Harvard Takes on 'Harvard of the South'

Sixty-six years is a long time to wait to get your butt kicked.

That seems to be the prevailing wisdom throughout the country: That there’s little hope the brainiacs of Harvard can possibly compete with the more athletic and nearly as bright basketball players from Vanderbilt, sometimes called the “Harvard of the South.”

Yes, much has been made so far of the fact that Harvard, the No. 1 ranked university by U.S. News & World Report, is facing the No. 17 ranked school in the Crimson’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1946. Harvard’s team reportedly boasts a 100 percent graduation rate, whereas Vandy clocks in at 93 percent.

But today is game day. So if you can get past all the lame SAT jokes — and the fact that no matter who wins, there’s going to be a helluva lot of One Percenters grinning over their gin and tonics and slapping each other on their backs — then it’s clear that this game could potentially go either way.

The first, and probably best sign that Harvard has a chance is looking at what the folks in Las Vegas think. After the match-up was announced, many odds-makers predicted Harvard would lose by 7 points. In the last few days, however, that margin has not grown, but shrunk, down to five-and-one-half points and, in some cases, just five points.

While it’s true that a couple of points difference is not much, it does indicate that the folks who stand to lose the most — the sports books — are at least getting a little nervous and don’t feel compelled to press their luck by predicting it’ll be a total blowout.

And why should they? Harvard has shown it can rise to the Big Game, defeating Florida State — winner of the ACC tournament — by 5 points during Thanksgiving break, and beating Central Florida by 10 that same weekend.

Scott Sherman, who covers the men’s basketball team for The Harvard Crimson, told me recently that the squad’s success this season has brought the students together in a rare moment of unity. Players, he says, have been shocked and delighted that total strangers on campus have been coming up to them and congratulating them on winning the Ivy League and making the tourney.

On paper, of course, the Vanderbilt Commodores are bigger, faster, and getting stronger every day. Winning the SEC tournament by beating Kentucky, the No. 1 team in the entire country, surely hasn’t hurt their confidence, either. But the gentlemen of Harvard have a team and a style of play that could allow them to pull off a win.

It all comes down to a simple equation: If Harvard can slow down the game, hit its shots, and play shutdown defense, there’s no reason to think they won’t at least be in it until the end.

“To win, Harvard has to defend the perimeter well,” says Sherman, “and also to hit its threes. Its best shooters, Laurent Rivard, Corbin Miller, and Oliver McNally tend to be streaky, and if they’re off, I don’t think Harvard will be able to to match Vanderbilt offensively. But if Harvard can use its outstanding defense to limit [Vanderbilt star John] Jenkins and the Commodores’ other shooters and not get overwhelmed in the paint, I think it would be able to pull off the upset.”

Or, at the very least, cover the spread — which as any gambler will tell you is hardly a butt-kicking.