and 12 rebounds in a losing effort Thursday, and the Lobos probably didn’t work hard enough offensively to get the ball down low.
The Cats hope height and mass make the difference.
“It better,” Richardson said. “If we don’t use it, shame on us.”
3. These guys won at Cal
Harvard played a great non-conference schedule, including a 67-62 victory at Cal on Dec. 29, followed by a one-point loss at St. Mary’s two nights later. Other road foes include UMass, Saint Joseph’s, UConn and Memphis, so the Crimson won’t be all big-eyed about this stage, especially not after beating New Mexico.
How did the Crimson beat Cal?
“They made threes,” Richardson said. “They spread Cal apart and they got into a mismatch situation, and they started making threes. When they make threes, they’re almost unbeatable.”
Harvard made 10 of 27 3-pointers vs. Cal. The Bears were 0 of 6.
Chambers had nine assists in that game. Laurent Rivard hit 5 of 12 from behind the arc. Speaking of whom…
4. Laurent Rivard can really shoot it
There aren’t many players in the country like this 6-5 junior. He has attempted 193 3-point attempts, making 79 (40.1 percent). The kicker: He has attempted only 17 two-point shots all season.
He’ll plant his feet behind the arc, and even though everyone knows what’s coming, good luck trying to stop it. He was 5 of 9 against New Mexico.
Arizona defenders cannot give him “air space” to borrow a Kevin O’Neill phrase. Can’t leave him awaiting a pass to help on drives to the middle. That was an issue earlier in the season.
“We’ve never played a guy like that,” Richardson said.
“Siyani penetrates and you run at him, and there’s a double-barrel shotgun waiting in the corner. If he catches it, and he’s wide-open, you should just point up and put up three. That’s how it feels.”
5. Arizona’s defense should be ready
The Cats just played against a hot 3-point shooting team in Belmont, holding the Bruins to 8 of 27 from beyond the arc. A game earlier, UCLA shot just 1 of 12 from behind the arc.
Harvard makes 40.3 percent of its 3-pointers.
“I think they’re similar,” Arizona guard Nick Johnson said of Belmont and Harvard.
“Their shooters killed New Mexico, and going into the Belmont game we knew that they were really a heavy 3-point shooting team. So it definitely helped us.”
Arizona’s defense has, mostly, regained its teeth. Coach Sean Miller called it consistent over the past four or five games. And it’s helped that Johnson has returned to his form as a defensive ace.
“I pray to Nick every night,” Richardson said. “What helps is when he locks in defensively and keeps guys out of the middle.”