|Freshman Corbin Miller came off the bench and put in 17 against Penn. (AP)|
PHILADELPHIA — Now, it all seems a matter of arithmetic and inevitability.
Harvard got by against what’s considered to be its stiffest test of its Ivy League gantlet this season, playing Penn at the Palestra, with a 56-50 win Friday night. The Crimson are now a 7-0 Ivy team with a chokehold on the conference race and seem destined to represent the eight-team league in the NCAA tournament.
When it officially locks up the crown in a couple of weeks — or sooner; the team’s magic number is 5 — and earn the auto bid, it will be the first time Harvard’s gotten to the NCAA tournament since 1946, when the bracket had an iota of the cache then as it does now. It's a memorable year already in Cambridge, Mass. I'll inject straight opinion right here by stating what everyone in the Ivy knows. Nobody's catching Harvard now.
But there are kinks to this team that prevent it from being the giant-slayer that some thought it was/could be at the start of the season.
Against Penn, Harvard won the way it has so often this season: slow and ugly and through sheer force and unusual reliability of its relentless depth. This team’s doing well, yeah. It’s 21-2 overall and will finish with one of the best records in school history. But it’s not yet reached its potential. It's odd to see the Ivy favorite continue to win but to fail to run inferior foes out of the gym. Senior 6-8 forward Keith Wright, who was the Ivy Player of the Year last season, only managed two points against the Quakers. He’s failed to score in double digits in five of the past six games.
“I think I draw a lot of attention no matter who we play or wherever we go,” Wright said. “I knew that it probably wasn’t going to be my, but the game’s not all about scoring.”
Wright had 13 rebounds and two blocks. He took five shots.
“My head’s not down at all,” he added.
The fact one of the team’s two best players could hit a nadir like this in the stretch of the toughest part of league play and still not hurt the team to the tune of an L is a good sign. Plus, Harvard got a career night out of freshman guard Corbin Miller, who lit it up with 17 points, matching star forward Kyle Casey’s 17, which also happens to be the number Harvard alum Jeremy Lin dons with the Knicks.
It was certainly noteworthy that Harvard got the definitive, toughest win of its conference season on the same night Lin’s reputation exploded at Madison Square Garden. Harvard's win did not bring the attention nor the appeal of Lin's magic up in New York, but the Palestra did have more than 7,500 in attendance to watch the most anticipated game in the Ivy this season, a game that wasn't available to be watched on television anywhere.
Back to what's wrong with Wright. He lacks aggression and nobody can tell me why this is. Fortunately, thanks to the bench, this still isn't an issue that's had to be nakedly addressed. That should change soon. If Harvard wants to be a team that can win in the NCAA tournament, even a game, it needs Wright to be dogmatic. If he’s able to corral control of the team’s post offense again, then it'll see an uptick in offensive efficiency and respectability. Right now, this group looks good — a 10 seed at worst — but won’t alarm anyone.
“It’s scary to think about because coach Amaker talks about it all the time,” Wright said. “We haven’t put two halves together yet. We’ve gotta finish around the rim, including myself.”
This isn’t Cornell from a few years ago. It doesn’t have the size or consistent deep threats that team embodied. Now that the team's done what was expected and played half its league games without a scratch, addressing cosmetics and needs down low should become top priority. Casey admitted as much outside the locker room after the win.
“I think we have to finish down low and punish teams when we can,” he said. “This is what we came here for. Everyone in this program essentially came here to make history and do what we’re doing right now. We remain hungry and fight each other harder than opponents are going to fight us.”
The Casey-Wright dynamic last year was what made Harvard not only interesting as a budding program but also so damn hard to defend and contain. Some of that's been lost. Casey gets better as his teammate complements him, but he's not concerned.
“We’ve (he and Wright) got a really good relationship on the court and feel for what we can do with each other and play off each other,” Casey said. “We’re going to definitely need him if we’re going to do what we say we want to do.”What they want goes beyond getting to the first tournament in 68 years. They want at least an NCAA win. They want to be heroes at Harvard and that requires reaching a Saturday or Sunday March game. Ivy schools that snatch a W or two immediately become something of legend in that league and in the eyes of the public who watch the always-endearing smart schools "overachieve" on the big stage. Wright's a senior. Time's running out. Harvard can get by now without his top-level play, but they can't be their best, something the NCAA tournament mandates from almost every underdog.