The Bearcats and the Crimson actually play at a very similar pace. The average UC game has 63.7 possessions, the average Harvard game 65.7. Over the course of a season that is meaningful, but its not a huge difference*. What makes the Crimson the superior team is the way that they use the shot clock.
*If you project Harvard's average possessions over a 33 game schedule equal to UC's Tommy Amaker's club would wind up with 64 more possessions, a whole games worth.
The one thing to know about the Crimson is that they like to push the ball hard early in the shot clock, particularly off misses. 26.2 percent of their shot attempts come in transition, and they have an effective field goal percentage of 56.7 which is pretty good, but its not great.
For comparison's sake Louisville and Memphis are by far the most transition happy teams the Bearcats have played over the last two months. Both of them get a third of their shots within 10 seconds on the shot clock, and they shoot 60 percent or over.
The Crimson shoot a lower percentage, because they shoot different shots in transition. The Harvard fast break is a very orderly, which is befitting of Harvard. Their big men run the floor very well, but not to fill the lane to sky for a lob. They run for post position.
The typical Harvard fast break starts with Siyani Chambers at the point, Wesley Saunders and Laurent Rivard on either wing. A big man is always barreling down the middle of the floor, be it Kyle Casey or Steve Mondou-Missi looking for post position, or to finish as a trailer if any of the wings attack the rack. They are at their most dangerous when Rivard drifts behind the key for a catch and shoot three off the attack's of others. Their transition game is nothing but rim attacks and three point shots.
That matters for a couple of reasons, reasons that most Bearcat fans are well aware of having watched this team all season. Intrinsically we know that an offense that is forced to work through the shot clock is going to have a tough time getting clean looks and scoring points. The flip side of that is opposing teams try their best to beat the defense down the floor, and they have had some success.
That is what we know from watching, the stats show how much of a problem transition defense really is for the Bearcats. This season opposing teams who have beat the cats down the floor have had remarkable success relative to how they perform against the same defense the rest of the time. In transition the Bearcats defense has allowed an effective field goal percentage of 56.9. The rest of the time opposing teams have an eFG% of just 38.9. That is an 18 percentage point difference.
Part of the difference is the Bearcats penchant for crashing the offensive glass. Hitting the offensive boards as hard as the Bearcats do makes it difficult to get back in numbers on defense. It is a part of the Bearcats identity, and has been since the Huggins days. Call it the second shot offense or whatever you like, its something this program has always done.
But doing that against Harvard is asking for trouble. The Crimson are a team that gets their best looks early in the shot clock. They aren't a team that will shoot at the first sight of the rim, but they have an uncanny tendency to get good looks early in the shot clock. That doesn't mean that they can't or won't work deep into the shot clock if they have to. With Saunders and Chambers they have excellent play makers off the dribble who can create their own shots, or shots for others late in the clock. They simply have a tendency of creating good looks early in the clock.
This game is one that everyone has pegged as the quintessential upset alert. The Crimson have been on the big stage before, they have a veteran coach and a trio of dynamic guards and a team that wants to beat the opposition down the floor. Whether or not the Bearcats can withstand them will come down, in large part, to the Bearcats ability to keep Harvard out of transition and to make them work deep into the shot clock. If this game becomes one that is played between :35 and :25 on the shot clock the Crimson could come good on the predictions. Stopping them in transition should be #1 on the white board when Mick Cronin and Co. leave that locker room in Spokane.
* A very special tip of the cap to Jeff Haley for his site Hoop-Math.com from which the transition stats in this article come from.