Tony | Penn basketball can beat Harvard's small ball with smart ball

· February 13, 2013, 10:33 pm

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Megan Falls | DP

Freshman Darien Nelson-Henry will return to the court on Friday to face Harvard after missing Penn’s victory over Brown with a low-grade MCL injury. He leads the Quakers in field-goal percentage, shooting 54.1 percent from the field.


We’ve known for a while now that Harvard’s basketball team is a very beatable bunch.

Maybe it was the Crimson’s struggles in two games against Dartmouth that tipped off Ivy hoops fans that the Crimson weren’t all they were cracked up to be. Maybe it was Harvard’s failure to close out Yale at home with authority.

Or for the few who don’t believe in style points, maybe it was the way Crimson coach Tommy Amaker’s squad wilted in the second half at Columbia Sunday afternoon.

But what we didn’t know until recently is that, even without Fran Dougherty and with Darien Nelson-Henry coming off of a low-grade MCL sprain, the Quakers should still have an advantage in the paint against the Crimson.

That’s because Harvard plays small ball. Amaker lacks a true center, so he’s consistently gone with a lineup of four perimeter players throughout the season. Nailing perimeter jumpers and pushing the pace of games in transition from the outset have been two of Harvard’s top priorities this year, and they’ve got just the horses to run such an offense.

Sophomore forward Wesley Saunders, freshman guard Siyani Chambers and junior guard Laurent Rivard all average at least 42 percent shooting from beyond the arc, and the Crimson rank 10th in the country in team field goal percentage. So it’s no surprise that Harvard easily ranks first among Ivies in three-point percentage. Forget Mouse Davis — this is the real run-and-shoot offense.

And we’ve seen that it can be a double-edged sword. When Harvard’s hot, they’re really hot, but the Crimson’s 63-41 second-half lead against Brown completely evaporated when they started bricking their jumpers. Scoring 49 points in one half and 20 in the other means you must be gambling too much on perimeter shooting somewhere.

Harvard’s not an efficient team either, ranking third-to-last in the mediocre Ancient Eight in turnovers per contest.

And that’s why Penn needs to put its money where its momentum is: in the paint.

The Quakers have a blossoming low-post presence back in Nelson-Henry who could be a gamechanger both in scoring and rebounding. Penn snared a combined 24 offensive boards last weekend against Yale and Brown, the two best rebounding teams in the conference. Harvard, in contrast, ranks dead last among Ivies on the boards.

So when Harvard plays small ball Friday night, will Penn play smart ball?

Coach Jerome Allen needs to go big here. Give sophomore forward Henry Brooks extra minutes. Emphasize patience for Miles Cartwright in running the motion offense in order to slow down the game’s tempo and wear down Harvard’s six-man rotation. Let Harvard beat you from deep, because eventually, they’ll start beating themselves.

If Penn is to win at Lavietes Pavilion for the second straight year, it’ll have to work a little half-court magic. That’s still a big if, though, since the Crimson have done an excellent job of walking the fine line between beatable and beaten up to this point.

But the Quakers haven’t had an offensive identity other than “give it to Zack” in a long time, so rolling their inside out from start to finish should make Quakers fans breathe a little easier against the Cardiac Crimson.

MIKE TONY is a junior English and history major from Uniontown, Pa., and is senior sports editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at tony@thedp.com.

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